The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

Synopsis

Jack Lynch explores eighteenth-century British conceptions of the Renaissance, and the historical, intellectual, and cultural uses to which the past was put. He argues that scholars, editors, historians, religious thinkers, linguists, and literary critics defined themselves in relation to "the last age" or "the age of Elizabeth". This interdisciplinary study is of interest to cultural as well as literary historians of the eighteenth century.

Excerpt

Perhaps it is best to begin with what this book is not. It is not a catalogue of Renaissance sources and analogues for Johnson's works: W. B. C. Watkins produced such a list in 1936, and more than six decades later it needs little modification. Nor does it chronicle eighteenth-century responses to the major works and authors of the English Renaissance— what Johnson's contemporaries had to say about Skelton, for instance, or Marlowe—since that task is ably fulfilled by Routledge's Critical Heritage series and other reception histories. Neither yet does it tell the story of eighteenth-century Shakespeareanism or Miltonism, which critics such as G. F. Parker, Michael Dobson, Jean Marsden, Margreta de Grazia, and Dustin Griffin have done admirably. My work, though indebted to all of these, follows a different path, one pointed out, if not blazed, by Ren´e Wellek. in 1941, Wellek proposed “A 'History of English Literary History,'” which he believed “a legitimate and even urgent task of English scholarship” (Wellek, The Rise of English Literary History, p. v). in the intervening half-century, few have shared Wellek's sense of urgency; but it may now be time to synthesize the scholarship on the history of literature and of literary studies, and to try to discern significant patterns.

This book is just such an essay in the history of literary history: it is a study of the eighteenth century's conception of the era we have come to call the Renaissance. It addresses the ways in which the age of Elizabeth, Shakespeare, and Milton was conceived as a literary and cultural epoch in Great Britain. For the first time since the Italian humanists insisted on their own break with their putatively barbarous medieval past, British writers looked back on the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries and saw not continuity but a break—they looked at their predecessors across an epochal chasm. Elizabeth's age was treated as a period both chronologically and temperamentally distant from the age of Johnson. More important, eighteenth-century thinkers, by marking the terminus ad quem of the previous age, marked the terminus a quo of their own; their . . .

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