The Fictions of Romantick Chivalry: Samuel Johnson and Romance
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992 - 255 pages
Samuel Johnson was concerned with young people's susceptibility to misleading models drawn from fiction: himself brought up on chivalric romance, he remained "immoderately fond" of it through his life, and this study traces the effects of such un-privileged popular literature on both Johnson's writing and on its biographical context. The first chapter categorizes elements in romance, and illustrates them from romances Johnson knew well. A biographical chapter follows, showing chronologically the evidence for Johnson's involvement with romance. This evidence includes his work on the Harleian collection, his sense of himself as an "adventurer" of literature, and as a Quixote, and his use of Cervantean, or mock-romantic, material in all his fiction. We see his collaboration with such medievalists as the Wartons, Collins and Percy, and his remarkable use of romance quotations in the Dictionary. We consider the ambivalence of his response to romantic elements in literature, above all in Shakespeare, and end by briefly pointing out Johnson's pleasure in romantic landscapes and ruins.
Johnson's most striking romance imagery of, for instance, quest journeys, sieges, tyrants, dungeons, enchanters, phantoms, and disappearing castles, is found in the periodical essays. Moreover, networks of specifically romance connotations can often be supported by illustrations from the Dictionary. The opening landscape of the Vanity of Human Wishes is a perfect example, and is demonstrably linked to a passage in Palmerin of England. Chapter four expands the Quixote theme: Johnson was unusual in his sympathy for Quixote, and clearly identified with him. Whether exploring the seductive delusions of imagination, or actual madness, whether satirizing through mock-romance and mock-pastoral, or otherwise using the pattern of heroic aspiration followed by bathetic fall, the Vanity of Human Wishes, the periodical essays, and Rasselas are pervaded by Cervantean themes.
The popular persona of Johnson as a reductive empiricist is challenged by exploring his powerful response to romance images in every kind of literature. Criticism cannot systematize the transgressive "enchantresses of the soul" that attract the reader against his better judgment in the "illustrious depravity" of Dryden's hero Almazor, in Eloisa, Pope's erotically gothic nun, or in the "licentious variety" which makes Shakespeare irresistible. Johnson spells out his dilemma, in describing "the power of the marvelous, even over those who despise it."
In Scotland, Johnson found the remains of the lost feudal world of Macbeth, of abbeys, hermitages, castles and arbitrary power, of violence and luxury, and, in a riot of romantic role-playing, concluded that "the fictions of romantick chivalry" had their basis in history. Throughout his writing, however, Johnson is always ambivalent about romance, and it is his prudent rejection of its seductive dangers that has tended to be stressed by successive generations of critics. This study aims to redress the balance.
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