Review: Literary allusions in Johnson’s Journey

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  • Post published:September 13, 2010
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Agustin Coletes Blanco, Literary Allusion in Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Glasgow: The Grimshaw Press, ISBN 184530 060 2

Professor Coletes Blanco teaches at the University of Oviedo in Spain, and has previously published a Spanish translation of Johnson’s Journey.  In this intriguing little publication he has traced more than thirty places in the book where Johnson  alludes, sometimes overtly, sometimes more indirectly, to other literary texts.

As might be expected most of these are to the classics (Horace, Virgil, Homer etc), the bible and Shakespeare, but a running theme in the Journey is Johnson’s commentary on “romances” and “Romantick” and this is where Coletes Blanco’s knowledge of Cervantes comes into play.

After a theoretical discussion of the slippery topic of what constitutes an allusion, and what allusions do, he demonstrates in his commentary the various functions quotations and references can perform. As he says about Johnson’s comparison of himself and Boswell’s journey to Nairn (“we travelled on not interrupted by promises of kingdoms”), the comparison to Macbeth “enriches” the literary quality of Johnson’s writing, but is also a touch of self-deflating humour.

Johnson’s learned references could be considered pompous, but Coletes Blanco’s interpretations reveal the reverse: a Johnson who is able to place his own journey in a historical perspective, and at the same time carry his learning lightly.