Age of Johnson (in English literature)
Age of Johnson (in English literature): The last of three literary eras within the Neoclassical Period in English literature, an age generally said to range from the middle of the eighteenth century until 1798, the year in which poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, a volume often cited as inaugurating the Romantic Period in English literature. While the Age of Johnson spans the same time period as the Age of Sensibility, the two names for this era reflect different literary interests and priorities as well as its transitional status. Critics using the term Age of Johnson — the older and more traditional of the two names — focus on the era as the final stage of English neoclassicism; those using the term Age of Sensibility see it as anticipating romanticism in English literature.
The Age of Johnson, named for the influential poet, critic, and writer Samuel Johnson, calls to mind neoclassical aesthetics and Enlightenment values such as reason, balance, order, and a focus on humanity. Major works include Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (six volumes: 1776—89), and James Boswell’s biography Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), as well as Johnson’s own works, including his essays in The Rambler (1750—52), his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), and his “Oriental tale” Rasselas (1759).
By contrast, the Age of Sensibility evokes an emphasis on feeling and sensibility and a shift toward new forms of literary expression including the sentimental comedy and sentimental novel. Unlike neoclassicists, who looked to classical writers for guidance and inspiration, writers associated with the Age of Sensibility (most of whom were poets) developed an interest in medieval history, bardic poetry, folk literature such as ballads, and primitivism, trending toward romanticism’s emphasis on individualism, imagination, and the language of the common people. Such writers included poets Thomas Gray, best known for his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751); William Collins; William Cowper; and Christopher Smart. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (9 vols.; 1759—67) and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) are considered classic prose fiction examples of the Age of Sensibility.