The Age of Johnson: Characteristics in English Literature

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      The Age of Dr. Johnson, otherwise called 'the age of transition' roughly covers the years 1740-1790. By 1745 the brilliant set of writers- Alexander Pope, Addison etc. Who held together the classical idea passed out of sight. Classicism still continues to rule after the age of Pope. There is no sharp cleavage in the history of ideas and forms of literature. But with the passing of the older generation the brilliance and sureness with which rational spirit was handled, giving a definite character to the first four decades of the century, had been either weakened or lost. New inspirations are now welling forth. These are not yet strong enough to bring about a renovation.

      The age is thus of a definitely mixed character - a period of transition in which the older ideals were passing and newer ones were slowly emerging. On the one hand it keeps long the old lines, on the other the new inspirations are steadily making themselves felt. The two elements vary in their relation and spirit. If the classical authority and the rational spirit still hold the supremacy, the reviving forces of sentiment and middle-class literature assume large proportions till the balance is tilted in their favour. It was, quite evident that the day was coming when the prestige of tradition would give away before the secret growth of the new ideas. In other words, the age of the romantic revival, with its sentiment and imagination was in the making.

The age of Johnson, otherwise called 'the age of transition' roughly covers the years 1740-1790.
Age of Johnson
      In society, meanwhile, a parallel development went on apace, and accelerated the growth of romance and sentiment. The middle class was more and more making its power felt in politics, in lite and manners. The authority of the aristocracy was slowly weakening, if not destroyed. The centre of gravity was thus shifted from the upper to the middle class. Literature thus could not remain confined to the aristocracy as in the past. The bourgeoisie elements must need to be mingled with aristocratic elements, if literature has to be a reflection of life at all. But the middle class did not bring with it, in early stages, any clear desire for change. It was essentially conservative. The inner change that was going on secretly did not much alter the social and literary outlook. Sentimentalism invaded life and letters but the reinvigorated Puritan spirit kept liberty and sentiment strictly under control. Thus though the soul of the nation was undergoing a radical change, the rational literature of the classical age still reigned supreme.

      Dr. Samuel Johnson is the symbol of this survival of classical tradition, that had been secretly undermined. Nevertheless his works draw vigour from the new social elements. He represents a temporary fusion of the old and the new. The works of his contemporaries too show a duality of opposing inspirations, because these writers were not able to come to a clear decision. These are the poets of the transition, the harbingers of the romantic movement. Thomson, Dyer, Cowper, Collins, Gray are the poets who stand between the two worlds. They are the poets of transition.

      It is towards the close of this age that the cleavage with the past was completed, heralding the new age of Romanticism. An event of great significance of the time is the French Revolution, which radically changed the face of the whole of western Europe. Though the Revolution actually broke out in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, revolutionary activities had started long ago. During a whole century new ideas were germinating, new forces gathering strength and the Revolution was but the climax of these growing forces. It stirred literature to the depths. The new philosophy of the French philosophers of the eighteenth century had left their mark already on England. Rousseau, the prophet of sentiment and democracy had exercised a profound influence on the cultured English minds. Nay, his teaching permeated the whole nation and thus paved the path for the Romanticism of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, etc.

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