The Age of Johnson, often referred to as The Age of Sensibility, is the period in English literature that ranged from the middle of the eighteenth century until 1798. Ending this age, the Romantic Period arrived in 1798 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), poet, critic, and author of fiction, is the namesake for this period in literature. Johnson wielded considerable influence over this era with works that focused on neoclassical aesthetics (the study of natural and artistic beauty with an eye toward the great classical writers). Johnson and his fellow writers placed great emphasis on the values of the Enlightenment which stressed the importance of using knowledge, not faith and superstition, to enlighten others, and led to the expansion of many social, economic, and cultural areas including astronomy, politics, and medicine.
Writers of the Age of Johnson focused on the qualities of intellect, reason, balance, and order. Notable publications of the Age of Johnson include Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Johnson’s The Rambler (1750-52), and Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).
One of Johnson’s most lasting legacies is his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). While this huge undertaking of Johnson’s was neither the first dictionary in existence, nor exceptionally unique, it was the most used and admired until the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. One of Johnson’s most fervently held beliefs was that the language of the people should be used in literature, and that a writer should avoid using grammar and vocabulary that did not appeal to the common reader.
While the Age of Johnson and the Age of Sensibility are terms often used interchangeably, Johnson’s age is considered to be the last of the neoclassical eras, while writers in the latter period are famed with an anticipation of the Romantic Period with their focus on the individual and imagination.
The Age of Sensibility is marked by works that focus more directly on anticlassical features of old ballads and new bardic poetry. These writers began to embrace new forms of literary expression formerly avoided by writers of the Age of Johnson such as medieval history and folk literature. Classic prose fiction examples from the Age of Sensibility include Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy (1759) and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). The poetry of William Collins, William Cowper, Thomas Gray, and Christopher Smart are also attributed to the Age of Sensibility.