The second half of the 18th century is sometimes affectionately referred to as the Age of Johnson—a tribute to Samuel Johnson, Britain’s most influential man of letters of the day. Johnson, a poet, critic, journalist, essayist, scholar, and lexicographer, was also a talker, a brilliant conversationalist who enjoyed holding forth at coffee-houses, clubs, and parties. He was friends with many of the greatest literary and artistic talents of the time and stood at the center of a lively circle of intellectuals that included his biographer James Boswell, the historian Edward Gibbon, the novelist and diarist Fanny Burney, and the comic dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
The 18th-century concern with real life can be seen in the number, variety, and quality of non-fiction works published during the Age of Johnson. Works of biography, history, philosophy, politics, economics, literary criticism, aesthetics, and natural history all achieved the level of literature. Writers strove for a style not merely clear and accurate but also eloquent and persuasive. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a superb example of the heights achieved by non-fiction prose during these years. Also notable are the works of philosopher David Hume, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the economist Adam Smith—and, of course, Johnson himself, who described his notion of good style as “familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious.”
Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, a stupendous feat that won him an important place in literary history . His essays remain classic examples of the formal 18th-century prose of which he was the acknowledged master. He also wrote graceful biographies of poets, and critiques of poems and other literary works. Johnson was more than an accomplished writer; he was the literary dictator of London and the undisputed arbiter of taste for his time.
Though Johnson and most of his associates affirmed neoclassical ideals, during this time poetry entered a transitional stage in which poets began writing simpler, freer lyrics on subjects close to the human heart. The reflective poetry of Oliver Goldsmith and Thomas Gray and the lyrical songs of Scotland’s Robert Burns anticipate the first stirrings of romanticism at the very end of the century.