The Age of Johnson was an eighteenth-century period of English literature named for Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), an acclaimed poet, essayist, literary critic, lexicographer, and biographer. Also referred to as the Age of Sensibility, the Age of Johnson was nestled between the Augustan Age—distinguished by writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope—and the Romantic period, when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelly, and William Wordsworth wrote their most celebrated works.
Why is an entire age of literature named after one man? We’ll find out through an examination of Johnson’s major accomplishments and distinguishing features as a writer.
The Life and Work of Samuel Johnson
For one who came to define an era, Johnson had a lot going against him. A man of imposing stature, he suffered from involuntary gesticulations that garnered him unwanted attention. He battled health issues for most of his years, beginning with a childhood bout of tuberculosis. Still, he managed to live to 75—a ripe old age even by modern standards. For what he accomplished during those 75 years, Johnson came to be considered one of the most consequential English writers of his or any age. Let’s look at a few highlights:
- 1731: Johnson’s first publication was a translation of an Alexander Pope poem into Latin.
- 1744: “An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers,” a biography, is released.
- 1749: The first performance of Johnson’s repertoire-expanding stage play “Irene,” which he began writing in the 1720s.
- 1749: Publication of the highly praised poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” Johnson’s first work published under his own name.
- 1750s: Johnson becomes a prodigious essayist for a periodical called The Rambler, penning all but a handful of the publication’s 200+ essays over the course of two years. These revealed Johnson’s viewpoints on a wide variety of topics, often commenting on harsh realities of life through a sometimes humorous lens.
- 1755: Johnson publishes A Dictionary of the English Language. Though not the first English dictionary, it was widely acknowledged as one of the most detailed, with word definitions and origins, usage examples, and other beneficial information included. Johnson is frequently called “the father of the modern dictionary.”
- 1765: An eight-volume collection of the works of William Shakespeare is published, including notes and a preface penned by Johnson. His contribution to the collection is still considered one of the finest examples of literary criticism ever offered. This Shakespeare collection, Johnson’s dictionary, and a few other central works helped shape English literature as we know it today.
Johnson published countless essays, critiques, biographies, and works of fiction throughout his career. Through these, he demonstrated his willingness to challenge the political workings and foreign policies of his home country of England and others. He expressed dissenting views on war, colonialism, and slavery, and pleaded for compassionate treatment of criminals, the disadvantaged, native peoples, and even enemies of his own country.
It’s perhaps fitting that Johnson capped off a 50-year career by contributing prefaces and biographies for the multi-volume “The Lives of the Poets,” arguably his final work of note. A biography of Johnson, written after Johnson’s death by longtime friend James Boswell and drawn from many conversations the two had over the years, further illuminated Johnson’s personality, unique viewpoint, and work and brought greater attention to him in the 19th century and beyond.
Due in part to Boswell’s biography, Johnson became known for his aphorisms, some of which are still familiar today. For example:
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
Still other lesser-known examples illustrate his distinctive wit:
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
“Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”
Johnson’s writing style and contributions earned him the honor of being forever associated with the consequential era in which he lived. He’s also the namesake of a course featured as part of UT Permian Basin’s Bachelor of Arts in English program. ENGL 4335: The Age of Johnson explores the author’s works as well as those by some of his noted contemporaries, including Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and David Hume. Let’s discuss our online BA in English program in greater detail so you can understand the breadth of its value.
Explore English Literature and More Online
Discover the intricacy of the English language through an exploration of fiction, drama, and poetry, including works from Age of Johnson writers. Our 100% online Bachelor of Arts in English offers an intensely rewarding, in-depth examination of the language and culture that helps you develop crucial life and career skills. Forbes reports that today’s employers are increasingly seeking these “soft” skills in their potential hires, including:
- Critical thinking
Beyond helping you develop key skills, our BA in English offers a strong foundation for a variety of careers and graduate studies in English. Our program is also an outstanding value in education, offering competitive tuition rates that most regionally accredited universities of our standing can’t match.
The Quality You Expect, With Convenience You Don’t
Our online BA in English program is based around the same robust curriculum we use on campus and led by the same renowned faculty who teach there, so it’s easy to see why it’s synonymous with high quality education. Further, our program’s asynchronous online format enables you to complete classwork at your own pace from just about anywhere in the world. There’s no better way to maintain your personal and professional duties while earning a respected university degree.
Revisit the Age of Johnson through our online BA in English program!