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AGE OF JOHNSON.
GENERAL SURVEY. — The age of Johnson includes the second half of the eighteenth century. It is here named after the great literary dictator simply as a matter of convenience. While he was the centre of an influential literary group for many years, and is the most prominent and picturesque literary figure of his time, other and mightier influences were giving a new tone to literature.
In great measure Johnson bore the impress of the preceding period. In his poetry he is coldly classical; and in a part at least of his prose, he is an imitator of AddiThe real characteristic of this second half of the
eighteenth century is transition. By the side of the literary forms and canons of the age of Pope, there arose a new kind of writing distinguished by a return to nature. Artificial poetry had already been carried to its utmost limits; and if literature was to reach a higher excellence, it was obliged to assume a new form. And to this it was urged by the momentous social, political, and religious changes that took place, not only in England, but on the Continent and in America during the latter part of the century.
In their onward course mankind made a marked advance. In social and political relations the rights of men
were more clearly recognized, and the brotherhood of mankind began to affect existing customs and institutions. As in all great forward movements of the world, a variety of causes co-operated in bringing about great changes. Unwilling hands often played an important part. The stupidity and obstinacy of George III. and of some of his ministers hastened the formal declaration of those principles of liberty which mark a new era in civil government.
A strong tendency of the age was crystallized in the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," said the wise and courageous representatives of the American colonists, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." This solemn declaration sounded the knell of absolutism in the world. It is a political gospel that is destined to leaven the whole lump.
But how came the American colonists to a recognition of the weighty truths embodied in this declaration? They simply voiced the growing spirit of the age. The greater diffusion of knowledge had opened the eyes of men to a better perception of truth. The force of custom and prejudice was in a measure broken. The claims of superi
ority set up by privileged classes were seen to be baseless, and injustice and oppression in the state were discerned and denounced.
In England there was a noteworthy advance in popular intelligence. Remarkable inventions in the mechanic arts placed new power in the hands of the producing classes. The use of coal in smelting iron; the opening of canals throughout England; the invention of the spinning-jenny and power-loom; the perfecting of the steam-engine with its wide application to manufacturing purposes all this brought people together in large communities, greatly raised the average intelligence, and established the industrial supremacy of England.
Printing-presses were set up in every town; circulating libraries were opened; newspapers were multiplied; and monthly magazines and reviews fostered the general intelligence that called them into being. The proceedings of Parliament were regularly published, and naturally became the subject of discussion in every club-room, and at many a hearthstone.
The principles of political economy, especially after the publication of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," received increased and more intelligent attention.
The result of all this was inevitable; men came to a clearer recognition of their interests and their rights.
The moral and religious state of society showed marked improvement. Grossness gave way to decorum in life. Indecency was almost wholly banished from the stage and from literature. This happy change is illustrated in an incident told us by Sir Walter Scott. His grand-aunt assured him that, when led by curiosity to turn over the pages of a novel in which she had delighted in her youth,
she was astonished to find that, sitting alone at the age of eighty, she was unable to read without shame a book which sixty years before she had heard read out for amusement in large circles, consisting of the best society in London.
This improved moral tone was not restricted to sentiment. One of the noble features of this period was the active efforts to improve the condition of the unfortunate and the oppressed. The slave-trade, which Englishmen had long made a source of profitable commerce, was abolished. Hospitals were established. Howard, by his noble enthusiasm and incessant labors, secured a reform in prison discipline. Robert Raikes of Gloucester established the Sunday-school, which for England was the beginning of popular education.
These facts help us to understand one of the noteworthy literary features of the period. It is the relative. predominance of prose. Poetry retires somewhat into the background. Fancy gives way to reason. It was a practical age, largely absorbed in material advancement and political and social reform. The task laid on the age was too serious to encourage merely the pleasures of the imagination. It was a time for thought and action.
Historical writing attained an excellence that has scarcely been surpassed. There arose three great historians, who brought to their narratives philosophical insight, and a finished excellence of style. Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon are imperishable names.
It was an age noted for its oratory. The world has never seen a group of greater orators than Chatham, Pitt, Burke, and Sheridan. Great questions of government presented themselves for consideration and action.
Through the activity of the press, eloquence was no longer confined within the walls of Parliament.
The principles of human liberty, of sound political economy, and of manly integrity have never had better utterance. The spirit of true patriotism never found nobler embodiment. "Sir," exclaimed Pitt, after the passage of the Stamp Act had aroused resistance, "I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest."