Literary Criticism in the Age of Johnson

Literary Criticism in the Age of Johnson

Literary Criticism in the Age of Johnson

Literary Criticism in the Age of Johnson

Excerpt

The literature of the Age of Johnson reflects the conflict between the two main factors in artistic creation, unimpassioned reason on the one side, emotion and imagination on the other. Reason had been the dominating force ever since the middle of the seventeenth century and under its powerful sway emotional and imaginative elements had been repressed, the old spontaneity of the Elizabethans had fled the domain of art, and the artistic expression of deep personal feelings had come to be looked upon with distrust. But the old romantic spirit, which had never become extinct, began to reassert itself and gradually restored the essential elements of poetic art to their proper places, so that the last decades of the eighteenth century saw the dawn of a new era, free from the restraints of common sense.

To this evolution in imaginative art the critical literature of the period offers a close parallel: in both the reaction is merely a phase of a far-reaching intellectual movement, a general revolt against the cold intellectualism of the Augustan Age. Reason and correctness, which had so long been considered by the critics as the sole arbiters of literary merit, had to yield up their authoritative position. A new conception of poetry was established, no longer based on purely rational principles, but recognizing that its primary appeal ought to be to the imagination.

It is only natural that many years were to pass before this opinion was firmly established. Rationalism in England was a strong and deep-rooted tendency, which did not at once give way when the forces that were ultimately to supplant it, began to make their influence felt. Till the very end of the century there were critics who continued to acknowledge the supremacy of common sense and tried to maintain the Augustan tradition. Thus the Age of Johnson witnessed the co-existence of two main types of criticism, one representing the old, the other illustrative of the new outlook. These two critical currents do not always move within definite . . .

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