Neoclassicism was the dominant mode in English literature and art in Johnson's day: artists were reacting, too, against both the repressive Puritan tendencies of the Commonwealth and the moral licence which had characterized the Restoration period. Eighteenth-century literature, in particular, concerned itself more with human ethics, morality, and philosophical concepts, and all of these preoccupations appear in Johnson's work. Government censorship of newspapers was relaxed, and as a result they began to play a much more important role in literary and intellectual circles. The essay, too, became a popular literary form: Addison and Steele's Tatler (1709-1711) and Spectator (1711-1712) contained a great variety of commentary and social criticism, and provided Johnson, many years later, with models for his own Rambler and Idler essays.
Novels, too, became more popular: Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Smollet, and Sterne (of whose Tristram Shandy Johnson did not think very much) were all writing during Johnson's lifetime. The "Eastern" tale, which Johnson would evoke and gently parody in Rasselas, also made its appearance, and in 1764 Horace Walpole, a precursor of the Romantics, produced the first Gothic horror novel, his Castle of Otranto. Johnson's own Lives of the English Poets, (1779-1781) (from which Boswell would profit in his later Life of Johnson) broke new ground in both biography and literary criticism, and Johnson's great and idiosyncratic dictionary was the model which all subsequent lexicographers would follow.
In poetry, Pope, considerably older than Johnson (his "Essay on Criticism" appeared in 1711, when Johnson was only two) was the dominant figure: he was already famous (and, something new in English literary history, earning a comfortable living from his work) when a youthful Johnson was still living miserably and obscurely in London. Other significant poets who were contemporaries of Johnson, more or less, include Thomson, Gray, Cowper, and Collins: in Johnson's later years, great Romantic poets like Blake and Burns were already at work. In the drama the Irish-born Sheridan's satirical comedies of manners were preeminent, as the German-born Handel's orchestral works were in music. Hogarth, a great pictorial satirist (and as a consequence a great force for social change) was perhaps the most famous artist-critic of the time: great portrait painters included Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and Hoppner. It is an indication of the extent to which Johnson's personality dominated his period that the circle intimate friends (all members of the Literary Club founded in London in 1764) over which he presided included David Garrick, the great actor, dramatist, and impresario, the philologist Sir William Jones, the Irish-born statesman Edmund Burke, Gibbon, the great historian, Goldsmith, the Irish-born poet and man of letters, Reynolds, Sheridan, and Boswell — all of them important in their own right, all of them enormously influential in one fashion or another.
What follows are a few brief examples of the larger, enormously complex cultural context within which Johnson's own works are embedded. In 1738, when Johnson's "London" appeared, Handel's Saul had its world premiere, and John Wesley embarked on his revival of Methodism. 1749 saw the first publication not only of Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" but also of Fielding's Tom Jones and Bach's Art of the Fugue. While Johnson published his Rambler essays, between 1750 and 1752, Frederick the Great, Voltaire, and Rousseau were all publishing important works; Linnaeus's great Philosophia Botanica also appeared, as did Gray's "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," Hume's Political Discourses, and the first volume of the French Encyclopedie, edited by Diderot.
In 1755 Johnson's Dictionary was published, as were Hume's Natural History of Religion and Lessing's Miss Sara Sampson. While the Idler essays were appearing, between 1758 and 1760, the British Museum opened, Voltaire's Candide was published, (just before Johnson's Rasselas) and Macpherson published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000