The age of Pope, Swift and Addison has been regarded as the great classical age of English literature. It became known as the Augustan age because writers themselves saw a parallel between the great age of Virgil, Horace and Ovid and their own period of stability and cultural health. The self-conscious complacency was not wholly unjustified. After his visit to England in 1726–9, Voltaire (1694–1778) was moved by his experience of the freedom and justice of English society to attack the ancien régime at home in his Lettres Philosophiques (1734). It is, however, the bulky figure of Dr Johnson who represents for many readers the archetype of the eighteenth-century spirit, and his literary productivity belongs especially to the 1750s, 1760s and 1770s. Though, strictly speaking, the ‘classical’ label attaches less fittingly to Johnson than to his Augustan predecessors, if faithful attachment to ancient classical formulations is the criterion, yet the label belongs supremely to him in connoting the central fount of literary influence in the century of stability and the age of reason. There is a familiar portrait of Dr Johnson sitting in postprandial chairmanship, surrounded at table by the admiring faces of the musician Dr Burney, the statesman Edmund Burke, the dramatist Oliver Goldsmith, the actor David Garrick, the painter Joshua Reynolds, and the biographer James Boswell. The gathering indicates over what intellectual brilliance Johnson’s ascendancy was sustained.
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