The eighteenth century was a golden age for English writing but not English poetry. Matthew Arnold referred to the twentieth century as a "period of prose and reason," suggesting that no excellent poetry was created and that prose ruled the literary sphere. This view is contrary to what we know about the quality of writing in those times.
During the eighteenth century, scientific discovery accelerated at a rate never before seen. In math alone, improvements were made to calculus, geometry, algebra, and many other fields. These advances were all documented in scholarly journals or books so they could be shared with others. This is how we get the idea of a scientific revolution occurring every few decades - because it can take that long for new ideas to spread through science.
In addition to science, the eighteenth century saw the emergence of modern politics and industry. Political thinkers such as John Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith proposed solutions to problems such as corruption in government and lack of economic growth. Industry developed rapidly during this time period with major advancements being made in navigation, gunpowder, paper manufacturing, and more. All of these developments contributed to why Arnold said that "the age of enlightenment [had] arrived."
The phrase "age of enlightenment" was first used by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1785. He believed that humanity had entered an era when intelligence is given free rein over nature's forces.
The eighteenth century is also known as the Augustan or Neo-classical era. The 18th century is often known as the "prose and reason" age because the writing of that time was sardonic, didactic, and critical, with roots deep in reason and intelligence. The writings of Voltaire, Gibbon, Hume, Johnson, and Burke were influential.
This age of enlightenment was brought about by British writers such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Richard Steele, and William Hazlitt. French writers like Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau also played a role. The American Revolution also had an influence on literature; authors such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and George Washington all wrote notable works during this time period.
Here are some other reasons why the Augustan age is called the age of reason:
1. The writing of that time was sardonic, didactic, and critical.
2. Ancient Roman scholars such as Cicero, Varro, and Quintilian were considered masters of rhetoric who taught students how to write well. They established a standard for grammar, logic, and style that later generations of writers followed.
3. In 1731, Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language which greatly influenced language and style.
The Age of Prose Reason was the eighteenth century. The 18th century as a whole has a particular personality. It is undeniably the Age of Understanding, the Age of Enlightenment, when pellucid (clear) literature began to disseminate knowledge among the rising population. In science, this era saw major advances in physics and chemistry. In politics it witnessed the emergence of democracy and capitalism.
But this is not exactly what I meant by "the eighteenth century is the age of reason". I believe that one can actually say that about the whole period 1715-1795. During that time, Europe went through many changes that profoundly affected the way people thought and lived: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, Industrialization, etc. However, all these changes were based on rational thinking that had its origins in the European culture of the Eighteenth Century.
For example, revolutionary France abolished torture, slavery, and serfdom. These are values that seem absolutely reasonable to us now, but at the time they were considered miracles. The fact is that no society has ever adopted these ideas naturally or unconsciously; instead, they have always been based on solid arguments used by people who wanted to improve their own condition.
Similarly, England and America developed institutions such as parliament and rule of law only after having been subjected for many years to the tyranny of the royal family or of other powerful leaders.