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Oxford University Press, Amen House, London E.C.4
GLASGOW NEW YORK TORONTO MELBOURNE WELLINGTON
KUALA LUMPUR FONG KONG
LIVES OF THE ENGLISH
BY SAMUEL JOHNSON
With an Introduction by
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
The Lives of the English Poets were first published in 1779 and 1781. In The World's Classics they were first published in two volumes in 1906. Volume I was reprinted in 1912, 1920, 1926, 1929, 1933, 1938, and 1946. Reset 1952 and reprinted in 1955, 1959 1961 and 1964
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LIBRARY
RUTGERS - THE STATE UNIVERSITY.
PATERSON, NEW JERSEY 07505
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN
JOHNSON'S Lives of the Poets remains, for all those who have to do with the journeyman-work of letters, the outstanding and shining example of the way in which a merely formal task, undertaken to supply some chance demand of the market, may result in the production of a living and permanent piece of literature. Upon these rare occasions the expectation and the event are always widely at variance. When Johnson sat down to the composition of Irene, or when he closed the hastily finished manuscript of Rasselas, it is not unlikely that he believed himself to be present at the birth of a work of art which should be read and remembered so long as his own name and memory survived; but when he set about the compilation of his Lives of the Poets, he did so in an easy and listless frame of mind. "The task,' he said, 'is not very extensive or difficult.. my plan does not exact much.' And yet to-day Irene and Rasselas are read by few except the conscientious student, while the Lives of the Poets stands firm, as the finest product of literary criticism in the eighteenth century-the very embodiment of the spirit and culture of its age. So, here and there, does the architect build better than he knew.
And, in the first instance, the Lives of the Poets sprang into life from a common rivalry of trade. In the early months of 1777 an Edinburgh firm of booksellers, named Martin, set about the production of a Collection of the English Poets. There seems to have been some reviving interest in poetry at the time, and the need of a Corpus Poetarum had been suggested in more than one quarter; but Edinburgh was quicker than London in getting to work, and, when the announcement of the new series appeared, the London booksellers were disturbed in mind. The publication of the first volume, however, proved that haste had brought in its own revenges. The books were badly printed and the text was often inaccurate; intending purchasers were disappointed, and the London trade had still its opportunity. A meeting was