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In the year 1777 the booksellers of London, fearing an invasion of their literary preserves by the publication at Edinburgh of an edition of the British Poets from Chaucer to Churchill, resolved on publishing a rival edition, more correct in text than that of Bell, and at the same time superior in print and paper. To give a greater attraction to their undertaking, they agreed that to the works of each author a concise account of his life should be prefixed, and Dr. Johnson, as the most distinguished of his contemporaries, was solicited to undertake the task. Johnson was pleased with the offer, and undertook to write what he describes in a letter to Boswell as “little Lives and little Prefaces to a little edition of the English Poets."
The Edinburgh collection thus dreaded by the London trade was the first attempt to form a complete body of British poetry, and in its design the publication set on foot by an unassisted individual in Edinburgh is preferable to the collection made by the trade in London. Neither, however, is good, whether for general accuracy of text, or the selection of authors. Many who have hardly a claim to be considered poets were admitted by the courtesy of criticism into both editions, the right of selection resting, in both instances oddly enough, with the booksellers, in whose judgment, as men of trade, the Poet whose works were not in demand was doubly dead. The Drama was excluded. Four insignificant poets, Blackmore, Pomfret, Yalden, and Watts, were recommended by Johnson for insertion in the London collection; and beyond the Prefaces (afterwards reprinted as Lives) this recommendation of four small poets made all he had to do with an edition which he wrote to Nichols to say was “impudently” called his.
When persuaded to promise little Lives and little Prefaces to a London edition of our Poets, the undertaking, as then presented to his mind, Johnson tells us, seemed not very extensive, or, as he had first written it, not very tedious or difficult. “My purpose,” he says, “ was only to have allotted to every Poet an advertisement, like those which we find in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates and a general character; but I have been led beyond my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure.” A slight sketch slowly expanded into a detailed life, a short character into a general criticism, and what was undertaken as a light employment became not only the last but the greatest work of its author.
It was at one time the intention of the London booksellers to have commenced with Chaucer. King George the Third wished that Johnson had commenced with Spenser, and Beattie expressed his regret that he had not given Spenser instead of Cowley. Yet a criticism on · The Faerie Queene' would hardly have supplied Johnson with points of equal value to those which in Cowley led to his admirable observations on the so-called Metaphysical Poets; nor is it possible to avoid feeling the partial truth of an observation by Southey, that the poets before the Restoration were to Johnson what the world before the flood is to historians. It is much to be regretted, however, that the petty interest of a bookseller named Carnan should have excluded Goldsmith from the number of his Lives.
Of all works of eminence it is curious to trace the gradual growth, and the history of the · Lives of the Poets' from commencement to completion is not devoid of interest. Johnson's first object was to discover what materials were readily available, to gather round him books necessary for the undertaking, and to obtain what further information public libraries or private individuals might supply to printed narratives. Seeing the scantiness of Murdoch's Memoir of Thomson,' he requested Boswell to procure what information he could in Scotland concerning him ; and from the following letter it will be seen that he at least entered into his task with ardour.
“ To DR. FARMER. “ SIR,
“ Bolt Court, July 22, 1777. “ The booksellers of London have undertaken a kind of body of English Poetry, excluding generally the dramas ; and I have undertaken to put before each author's works a sketch of his life, and a character of his writings. Of some, however, I know but very little, and I am afraid I shall not easily supply my deficiencies. Be pleased to inform me whether among Mr. Baker's MSS., or anywhere else at Cambridge, any materials are to be found. If any such collection can be gleaned, I doubt not your willingness to direct our search, and will tell the booksellers to employ a transcriber. If you think my inspection necessary, I will come down; for who that has once experienced the civilities of Cambridge would not snatch the opportunity of another visit ? “I am, Sir, your most humble servant,
“SAM. JOHNSON.” Nor was he without friends able and willing to assist him. Lord Hailes sent communications for the memoirs of Dryden and Thomson ; Cradock lent him a copy of Euripides with Milton's MS. notes; and through Dr. Percy he obtained the use of Clifford's remarks on Dryden, which he had long been looking for in vain. Joseph Warton contributed some useful information to the Lives of Fenton, Collins, and Pitt. Malone and Isaac Reed assisted him when he sought assistance at their hands, while Steevens, his old associate in editing Shakespeare, supplied him with many particulars, enlivening, as he says, and diversifying his work. As he advanced, other and more valuable assistance was obtained, and Mrs. Boscawen procured him the use of Spence's MS. anecdotes, a favour which he thought worthy “ of public acknowledgment.”
The first Life written was that of Cowley, sent to press in December, 1777. Waller, Denham, and Butler immediately followed. “I have written a little of the Lives of the Poets," he says in his annual review of his life made Easter, 1778, “I think with all my usual vigour.” Dryden was completed in August, 1778, and Milton, begun in January, 1779, was finished in six weeks. The other lives included in the first
issue were sixteen in number, and, being very short, were soon written.
In March, 1779, the first part, containing twenty-two Lives, appeared simultaneously with the poems, and separately in four small volumes. “Last week,” he says in his annual review made Easter, 1779, “ I published (the first part of) the Lives of the Poets,' written, I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of piety.”... “I got my Lives," he writes to Mrs. Thrale, “not yet quite printed, put neatly together, and sent them to the King. What he says of them I know not. If the King is a Whig, he will not like them ; but is any king a Whig ?”
Other and ampler notices of the second and last portion occur in his letters to Mrs. Thrale. “I have not quite neglected my Lives,'” he writes April 6, 1780 ; “ Addison is a long one, but it is done ; Prior is not short, and that is done too. I am upon Rowe, which cannot fill much paper. Seward called on me to-day and read Spence.” Five days later he continues to report the progress he has made. “ You are at all places of high resort, and bring home hearts by dozens, while I am seeking for something to say of men about whom I know nothing but their verses, and sometimes very little of them. Now I have begun, however, I do not despair of making an end.” “I thought to have finished Rowe's life to-day," he writes, April 15, 1780, “but I have had five or six visitors who hindered me, and I have not been quite well : next week I hope to despatch four or five of them.” “My Lives creep on," he writes, May 9, 1780. “I have done Addison, Prior, Rowe, Granville, Sheffield, Collins, Pitt, and almost Fenton.” Congreve was his next Life, and was soon written. “ Congreve, whom I despatched at the Borough while I was attending the election, is one of the best of the little Lives.”
He now made a second application to Dr. Farmer, asking (May 25, 1780) for extracts from college or university registers relating to Ambrose Philips, Broome, and Gray, who were all of Cambridge ; but his progress, in spite of prompt assistance, was still inconsiderable. “I have sat at home in Bolt Court all the