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SAMUEL JOHNSON • ESSAYS

Lives of the English Poets

INTRODUCTION

Samuel Johnson, born at Lichfield in the year 1709, on the 7th of September Old Style, 18th New Style, was sixty-eight years old when he agreed with the booksellers to write his “Lives of the English Poets.”  “I am engaged,” he said, “to write little Lives, and little Prefaces, to a little edition of the English Poets.”  His conscience was also a little hurt by the fact that the bargain was made on Easter Eve.  In 1777 his memorandum, set down among prayers and meditations, was “29 March, Easter Eve, I treated with booksellers on a bargain, but the time was not long.”

The history of the book as told to Boswell by Edward Dilly, one of the contracting booksellers, was this.  An edition of Poets printed by the Martins in Edinburgh, and sold by Bell in London, was regarded by the London publishers as an interference with the honorary copyright which booksellers then respected among themselves.  They said also that it was inaccurately printed and its type was small.  A few booksellers agreed, therefore, among themselves to call a meeting of proprietors of honorary or actual copyright in the various Poets.  In Poets who had died before 1660 they had no trade interest at all.  About forty of the most respectable booksellers in London accepted the invitation to this meeting.  They determined to proceed immediately with an elegant and uniform edition of Poets in whose works they were interested, and they deputed three of their number, William Strahan, Thomas Davies, and Cadell, to wait on Johnson, asking him to write the series of prefatory Lives, and name his own terms.  Johnson agreed at once, and suggested as his price two hundred guineas, when, as Malone says, the booksellers would readily have given him a thousand.  He then contemplated only “little Lives.”  His energetic pleasure in the work expanded his Preface beyond the limits of the first design; but when it was observed to Johnson that he was underpaid by the booksellers, his reply was, “No, sir; it was not that they gave me too little, but that I gave them too much.”  He gave them, in fact, his masterpiece.  His keen interest in Literature as the soul of life, his sympathetic insight into human nature, enabled him to put all that was best in himself into these studies of the lives of men for whom he cared, and of the books that he was glad to speak his mind about in his own shrewd independent way.  Boswell was somewhat disappointed at finding that the selection of the Poets in this series would not be Johnson’s, but that he was to furnish a Preface and Life to any Poet the booksellers pleased.  “I asked him,” writes Boswell, “if he would do this to any dunce’s works, if they should ask him.  JOHNSON.  “Yes, sir; and say he was a dunce.”

The meeting of booksellers, happy in the support of Johnson’s intellectual power, appointed also a committee to engage the best engravers, and another committee to give directions about paper and printing.  They made out at once a list of the Poets they meant to give, “many of which,” said Dilly, “are within the time of the Act of Queen Anne, which Martin and Bell cannot give, as they have no property in them.  The proprietors are almost all the booksellers in London, of consequence.”

In 1780 the booksellers published, in separate form, four volumes of Johnson’s “Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the most Eminent of the English Poets.”  The completion followed in 1781.  “Sometime in March,” Johnson writes in that year, “I finished the Lives of the Poets.”  The series of books to which they actually served as prefaces extended to sixty volumes.  When his work was done, Johnson then being in his seventy-second year, the booksellers added £100 to the price first asked.  Johnson’s own life was then near its close.  He died on the 13th of December, 1784, aged seventy-five.

Of the Lives in this collection, Johnson himself liked best his Life of Cowley, for the thoroughness with which he had examined in it the style of what he called the metaphysical Poets.  In his Life of Milton, the sense of Milton’s genius is not less evident than the difference in point of view which made it difficult for Johnson to know Milton thoroughly.  They know each other now.  For Johnson sought as steadily as Milton to do all as “in his great Taskmaster’s eye.”

H. M.