The Lives Of The Most Eminent English Poets, Lives Of The Most Eminent English Poets


The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works (review)

pp. 179-183 Review
Samuel Johnson . The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works, 4 volumes, edited by Roger Lonsdale. Oxford University Press.

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Poets learn from the lives of poets how unpoetic life can be. Johnson”s The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works relates how poets competed, quarreled, and reconciled, hustled publishers and patrons, conversed, caroused, and courted, suffered neglect, fled from bailiffs and creditors, “snatched that temporary relief with which the table and the bottle flatter and seduce,” battled critics (often other poets), haggled with booksellers, and squeezed out the hours to write poetry. All of Johnson”s poets lived between 1605 and 1773, all wrote in English (some in Latin too), and all are men, yet their company admits a murderer, a glutton, a libertine, clerks, clerics, lords, rascals of several species, the author of a “Discourse on Dysentery,” and a gang of university men.

Johnson believed that poetry should engage interest and that criticism should too. He told Boswell, “People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to them.” Against such indifference, Johnson confirms poets” ability to inflame and pacify, console and delight. His cuts, quips, and judgments about poems and poets have been quoted gratefully. Many poets owe him what survival they have, his books outlasting theirs.

The new edition of Johnson”s Lives of the Poets meets the highest editorial and publishing standards, appearing in a boxed set of four volumes, each superbly edited, printed, and bound (each volume with a ribbon bookmark), culminating with the best index the Lives have ever had. Learned poets and ardent bibliophiles proud of their libraries should promptly acquire the set. It is the last word on the final masterwork of one of the world”s greatest readers.

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Harold Bloom (as close to an American Johnson as we have) asserts that the Lives have “no rival in the English language.” But they have had intense competition. It was the competition of a Scottish bookseller, John Bell, that led to Johnson”s commission in the first place.

In 1777 three representatives of a combination of London printers and booksellers informed Johnson that they intended to pool their resources to undertake a major publication: The Works of the English Poets in 56 volumes. To trump Bell (whose set would run to 109 volumes), they invited Johnson to write brief prefaces for each of fifty-two poets. Johnson was sixty-eight, palsied, asthmatic, lame with gout, losing his hearing, taking opium, and fretful about how long he had to live, yet he readily consented. The project suited his taste, skills, reputation, and financial needs.

Johnson was famously tardy with his most important works and the prefaces were no exception. He accepted the commission, thinking it would be quick and easy; his publishers assumed that he would provide prefaces to accompany each of their 56 volumes. Instead, Johnson took four years to complete his work; the prefaces appeared in two separate sets (1779 and 1781) spanning ten volumes entitled Prefaces, Biographical and Critical. The ten volumes were sold first to purchasers of the larger series, and then later in 1781 as four stand-alone volumes, retitled The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. Johnson published a revised edition of the Lives in 1783, the edition chosen for the copytext for the new Oxford set.

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The sole prior scholarly edition of the Lives was George Birbeck Hill”s, published in four volumes in 1905. Richard Lonsdale”s edition supersedes Hill”s in every way: legibility, textual apparatus, introduction, and notes. Lonsdale adopts (and improves) Hill”s numbered paragraphs, thus preserving a reference system that has become customary. Aside from its few trifling typos, my sole complaint with the new edition is that headers for the textual and explanatory notes are imprecise, making them less accessible than they ought to be. The explanatory notes are simply wonderful: they relate what Johnson”s personal attachments were to many poets; fill in gaps in the narratives…


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