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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 33. Robert Dodsley and his Collection

More than one or two of these poets and versifiers, as well as several to be mentioned later, and some who must be merely catalogued or left altogether to silence, owed, if not (as in some cases they did) actual first publication, at any rate notoriety and even popularity, to a member of the maligned order of “booksellers”—Robert Dodsley, footman, verse-writer, playwright and publisher. Nearly all testimonies to “the goodnatured author of The Muse in Livery” (as Thackeray calls him, in one of those invented touches which have almost the value of historical anecdotes) are favourable; and, if not a man of remarkable taste himself, he must have had a faculty very close thereto, that of catching at good suggestions from others. That he published much good work by many great men—Pope, Gray, Johnson—and others not far short of great—Young, Akenside, Chesterfield, Walpole—may have been partly matter of luck. But the publisher of the two collections of Old Plays, and of Poems by Several Hands, must, necessarily, have been a man of enterprise, and, almost as necessarily, one who knew a good thing when the idea occurred or was suggested to him. His own verse, which may be found in Chalmers, is by no means contemptible, and displays that peculiar ease—conventional to a certain extent, but with a conventionality differing from affectation—which, it may almost be said, came in and went out with the eighteenth century itself. But he had far too much good sense to make his Collection a means of publishing or republishing his own work. At first (1748), it consisted of three volumes only; the fourth, fifth and sixth appeared later, and the set was not completed till 1758. But it was very frequently reprinted; and, in 1775, more than a decade after Dodsley’s death, it was revised by Pearch, with a continuation of four volumes more, in which many of the contributors to Dodsley reappear in company with some younger writers. The complete collection will supply something like a companion or chrestomathy to any review, like the present, of lesser eighteenth century poets.

W. P. Courtney, in a privately published book on the Collection, invaluable to all students of it, quotes, from The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1845, a diatribe (originally dated August, 1819, and extracted from The Portfolio of a Man of the World), the author of which does not seem to be known, against Dodsley as something than which “a more piteous farrago of flatness never was seen.” This Aristarch proceeds to denounce its “paltry page of dilettante rhymes,” “its namby-pamby rhyming”; wonders “how there could have been so many men in England who could write such stuff,” finds in it “a littleness, an utter dulness which would be disheartening if it were not so gloriously contrasted by our present race” and remarks “what giants we appear in comparison to our fathers.” Yet this censor, though he did admit “some redeeming pieces of the preceding generation,” forgot that the best of them were not older but strictly contemporary. Gray was but just over thirty when Dodsley appeared first; Collins was but seven-and-twenty. If it was a day of small things generally in poetry; yet, but for Dodsley and his continuator, the proper estimation of that day would be very much more difficult than it is. And the censor might, to his advantage, have remembered that no period was ever more cheerfully convinced of the satisfactory appearance which it presented “in comparison with its fathers” than the very age which he was denouncing.

At the same time, if there was a great deal of ineptitude in attacking, there would, perhaps, be some in defending too ostentatiously and apologetically a collection which enshrines most of the best things of Gray, and some of not the worst things of Collins; The Spleen and Grongar Hill and The Schoolmistress and the Hymn to the Naiads; the inimitable mischief of Lady Mary’s satire on society, and the stately rhetoric of Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes; besides scores of pleasant trifles, like Browne’s Pipe of Tobacco and Byrom’s celebration of the Figg and Sutton battle, Warton’s Progress of Discontent and James Merrick’s Cameleon. Of the many mansions of poetry this may not be the most magnificent; but there are worse places for at least occasional residence than a comfortable Georgian house, with now and then a prospect from the windows into things not merely contemporary.