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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 25. The Lives of the Poets: their original plan and distinctive features

The Lives of the Poets arose out of a business venture. The London booksellers were anxious to drive out of the market an Edinburgh reprint of the English poets and to protect their own copyright; and, besides producing an edition superior in accuracy and elegance, they determined to add biographical prefaces by some writer of authority. The scheme took some time to mature, and Percival Stockdale had hopes of the editorship. But Johnson was given the first offer and at once accepted. Writing to Boswell, on 3 May, 1777, he says he is engaged “to write little Lives and little Prefaces, to a little edition of the English Poets.” The work proved so congenial that he wrote at greater length than he had intended; and, when the edition was completed, the prefaces were issued without the texts under the title The Lives of the Poets (1781). Their independent publication, and the title by which they are now known, were alike afterthoughts; in origin, The Lives of the Poets is only editorial matter. It is even more important to remember that this great body of critical opinion—perhaps the greatest in the English language—was written on invitation and in conformity with conditions controlled by others. When he found the complete series labelled “Johnson’s Poets,” he was moved to write on a scrap of paper which has happily been preserved: “It is great impudence to put Johnson’s Poets on the back of books which Johnson neither recommended nor revised.” Of the fifty-two poets, five, at most, were included on his suggestion. In the life of Watts, he says that the readers of the collection are to impute to him whatever pleasure or weariness they may find in the perusal of Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret and Yalden; but it would also appear from the letter to Boswell cited above that he “persuaded the booksellers to insert something of Thomson.” There is no evidence that he advised any omission. For only one of the fifty-two lives was he indebted to another hand–the life of Young by Sir Herbert Croft. He included his early life of Savage, with insignificant changes, and worked up his article on Roscommon in The Gentleman’s Magazine for May, 1748. The other lives he now wrote specially for the booksellers, availing himself here and there of what he had written already, such as the “Dissertation on Pope’s Epitaphs” in The Universal Visiter (1756), and the character of Collins in Fawkes and Woty’s Poetical Calendar (1763).

The original plan had evidently been to include “all the English poets of reputation from Chaucer to the present day.” It is no matter for regret that this scheme was curtailed. The poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, besides affording him ample scope for expounding his views on poetry, possessed for him the personal interest which was always a stimulus to his criticism. But, even could he be shown to have recommended Cowley as the starting point, it would be an error to infer that this was the limit to his knowledge and appreciation. Such an inference would neglect his preface to Shakespeare, his work on the Elizabethans for the Dictionary and his statement in The Idler that “we consider the whole succession from Spenser to Pope as superior to any names which the Continent can boast.” Of the earlier writers, he had not the knowledge possessed by Thomas Warton and other of his friends. But he wrote on Ascham, and corresponded on the manuscripts of Sir Thomas More, and devoted to him a considerable section of the introductory matter of his Dictionary; and he was always alert to any investigation, whether in modern English, or Old English, or northern antiquities. His comprehensive knowledge of English literature may be described as beginning with the reign of Henry VIII. In an interview with George III, he was enjoined to add Spenser to The Lives of the Poets; and he would readily have complied, could he have obtained new material.

In the earlier interview which Boswell has recorded, many years before The Lives of the Poets was thought of, George III proposed that Johnson should undertake the literary biography of his country. It was a happy courtesy, for, though there had been good lives of individual poets since Sprat’s Life of Cowley, the collections that had yet appeared had shown that much remained to be accomplished, and Johnson was specially fitted to write the lives of authors. Even had he not said so, we should have suspected that the biographical part of literature was what he loved most. The best of these collections had been The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753), nominally by “Mr. Cibber” (Theophilus), but really by Robert Shiels, The Royal and Noble Authors (1758), of Horace Walpole, which is a “catalogue,” and the literary articles in the very unequal Biographia Britannica. It was left to Johnson to impart a sustained excellence to this kind of writing, and, by engaging in what had not yet occupied an author of his authority, to raise it to a new level as an English literary form.