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SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.
TN 1781, Johnson at last completed his “Lives of the I Poets,” of which he gives this account: “Some time in March I finished the 'Lives of the Poets,' which I wrote in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste.”? In a memorandum previous to this, he says of them: “Written, I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of piety.” 2
This is the work which, of all Dr. Johnson's writings, will perhaps be read most generally, and with most pleasure. Philology and biography were his favourite pursuits, and those who lived most in intimacy with him, heard him upon all occasions, when there was a proper opportunity, take delight in expatiating upon the various merits of the English poets : upon the niceties of their characters, and the events of their progress through the world which they contributed to illuminate. His mind was so full of that kind of information, and it was so well arranged in his memory, that in performing what he had undertaken in this way, he had little more to do than to put his thoughts upon paper ; exhibiting first each poet's life, and then subjoining a critical examination of his genius and works. But when he began to write, the subject swelled in such a manner, that instead of prefaces to each poet, of no more ? Prayers and Meditations, p. 184. First Edit. ? Ibid., p. 168.
than a few pages, as he had originally intended,' he produced an ample, rich, and most entertaining view of them in every respect. In this he resembled Quintilian, who tells us, that in the composition of his “ Institutions of Oratory,” “ Latiùs se tamen aperiente materiâ, plus quàm imponebatur oneris sponte suscepi.” The booksellers, justly sensible of the great additional value of the copyright, presented him with another hundred pounds, over and above two hundred, for which his agreement was to furnish such prefaces as he thought fit.
This was, however, but a small recompense for such a collection of biography, and such principles and illustrations of criticism, as, if digested and arranged in one system, by some modern Aristotle or Longinus, might form a code upon that subject, such as no other nation can show. As he was so good as to make me a present of the greatest part of the original, and indeed only, manuscript of this admirable work, I have an opportunity of observing with wonder the correctness with which he rapidly struck off such glowing composition. He may be assimilated to the lady in Waller, who could impress with “ love at first
“Some other nymphs with colours faint,
1 His design is thus announced in his advertisement: “ The booksellers having determined to publish a body of English poetry, I was persuaded to promise them a preface to the works of each author; an undertaking, as it was then presented to my mind, not very tedious or difficult.
“My purpose was only to have allotted to every poet an advertise. ment, like that 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."
2 He had bargained for two hundred guineas, and the booksellers spontaneously added a third hundred. On this occasion the great moralist observed to the writer of this article, “ Sir, I always said, the booksellers were a generous set of men. Nor, in the present instance, have I reason to complain. The fact is, not that they have paid me too little, but that I have written too much." The Lives were soon published in a separate edition ; when, for a very few corrections, he was presented with another hundred guineas. -Nichols' Anecdotes, viii. p. 416.-Editor.
That he, however, had a good deal of trouble, and some anxiety, in carrying on the work, we see from a series of letters to Mr. Nichols, the printer, whose variety of literary inquiry and obliging disposition rendered him useful to Johnson.
Mr. Steevens appears, from the papers in my possession, to have supplied him with some anecdotes and quotations; and I observe the fair hand ? of Mrs. Thrale as one of his copyists of select passages. But he was principally in
1 Thus :-“ In the Life of Waller, Mr. Nichols will find a reference to the Parliamentary History, from which a long quotation is to be inserted. If Mr. Nichols cannot easily find the book, Mr. Johnson will send it from Streatham.
" Clarendon is here returned.
“By some accident I laid your note upon Duke up so safely, that I cannot find it. Your informations have been of great use to me. I must beg it again, with another list of our authors, for I have laid that with the other. I have sent Stepney's Epitaph. Let me have the revises as soon as can be. December, 1778.
“I have sent Philips, with his Epitaphs, to be inserted. The fragment of a preface is hardly worth the impression, but that we may seem to do something. It may be added to the Life of Philips. The Latin page is to be added to the Life of Smith. I shall be at home to revise the two sheets of Milton. March 1, 1779.
“Please to get me the last edition of Hughes's Letters; and try to get Dennis upon Blackmore and upon Cato, and any thing of the same writer against Pope. Our materials are defective.
“As Waller professed to have imitated Fairfax, do you think a few pages of Fairfax would enrich our edition ? Few readers have seen it, and it may please them. But it is not necessary.
“ An account of the Lives and Works of some of ihe most eminent English Poets, by, &c. The English Poets, biographically and critically considered, by Sam. Johnson. Let Mr. Nichols take his choice, or make another to his mind. May, 1781.
“You somehow forgot the advertisement for the new edition. It was not enclosed. Of Gay's Letters I see not that any use can be made, for they give no information of any thing. That he was a member of a philosophical society is something ; but surely he could be but a corresponding member. However, not having his life here, I know not how to put it in, and it is of little importance.”
See several more in The Gentleman's Magazine, 1785. The editor of that miscellany, in which Johnson wrote for several years, seems justly to think that every fragment of so great a man is worthy of being preserved.
? A fair hand, in more than one sense-her writing is an almost perfect specimen of caligraphy, as beautiful, I think, as I ever saw; and this power remained unimpaired to the last years of her long life.Croker.