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L I F E
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D
The “ Lives of the Poets" completed. Observatiossa upon, and various Readings in, the Life of Cowley
Waller. Milton.— Dryden.- Pope. Broome
In 1781, Johnson at last completed his “Lives of the 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.” (1) In a memorandum previous to this,
(1) This facility of writing, and this dilatoriness ever to writé, Dr. Johnson always retained, from the days that he lay e-bed and dictated his first publication to Mr. Hector, to the moment he made me copy out those variations in Pope's
he says of them : “ Written, I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the nromotion of piety.” — (Pr. and Med. pp. 174. 190 ,
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 á manner, that instead of prefaces to each poet, of no more than a few pages, as he had originally intended (1), he produced an ample, rich, and most
Homer which are printed in the Lives of the Poets.
And now,' said he, when I had finished it for him, I fear not Mr. Nichols (the printer) of a pin.' – Piozzi. The first livraison was published in 1779. This edition of the Poets was in sixty volumes, small octavo.--C.
(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 té
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 materia, 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. (1)
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, 1 have an opportunity of observing with wonder the correctness with which he rapidly struck off such glowing composition. He may be
have allotted to every poet an advertisement, like that which w 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.”
(1) The bargain was for two hundred guineas, and the booksellers spontaneously added a third hundred; on this occasion Dr. Johnson observed to me, “ Sir, I always said the bookseller were a generous set of men. Nor, in the present instance, hav I reason to complain. The fact is, not that they have paid me woo little, but that I have written too much.” The “ Lives" were soon published in a separate edition; when, for a very few corrections, the doctor was presented with another hundred guineas. NICHOLS.
assimilated to the lady in Waller, who could imprese with “ love at first sight:”
“ Some other nymphs with colours faint,
And pencil slow, may Cupid paint,
She has a stamp, and prints the boy." That he, however, had a good deal of trouble (1), 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. 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 in3erted. 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
(1) The reader has, however, seen some instances, and many others might be produced, in which Dr. Johnson, when he pubi lished a new edition, utterly disregarded the corrections of errors of which he was apprised. The truth is, he began the work as a thing that might be done in a few weeks, and was surprised and fatigued at the length to which he found it expand : and it is not wonderful that at so advanced an age he was not very muxious to purchase minute accuracy by the labour of revision
See antè, Vol. VI. p. 239. — C.