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“ CHANDOS CLASSICS."
MOST EMINENT ENGLISH
CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS ON THEIR WORKS.
TO WHICH ARE ADDED
THE “PREFACE TO SHAKSPEARE,” AND THE REVIEW OF
“THE ORIGIN OF EVIL."
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.
WITH A SKETCH OF THE AUTHOR'S LIFE BY
SIR WALTER SCOTT.
BEDFORD STREET, COVENT GARDEN.
HE “Lives of the most eminent English Poets" has long been
recognised as the greatest written work of Samuel Johnson; and the silent verdict of the crowd has been more than confirmed by
the published opinions of the qualified few. Lord Byron described it as the “finest critical work extant," and declared that he never read it without instruction and delight : Sir Walter Scott affirmed that it displayed qualifications which have seldom been concentrated to the same degree in any literary undertaking; and Lord Macaulay pronounces the narrative to be as "entertaining as any fairy tale," while the “ remarks on human nature are eminently shrewd and profound."
This great work, like many other great works, owed its origin to the spur of competition. By long prescription, unsupported apparently by any legal right, the “Trade" of London had been permitted to assume an exclusive and perpetual property in every literary production of importance, and had come to regard any one as an unprincipled intruder who presumed to interfere with their monopolies. When, therefore, to meet a crying want, a collection of the works of the English Poets was printed by an enterprising individual in Edinburgh, the London booksellers were scandalized at what one of their body called this “invasion of their property;" but, finding they had no legal redress, they very sensibly determined to protect themselves by printing a more elegant and extensive collection on their own account.
To give this edition still further advantages over its rival, they resolved to apply to Johnson to furnish a slight biographical and critical notice of each individual whose works were included in their list; and three of their number, Tom Davies and Strahan and Cadell, were deputed to Bolt Court, to solicit his consent to the arrangement. The day chosen was Saturday, the 29th of March, 1777, which, being Easter Eve, must have been regarded by Johnson as singularly unfitted for business conversation, and he has himself recorded the circumstance half apologetically. “I treated with booksellers on a bargain, but the time was not long.” We will not accuse these booksellers of selecting a day on which Davies at least must have known that Johnson was sure to place a low value on his talents, but in all probability it weighed with him in fixing the humble price of two hundred pounds for what he was to perform. It is true that, as he himself described it in a letter to Boswell, his engagement was only “to write little lives and little
prefaces to a little edition of the English Poets,” but still in an age in which four thousand five hundred pounds was given for a single work of Robertson's, by one member of this deputation, and in which Strahan and Cadell had united to pay Hawkesworth six thousand pounds for the heavy compilation called Cook's Voyages, the forty “first booksellers in London" ought to have been ashamed of permitting him to rob himself to such an extent for their benefit. Malone, who knew the trade and the town well, asserts that they would gladly have closed with him if he had asked seven times as much. Even when the work grew under his hands into a series of important biographies, they contented themselves with adding another two hundred pounds to the stipulated price. But ill-remunerated as he was, he readily undertook (to borrow the words of a great writer)
"a task for which he was pre-eminently qualified. His knowledge of the literary history of England since the Restoration was unrivalled. That knowledge he had derived partly from books, and partly from sources which had long been closed ; from old Grub Street traditions ; from the talk of forgotten poetasters and pamphleteers who had long been lying in parish vaults ; from the recollections of such men as Gilbert Walmsley, who had conversed with the wits of Button's; Cibber, who had mutilated the plays of two generations of dramatists; Orrery, who had been admitted to the society of Swift ; and Savage, who had rendered services of no very honourable kind to Pope.":
Johnson himself tells us that he completed the work some time in March, 1781, and that he wrote it in his “usual way, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste." He did not take the trouble to abridge the Life of Savage, which he had published thirty-seven years before, and the story of that profligate's career fills a 'space altogether disproportionate to his merits. He escaped from writing a life of Young, by adopting the dull and pompous account which was written for him by that Sir Herbert Croft, who afterwards behaved so basely to the family of Chatterton; and he proposed to follow the same course with the life of Gray, which was to have been supplied by the Rev. Mr. Temple, the friend of Boswell. It is to be regretted in this last case, that the intention was not carried out, for the sketch of Gray as it stands reflects little credit on Johnson. It is decidedly the worst Life" in the series, and quite unworthy of the volumes which contain the noble memoirs of Cowley, Dryden, and Pope.
The Preface to Shakspeare, as being almost a portion of the series of poetical criticisms, is now for the first time included in the present edition ; and "that masterpiece of reasoning and satirical pleasantry” the Review of Soame Jenyns having become less accessible than the “very best thing he ever wrote" ought to be, is also added.
Born at Dublin, 32—Sent to Oxford, 1631, 32—Entered at Lincoln's