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four small poets made all he had to do with an edition which he wrote to Nichols to say was "impudently" called his.
When persuaded to promise little Lives and little Prefaces to a London edition of our Poets, the undertaking, as then presented to his mind, Johnson tells us, seemed not very extensive, or, as he had first written it, not very tedious or difficult. "My purpose," he says, "was only to have allotted to every Poet an advertisement, like those 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." A slight sketch slowly expanded into a detailed life, a short character into a general criticism, and what was undertaken as a light employment became not only the last but the greatest work of its author.
It was at one time the intention of the London booksellers to have commenced with Chaucer. King George the Third wished that Johnson had commenced with Spenser, and Beattie expressed his regret that he had not given Spenser instead of Cowley. Yet a criticism on 'The Faerie Queene' would hardly have supplied Johnson with points of equal value to those which in Cowley led to his admirable observations on the so-called Metaphysical Poets; nor is it possible to avoid feeling the partial truth of an observation by Southey, that the poets before the Restoration were to Johnson what the world before the flood is to historians. It is much to be regretted, however, that the petty interest of a bookseller named Carnan should have excluded Goldsmith from the number of his Lives.
Of all works of eminence it is curious to trace the gradual growth, and the history of the Lives of the Poets' from commencement to completion is not devoid of interest. Johnson's first object was to discover what materials were readily available, to gather round him books necessary for the undertaking, and to obtain what further information public libraries or private individuals might supply to printed narratives. Seeing the scantiness of Murdoch's Memoir of Thomson,' he requested Boswell to procure what information he could in Scotland con
cerning him; and from the following letter it will be seen that he at least entered into his task with ardour.
"To DR. FARMER.
"Bolt Court, July 22, 1777. "The booksellers of London have undertaken a kind of body of English Poetry, excluding generally the dramas; and I have undertaken to put before each author's works a sketch of his life, and a character of his writings. Of some, however, I know but very little, and I am afraid I shall not easily supply my deficiencies. Be pleased to inform me whether among Mr. Baker's MSS., or anywhere else at Cambridge, any materials are to be found. If any such collection can be gleaned, I doubt not your willingness to direct our search, and will tell the booksellers to employ a transcriber. If you think my inspection necessary, I will come down; for who that has once experienced the civilities of Cambridge would not snatch the opportunity of another visit?
"I am, Sir, your most humble servant,
Nor was he without friends able and willing to assist him. Lord Hailes sent communications for the memoirs of Dryden and Thomson; Cradock lent him a copy of Euripides with Milton's MS. notes; and through Dr. Percy he obtained the use of Clifford's remarks on Dryden, which he had long been looking for in vain. Joseph Warton contributed some useful information to the Lives of Fenton, Collins, and Pitt. Malone and Isaac Reed assisted him when he sought assistance at their hands, while Steevens, his old associate in editing Shakespeare, supplied him with many particulars, enlivening, as he says, and diversifying his work. As he advanced, other and more valuable assistance was obtained, and Mrs. Boscawen procured him the use of Spence's MS. anecdotes, a favour which he thought worthy "of public acknowledgment."
The first Life written was that of Cowley, sent to press in December, 1777. Waller, Denham, and Butler immediately followed. "I have written a little of the Lives of the Poets," he says in his annual review of his life made Easter, 1778, "I think with all my usual vigour." Dryden was completed in August, 1778, and Milton, begun in January, 1779, was finished in six weeks. The other lives included in the first
issue were sixteen in number, and, being very short, were soon written.
In March, 1779, the first part, containing twenty-two Lives, appeared simultaneously with the poems, and separately in four small volumes. "Last week," he says in his annual review made Easter, 1779, "I published (the first part of) the 'Lives of the Poets,' written, I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of piety.". "I got my Lives," he writes to Mrs. Thrale, "not yet quite printed, put neatly together, and sent them to the King. What he says of them I know not. If the King is a Whig, he will not like them; but is any king a Whig?"
Other and ampler notices of the second and last portion occur in his letters to Mrs. Thrale. "I have not quite neglected my Lives,' ," he writes April 6, 1780; "Addison is a long one, but it is done; Prior is not short, and that is done too. I am upon Rowe, which cannot fill much paper. Seward called on me to-day and read Spence." Five days later he continues to report the progress he has made. "You are at all places of high resort, and bring home hearts by dozens, while I am seeking for something to say of men about whom I know nothing but their verses, and sometimes very little of them. Now I have begun, however, I do not despair of making an end." "I thought to have finished Rowe's life to-day,” he writes, April 15, 1780, "but I have had five or six visitors who hindered me, and I have not been quite well: next week I hope to despatch four or five of them." 'My Lives creep on," he writes, May 9, 1780. "I have done Addison, Prior, Rowe, Granville, Sheffield, Collins, Pitt, and almost Fenton." Congreve was his next Life, and was soon written. "Congreve, whom I despatched at the Borough while I was attending the election, is one of the best of the little Lives."
He now made a second application to Dr. Farmer, asking (May 25, 1780) for extracts from college or university registers relating to Ambrose Philips, Broome, and Gray, who were all of Cambridge; but his progress, in spite of prompt assistance, was still inconsiderable. "I have sat at home in Bolt Court all the
summer," he writes to Boswell, August 21, 1780, "thinking to write the Lives,' and a great part of the time only thinking. Several of them, however, are done, and I still think to do the rest." This still thinking and not performing brought other difficulties, and as time began to press, he gladly adopted a life of Dr. Young, written by Herbert Croft, then an unknown man ambitious of literary distinction. He was willing to have obtained other favours of a like character, for the progress of his undertaking had brought him to the task of writing the lives of his contemporaries, and of some still younger than himself. He did not care for the new school of poetry, nor for the poets themselves. He knew his own prejudices, hurried through his work, and brought it to a close.
"Some time in March" (he observes in his annual review made Easter, 1781) "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." What he has said of Addison and "Cato" is still more applicable to his own achievement. "Cato," he says, "was at length completed, but with brevity irregularly disproportionate to the foregoing parts, like a task performed with reluctance and hurried to its conclusion."
The Lives of the Poets' made a stir at the time in the world of letters. A cry was raised on more grounds than one against his Life of Milton. "I could thrash his old jacket," writes Cowper, "till I made his pension jingle in his pocket." All Cambridge was in arms against what Mackintosh has called "that monstrous example of critical injustice which he entitles the Life of Gray." The same feeling was expressed against his criticism on Collins, and only less generally because the reputation of that poet was but then upon the rise. The friends of Lord Lyttelton were annoyed at the contempt, artful and studied as they called it, thrown upon the character of a nobleman who, with all the little foibles he might have, was, in their eyes, one of the most exalted patterns of virtue, liberality, and benevolence. Great displeasure was expressed with equal justice at his account of Thomson, while his censure of Aken
side was thought by many what it really is, illiberal, and his criticism on Prior was condemned as severe and unjust." Notwithstanding these and other complaints of the spirit in which the 'Lives' were written, Johnson's great work obtained an immediate popularity which has continued to our own time, and will certainly continue unimpaired. Biography," says this greatest of biographers, "is of the various kinds of narrative writing that which is most eagerly read, and most easily applied to the purposes of life." This was said long before the Lives of the Poets' were even thought of, and it is in this application of others' lives to the purposes and nicer uses of our own, that the essential value of Johnson's work may be said to consist. The secret of Johnson's excellence will be found in the knowledge of human life which his Lives' exhibit; in the many admirable reflections they contain, varying and illustrating the narrative without overlaying it; in the virtue they hold up to admiration, and in the religion they inculcate. He possessed the rare art of teaching what is not familiar, of lending an interest to a twice-told tale, and of recommending known truths by his manner of adorning them. He seized at once the leading features, and though he may have omitted a pimple or a freckle, his likeness is unmistakeable-defined yet general, summary yet exact.
The industry of Johnson was exerted and exhausted in his Dictionary. After that great task indolence overtook him, from which he never altogether recovered. Those common necessities which before compelled him to write, no longer existed, and his pension only added to his disinclination for work. When he engaged to write the Lives of the Poets,' he was in his seventieth year, and in the full vigour of his faculties, yet he wrote, as we have seen, dilatorily and hastily, and almost without books. Deservedly held as the greatest writer of his time, he was aware of the importance of the task he had undertaken, and of what would be expected from him. He knew his strength, and that the value of his work would not depend on the minute succession of facts, but on the characters, drawn as they would be 'Idler,' No. 84, November 24, 1759.