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Lives of the English Poets (1779)

by Samuel Johnson, Samuel Johnson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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329560,048 (4.19)6
Johnson himself wrote in 1782: "I know not that I have written any thing more generally commended than the Lives of the Poets." Always recognized as a major biographical and critical achievement, Samuel Johnson's last literary project is also one of his most readable and entertaining, written with characteristic eloquence and conviction, and at times with combative trenchancy. Johnson's fifty-two biographies constitute a detailed survey of English poetry from the early seventeenth century down to his own time, with extended discussions of Cowley, Milton, Waller, Dryden, Addison, Prior, Swift, Pope, and Gray. The Lives also include Johnson's memorable biography of the enigmatic Richard Savage (1744), the friend of his own early years in London. Roger Lonsdale's Introduction describes the origins, composition, and textual history of the Lives, and assesses Johnson's assumptions and aims as biographer and critic. The commentary provides a detailed literary and historical context, investigating Johnson's sources, relating the Lives to his own earlier writings and conversation, and to the critical opinions of his contemporaries, as well as illustrating their early reception. This is the first scholarly edition since George Birkbeck Hill's three-volume Oxford edition (1905).… (more)
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» See also 6 mentions

Showing 5 of 5
2 v.1920 printing. 1977 printing ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 19, 2020 |
2 v. ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 19, 2020 |
"...but a succession of prefaces..." -Through the Magic Door, p. 57
  ACDoyleLibrary | Jan 21, 2010 |
In 1779, Johnson gave the world a luminous proof that the vigour of his mind in all its faculties, whether memory, judgement, or imagination, was not in the least abated; for this year came out the first four volumes of his Prefaces, biographical and critical, to the most eminent of the English Poets, published by the booksellers of London. The remaining volumes came out in the year 1780.

--James Boswell, in Life of Johnson
  JamesBoswell | Mar 21, 2009 |
" 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 advertisement, like that which we find in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates, and a general character; but I have been led beyoud my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure." From the bookseller’s advertisement, quoted by Boswell in Life of Johnson. He also quotes Johnson’s comment: " 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."
  SamuelJohnsonLibrary | Apr 5, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Samuel Johnsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Johnson, Samuelmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Fleischauer, Warren L.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lonsdale, Roger H.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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The life of Cowley, notwithstanding the penury of English biography, has been written by Dr. Sprat, an author whose pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature ...
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[The Earl of Rochester] had very early an inclination to intemperance ... when he became a courtier, he unhappily addicted himself to dissolute and vitious [sic] company, by which his principles were corrupted, and his manners depraved. He lost all sense of religious restraint; and, finding it not convenient to admit the authority of laws which he was resolved not to obey, sheltered his wickedness behind infidelity.... As he excelled in that noisy and licentious merriment which wine incites, his company eagerly encouraged him in excess, and he willingly indulged it; till, as he confessed to Dr. Burnet, he was for five years together continually drunk, or so much inflamed by frequent ebriety [sic], as in no interval to be master of himself.... In this state he played many frolicks, which it is not for his honour that we should remember ... He often pursued low amours in mean disguises, and always acted with great exactness and dexterity the characters which he assumed. ... Thus in a course of drunken gaiety, and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one and thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.
In 1668 Dryden succeeded Sir William Davenant as poet-laureate. The salary of the laureate had been raised in favour of Ben Jonson, by Charles the First, from an hundred marks to one hundred pounds a year, and a tierce of wine.
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Johnson himself wrote in 1782: "I know not that I have written any thing more generally commended than the Lives of the Poets." Always recognized as a major biographical and critical achievement, Samuel Johnson's last literary project is also one of his most readable and entertaining, written with characteristic eloquence and conviction, and at times with combative trenchancy. Johnson's fifty-two biographies constitute a detailed survey of English poetry from the early seventeenth century down to his own time, with extended discussions of Cowley, Milton, Waller, Dryden, Addison, Prior, Swift, Pope, and Gray. The Lives also include Johnson's memorable biography of the enigmatic Richard Savage (1744), the friend of his own early years in London. Roger Lonsdale's Introduction describes the origins, composition, and textual history of the Lives, and assesses Johnson's assumptions and aims as biographer and critic. The commentary provides a detailed literary and historical context, investigating Johnson's sources, relating the Lives to his own earlier writings and conversation, and to the critical opinions of his contemporaries, as well as illustrating their early reception. This is the first scholarly edition since George Birkbeck Hill's three-volume Oxford edition (1905).

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3 volumes.
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