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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 extensive or difficult.
My purpose 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.
In this minute kind of history the succession of facts is not easily discovered ; and I am not without suspicion that some of Dryden's works are placed in wrong years. I have followed Langbaine, as the best authority for plays; and if I shall hereafter obtain a more correct chronology, will publish it; but I do not yet know that my account is erroneous.
Dryden's remarks on Rymer have been somewhere printed before. The former edition I have not seen. This was transcribed for the press from his own manuscript.
As this undertaking was occasional and unforeseen, I must be supposed to have engaged in it with less provision of materials than might have been accumulated by longer premeditation. Of the later writers, at least, I might, by attention and inquiry, have gleaned many particulars which would have diversified and enlivened my biography. These omissions, which it is now useless to lament, have been often supplied by the kindness of Mr. Steevens and other friends; and great assistance has been given me by Mr. Spence's Collections, of which I consider the communication as a favour worthy of publick acknowledgment.
THE LIVES OF THE POETS.
Such was the simple and unpretending advertisement that announced the Lives of the English Poets; a work that gave to the British nation a new style of biography. Johnson's decided taste for this species of writing, and his familiarity with the works of those whose lives he has recorded, peculiarly fitted him for the task; but it has been denounced by some as dogmatical, and even morose; minute critics have detected inaccuracies ; the admirers of particular authors have complained of an insufficiency of praise to the objects of their fond and exclusive regard ; and the poli
1 tical zealot has affected to decry the staunch and unbending champion of regal and ecclesiastical rights. Those, again, of high and imaginative minds, who “ lift themselves up to look to the sky of poetry, and far removed from the dull-making cataract of Nilus, listen to the planet-like music of poetry;" these accuse Johnson of a heavy and insensible soul, because he avowed that nature's “ world was brazen, and that the poets only delivered a
But in spite of the censures of political opponents, private friends, and angry critics, it will be acknowledged, by the impartial, and by every lover of virtue and of truth, that Johnson's honest heart, penetrating mind, and powerful intellect, has given to the world memoirs fraught with what is infinitely more valuable than mere verbal criticism, or imaginative speculation; he has presented, in his Lives of the English Poets, the fruits of his long and careful examination of men and manners, and repeated in his age, with the authoritative voice of experience, the same dignified lessons of morality, with which he had instructed his readers in his earlier years. And if these lives contained few merits of their own, they confessedly amended the criticism of the nation, and opened the path to a more enlarged and liberal style of biography than had, before their publication, appeared.
a See sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry.
The bold manner in which Johnson delivered what he believed to be the truth, naturally provoked hostile attack, and we are not prepared to say, that, in many instances, the strictures passed upon him might not be just. We will call the attention of our readers to some few of the charges brought against the work now before us, and then leave it to their candid and unbiassed judgment to decide, whether the deficiencies pointed out are but as dust in the balance, when brought to weigh against the sterling excellence with which this last and greatest production of our Moralist abounds.
He has been accused of indulging a spirit of political animosity, of an illiberal and captious method of criticism, of frequent inaccuracies, and of a general haughtiness of manner, indicative of a feeling of superiority over the subjects of his memorial.
In the life of Milton his political prejudices are most apparent. It is not our duty, neither our inclination, in this place, to discuss the accuracy of Johnson's political wisdom. We cannot, however, but respect the integrity with which he clung to the instructions of his youth, amidst poverty, and all those inconveniencies which usually drive men to a discontent with things as they are.
Those who censure him without qualification or reserve, are as bad, or worse, on the opposite side.
They accuse him of narrow-minded prejudice, and of bigoted attachment to powers that be with a rancour little befitting the liberality of which they make such vaunting professions. Johnson had a really benevolent heart, but despised and detested the affectation of a sentimental and universal philanthropy, which neglects the practical charities of home and kindred, in its wild and excursive flights after distant and romantic objects. He was no tyrant, even in theory, but he dreaded, and, therefore, sought to expose, the lurking designs of those who opposed constituted