“THE GREATEST MASTERPIECE OF ENGLISH 18TH-CENTURY CRITICISM”
JOHNSON, Samuel. Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on Their Works. London: C. Bathurst, et al., 1781. Four volumes. Octavo, contemporary full brown calf, raised bands, red morocco spine labels. $1600.
First London edition of Johnson’s celebrated Lives of the Poets, with engraved frontispiece portrait after Sir Joshua Reynolds, handsomely bound in contemporary calf.
Originally a commission undertaken for £200 from a consortium of 13 Dublin booksellers, Johnson's Lives comprised a series of 52 prefaces intended for a new standard edition of the English poets. His major lives—Cowley, Milton, Dryden, Swift and Pope—were quickly recognized as setting a new standard for English literary biography. "Johnson's reading of mainstream poetry from the 17th and 18th centuries remains canonical, by reason of its attention to verbal detail, its decisive judgments, and its robust expression" (ODNB). Johnson's Lives "add up to the greatest masterpiece of English 18th-century criticism; they offer a view from the inside, from a man who is himself one of the mainstays of the tradition he is describing… In one sense, the work is Johnson's autobiography: not a direct autobiography on a thread of personal narrative but the story of an epoch he had lived through, peopled with characters he had known, marked by events he had remembered. It is this personal involvement that gives the Lives of the Poets such matchless body and flavor… To read it is to feel something of the fascination of his company" (Wain, 346-51). The first edition, titled Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, was published in ten smaller volumes between 1779 and 1781 to accompany a 56-volume set of the poets' works. A three-volume Dublin edition of the Lives also appeared in those years. Courtney & Smith, 141. Early ink notation ("Kelso Library") on title pages, early ink annotations to front endpapers.
Text generally clean, contemporary calf in excellent condition. A very handsome copy.