"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., 1783. Four volumes. Octavo, contemporary full polished brown calf gilt, red morocco spine labels, speckled fore-edges. $1750.
1783 edition of Johnson's celebrated Lives of the Poets—"the only edition of importance after the first. It is the only edition which Johnson revised, and the last he lived to see"—with engraved frontispiece portrait after Sir Joshua Reynolds, a splendid four-volumes in scarce contemporary polished 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). With title pages printed, "A New Edition, Corrected": this "is the only edition of importance after the first. It is the only edition which Johnson revised, and the last he lived to see" (Chapman & Hazen, 160; emphasis added.). Vol. I leaf UA is a cancel as always; Vol. IV without rear leaf containing advertisement for publisher J. Nichols, no priority determined. Preceded by the first edition, titled Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets: 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; a four-volume first London edition issued in 1781. Courtney & Smith, 142. ESTC T4514. Fleeman II:79.4LP/7a. Small inkstamps to preliminary blanks of Cornwell House, Oxfordshire, the Penyston family seat from the 17th to 19th century.
Text very fresh with mere trace of scattered foxing, expert reinforcement to endcaps, corners of handsome contemporary calf. A splendid about-fine copy.