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uen a new colle&ion of English Poetry is offered to the public, it will doubtless be inquired what are the deficiencies of preceding collections, which another editor may hope to supply.
On referring back to the several publications of this kind, which have exercised the abilities of other persons, the reader will see on what ground the cditor judged the work, which he now prefents to the world, to be necessary.
English literature is undoubtedly under no small obligations to those who have associated the scattered productions of our poets in one collection, and by that means have secured their general preservation.
Tottell, editor of the “ Songes and Sonnettes” of Surrey, Wyat, and of “ Uncertain Auctors," 1557, the first printed Poetical Miscellany in the English language; Allot, editor of “ England's Parnassus," 1600; Bodenham, editor of “ Belvidere, or the Garden of the Muses,” 1600; and the anonymous editors of the “ Paradise of Daintie Devises,” 1578; and “ England's Helicon," 1600 ; have preferved many admirable specimens of ancient genius, which would have mouldered in manuscript, or perhaps, from their detached and sugitive state of existence, their want of length, the capricioulness of taste, the general depredations of time, inattention, and other accidents, would never have reached the present age.
Mrs. Cooper, in her « Mules Library," 1737; Mr. Hayward, in his “ British Muse,” 1738; Mr. Capel in his Prolusions," 1740; Dr. Percy in his “ Rcliques," 1765 ; Mr. Evans, in his “ Old Ballads," 1777; Mr. Headley, in his “ Beauties of Ancient English Poetry," 1787; and Mr. Ritson, in his “ Ancient Songs,” 1789, followed the same plan, in consequerce of which many value able pieces are rescued from oblivion, that, from their brevity and unconnectedness, could not posibly have survived for any length of time by themselves; and many judicious selections are made, from an attentive perusal of antique and obsolete writers, which exhibit complete and satisfa&ory specimens of their different modes of writing.
The coilections of a similar nature, formed by Davison, Dryden, Fenton, Steele, Pope, Pemberton, Lintot, c. Tooke, Dodscy, Fawkes, Donaldson, Pearch and Nichols, contain an infinite number of small poenis, many of which must be allowed to poffess considerable merit; being the production, of men of real genius, who, from the brevity, rather than the inferiority of their writings, have been usually itykd " Minor Poets.”
A degree of praise not much inferior to that which the above compilers have acquired, is due to editors, who, uniting industry with taste, have presented the public with uniform and elegant edie tions of the Works of the British Poets, in the manner of those of Italy, Spain, and France.
The first collection of Eng?:li Poetry which appeared in these kingdoms, was formed by Dr. Blair, and printed at Edinburgh, in 42 vols. 12mo, 1773, for Messrs. Crecch and Balfour, booksellers, containing the works of Milton, Cowley, Butler, Dryden, Waller, Garth, Priot, Addisoni, Parnell, Pope, Gay, Swist, Young, Thontson, Shenfone, Gray, ard I.yttleton. The elegance of this edition is no compensation for its incompleteness. The contradied lift of authors marked out by Dr. Blair, includes none of those who have jullly obtained the distinction of being denominated our older clasa fics, except Milton and Cowley. Nor do the contents of the work correspond with its title, many long and valuable pieces of Cowley, Parnell, Swift, and Shenstone, being omitted in the collection of their respective works. This mods of publiling modern works of credit, the conteots of
which happen to be unequal, unless immediately intended for the use of schools, does but multiply books to no good end. By anticipating him, it deprives the reader of that pleasure which every one feels, and of that right which every one is entitled to, of judging for himself. Cowley, Parnell, Swift, and Shenstone, are far too well known to stand in need of such partial reconimendation, and, in fact, hold a most distinguished rank in the “ school the people.”
In 1776, a Collection of English Poetry, upon a more extensive plan, was undertaken by Mr. Bell, bookseller in London, to be printed by the Martins, at the Apollo Press, Edinburgh, in 109 miniature volumes, ornamented with engravings, containing the entire works of the authors admitted into Dr. Blair's edition, and the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Denham, Roscommon, Buckingham, Lansdown, King, Pomfret, Congreve, Rowe, Watts, J. Philips, Smith, Hughes, Fenton, Tickell, Somervile, Broome, Savage, Pitt, A. Philips, Dyer, G. Weft, Hammond, Collins, Moore, . Armstrong, R. West, Mallet, Cunningham, and Churchill. The works of the several authors were published separately, without any regard to chronological order, and at long intervals, some of the later volumes being printed at London in 1787. In this edition, three of our older classics appear, to whom no place had been given in Dr. Blair's edition, and several modern writers of credit are adopted as legitimate and established poets. Such, however, is the fate of the work, that we seldom see it entire, but meet with its contents wandering feparately, and disjointed in every catalogue.
In 1779, while Mr. Bell's publication was going forward, the London bwkfellers published a collection of the “ Works of the English Poets,” in 60 vols. small 8vo, with Prefaces Biographical and Critical, by Dr. Johnson, and heads engraved by Bartolozzi, &c.
The following account of this undertaking, as given by Mr. Edward Dilly, in a letter to Mr. Boswell, dated, Southill, Sept. 26. 1777, will not be unentertaining to those who delight in tracing the progress of works of literature; since it was the occasion of procuring for us an elegant collection of the beit biography and criticism of which our language can boast.
“ The edition of the Poets now printing will do honour to the English press, and a concise account of the life of each author by Dr. Johnson, will be a very valuable addition, and stamp the Teputation of this edition, superior to any thing that is gone before. The first cause that gave rise to this undertaking, 4 believe, was owing to the little trifling cdition of the Poets printing by the Martins, at Edinburgh, and to be sold by Bell in London. Upon examining the volumes which were printed, the type was found so extremely small, that many persons could not read them : Not only this inconvenience attended it, but the inaccuracy of the press was very confpicuous. Thesc reasons, as well as the idea of an invasion of what we call our Literary Property, induced the London booksellers to print an elegant and accurate edition of all tbe E..zlif Poets of reputation, froma Chaucer to the present tine.
“ Accordingly a select number of the most respectable booksellers met on the occasion, and, consulting together, agreed, that all the proprietors of copy-right in the various poets, should be fummoned together, and when their opinions were given, to proceed immediately to business. Accordingly a meeting was held, consisting of about sorty of the most respectable booksellers of London, when it was agreed, that an elegant and uniform edition of “ The English Poets” should be immediately printed, with a concise account of the life of each author, by Dr. Samuel Johnson; and that three persons should be deputed to wait upon Dr. Johnson, to solicit him to undertake the Lives, viz. T. Davies, Strahan, and Cadell. The Doctor very politely undertook it, and seemed exceedingly pleased with the proposal. As to the terms, it was left entirely to the Doctor to name his own; he mentioned two hundred guineas; it was immediately agreed to, and a farther compliment, I believe, will be made him. A committee was likewise appointed to engage the best engravers, viz. Bartolozzi, Sherwin, Hall, &c.; likewise another committee for giving dire&tions about the paper, printing, &c.: so that the whole will be conducted with spirit, and in the best manner, with respect to authorship, editorship, engravings, &c. &c. My brother will give you a list of the Poets we mean to give, many of which are within the time of the act of Queen Anne, which Martin and Bell cannot give, as they have no property in them; the proprictors are almost all the booksellera in London, of confequence."
The plan of this edition, so happily conceived, was more ample than the execution. Instead of comprehending“ all the English poets of reputation from Chaucer to the present time,” it was unaccountably limited to a list of fifty-lbrce authors, beginning with Cowley and ending with Lyttleton; all of whom appear in Mr. Bell's edition, except Rochester, Otway, Dorset, Stepney, , Walsh, uke, Sprat, Halifax, and Blackmore; who are displaced, to make room for Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Armstrong, R. West, Cunningham, and Churchill.
The managers of this edition are liable to some censure, for admitting fo few of our older classics in a work which bore so close a relation to the honour of the nation, and which, from its elegance and magnitude, afforded the happiest opportunity of uniting our poets, both ancient and modern, in one comprehensive view, and of combining their respective excellencies in one common interest. Ancient poetry, in thus being exhibited to the public eye, would soon have made good her claims to notice, and of herself recovered the long-lost verdure of her bays; whilst the justice of that latitude which is commonly afligned to later improvements, from a fair opportunity of a comparative examination, might have been more strictly ascertained.
It is well known, that the oftensible editor was ever glad to escape the censure which the work had fallen under, by alleging, that, with the exception of Pomfret, Yalden, Blackmore, and Watts, he had nothing to do with the selection; he had engaged himself only to furnish a set of Lives to such a list as the booksellers, who were the responsible publishers of the work, should think proper.
Dr. Johnson gave up his life to the literature of his country; a portion of it would not have been thrown away, had it been dedicated to the completion of such an undertaking. In the esteem of the booksellers, he stood very high, perhaps higher than any man of his age, and there cannot be a doubt, but that the management of the work, on the least desire intimated by him, would have been vested in his hands, with the utmost gratitude and confidence.
As the matter stands, it is difficult to guess the reason why the managers of this edition admitted fomne authors, while others of similar character were rejected. In an edition of poetry, where some of the “ wits of Charles's days, the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease," and the heroes of the “ Dunciad,” are to be found, we rather wonder at not finding others; where Rochester, Rorcommon, Sprat, Halifax, Stepney, and Duke, were received, why Carew, Sedley, Hopkins, Marvell, and Oldham, were refused, one is puzzled to guess; and where Pomfret, Yalden, and Blackmore, are preferred to Eusden, Welsted, and Hill, it is not easy to account for the preference. When the publication was undertaken, Armstrong and Langhorne, poets of superior rank, were living; their works, consequently, could not be properly inserted; but Churchill, Smart, and Goldsmith, were dead, and their works certainly had a just claim to admisiion.
When Dr. Johnson engaged to furnish the booksellers with a “ Preface" to the works of each author, it was his intention to have allotted to each peer, an “ Advertilement" like those which are found in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates and a general character. That he was led beyond his intention, “ by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure,” will be always a subject of congratulation to every reader of taste. That he passed some partial judgments in his “ Lives," that he was sometimes blinded by prejudice, that he occasionally saw through the medium of party or religion; and that, without the taste which would enable him to decide, he rafhly determined from abstract seasoning, and the examination of a philosopher, where philosophy was an inadequate judge, must be allowed: But, as fine pieces of nervous writing, pregnant with valuable detached opinions, happy illustrations, nice discussions, and a variety of curious incidental information, they will ever be regarded as the richest, most beautiful, and, indeed, most perfect production of his pen.
In 1790, a new edition of this elegant colle&ion was published, in 75 volumes 8vo, which gave the proprietors an opportunity of adding the works of Moore, Cawthorne, Churchill, Falconer, Lloyd, Cunningham, Green, Goldsmith, P. Whitehead, Armstrong, Langhorne, Johnson, W. Whitehead, and Jenyns; and of supplying foine deficiencies in the works of the authors printed in the fore mer edition.
“ Of the authors now first added,” says the Advertisement, “ some are inserted, in compliance with the repeated calls of the public; fome, in deference to the opinions of persons whose taste cannot be disputed; and some have found a place from the favourable sentiments expressed concerning them to the publishers, from various quarters. In this selection, the proprietors have not been in