Most literary criticism is ephemeral, too good for wrapping up chips but not worth binding, keeping, annotating or editing. Very little English literary criticism has lasted as long or worn as well as Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets. It shaped the canon of English poetry and set the terms for critical discussion of Donne, Milton, Dryden, Swift and Pope over at least two centuries. This is all the more amazing given that its own life began effectively with a commercial problem. In 1777 the Scottish printer John Bell was flooding the London market with cheap editions of English poets, in defiance of the copyright interests of English publishers. A consortium of London stationers decided to blow Bell out of the water with a set of editions of significant English poets that was intended to run from Chaucer to the present day, though this was eventually slimmed down to a canon of 52 poets from Abraham Cowley (1618-67) to George Lyttleton (1709-73). Johnson, by then 68 and the grand old man of English letters, was asked, for a modest fee of 200 guineas ('no man but a blockhead' etc), to add value and authority to the enterprise by providing a short preface to each poet's work. Being short the prefaces would be quick to write. Being Johnsonian they would also be inimitable by Scottish upstarts and other commercial rivals.
LRB 17 February 2011 | PDF Download