Lives of the English Poets
By Dr Johnson, published 1779–81.
Johnson was invited in 1777 by a deputation of London booksellers to provide biographical prefaces for an edition of the works of selected English poets, from the period of Milton onwards. The final total was 52, including 4 minor poets suggested by Johnson himself (Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret, and Thomas Yalden). When the work was completed the prefaces were issued without the texts as Lives of the Poets. The Lives contain much interesting biographical matter, but are not always trustworthy. The criticism has been considered unequal, particularly in respect of its strictures on Milton's Lycidas, Gray's Odes, and its evident prejudice against Swift; Johnson's hostile analysis of the metaphysical style, in his life of Cowley, became notorious. But the work remains a classic, important both as a landmark in the history of critical taste and judgement, and for its own insights.