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- Lives of the Poets: Waller, Milton, Cowley - 1/34 -

Transcribed by David Price, email, from the 1891 Cassell and Co. edition.


Contents: Introduction Waller Milton Cowley


Samuel Johnson, born at Lichfield in the year 1709, on the 7th of September Old Style, 18th New Style, was sixty-eight years old when he agreed with the booksellers to write his "Lives of the English Poets." "I am engaged," he said, "to write little Lives, and little Prefaces, to a little edition of the English Poets." His conscience was also a little hurt by the fact that the bargain was made on Easter Eve. In 1777 his memorandum, set down among prayers and meditations, was "29 March, Easter Eve, I treated with booksellers on a bargain, but the time was not long."

The history of the book as told to Boswell by Edward Dilly, one of the contracting booksellers, was this. An edition of Poets printed by the Martins in Edinburgh, and sold by Bell in London, was regarded by the London publishers as an interference with the honorary copyright which booksellers then respected among themselves. They said also that it was inaccurately printed and its type was small. A few booksellers agreed, therefore, among themselves to call a meeting of proprietors of honorary or actual copyright in the various Poets. In Poets who had died before 1660 they had no trade interest at all. About forty of the most respectable booksellers in London accepted the invitation to this meeting. They determined to proceed immediately with an elegant and uniform edition of Poets in whose works they were interested, and they deputed three of their number, William Strahan, Thomas Davies, and Cadell, to wait on Johnson, asking him to write the series of prefatory Lives, and name his own terms. Johnson agreed at once, and suggested as his price two hundred guineas, when, as Malone says, the booksellers would readily have given him a thousand. He then contemplated only "little Lives." His energetic pleasure in the work expanded his Preface beyond the limits of the first design; but when it was observed to Johnson that he was underpaid by the booksellers, his reply was, "No, sir; it was not that they gave me too little, but that I gave them too much." He gave them, in fact, his masterpiece. His keen interest in Literature as the soul of life, his sympathetic insight into human nature, enabled him to put all that was best in himself into these studies of the lives of men for whom he cared, and of the books that he was glad to speak his mind about in his own shrewd independent way. Boswell was somewhat disappointed at finding that the selection of the Poets in this series would not be Johnson's, but that he was to furnish a Preface and Life to any Poet the booksellers pleased. "I asked him," writes Boswell, "if he would do this to any dunce's works, if they should ask him. JOHNSON. "Yes, sir; and SAY he was a dunce."

The meeting of booksellers, happy in the support of Johnson's intellectual power, appointed also a committee to engage the best engravers, and another committee to give directions about paper and printing. They made out at once a list of the Poets they meant to give, "many of which," said Dilly, "are within the time of the Act of Queen Anne, which Martin and Bell cannot give, as they have no property in them. The proprietors are almost all the booksellers in London, of consequence."

In 1780 the booksellers published, in separate form, four volumes of Johnson's "Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the most Eminent of the English Poets." The completion followed in 1781. "Sometime in March," Johnson writes in that year, "I finished the Lives of the Poets." The series of books to which they actually served as prefaces extended to sixty volumes. When his work was done, Johnson then being in his seventy-second year, the booksellers added 100 pounds to the price first asked. Johnson's own life was then near its close. He died on the 13th of December, 1784, aged seventy- five.

Of the Lives in this collection, Johnson himself liked best his Life of Cowley, for the thoroughness with which he had examined in it the style of what he called the metaphysical Poets. In his Life of Milton, the sense of Milton's genius is not less evident than the difference in point of view which made it difficult for Johnson to know Milton thoroughly. They know each other now. For Johnson sought as steadily as Milton to do all as "in his great Taskmaster's eye."

H. M.


Edmund Waller was born on the third of March, 1605, at Coleshill, in Hertfordshire. His father was Robert Waller, Esquire, of Agmondesham, in Buckinghamshire, whose family was originally a branch of the Kentish Wallers; and his mother was the daughter of John Hampden, of Hampden, in the same county, and sister to Hampden, the zealot of rebellion.

His father died while he was yet an infant, but left him a yearly income of three thousand five hundred pounds; which, rating together the value of money and the customs of life, we may reckon more than equivalent to ten thousand at the present time.

He was educated, by the care of his mother, at Eton; and removed afterwards to King's College, in Cambridge. He was sent to Parliament in his eighteenth, if not in his sixteenth year, and frequented the court of James the First, where he heard a very remarkable conversation, which the writer of the Life prefixed to his Works, who seems to have been well informed of facts, though he may sometimes err in chronology, has delivered as indubitably certain:

"He found Dr. Andrews, Bishop of Winchester, and Dr. Neale, Bishop of Durham, standing behind his Majesty's chair; and there happened something extraordinary," continues this writer, "in the conversation those prelates had with the king, on which Mr. Waller did often reflect. His Majesty asked the bishops, 'My Lords, cannot I take my subject's money, when I want it, without all this formality of Parliament?' The Bishop of Durham readily answered, 'God forbid, Sir, but you should: you are the breath of our nostrils.' Whereupon the king turned and said to the Bishop of Winchester, 'Well, my Lord, what say you?' 'Sir,' replied the bishop, 'I have no skill to judge of Parliamentary cases. The king answered, 'No put-offs, my Lord; answer me presently.' 'Then, Sir,' said he, 'I think it is lawful for you to take my brother Neale's money; for he offers it.' Mr. Waller said the company was pleased with this answer, and the wit of it seemed to affect the king; for a certain lord coming in soon after, his Majesty cried out, 'Oh, my lord, they say you lig with my Lady.' 'No, Sir,' says his lordship in confusion; 'but I like her company, because she has so much wit.' 'Why, then,' says the king, 'do you not lig with my Lord of Winchester there?'"

Waller's political and poetical life began nearly together. In his eighteenth year he wrote the poem that appears first in his works, on "The Prince's Escape at St. Andero:" a piece which justifies the observation made by one of his editors, that he attained, by a felicity like instinct, a style which perhaps will never be obsolete; and that "were we to judge only by the wording, we could not know what was wrote at twenty, and what at' fourscore." His versification was, in his first essay, such as it appears in his last performance. By the perusal of Fairfax's translation of Tasso, to which, as Dryden relates, he confessed himself indebted for the smoothness of his numbers, and by his own nicety of observation, he had already formed such a system of metrical harmony as he never afterwards much needed, or much endeavoured, to improve. Denham corrected his numbers by experience, and gained ground gradually upon the ruggedness of his age; but what was acquired by Denham was inherited by Waller.

The next poem, of which the subject seems to fix the time, is supposed by Mr. Fenton to be the "Address to the Queen," which he considers as congratulating her arrival, in Waller's twentieth year. He is apparently mistaken; for the mention of the nation's obligations to her frequent pregnancy proves that it was written when she had brought many children. We have therefore no date of any other poetical production before that which the murder of the Duke of Buckingham occasioned; the steadiness with which the king received the news in the chapel deserved indeed to be rescued from oblivion.

Neither of these pieces that seem to carry their own dates could have been the sudden effusion of fancy. In the verses on the prince's escape, the prediction of his marriage with the Princess of France must have been written after the event; in the other, the promises of the king's kindness to the descendants of Buckingham, which could not be properly praised till it had appeared by its effects, show that time was taken for revision and improvement. It is not known that they were published till they appeared long afterwards with other poems.

Waller was not one of those idolaters of praise who cultivate their minds at the expense of their fortunes. Rich as he was by inheritance, he took care early to grow richer, by marrying Mrs. Banks, a great heiress in the city, whom the interest of the court was employed to obtain for Mr. Crofts. Having brought him a son, who died young, and a daughter, who was afterwards married to Mr. Dormer, of Oxfordshire, she died in childbed, and left him a widower of about five-and-twenty, gay and wealthy, to please himself with another marriage.

Being too young to resist beauty, and probably too vain to think himself resistible, he fixed his heart, perhaps half-fondly and half-ambitiously, upon the Lady Dorothea Sidney, eldest daughter of

Lives of the Poets: Waller, Milton, Cowley - 1/34

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