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"Johnson's Poets" as Never Known Before
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"Johnson's Poets" as Never Known Before

In the last third of the eighteenth century, British publishing gave birth to a kind
of enterprise that thrives to this day: multi-volume collections of classic English


Page 245
literature, uniformly printed and offered at modest prices to general readers.
The earliest, comprising poetry, were produced in Glasgow (1765–76) and Ed-
inburgh (1773–76); in London shortly thereafter John Bell published The Poets
of Great Britain
(1776–82). The opportunity to market such canonical series was
facilitated—though not caused—by a watershed copyright case, Donaldson v.
, decided by the House of Lords in 1774. St Clair argues that in the decades
following this ruling, a group of authors, by virtue of being reprinted over and
over again, was "locked in" (p. 130) to form the core of a British literary canon.
This "old canon" persisted for one hundred years, through the Romantic era
and into Victorian times. There is a germ of truth to this generalization, but it
is too sweeping to be of much service, and the more closely one scrutinizes it,
the weaker it grows.

The most renowned of these publications was The Works of the English Po-
Produced to rival Bell's series, it gained instant prominence on account of
Johnson's commission to write prefaces for it, afterwards published separately as
The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. The block of entries dedicated to these
titles in Appendix 6 under a dual rubric—"The London book industry's response
to the Edinburgh challenge," and the title of the poetry collection (p. 527)—is
riddled with mistakes. A footnote keyed to each misstep is the most efficient way
to correct them. The figures on the right represent print runs.



Page 246
1779–81. Originally seventy-five volumes[2] 12mo,[3] then sold as
individual titles.[5] Renamed The Works of the Most Eminent
English Poets,
[6] or simply Johnson's Poets. [7]  
Some volumes, a second edition.[8]   3,000 
1780. [9] The Lives of the most eminent English poets, four volumes, 8vo.  3,000 
1793. [10] Dublin, eight volumes. Offshore pirated edition.[11] … 
1810. [12] London. Johnson's Poets was officially reprinted
without the prefaces[14] in seventy-five volumes.[15] 168s.
Addison, Akenside, … Dilke,[16] … Young, Whitehead. 
1500 or 1250 each[13]  


Page 247

This farrago tells a bewildering tale: three long decades elapsed before the land-
mark collection was reprinted officially; when that time arrived, the proprietors
(despite there being more readers in the nation) cut their print run in half, from
3,000 to either 1500 or 1250; they kept the collection static, reprinting the same
number of volumes; and they jettisoned the very feature that had given their
edition its identity, Johnson's prefaces. None of this is true. A glance at the New
Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature
or the English Short Title Catalogue, both
of which show the seventy-five volume version of The Works of the English Poets to
have been a distinct publication in 1790, would have kept the descriptions of the
1779–81 and 1810 editions from getting quite so muddled.

The entry for an "1810" edition is instructive, however, for what belonged
here was the actual 1810 edition, The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cow-
per, including the series edited … by Dr. Samuel Johnson,
edited by Alexander Chalm-
ers. Yet because this collection turns up four pages later (p. 531) under another
rubric ("Attempts by the pretender copyright holders to offset the shortcomings
of Johnson"), most readers will fail to grasp that Chalmers' edition—many of
its proprietors being sons, surviving partners, or successors to the publishers of
the 1779–81 and 1790 editions—was an enormously confident expansion of the
same project.

Equally disorienting as this bibliographical jumble are several claims made
about The Works of the English Poets. St Clair points out that the London partners
had greater financial power than Bell, but that their decision to sell their collec-
tion "as a traditional, immobile, multi-volume, 'library' edition … showed how
little they had as yet understood the forces set free by 1774" (p. 126), set free, that
is, by the copyright ruling in Donaldson v. Becket.[17] On the contrary, the proprietors
knew their business well. To sell the collection in complete sets, which probably
was their original plan, became their only feasible option as events transpired: it
was the only way to exploit the market value of the prefaces, which were printed
to be bound with the works of each poet, after they had decided (because of John-
son's tardy progress) to gather them into separate volumes.[18] They would have
undermined their entire scheme had they, as St Clair wrongly asserts, "Soon …
agreed to sell individual volumes as well as the whole set and lowered the planned
price. Having lost the legal war of 1774, they could still win the commercial war
of 1779" (p. 126). Although readers clamored to be permitted to buy individual
volumes, especially Johnson's Prefaces, the publishers stood their ground. But even
supposing they had relented, and sold volumes individually by 1788, that would
not be "soon" after publication, nor could a tactical change in 1799 be regarded
as part of the commercial war of 1779.[19] Intervals of ten or twenty years brought


Page 248
great changes to this market; with the passage of each decade, the canon in its
published forms became ever more intricately shaped by its prior evolution.

The same imprecision undercuts the claim that "the Bell and the Johnson
editions quickly sold out, and both were reprinted" (p. 127). It hardly qualifies as
"quickly" for Bell's edition to have been reprinted in 1807 (p. 526), or the London
trade edition in 1810, these being the years specified by St Glair. But the editions
actually were reprinted fairly quickly—individual volumes of Bell more or less
continuously over a period of twenty-five years after first publication, and the
collection of the London conger in 1790, which is doubly impressive given that
the proprietors not only increased the number of volumes to seventy-five, but still
required the purchase of complete sets.[20]

Unlike the Scottish publishers, who were "boxed in by the terms of the 1710
Act," the copyright owners in London, St Clair asserts, had "the whole of recent
as well as older English literature from which to make their choice." Faced with
the Scottish onslaught (St Clair believes Bell to have published from Scotland,
more on which below), they felt "the need for unity keenly," and "only in the case
of Goldsmith, a poet still much in demand, did any of the owners … refuse to
cooperate" (p. 125). In due course, however, Chaucer and other early poets were
omitted from the collection because "In the competition for space the modern
in-copyright poets and a few weak early eighteenth-century poets for whom there
was said to be a continuing demand, were given priority" (p. 126). By this ac-
count, sundry London publishers allowed their in-copyright poets (except Gold-
smith) to be incorporated into the collection, having overcome their self-interest
in otherwise protecting their investments, driven by the extraordinary need to
distinguish their collection from that of their Scottish challengers.

If only it were true. Who these modem poets might have been is not revealed.
In St Clair's verdict—"As events turned out, the initial commissioning of 'John-
son's Poets' was the only occasion ever when a comprehensive canon of old and
new poets could have been selected and made available in a uniform series, and
the opportunity was missed" (p. 127)—what prevented the collection from being
comprehensive was the omission of Chaucer, Spenser, and others. The weak
early eighteenth-century poets who crowded them out can be identified (Dorset,
Stepney, Walsh, Duke, and others[21] ), but which "new poets" added to this pres-


Page 249
sure? Not one in-copyright poet is cited as evidence, which lessens the impression
of selfless solidarity on the part of the London publishers. This will surprise no
one familiar with the collection, however, for in fact the London trade included
not a single recent poet who was not also reprinted by Bell.

John Bell is no obscure figure. He has been called "indisputably the most
versatile member of the London printing trade at any period," and Stanley Mor-
ison's book-length tribute sheds light on every aspect of his remarkable career.[22]
Yet St Clair refers to him as the "successor" of Alexander Kincaid, the Edinburgh
printer and publisher; identifies him as an "Edinburgh publisher" in the index;
posits that, in order to market his Poets of Great Britain, he "open[ed] his own
shop in London to sell direct to English customers"; and stirringly concludes, "An
outsider had established himself in the heart of their empire" (pp. 124–125).[23]
Bell had his series printed in Edinburgh, but that does not make him an Edin-
burgh publisher, nor does it qualify his edition to be classified in Appendix 6 as
an instance of "The Edinburgh poetry canon made available in a cheap uniform
series in England."[24] To the exasperation of his rivals, Bell was all too vitally a
true London publisher.

No one who had looked at both collections could claim that "Bell's edition…,
like Kincaid's, was … illustrated with engravings, and each volume carried a
short biographical and critical introduction" (p. 124).[25] To suggest that these
features are found in the Edinburgh series (they are not) obfuscates a crucial
development in the evolution of the printed canon. It was Bell who decided
that every volume in a project like this should contain an illustration, Bell who
recognized that the works of every poet should have a preface.[26] As essential
components of his design, these features were innovations which (among others
instituted by Bell) came to define what British readers expected from this kind
of canonical collection.

St Clair muddies the water also by scrambling the chronology of Bell's career.
With "the law, and many English book buyers, now on his side"—the buyers,
that is, of Bell's Poets, who had never before "been offered such a literary and
artistic feast for their sixpence"[27] —St Clair states that "Bell's business prospered.
Soon he was producing attractive, illustrated editions of plays, Bell's British The-


Page 250
atre and Bell's Shakespeare, and he started to move into publishing new titles and
newspapers. In the later 1770s, Bell arranged to print his books in London, and
this seems to have been the last straw for the English publishers. … It was only
then, when bullying and smear tactics failed, that they decided that they would
have to meet Bell's challenge face on and produce their own directly competing
uniform series" (p. 125). Hesitating to compete head on against Bell's Poets while
he introduced project after project to the market would have been oddly lax on
the part of the London trade. That did not happen. Bell's career unfolded in
precisely the opposite order: his newspaper activity, begun in 1772, established
a platform for vigorous advertising; Shakespeare's works appeared in 1774[28] ;
and Bell's British Theatre ignited a battle in 1776 (waged against the New English
), foreshadowing the war to come over the poets.[29] Publication of The Poets
of Great Britain
started in 1777, but before the first volume actually went on sale,
the London trade—fully apprised of Bell's intentions—had already organized
itself to produce a rival collection.

St Clair's methodology is rendered moot by all these stumbles, for they make
it impossible to discern true patterns or to identify the turning points that estab-
lished facts are supposed to clarify. As distortions mount up, the picture grows
ever more confused, until virtually nothing is accurately presented (or distinctly
known) of the central trade rivalry that shaped every aspect of the poetry canon
as it evolved after 1776. Many of these problems would not have arisen had
the proper bibliographies been checked; nearly all would have been averted by
recourse to the physical books under discussion. As for the archival findings, pre-
sented in tables and appendices with every assurance of authority, most readers
will be at a loss to sense what information is suspect and what is reliable. Unwit-
tingly, St Clair offers a negative object lesson with respect to books and publish-
ers' archives, one that proves more convincingly than he knew how indispensable
facts are. An archive is liable to be misinterpreted if one comes to it lacking a
thorough familiarity with the relevant books.


It was sixty-eight volumes. St Clair has mistaken the second edition (1790) for the


The format was octavo, not duodecimo.


They were not sold individually. How St Clair derived this idea from "London Catalogue
(1799)," the source he cites, is unclear. (See note 19.) A misinterpretation of Strahan's ledgers
conceivably contributed to the mistake. (See note 8.)


The collection was not "renamed," which would imply that it was reissued under a new
title. The alleged renaming fuses the first part of the title of the collection with the last part of
the title of Johnson's Lives.


Because the proprietors lettered the spines of their bound sets with "Johnson's Poets,"
the collection has casually been referred to as such. Johnson, indignant over this arrogation of
his name, chastised the proprietors for their false advertising.


The print run of the 1779–81 edition, as William Strahan's ledgers indicate (BL Add.
MS 48815, f. 38), was 1500, not 3,000. It was Johnson's Lives that had a print run of 3,000.
(See note 8.)


No such volumes exist. A misreading of Strahan's ledgers causes the confusion. Al-
though St Clair cites the archive itself (e.g., pp. 653–655), he also (here and elsewhere, e.g.,
p. 472) draws on the Ph.D. thesis of Robert Dale Harlan, "William Strahan: Eighteenth Cen-
tury London Printer and Publisher" (University of Michigan, i960). Harlan lists what Strahan
earned "[f]or printing 3000 copies each of the first and second editions of the third volume
of Johnson's Lives and Works of the English Poets" (p. 171). These numbers are accurate (see BL
Add. MS 48815, f. 59), but not the title. Harlan tacks the title of the collection onto the first
words of the title of Johnson's Lives (in reversal of the fusion mentioned in note 6). St Clair,
seeing nothing amiss in this conflation, takes it for the poetry collection, not the biographies.
Yet Harlan speaks of the "third volume" alone; St Clair refers to "Some volumes" in the plural.
Did he come upon the entries in Strahan's ledgers concerning the complete second edition of
The Works of the English Poets, published in 1790, which, like the first edition, was produced by
several printers? Andrew Strahan, William's son, printed 1500 copies of "Vols. 25. 26. 27. 28.
29. 30." in September 1788 and "Vol. 47" in December 1789 (f. 112). To an observer unaware
of the 1790 edition, such entries might suggest a piecemeal reprinting of the first edition.

The distinction between Johnson's biographies and the poetry collection in which they first
appeared is blurred once more when St Clair records "1797. Johnson's Poets abridge" (p. 547),
implying that the collection (i.e., Johnson's Poets) was truncated into some sort of miscellany.
For this entry he cites A Bookseller of the Last Century (London, 1885), but Charles Welsh listed
"Johnson's Lives of Poets. Abridged. 1797" (p. 346).


For this item St Clair cites the Murray archive, courtesy of William Zachs, The First John
Murray and the Late Eighteenth-Century Book Trade
(Oxford, 1998), p. 296. Yet he transcribes the
datum incorrectly, substituting "1780" for the actual "1781" given by Zachs. Although a Dublin
reprint of Johnson's prefaces appeared in 1780 (the first of three eventual volumes in that set),
St Clair refers to the four-volume reprint, which could not have been published before 1781 (as
the years cited in the previous entry suggest), when Johnson completed his work.


James Moore began reprinting The Works of the English Poets in 1793, but his labor
lasted a decade, with publication spanning 1795–1802. In a reissue of the set under a false
imprint—"London: Printed for Andrew Miller, Strand"—all eight volumes bear the year 1800.


This work was no straightforward reprint of the 1779–81 collection, as seemingly indi-
cated here. It contained the same number of poets (fifty-two), but dropped Blackmore, Ambrose
Philips, Pitt, Watts, and Gilbert West from that edition, while incorporating an equal number
from among the fourteen poets added to the 1790 edition: Cawthorne, Churchill, Falconer,
Lloyd, and Moore. The publisher dramatically reduced the number of volumes involved by
printing the poetry in double columns on a larger page.


In 1810 an edition of The Works of the English Poets was indeed published, but not by this
description. Again, the edition made up of seventy-five volumes was published in 1790.


It would have been most curious for "Johnson's Poets" to be reprinted without Johnson's
prefaces, when every title-page in the collection advertises the "Prefaces, Biographical and
Critical, by Samuel Johnson." (See note 30.)


Again, it was the 1790 edition that had seventy-five volumes. The 1810 edition had


In the roster of poets from the 1790 edition the name "Dilke" turns up. Who is this
mysterious poet?


1500 or 1250? St Clair explains, "The print runs, more for the lives than for the
works, are apparently those noted for 1806 in John Nichols' ledger of purchase and disposal of
copyrights 1769–1815, CUL add. 8226." What the distinction between "lives" and "works" can
mean is unclear, given St Clair's impression that the lives were not reprinted with this collec-
tion. (See note 14.)The ledger entry at issue (p. 108) is genuinely puzzling: "Johnson's Lives and
Poets— 5/100ths produces 75 in 1500; + 18 of the Works in 1250." An annotation ("Allowed
in 1801.") in reference to the first part of this entry may point to an 1801 edition of Johnson's
Lives, two volumes of which were printed by Nichols in a run of 1500. One purpose of the entry,
then, might have been Nichols' need to update his accounts in light of having just sold a fifth
of his interest to Cadell + Davies on 4 March 1806, which left him (as he duly records) with
4/100ths. This explanation assumes the formulation "Lives and Poets" to have been loose and
inaccurate. Yet 1806 was also the year in which Nichols and other publishers brought out an
edition of Johnson's Works, volumes IX—XI of which (i.e., the Lives) Nichols printed in quantities
sufficient for the complete works and also a separate issue for sale as a stand-alone set (with new
title-pages, vols. I–III). See J. D. Fleeman, A Bibliography of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 2 vols.
(Oxford, 2000), 2: 1398–1400, 1405–7, 1661–7.


By calling such an edition "traditional," St Clair clouds the fact that such multi-
volume collections were currently taking shape for the first time. Only later could they be said
to have become traditional.


See Thomas F. Bonnell, "Patchwork and Piracy: John Bell's 'Connected System of
Biography' and the Use of johnson's Prefaces" Studies in Bibliography 48 (1995)) 193–194.


For the mistaken inference that some volumes had been sold separately by 1788, see
note 8. The "London Catalogue (1799)," cited for the datum that volumes were "sold as individual
titles" (p. 527), contains no such information. In The London Catalogue of Books, with their Sizes
and Prices
(London, 1799), the "English Poets, with Prefaces, 75 vol. 12mo" is listed at £13.2.6
(p. 52), slightly more than the £12.17.6 it commanded in 1791, according to The London Cata-
logue of Books
(London, 1791), p. 59. As for the first edition in sixty-eight volumes, it was listed for
£10.4.0 in A General Catalogue of Books (London, 1785), p. 59, a small reduction from its original
price of ten guineas (bound) in 1781. Nowhere do the catalogues hint that the collection was
available in any form less than its entirety.


What St Clair means by saying that the "first edition" of Bell's series was "out of print
by 1805" is unclear (p. 525), given his realization that many volumes (which were sold individu-
ally) required reprinting earlier on, several more than once. He draws on data from my article
"John Bell's Poets of Great Britain: The 'Little Trifling Edition' Revisited," Modern Philology 85
(1987), 128–152, and mentions my name in a footnote (p. 525), but neither cites that article here
nor includes it in his bibliography. A trace of it appears in the front matter, however, where a
shortened citation is supplied among the "Abbreviations" (p. xv).


See Bonnell, The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry 1765–1810
(Oxford, 2008), p. 172.


P. M. Handover, Printing in London from 1476 to Modern Times (Cambridge, MA, 1960),
p. 148; Stanley Morison, John Bell, 1745–1831: Bookseller, Printer, Publisher, Typefounder, Journal-
ist, &c.
(London and Cambridge, 1930).


The germ of this mistake was perhaps the letter books of Kincaid and Bell, 1764–72,
in the Bodleian, listed in the bibliography (p. 725), which St Clair evidently consulted with the
wrong John Bell in mind. Kincaid's business partner in Edinburgh was a different John Bell
(1735–1806). Their partnership was dissolved (he was not "Kincaid's successor"), and he later
formed the Edinburgh firm of Bell and Bradfute. See Richard B. Sher's entry in the Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography.


Even more anomalous under the rubric of "The Edinburgh poetry canon" is the next
listing, a reprint of Bell's edition produced in London. See pp. 525–526.


In specifying the year 1778 here for Bell's series, St Clair ignores his own data in Ap-
pendix 6, where he records 1776–1782. Several such inconsistencies crop up between text and


See Bonnell, The Most Disreputable Trade, pp. 98–99, 134.


Here St Clair confuses the price of Bell's volumes, which sold for 1s.6d. (correctly
noted in Appendix 6), with that of Charles Cooke's Select British Poets.


Conflicting publication years are given for this edition in the chapter on Shakespeare,
1774 in the narrative (p. 142) and 1773/75 in Table 8.1, where the number of volumes recorded
is also incorrect.


Bonnell, "John Bell's Poets of Great Britain," 140–141.