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Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405156691.2011.00003.x


Amongst the many conversations with Samuel Johnson recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson (1791), this one, dated 18 September 1777, has a particular resonance for this volume: We talked of a collection being made of all the English Poets who had published a volume of poems. Johnson told me “that a Mr. Coxeter, whom he knew, had gone the greatest length towards this; having collected, I think, about five hundred volumes of poets whose works were little known; but that upon his death Tom Osborne bought them, and they were dispersed, which he thought a pity, as it was curious to see any series complete; and in every volume of poems something good may be found.” Earlier in the year, Johnson had signed a contract with a group of leading publishers to supply biographical and critical prefaces to a poetry series they were in the process of publishing; his part of this work is generally known now as Lives of the Poets (1779–81). Johnson's series included only 52 poets, all male, mostly relatively familiar to a modern audience, beginning with Abraham Cowley (1618–67); it was, in commercial and critical terms, a kind of exercise in canon-formation. The project begun by the antiquary Thomas Coxeter (1689–1747) and dispersed by the hard-nosed book dealer and publisher Thomas Osborne (c.1704–1767), one of Johnson's own former employers, was an attempt at a more comprehensive study ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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