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In the spring of 1777 the London booksellers formed the design of publishing a new collection of the English poets, and decided to treat with Johnson for prefaces to their works. A series of those writers was then being published at Edinburgh, of which the type was bad and the text inaccurate. Its publication was moreover an invasion of what the London booksellers had been accustomed to consider their literary property. The booksellers long believed that they possessed a claim by the common law to a perpetual interest in the books whose copyright they had bought from their authors. But a statute passed in 1710 had given them an exclusive right for fourteen years only, and the Lords decided in 1774 that by it any right at common law was thenceforth extinguished. To compete with their Scotch rivals the London booksellers sought the aid of Johnson's pen. They proposed to publish an elegant and uniform edition with a concise account of the life of each author. A deputation waited on him on May 20, 1777, to arrange terms. He asked merely for two hundred, although, according to Malone, he might safely have demanded one thousand or even fifteen hundred guineas.
The booksellers at once agreed, and added spontaneously 100 guineas in 1781 on the completion of the work, and another 100 in 1783 when Johnson revised the third edition. He was quite satisfied with this sum, although small compared with the gains of many of his contemporaries, and always described the booksellers as having treated him with fairness and generosity. The first four volumes of
his prefaces appeared in 1779, and the remaining six in 1781. As he advanced in the composition of the Lives his original scheme expanded. "My purpose,' he says,
was only to have allotted to every poet an Advertisement, like that which we find in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates, and a general character, but I have been led beyond my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure.' Some time in March he noted in his ' Meditations' for 1781, 'I finished the “Lives of the Poets,” which I wrote in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste. In a memorandum previous to this he says of them : 'written I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of piety.' (Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 111; iv. 34.)
The 'Lives of the Poets’ at once became popular, and their popularity has been permanent. Of all Johnson's works it is the one most read and most quoted. Its success is not difficult to explain. The style is easier and simpler than that of his earlier works, and often reproduces the characteristic flavour of his conversation. The subject, if not entirely new, is perennially interesting, and had never been adequately treated by any other writer. The amount of new biographical material at Johnson's disposal was considerable, and he had applied freely to all persons able to supply him with information. (Johnson's Lives, ed. Cunningham, pp. vii, xv.) Still, it was neither the fulness of the author's knowledge, nor the novelty of his subject, but his excellence as a biographer, which made the 'Lives of the Poets' an English classic. Johnson's conception of the duties of a biographer was liberal and comprehensive. He made no attempt to idealise the men whose lives he wrote, and neither concealed their failings nor palliated their follies. He tried to represent them as they were, and did not consider their looks, or their daily habits, or their personal peculiarities, as things too trivial for the dignity of biography. His portraits may be sometimes tinged with prejudice, but he always