‘Most literary criticism is ephemeral,’ Colin Burrow opined for the LRB, ‘too good for wrapping up chips but not worth binding, keeping, annotating or editing. Very little English literary criticism has lasted as long or worn as well as Samuel Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Poets’…’
It was never meant to be the grandest of productions – not in 1777, when Johnson was commissioned by a booksellers’ consortium to write prefaces for a raft of fifty-plus discrete editions of English poets. But in Johnson’s hands the commission acquired weight, he wound up spending four years over the task, and finally a free-standing work emerged – one that remains stalwart and full of pleasures today, 300 or so years from Johnson’s birth.
As John Mullan wrote in the Guardian a while back, ”The Lives of the Poets’, combining mournfully droll biography with brilliant literary criticism, is as enjoyable as anything [Johnson] wrote, yet has long been unavailable outside academic libraries or second-hand bookshops.’
Yet no sooner had Mullan written same in 2009 than Finds was offering George Birkbeck Hill’s three-volume edition. And if you should like to have a chance to win the full set of three for your own shelves you have only to do two things by way of entry:
i. Correctly identify the three poets of whom Johnson is writing in the following three extracts from the LIVES:
1. “[His] delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven…”
2. “He was contented to be called an Irishman by the Irish; but would occasionally call himself an Englishman. The question may, without much regret, be left in the obscurity in which he delighted to involve it.”
3. “… with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard of every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness…”
Update 10.06.2013: This competition has now closed.