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JOHNSON, Samuel, ed.

The Works of the English Poets.

[Together with:] Index to the English Poets; [and:] Prefaces, biographical and critical, to the works of the English poets.

London: printed by H. Hughs; for C. Bathurst, J. Buckland, W. Strahan, J. Rivington and Sons, [& 32 others in London], 1779-1780 Stock Code: 138778
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An exquisite set

A superb set of this vast compendium of English poetry, here uniformly bound in an elegant contemporary French morocco binding. The set is complete in 68 volumes, with the 56 poetry volumes, two volumes of index, and the further ten volumes of Johnson's biographies of the poets, published separately and not always accompanying the set. This was the first publication of Johnson's prefaces, and the occasion for their commission; they were later published various times under the title of Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, and constitute an important part of his literary output.

"Johnson was able to initiate one more literary project, which proved to be the ultimate success in his career. This took the form of a series of prefaces to a new collection of the English poets, best-known today as The Lives of the Poets. In a contract signed on 29 March 1777, Johnson had agreed with a consortium of booksellers to supply 'a concise account' of some fifty poets: he undertook to do the work for 200, and though he eventually received twice this amount it is generally accepted that he could have held out for a much bigger sum. The first instalment came out in March 1779, the second in 1780, and the third in May 1781. Although Johnson's brusque treatment of well-connected nonentities gave rise to some hostile commentary, his major lives were quickly recognized as setting a new standard for English literary biography. In particular, the surveys of Cowley, Milton, Dryden, Swift, and Pope exemplify Johnson's serious concern with the deepest springs of creativity, as well as his ability to explore with considerable insight some individuals whose character and work aroused profound antipathy in him. Even in an age of greater theoretical sophistication, his reading of mainstream poetry from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries remains canonical, by reason of its attention to verbal detail, its decisive judgments, and its robust expression" (ODNB).

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68 volumes, duodecimo (146 x 89 mm). Uniformly bound in contemporary French red morocco, green calf labels to second compartments, lettered in gilt direct to third, other compartments tooled in gilt with floral motifs, covers ruled in gilt, gilt serrated cover edges, marbled endpapers, gilt edges, green silk bookmarks.


With 28 portrait frontispieces; no portrait frontispiece in the Prefaces (found in some issues only, not present in two of three Rothschild sets).


Overall in remarkably fresh condition, all joints complete, without wear to extremities, instances of minor insect damage or rubbing to a few volumes; contents generally clean with only a few instances of foxing. An exceptionally fine set.


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