A canonical work that lifted the genre of critical engagement and analysis to nearly the same level as works of pure creativity, Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets was at one time known as The Lives of the English Poets and originally carried the title Prefaces Biographical and Critical to the Works of the English Poets. Mercifully, for printer and reader alike, the vogue in titling works of criticism strove to situate its own creativity sometime after these volumes original rolled of presses between 1779 and 1791.
The volumes of criticism were commissioned from Johnson at the behest of London booksellers primarily as a technique for introducing new prefatory story for existing works that would shed light on the author’s own biography. Ultimately, Johnson would take off from this rather limited starting point to provide not just biographical material on the 52 poets whose work is represented, but critical commentary for the purpose of providing additional reasons for reader to buy the actual literary works to which Johnson casts a critical eye.
As often happens in cases such as this, irony wound up ruling much of the day. The irony exist on two levels. In the first place, though commenced as a biographical endeavor, it is the criticism that has helped The Lives of the Poets remain essential resource material for two-and-half centuries. Part of this legacy may be due to other element of irony associated with this enterprise: much of the biographical information for which Johnson was extended the invitation to contribute has since been dismissed as unreliable at best and downright wrong in many worst-case scenarios.