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sufficient to intimate, that within the last twenty years, a taste for collecting the writings of our old poets has diffused itself so widely as to put them wholly out of the reach of moderate fortunes, as well as to induce those into whose hands they have fallen, to guard them with the most scrupulous anxiety. Even where, as in the present instance, the spirit of the proprietors would not have suffered the high price to keep back what was necessary, it was sometimes found that private sales and barters among the tribe of collectors had almost entirely removed the articles in question from the public market.
But notwithstanding these impediments, I hope I have succeeded in procuring such a number of the rarer authors as is, in a great measure, if not quite, sufficient to preserve somewhat more than an outline of the principal revolutions of our poetical taste and style, and probably more than sufficient to gratify the curiosity of those who do not wish to pursue the study of poetical antiquities in all its branches. By those who have that taste, and who are not only readers, but students of poetry, (a class which seems to be increasing) more ample gratification must be derived from the libraries of the collectors, and from the labours of the Wartons, the Ritsons, the Ellis's, the Parks, the Hazlewoods, and the Brydges'. Nor can I quit this part of my subject without acknowledging the obligations I owe to the writings of these eminent antiquaries and critics, as well as to the personal kindness of some of them, which it was my intention to have acknowledged more particularly had I not been afraid of implicating them in what may be found objectionable. Yet something must be added, which cannot involve this consequence. Το Thomas Hill, Esq. I consider myself as highly indebted. This gentleman's very valuable collection of English poetry is open to the inspection and use of every literary inquirer, and his rarest volumes were lent to me with a ready confidence and kindness that demand my sincerest thanks. I have likewise to acknowledge the liberal offers of Sir Egerton Brydges, Richard Heber, Esq. and Mr. Park. The public will hear with gladness, and may with confidence, that Mr. Park is now engaged on a new edition, and continuation, of Warton's History of Poetry; and from his well known taste, and superior accuracy, there can be
no doubt that he will render this work all that the utmost hopes of its original author could have reached. In the biographical part of this collection, I owe much to the contributions and hints of my intelligent and steady friends, Mr. Nichols and Mr. Payne, but I am restrained by an obvious delicacy from expatiating on their kindness.
In forming this collection, it yet remains to be mentioned that Dr. Johnson's Lives are retained, with some additional notes, originally given in the edition of his works, printed in 1806. Few words, however, are necessary in making this intimation. Dr. Johnson's Lives, after all the objections that have been offered, must ever be the foundation of English poetical biography. To substitute any thing in their room would be an attempt, by the ablest, hazardous, and by inferior pens, ridiculous.
With respect to the NEW LIVES, a part of this work for which I am particularly responsible, they are the result of more anxious and painful research than may appear to those who do not examine my authorities. In rectifying preceding accounts, many of which I found erroneous and inconsistent, either from carelessness or partiality, and in procuring original information, in which I hope it will appear that I have not been altogether unsuccessful, it was my object to ascertain those truths, in whatever they might end, which display the real character. And I am sorry it should be necessary to add, that I have not thought it incumbent to represent every man whose works are here admitted as a prodigy of genius or virtue. This practice, it is true, has been lately adopted in collections of biography, as well as in single lives; but I am yet to learn what advantages can be reaped, and what solid interest can be promoted by a practice which violates the principles of truth, destroys public confidence, and defeats every valuable purpose of biography. The imaginary beauties of the biographer are, at least, as absurd as those of the portrait-painter, while they have less excuse, and are attended with far more pernicious consequences. After the lapse of a few years it becomes a matter of inferior importance how a man looked, but it is always important to know how he thought and how he acted. Nor if the practice alluded to proceeds from real feeling, or only an affectation of sympathy and veneration, is it less ob
jectionable. It is a gross errour in judgment that any man, who deserves to be commemorated, can be the worse for a disclosure of his failings, unless, indeed, he has no virtues to counterbalance them, and even in that rare case, the portrait, if faithfully given, is not without its uses. It would be happy if a closer correspondence could be found between an author and his writings, if genius were always dignified by virtue, and wisdom always recommended by urbanity; but we look in vain for objects of uniform panegyric, and the fair display of the striking contrarieties we find in the human character must ever be preferable to those unnatural sketches in which there is no discrimination, but all is. purity and perfection, or in which the most degrading vices are either suppressed by fraud, or vindicated by sophistry. Of all human beings, the sons of imagination require to be led most carefully to correct notions of virtue and happiness, and to be reconciled to a world in which their splendid dreams cannot be realized, and which makes no allowance for irregular desires and extravagant passions.
The CRITICISMS advanced in these lives are as sparing as appeared consistent with the general plan, and are the opinions of one who is aware that reputation is not in his gift. As, however, they are the result of a judgment derived from no partial school, I have only to hope they will not be found destitute of candour, or improperly interfering with the general and acknowledged principles of taste.
London, Nov. 1809.