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Lives of the English Poets : Waller, Milton, Cowley   By: (1709-1784)

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Samuel Johnson, the renowned literary critic, takes us on an enlightening journey into the lives and works of three significant English poets in his book. "Lives of the English Poets: Waller, Milton, Cowley" offers a deep dive into the lives and poetic achievements of these influential figures who shaped the landscape of English literature.

The book's strength lies in Johnson's meticulous research and profound understanding of these poets' works. He skillfully weaves historical context, personal anecdotes, and critical analysis to create a vivid portrait of these remarkable writers. Through his comprehensive exploration, Johnson not only sheds light on their poetic genius but also delves into the social, political, and literary milieu that shaped their artistic expressions.

The first poet to come under Johnson's scrutiny is Edmund Waller, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Johnson paints a detailed picture of Waller's life, highlighting his wit, charm, and political involvement. He elucidates how Waller's creative output provides valuable insights into the turbulent times in which he lived, particularly during the English Civil War. Johnson presents Waller as a key figure bridging the gap between the timeless realms of classical poetry and the evolving landscape of English literature.

Next, the book delves into the life of John Milton, perhaps the most iconic poet of his time. Johnson admirably captures the essence of Milton's character and his unwavering dedication to his literary pursuits. The reader gains a profound understanding of Milton's struggles as an independent thinker in turbulent times. Furthermore, Johnson analyzes Milton's masterpiece, "Paradise Lost," drawing attention to its profound religious and political themes while dissecting its extraordinary literary craftsmanship.

Finally, Johnson examines the life and works of Abraham Cowley, a poet who witnessed political upheaval and undertook significant stylistic innovations. Cowley's versatile oeuvre, ranging from pastoral and love poetry to metaphysical explorations, receives well-deserved attention from Johnson. The reader is treated to an insightful analysis of Cowley's profound influence on subsequent generations of poets, despite his relative obscurity in modern times.

Throughout the book, Johnson's erudition shines, and his prose engages the reader with its clarity and elegance. His expertise allows him to navigate the intricate nuances of each poet's work, situating them within their historical contexts while examining their enduring literary impact. Johnson's treatise offers not only biographical information but also acts as a compelling literary analysis, showcasing his unique ability to dissect and interpret complex themes and emotions.

However, it is worth noting that some readers may find the book's style and content demanding. Johnson's depth of analysis may not resonate with those seeking a lighter, more casual read. Additionally, as the book revolves around three specific poets, readers with a wider interest in English literature may feel slightly limited in scope.

In conclusion, "Lives of the English Poets: Waller, Milton, Cowley" is a masterfully crafted examination of three influential figures in English literature. Samuel Johnson illuminates their lives, exploring the depths of their poetic genius and their contributions to the development of English poetry. This book is an essential read for those fascinated by literary history, poetry, and the profound impact of writers who shaped the canon of English literature.

First Page:

Transcribed by David Price, email, from the 1891 Cassell and Co. edition.


Contents: Introduction Waller Milton Cowley


Samuel Johnson, born at Lichfield in the year 1709, on the 7th of September Old Style, 18th New Style, was sixty eight years old when he agreed with the booksellers to write his "Lives of the English Poets." "I am engaged," he said, "to write little Lives, and little Prefaces, to a little edition of the English Poets." His conscience was also a little hurt by the fact that the bargain was made on Easter Eve. In 1777 his memorandum, set down among prayers and meditations, was "29 March, Easter Eve, I treated with booksellers on a bargain, but the time was not long."

The history of the book as told to Boswell by Edward Dilly, one of the contracting booksellers, was this. An edition of Poets printed by the Martins in Edinburgh, and sold by Bell in London, was regarded by the London publishers as an interference with the honorary copyright which booksellers then respected among themselves. They said also that it was inaccurately printed and its type was small. A few booksellers agreed, therefore, among themselves to call a meeting of proprietors of honorary or actual copyright in the various Poets... Continue reading book >>

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