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Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past1660-1781$
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Richard Terry

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780198186236

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198186236.001.0001

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Johnson's Lives of the Poets

Johnson's Lives of the Poets

(p.216) 7 Johnson's Lives of the Poets
Poetry and the Making of the English Literary Past

Richard Terry (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

There is no doubt that Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets are a significant contribution to the scripting of the English poetic past. Latterly, however, there has been a tendency for their impact to be distorted or overstated. Martha Woodmansee, for example, has claimed not untypically that the ‘Lives of the Poets contributed decisively to the differentiation of ‘authoring’ from ordinary literary labour by establishing a pantheon of great authors whose ‘works’ differ qualitatively from the sea of mere writing’. Not only is their impact a ‘decisive’ one, but the Lives also get credited with putting in place a construct that had not previously existed (‘establishing a canon…’). The role of the Lives is not merely distinct from Woodmansee's but more nearly the opposite of it. This chapter explores the context and achievement of Johnson's Lives by taking note of their appearance in accompaniment to a serial anthology, by considering the cultural role of such large-scale poetic anthologies, and by addressing Johnson's particular contribution to the genre of literary biography.

Keywords:   Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, English literature, poetry, William Wordsworth, William Oldys, literary canon, anthologies, literary biography

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