Robert Dodsley

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 5:253-55.

ROBERT DODSLEY was born at Mansfield in Nottinghamshire in the year 1703. Although his father is said to have been master of the free-school at Mansfield, yet neither the subject of our memoir, nor any other members of the family appear to have entered life with prospects beyond servitude. One was a servant, the other a gardener, and of Robert it is traditionally recorded in his native place, that having been entered apprentice to a stocking weaver, want and hardship compelled him to run away, and become footman to a lady. It is however satisfactorily ascertained that he was once footman to Mr. Charles Dartineuf, paymaster of the works, a gentleman who had made himself so illustrious for gluttony in general, and his achievements over ham-pies in particular, as to attract the muse of Pope. In the same capacity, degrading to an enlightened mind, and not easily occupied by such a person without a tinge of moral corruption, he entered the family of Miss Lowther. That lady appears to have been gifted with the singular disposition of perceiving good qualities even in a menial; she praised Dodsley's attempts at rhyme, showed them to her visitors, and encouraged him to publish a volume of fugitive pieces, by assisting in procuring a liberal subscription. This collection he modestly termed The Muse in Livery, and it was accompanied by an engraved frontispiece, emblematic of the mind attempting to escape from the "misery, folly, and ignorance" to which the body is chained by poverty, — showing that he was not ashamed of what poverty had compelled him to accept, while he earnestly sought relief, and was not servile in his heart. His next attempt, The Toyshop, a theatrical satire, was written under the same circumstances, and is allowed to be a work of real genius, displaying an insight into character, which, if often possessed by the liveried portion of the community, might make the higher classes very uncomfortable. With the confidence of real talent, he was not afraid to court the most acute scrutiny to his new piece, and he accordingly wrote to Pope a letter fall of modest doubts of his own claims to notice, requesting that great man to peruse the manuscript. Pope did peruse the manuscript, and in a letter dated February 5th, 1733, said in answer, "I was very willing to read your piece, and do freely tell you, I like it, as far as my particular judgment goes. Whether it has action enough to please the stage, I doubt; but the morality and satire ought to be relished by the reader. I will do more than you ask me, I will recommend it to Mr. Rich. If he can join it to any play, with suitable representations, to make it an entertainment, I believe he will give you a benefit night: and I sincerely wish it may be turned any way to your advantage, or that I could show you my friendship in any instance." The return for these two works must have been watched by Dodsley with a still more anxious eye than authors in general direct towards the public opinion in their works, — the profits were, if sufficient, to be used for the purpose of relieving him from servitude; and being found ample enough, he was enabled to fulfil his intention.

His shop in Pall Mall was opened in 1735, and the conversational genius of its owner, added to the friendly attention of Pope, soon filled it with illustrious visitors. Soon after being thus established, he published the well-known farce of The King and the Miller of Mansfield, which was performed in 1737, and did not fail in attracting the attention naturally to be expected from the racy wit of the composition, and the real English humour of the incidents. In 1738 he produced Sir John Cockle, intended as a sequel to the previous piece, but for the continuation he did not receive the same praise as for the first attempt, one exhibition on a field so narrow being probably sufficient to satisfy the public taste. In 1741 he brought on the stage The Blind Beggar of Bethnal-green, a piece which met with no greater success than its precursor. Dodsley has surprised literary men, by the earliness of his literary speculations, their success, and the respectability of the authors who resorted to him from the commencement. In 1737 he published Pope's Second epistle of the second book of Horace; in the following month he procured the copy-right and sole property of that author's Letters, so singularly forced upon the world, and afterwards of vols. 5 and 6 of his works, and several detached pieces. Much about the same period, he ushered into the world, the works of Young and Akenside, and in the following year entered into speculations with long-established booksellers, for the works of authors of reputation. From Dodsley's establishment issued the earliest complete work of Johnson's London, purchased by the rising publisher on a knowledge of its merits, after having been subjected to his notice through the instrumentality of Cave. It was disposed of by Johnson, then in great poverty, as the work of a friend "under very disadvantageous circumstances of fortune," and Dodsley thinking it "a creditable thing to be concerned in," paid for it ten guineas.

On the third of January, 1741, Dodsley commenced a periodical, entitled The Public Register, or Weekly Magazine; a species of Magazine, which, interfering to a certain extent with the Gentleman's Magazine, caused for some time a slight jealousy between the respective publishers. After the twenty-fourth number, it ceased, on the avowed ground of the publisher's "additional expense in stamping it, and the ungenerous usage he met with from one of the proprietors of a certain monthly pamphlet, who prevailed with most of the common newspapers not to advertise it." A small poetical pantomime which excited little interest, called Rex et Pontifex, dropped from his pen in 1745. In the year following, he was a shareholder in another periodical, The Museum, or the Literary and Historical Register; and in 1748 he published The Preceptor, a periodical fed by such hands as Johnson, Walpole, and Akenside. If Dodsley was not the person who projected Johnson's English Dictionary, he was at least the first publisher to listen to the plan, and he paid much practical attention to its progress: before the vast undertaking was completed, it was the fate of Dodsley, to be, like the author, deprived of a wife "on whom his heart was fixed, and to whom every wish and desire turned." In 1748 Dodsley collected some of his pieces into a volume with the humble title, Trifles; and after the treaty which immediately ensued, he produced for the stage the Triumph of Peace, a masque.

In 1750 he published anonymously the famous Economy of Human Life. The deep oriental tinge of imagination, the solemn gravity of reflection, and the lofty tone of feeling and morality which pervaded this remarkable work, could not fail to attract the public eye. Those who speculated on the subject gave the authorship to the earl of Chesterfield, on the theory, one must suppose, that that author had written all his previous works in a totally opposite vein, for the purpose of more effectually concealing his authorship of this outpouring of high feeling. Chesterfield had a friendship for Dodsley, and knowing the value of the sanction of his name, did not contradict the report. The Economy of Human Life has been republished in many varieties of shape; but perhaps the best evidence of its reputation is to be found in the host of ghastly imitations which followed at its heels. He had intended, in 1754, to have published a poem, to be comprised in three books, treating of agriculture, commerce, and arts. The first of these he attempted as an experiment under the name of Public Virtue; but the poem was neither popular, nor admired by literary men. Johnson remarked, "It was fine blank, (meaning to express his usual contempt for blank verse,) however, this miserable poem did not sell, and my poor friend, Doddy, said, Public Virtue was not a thing to interest the age." It is needless to say that the series was stopped. His next project was The World, of which he chose the appellation, and wrote one number, (32.) The year 1758 appears to have been one of considerable import to Dodsley. At that time we find him making a tour through Scotland with Mr. George [for Joseph] Spence, one of his most early and intimate friends, in the progress towards which they both visited the poet Shenstone. Within the same year appeared his Melpomene, or the Regions of Terror and Pity, an ode; and the most striking, if not the best, of his theatrical productions, — the tragedy of Cleone. It is said that this piece suffered at its first appearance from the jealousy of Garrick, who could not brook the existence of a play in which there was not a character adapted to his talents. Within the same year, the Annual Register made its appearance. Few bibliopolical speculations have proved so profitable as this important work, nor have the public had reason to complain of their share of its advantages. It was, in short, eminently useful, and eminently successful; and its utility and varied excellences being known to every one who reads, require no explanation. In 1760 Dodsley published another profitable work, — Select Fables of Esop and other Fabulists. Soon after this period he retired from the active part of his business on a considerable fortune, amassed by the most gratifying means through which man can gather wealth; and his brother, James, a person of inferior talents, previously his partner, succeeded him.

During his latter days he suffered much from the gout, of which disease he died on a visit to his friend, Mr. Spence, at Durham, on the 25th day of September, 1764, in the sixty-first year of his age. He edited and published many works to which our limits have not permitted a reference, among which we ought not to forget his celebrated collection of Old Plays.