Robert Dodsley was born at Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire, in 1703. The humble situation and circumstances of his parents precluded him from the advantages of a liberal education; and his first setting out in life was in the station of a footman to the Honourable Mrs. Lowther, in which his good conduct and abilities soon brought him into notice.
In this humble sphere of life he wrote several poems, which excited so much attention, that he was encouraged to publish them under the title of The Muse in Livery. The collection is very little known; but it was printed in 12mo. had a very handsome list of subscribers prefixed to it, and was dedicated to Mrs. Lowther.
He was for some time footman to Dartineuf, the luxurious voluptuary, and intimate friend of Pope; and it is greatly to his honour, that he was not unwilling that his low station in the family of that epicure should he recollected, when he had raised himself to competency and affluence.
When Lord Lyttleton's "Dialogues of the Dead" came out, says Dr. Johnson, as reported by Mr. Boswell, "one of which is between Apicius, an ancient epicure and Dartineuf, a modern epicure, Dodsley said to me, 'I knew Dartineuf well, for I was once his footman.'"
What contributed still more to his reputation, was his writing a dramatic piece, called The Toy-Shop, built on Randolph's celebrated comedy, called "The Muses' Looking-Glass," 4to, 1638; which being shown in manuscript to Pope, he was so well pleased with the delicacy of its satire, and the simplicity of its design, that he took the author under his protection; and though he had no connection with the theatres, procured him such an interest as ensured its being immediately brought on the stage.
It was acted at Covent Garden theatre, in 1735, with very great success, and when printed, was received with much applause by the public. The hint of it is taken from Randolph's play; but he has so perfectly modernized it, that he has made it perfectly his own, and rendered it one of the justest, and at the same time the best natured rebukes that fashionable absurdity perhaps ever met with. It contains many lively, pointed, and satirical strokes on the vices and follies of the age; the characters are distinct and appropriate; and though it is better calculated for the closet than the stage, it is still received with no small applause.
Pope's warm and zealous patronage of Dodsley is noticed in a malignant epistle from Curll, to that celebrated poet, in 1737.
'Tis kind a Livery Muse to aid,
Who scribbles farces to augment his trade,
When you, and Spence, and Glover drive the nail,
The devil's in it, if the plot should fail.
The world has long been ruled by an opinion which is not yet entirely removed, that talents and prudence are incompatible qualities; that it is not easy for a man to be a wit without mortgaging his estate; and that a poet must necessarily be in debt, and live in a garret.
It was Dodsley's good fortune to prove, if any proof were wanting, that a man's cultivating his understanding is no impediment to improving his fortune, and that it is very possible for a man to be an author, without neglecting business.
The pecuniary advantages which Dodsley had derived from his first publication, and from the success of his Toy-Shop, were applied by him to a very wise and useful purpose. Instead of adopting the precarious situation of a town writer, he determined to engage in some profitable business; and the business he fixed upon was happily suited to his literary taste, and favourable to his connection with men of learning.
In 1735, he opened a bookseller's shop in Pall-Mall; and such was the effect of Pope's recommendation and assistance, and of his own good character and behavour, that he soon obtained not only the countenance of persons of the first abilities, but also of those of the first rank; and in a few years he rose to great eminence in his profession.
His shop became the fashionable resort of persons of literature and rank; and he reckoned Chesterfield, Lyttleton, Spence, Glover, Shenstone, Dr. Johnson, and other distinguished that characters, in the number of his friends.
His employment as a bookseller did not prevent his pursuing the bent of his genius as an author. In 1737, he brought on the stage at Drury-Lane theatre, a farce called The King and the Miller of Mansfield, which met with very great success. The plot of the piece is founded on a traditional story in the reign of Henry II; of this story he had made a very pleasing use, and wrought it out into a truly dramatic conclusion. The dialogue is natural, yet elegant; the satire poignant, yet genteel; the sentiments are such as do honour to both his head and heart; and the catastrophe, though simple, yet affecting and perfectly just. The scene lies in and near the Miller's house in Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham; and he had probably an additional pleasure in the choice of his subject from the connection of it with his native place.
O native Sherwood! happy were thy bard,
Might these his rural noses to future times,
Boast of tall groves that nodding o'er thy plain,
Rose to their tuneful melody.—
The year following, his Sir John Cockle at Court, a farce, was acted at Drury-Lane. It is a sequel to the King and Miller of Mansfield, in which, the miller newly made a knight, comes up to London with his family, to pay his compliments to the king. It is not, however, equal in merit, to the first part; for though the king's disguising himself, in order to put Sir John's integrity to the test, and the latter's resisting every temptation, not only of bribery, but of flattery, is ingenious and gives an opportunity for many admirable strokes of satire, yet there is a simplicity and fitness for the drama in the turn of the former production, which it is scarcely possible to come up to in the circumstances that arise from the conduct of Sir John Cockle at Court.
The Miller of Mansfield, and its sequel, exhibits an interesting contrast between the unadorned solidity of country manners, and the splendid vices of a court; the blunt honesty of a miller, and the slender importance of a monarch without his attendants, in a sequestrated spot, and in midnight darkness. It has several pleasing songs, which from some of them continuing still to be popular, must have merit.
His next dramatic performance was The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green, a ballad farce, which, according to Mr. Victor, was acted at Drury-Lane, in 1739-40, but Mr. Reed says in 1741, but without much success. It is on the same story with Day's comedy of "The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green," 4to, 1659.
In 1744, he published A Collection of Plays, by old Authors, in 12 vols. 12mo. which was a valuable acquisition to the literary world. It has been highly improved in the second edition, published by Mr. Reed, in 1780; in which, besides an excellent preface, and very useful notes, some plays before inserted are rejected, and others of greater merit are introduced in their room.
In 1745, he produced a dramatic piece, called Rex et Pontifex, 8vo., being an attempt to introduce upon the stage a new species of pantomime. It does not, however, appear to have been represented at any of our theatres.
In 1746, he published The Museum, or Literary and Historical Register, in 3 vols. 8vo, to which Dr. Johnson, and other men of genius, were contributors.
In 1748, he collected his several dramatic pieces, which had been separately printed, and published them in one volume 8vo, under the modest title of Trifles.
On the occasion of the singing the treaty of peace, at Aix-la-Chapelle, he wrote The Triumph of Peace, a masque, which was set to music by Dr. Arne, and performed at the theatre in Drury-Lane, in 1748-9.
In 1749, he published that eminently useful school-book, The Preceptor, in 2 vols. 8vo. The design of this work was framed by Dodsley, and the execution of it was accomplished by several of the distinguished writers of the age.
In 1750, he published a small work, which, for a short time had a very great celebrity under the title of "The Economy of Human Life, translated from an Indian manuscript, written by an ancient Bramin; to which is prefixed, an account of the manner in which the said manuscript was discovered, in a Letter from an English Gentleman, now residing in China, to the Earl of —." Besides the apocryphal introduction of this work into the world, it derived a temporary popularity from its being universally ascribed to the Earl of Chesterfield. This supposition was strengthened by a letter that had been addressed to his Lordship by Mrs. Teresa Constantia Philips, in which she had complimented him on being the author of The Whole Duty of Man. She had probably heard an account of the Earl's letters to his son. However this may have been, the power of literary fashion procured the Economy of Human Life a rapidity and extensiveness of sale, and a height of applause which it would not have obtained had it been known to be the production of a bookseller. The work, upon the whole, is not without a considerable share of merit. The subjects are well chosen, the advice is good, the style is succinct and frequently nervous; but it is deficient in that strength and energy, that vividness of imagination, and that luminousness of metaphor, which pervade those parts of scripture that were intended to be imitated, and which occur its the genuine oriental writings.
The popularity of Dodsley's performance produced a number of imitations: "The second part of the Economy of Human Life," "Appendix," "The Economy of a Winter Day," "The Economy of Female Life," "The Economy of the Sexes," "Complete Economy for the Female Sex," 1751, and "The Economy of the Mind," 1767.
In 1752, he obliged the lovers of poetry, by the publication of A Collection of Poems, by Eminent Hands, vol. 1st, 2d, and 3d, 12mo. Several of his own little pieces are inserted at the close of the 3d volume. The 4th volume of this elegant and valuable miscellany appeared in 1755, and the 5th and 6th volumes, which completed the collection, in 1758. The pieces of which it consists are not all equally valuable; but perhaps a more excellent miscellany is not to be found in any language. By this collection he performed a very acceptable service to the cause of genius and taste, as it has been the means of preserving several productions of merit, which might otherwise have sunk into oblivion. A judicious selection of pieces omitted by Dodsley, was given to the world by the editor of "A collection of the most esteemed pieces of poetry that have appeared for several years: with variety of originals, by the late Moses Mendez, Esq. and other contributors to Dodsley's collection. To which this is designed as a supplement," printed for Richardsoh and Urquhart, in 1 vol. 12mo, 1767, 1770. The world is indebted for a more extensive supplement to Dodsley, to the valuable "Collections" of Mr. Pearch, in 4 vols. 12mo. 1768, 1770; and of Mr. Nichols, with biographical and historical notes, in 8 vols, 1780, 1782. The collection printed for Urquhart and Richardson is commonly, but erroneously ascribed to Mendez, who died in 1758. His Imitation of Spenser, and other poems, are highly deserving of republication, and were originally recommended by the present writer to be inserted in this collection of classical English poetry.
The subject of his next publication was Public a didactic poem, which was intended to be comprised in three books, including 1st, Agriculture, 2d, Commerce, 3d, Arts; of this truly useful and valuable undertaking, the first book on Agriculture, was published in 1754, 4to. and was all that was accomplished by Dodsley.
It is probable that the reception and sale of the poem did not encourage him to complete his design.
In 1758, he published Melpomene; or, the Regions of Terror and Pity, an Ode, 4to. This ode was eagerly read on its first appearance, and is justly regarded as one of the happiest efforts of his muse.
His next publication was "The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature of the year 1758;" a very valuable work, which has been continued to the present time.
The same year his Cleone, a tragedy, was acted at the theatre in Covent Garden; and met with very great success. An imperfect hint towards the fable of this tragedy was taken from the "Legend of St. Genevieve," written originally in French, and translated into English in the last century, by Sir William Lower. The first sketch of it, consisting; then of three acts only, was shown to Pope two or three years before his death, who informed Dodsley, that in his very early youth he had attempted a tragedy on the same subject, which he afterwards destroyed, and he advised him to extend his plan to five acts. It was first offered to Garrick, but he refused it; principally, as it should seem, because it contained no character in which he could have figured himself. To prevent its success, he appeared in a new part on the first night of its appearance. This scheme had no effect; for the play rose about all opposition, and had a long and crowded run; the character of Cleone received every possible advantage from the exquisite performance of Mrs. Bellamy, whose peculiar merit, in this part, contributed, in a great degree, to promote the run of the piece. The prologue was written by Mr. Melmoth, and the epilogue by Mr. Shenstone.
The intrinsic merit of Cleone, as a moral and interesting drama, is universally acknowledged. "When I heard you read it," said Dr. Johnson to Mr. Langton, as reported by Mr. Boawell, "I thought higher of its power of language. When I read it myself, I was more sensible of its pathetic effect. If Otway had written this play, no other of his pieces would have been remembered." Dodsley himself, upon this being repeated to them, said, "It was too much."
It will not, indeed, stand in competition with the tragedies of Otway or Southerne; but it is not, upon the whole, inferior to any that have been brought upon either stage for the last fifty years, except "Douglas." It is equally free from the bombast and rant of a "Barbarossa," and from the flowery whine and romantic softness of "Philoclea;" but at the same time it wants the majesty of diction, and high reach of thought, essential to the dignity of a perfect tragedy. The plot is too thin; the scenes are too barren of incidents, at least of important ones, and the language, in general, too much, though not altogether destitute of poetry. It contains, however, some happy expressions and striking sentiments. The circumstance of Siffroy's giving his friend directions concerning his wife, has some degree of similarity to Posthumus's orders in "Cymbeline." In the two last acts, he appears to the greatest advantage: Cleone's madness, in particular, over her murdered infant, being highly pathetic.
This tragedy has lately been revived by Mrs. Siddons; but so strong were the feelings which her exquisite performance of Cleone excited on the first night of acting, that the house was thin on the second night, and the play was dropped.
In 1760, he published his last separate work, the Select Fables of Aesop, and other Fabulists, in three books, with the Life of Aesop, and an Essay on Fable, 8vo. This work added greatly to his reputation. It is indeed a classical performance, both in regard to the elegant simplicity of the style, and the propriety of the sentiments and characters. The first book contains ancient, the second modern, and the third original fables; the stories in the third book are wholly invented by Dodsley and his friends. The Life of Aesop, by M. Mezeriac, is the only Life of Aesop that is consistent with common sense; that of Planudes being a ridiculous medley of absurd traditions, or equally absurd inventions. The Essay considers the fable regularly; first, with relation to the moral; secondly, the actions and incidents; thirdly, the persons, character, and sentiments; and, lastly, the language. This is one of the first pieces of criticism, in which rules are delivered for this species of composition drawn from nature, and by which these small and pleasing kind of productions that were thought to have little other standard than the fancy, are brought under the jurisdiction of the judgment. Dodsley has been so eminently successful in his design, that the propriety of his remarks cannot be disputed, except only in a single instance; in which, alluding to the well-known fable of the "Fox and the Grapes," he says, "a fox should not be said to long for grapes;" because the appetite is not consistent with its known character. It is not so in the east. Dr. Hasselquist, in his 'Travels,' observes, that the fox is an animal common in Palestine; and that it destroys the vines, unless it is strictly watched. Solomon also says, in Canticles ii. 15. 'Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.'" Before be committed the Essay to the press, he subjected it to the revisal of his literary friends, and especially of Shenstone.
In 1761, he published a collection of Fugitive Pieces, by Spence, Cooper, Lord Whitworth, Mr. Burke, Mr. Clubbe, Dr. Lancaster, Dr. Hill, and other elegant writers, in 2 vols, 8vo.
In 1763, he published the works of his amiable and ingenious friend Shenstone, in 2 vols, 12mo; to which he prefixed a short account of his life and writings, and added a description of the Leasowes.
His "Description of Persefield," in a letter to Shenstone, is preserved in Hull's "Select Letters," between the Duchess of Somerset, Lady Luxborough. Mr. Whistler, Miss Dolman, Shenstone, Dodsley, &c. in 2 vols, 1778.
In the course of his profession, Dodsley acquired a very handsome fortune, which enabled him to retire from the active part of business, which devolved on his brother and partner, Mr. James Dodsley, the present respectable bookseller in Pall-Mall. During the latter years of his life he was much troubled with the gout, to which, at length, he fell a martyr, while he was upon a visit to his friend Spence, at Durham, Sept. 5. 1764, in the sixty-first year of his age. Spence paid the last kind office to his remains. He was buried in the Abbey church-yard of Durham, and the following inscription was engraved on his tomb-stone.
If you have any respect
For uncommon industry and merit,
Regard this place
In which are deposited, the remains of
MR. ROBERT DODSLEY;
Who, as an author, raised himself
Much above what could have been expected
From one in his rank of life,
And without a learned education;
And who, as a man, was scarce
Exceeded by any in integrity of heart,
And purity of manners and conversation.
He left this life for a better, Sept. 25. 1764,
In the 61st year of his age.
A second volume of his Miscellanies was published in 8vo, 1772. The volume contains Cleone, Melpomene, Agriculture, and the Economy of Human Life. The editions of the Economy of Human Life are too numerous to be specified. His Agriculture, Melpomene, and other poems, are now, for the first time received into a collection of classical English poetry.
His character was very amiable and respectable. As a tradesman, he preserved the greatest integrity; as a writer, the most becoming humility. Mindful of the early encouragement which his own talents met with, he was ever ready to give the same opportunity of advancement to those of others; and on many occasions he was riot only the publisher, but the patron of genius. There was no circumstance by which be was more distinguished, than by the grateful remembrance which he retained, and always expressed towards the memory of those to whom he owed the obligation of being first taken notice of in life. Modest, sensible, and humane; he retained the virtues which first brought him into notice, after he had obtained wealth sufficient to satisfy every wish which could arise from the possession of it. He was a generous friend, an encourager of men of genius, and acquired the esteem and respect of all who were acquainted with him. It was his happiness to pass the greatest part of his life in an intimacy with men of the brightest abilities, whose names will be revered by posterity by most of whom he was loved as much for the virtues of his heart, as he was admired, on account of his writings.
As an author, he is entitled to considerable praise. His works are recommended by an ease and elegance, which are sometimes more pleasing than a more laboured and ornamented manner of writing. His prose is familiar, and yet chaste. His Essay on Fable will be a durable monument of his ingenuity. In his dramas he has always kept in view the one great principle, "delectando pariterque monendo," some general moral is constantly conveyed in each of his plans, and particular instructions are displayed in the particular strokes of satire. The dialogue, at the same time, is easy; the plots simple; and the catastrophe interesting and pathetic. In verse, his compositions sufficiently show what genius alone, unassisted by learning, is capable of executing. His subjects are well chosen and entertaining; the diction is chaste and elegant; the sentiments, if not sublime, are manly and pleasing; and the numbers, if not exquisitely polished, are easy and flowing.
Of his poetical production, his Agriculture, a Georgic in three cantos, is the most considerable. The subject is such as must be grateful and entertaining to every Briton; and though, in the execution, there are imperfections impossible to be overlooked by a critical eye, yet there are a number of beauties in it deserving of applause; and those who may have reason to condemn the poet, will find ample cause to commend the patriot. Indeed, to write a truly excellent Georgic, is one of the greatest efforts of the human mind. Perfectly to succeed in this species of poetry, requires a Virgil's genius, judgment, exquisiteness of taste, and power of harmony. The general economy of this Georgic is judicious; it contains several exalted sentiments; and the descriptions are often delicate and well expressed. But, at the same time, the diction is frequently too prosaic, many, of the epithets are inadequate, and in some places, sufficient attention is not paid to the powers of the versification.
In the first canto, after having generally proposed his intention, addressed it to the Prince of Wales, and invoked the Genius of Britain, he proceeds to consider husbandry as the source of wealth and plenty; and therefore recommends it to landlords not to oppress the farmer, and to the farmer that he should be frugal, temperate, and industrious. After giving an account of the instruments of husbandry, he describes a country statute, and introduces the episode of Patty, the fair milk-maid. The next objects offered to view are the farmer's poultry, kine, hogs, &c. with their enemies, the kite, the fox, the badger, and such other animals as prey upon the produce of the farm, or impede the industrious labours of the husbandman; and we are shown how the cultivation of the former, and the destruction of the latter contribute alternately to provide him with business or amusement: whence we are led to contemplate the happiness of a rural life; to which succeeds an address to the great to engage them in the study of agriculture. An allegorical explanation of nature's operations on the vegetable world, with a philosophical system, built on the experimental foundation laid by Dr. Hales, concludes the canto. The address to the Genius of Britain is pleasing, and the description of the Fair Milk-maid is exquisitely beautiful.
The second canto begins with instructions for meliorating soils, according to their diversity, whether they consist of sand, loam, or clay. Mr. Tull's principles and practice are particularly takes notice of, and those of the Middlesex gardeners. Directions are also given far various manures, and other methods are pointed out for the improvement and inclosure of lands; the respective uses of the several forest trees are distinguished; the advantages arising from plantations pointed out; and rules are presented for their successful cultivation. To these succeed some observations on gardening, wherein the taste for straight lines, regular platforms, and clipt trees, imported from Holland at the Revolution, is exploded. These are succeeded by a few compliments to some modern gardens, Chiswick, Richmond, Oatlands, Esher, Woburn, and Hagley; a description of those of Epicurus, and a celebration of his morals. The apostrophe to the Genius of Gardens is happily introduced; and the description of the Gardens ofEpicurus is rich and luxuriant.
In the third canto are described hay-making, harvest, and the harvest-home; a method is prescribed for preventing the hay from being mow-burnt, or taking fire. Other vegetable, fossil, and mineral productions peculiar to England are praised. From the culture and produce of the earth, we have a transition to the breeding and management of sheep, cows, and horses; of the latter there are descriptions according to their respective uses; whether for draught, the road, the field, the race, or for war. The portraits of the two last, which are eminently beautiful, conclude the poem.
Of his other poems, his Melpomene may be considered as the greatest effort of his poetical genius. It cannot indeed vie in sublimity and enthusiasm with the lyric compositions of Dryden, Akenside, Collins, Gray, and Mason. It has a more moderate degree of elevation, and poetic fire. It is animated without being rhapsodical, and joins ardent sentiment and picturesque description, to correctness, harmony, and happy expression. His picture of Despair, in the Region of Terror, is finely drawn, and only inferior to that of Spenser. The portrait of Rage is equally happy in the designing, and the expression. In the Region of Pity, the image of a beautiful maid expiring on the corse of a brave lover, who has been killed in vindicating her honour, is affectingly picturesque. That of a too credulous and injured beauty, is equally striking and beautiful, and pregnant with a necessary moral caution.
Of his Art of Preaching, in imitation of Horace's "Art of Poetry," the rules are well adapted, and exemplified, and the versification is smooth and elegant. His Songs, in point of tenderness, delicacy, and simplicity, are not inferior to any composition of that kind in the English language.
Most of his smaller pieces may be read with pleasure. His just retort on Burnet, for calling Prior in his "History of his Own Times," one Prior, is probably remembered by most readers of poetry.