1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Dodsley

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:711-13.



1764, Sept. 5. Died, ROBERT DODSLEY, bookseller, of Pall-mall, London, whose memory will ever be esteemed as a remarkable example of genius, springing up and advancing to usefulness, amidst unfavourable circumstances. He was born in 1703, at Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire, where his father kept the free-school, and could only afford to give him a very limited education. He commenced life as a footman to the honourable Mrs. Lowther, and, by his good conduct in that capacity, was as successful in obtaining the esteem of those around him, as he ever was afterwards, when he had moved into more important positions in society. Having employed his leisure time in cultivating his intellect, he began at an early age to write verses, which, being shown to his superiors, were deemed so creditable to his abilities, that he was encouraged to publish them in a volume, under the title of The Muse in Livery. This publication was dedicated to his mistress, and came forth under the patronage of a highly respectable list of subscribers. Dodsley afterwards entered the service of Mr. Dartineuf, a noted voluptuary, and one of the intimate friends of Pope; and having written a dramatic piece, called The Toyshop (founded upon a play of the preceding century), it was shown by his new master to that distinguished poet, who was so well pleased with it, that he took the author under his protection, and made interest for the appearance of the play upon the stage. The Toyshop was acted at Covent Garden, in 1735, and met with the highest success. In a malignant epistle addressed about that time by CurIl, the bookseller, to Pope, it is insinuated that this was owing to patronage alone. But nothing can seem more improbable than that Pope and his friends should be deceived as to the merit of this piece, or that they should interest themselves about a production glaringly destitute of merit. The profits arising from this play, and the distinction which it obtained for the author, induced him to enter upon some regular trade: he chose that of a bookseller, as the most appropriate to his taste, and that in which he might expect to turn the favour of his friends to the best account; and accordingly he opened a shop of that kind in Pall-mall. In this new situation, comparatively difficult as it may be supposed to have been, the same prudence and worth which have gained him esteem in his former condition, were not less strikingly exemplified. He was able to secure for himself and his establishment the countenance of many of the first literary persons of the day, including Pope, Chesterfield, Lyttleton, Shenstone, Johnson, and Glover, and also of many persons of rank who possessed a taste for letters; and thus, in the course of a few years, be became one of the principal persons of his trade in the metropolis. Proceeding at the same time in his career as an author, he wrote a farce entitled the King end the Miller of Mansfield, founded on an old ballad of that name, and referring to scenes with which be had been familiar in early life. Animated by a spirit of adventure, uncommon in his own time, he published, in 1744, a Collection of Plays by Old Authors, in twelve volumes, duodecimo, prefaced by a history of the stage, and illustrated by biographical and critical notes; the whole being dedicated to sir C. C. Dormer, to whom Mr. Dodsley acknowledges great obligations for the use of materials. Another of the more valuable works projected by Dodsley was the Preceptor, first published in 1749, and designed to embrace what was then thought a complete course of education. His Select Fables of Esop end other Fabulists, appeared in 1760, and was at once pronounced a work of classical elegance. In 1748, he produced a loyal masque on the occasion of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, and, two years afterwards, a small prose work, entitled The Economy of Human Life, in which the social duties are treated in a style intended to resemble that of the scriptures and other oriental writings. In 1758, he ventured to rise to tragedy, and composed Cleone, the fable of which be derived from a French fiction. Though Garrick expressed a mean opinion of the play, and it was consequently taken to Covent Garden, it long drew full audiences, which was in part attributed to Mrs. Bellamy's acting of the heroine. Dr. Johnson admired Cleone so much as to say, that, if Otway had written it, no other of his pieces would have been remembered; which being reported to the author, he modestly said, "it was too much." A long and prosperous professional career enabled Mr. Dodsley to retire from business, some years before his death, with a large fortune, which, however, made no alteration upon his modest and amiable character. His humble origin was neither a matter which he was anxious to conceal, nor a subject of vulgar boasting. He did not forget it, nor did he allow it to affect his deportment in a manner that could be disagreeable to others. Mindful, says one of his biographers, "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 not only acted as publisher, but as patron, to men of genius. There was no circumstance by which he 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 to satisfy every wish which could arise from the possession of it. He was a generous friend, and acquired the esteem and affection of all who were acquainted with him. It was his happiness to pass the greater 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."

After a life spent in the exercise of every social duty, he fell a martyr to the gout, at the house of his friend, Mr. Spence, at Durham, and was interred in the abbey church-yard, where his tomb is thus inscribed:

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.

Robert Dodsley had quitted business in 1759; but his brother James, who had been his partner, continued the business, and persevered in acquiring wealth by the most honourable literary connexions until his death, in 1797.