1792 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Shiels

Ralph Griffiths, in Review of Boswell, Life of Johnson; The Monthly Review NS 7 (May 1792) 75-77.



Dr. Johnson told us, (says Mr. B.) that the Lives of the Poets, &c. [as above] "were compiled by Mr. Shiels, a Scotchman, one of his amanuenses. The booksellers, said he, gave Theophilus Cibber, who was then in prison, ten guineas to allow Mr. Cibber to be put upon the title-page, as the author; by this, a double imposition was intended: in the first place, that it was the work of a Cibber at all; and, in the second place, that it was the work of old Cibber."

This account is very inaccurate. The following statement of facts we know to be true, in every material circumstance. — Shiells was the principal collector and digester of the materials for the work: but as he was very raw in authorship, an indifferent writer in prose, and his language full of Scotticisms, Cibber, who was a clever, lively fellow, and then soliciting employment among the booksellers, was engaged to correct the style and diction of the whole work, then intended to make only four vols. with power to alter, expunge, or add, as he liked. He was also to supply notes, occasionally, especially concerning those dramatic poets with whom he had been chiefly conversant. He also engaged to write several of the Lives; which (as we are told,) he, occasionally performed. He was farther useful in striking out all the Jacobitical and Tory sentiments, which Shiells had industriously interspersed wherever he could bring them in; — and, as the success of the work appeared, after all, very doubtful, he was contented with twenty-one pounds for his labour, beside a few sets of the books, to disperse among his friends. — Shiells had neverly seventy pounds; beside the advantage of many of the best lives in the work being communicated by friends to the undertaking; and for which Mr. Shiells had the same consideration as for the rest, being paid by the sheet, for the whole. He was, however, so angry with his Whiggish supervisor, (THE. like his father, being a violent stickler for the political principles which prevailed in the reign of George the Second,) for so unmercifully mutilating his copy, and scouting his politics, that he wrote Cibber a challenge: but was prevented from sending it, by the publisher, who fairly laughed him out of his fury. The proprietors, too, were discontented, in the end, on account of Mr. Cibber's unexpected industry; for his corrections and alterations in the proof-sheets were so numerous and considerable, that the printer made for them a grievous addition to the bill; and, in fine, all parties were dissatisfied. On the whole, the work was productive of no profit to the undertakers; who had agreed, in the case of success, to make Cibber a present of some addition to the twenty guineas which he had received, and for which his receipt is not in the booksellers' hands. We are farther assured, that he actually obtained an additional sum, when he, soon after (in the year 1758,) unfortunately embarked for Dublin, on an engagement for one of the theatres there: but the ship was cast away, and every person on board perished. There were about 60 passengers, among whom was the Earl of Drogheda, with many other persons of consequence and property.

As to the alleged design of making the compilement pass for the work of old Mr. Cibber, the charge seems to have been founded on a somewhat uncharitable construction. We are assured that the thought was not harboured by some of the proprietors, who are still living, and we hope that it did not occur to the first designer of the work, who as also the printer of it; and who bore a respectable character.

We have been induced to enter, thus circumstantially, into the foregoing detail of the facts relating to the Lives of the Poets compiled by Messrs. Cibber and Shiells, from a sincere regard to that sacred principle of TRUTH, to which Dr. Johnson so rigidly adhered, according to the best of his knowledge; and which, we believe, no consideration would have prevailed on him to violate. — In regard to the matter, which we now dismiss, he had, no doubt, been misled by partial and wrong information: Shiells was the Doctor's amanuensis; he had quarrelled with Cibber; it is natural to suppose that he told his story in his own way; and it is certain that he was not "a very sturdy moralist."