Dodsley's character is not hard to estimate. "You are a lucky man," wrote Edmund Burke to him upon one occasion, "and meet friends wherever you go"; and, indeed, this single sentence succinctly describes him. From a friendless footman forced to educate himself in the least congenial of surroundings, he came to be "the little friend of all the world." And so it happened that his worth was recognized by men of very different calibre. His ready wit endeared him to the wits, scrupulous honesty gave him an honourable position in his business, true poetic feeling brought him friends amongst the most notable writers of his time. Though his literary career cannot have satisfied his ambitions, his success with Cleone may be supposed to have lessened any disappointment he may have felt after the failure of his Public Virtue; but the mere fact that he should have projected such a poem in itself indicates the man's character. He was not a great writer; he is not remembered now as a poet, but he was a man who played a not inconsiderable part in the literary history of the eighteenth century, a part that is not equalled in point of importance by any other bookseller of the time.
That he had faults will not be denied. An occasional unnecessary obsequience mars some of his letters and proclaims a trace of the footman. His, too, was not a commanding personality. He rose, not so much by making people accept him as by accepting people who from various reasons were desirous to help him. He was too ready to accept writers of no more than his own merit as superiors, too willing to accept literary judgment from his numerous "band of authors." Yet he ever endeavoured to live up to his ideals, and into his sixty years of life crowded a myriad of interests, none of them petty, none of them beneath his dignity as a man of letters.
There are many contemporary references to him which might be quoted, but one or two will perhaps suffice. Shenstone, for one, esteemed him far higher than his behaviour on certain occasions might suggest. At the beginning of the volume of Dodsley's autograph letters which he caused to be bound for him in 1759, he writes: "A person whose writings I esteem in common with the Publick; But of whose Simplicity, Benevolence, Humanity, and true Politeness, I have had repeated and particular experience." And, indeed, these words bear no exaggeration. Dodsley might be without education, but a long life spent in the society of literary and artistic people, and much reading had educated him more surely than a five years' course at one of the Universities might have done. The education that comes to the man in love with life is of far more importance than the forced, if pouter, education that is given to the boy. Isaac Reed, the Shakespearian scholar, speaks of him in similar terms on the occasion of his reissuing the famous Collection of Old Plays. Dodsley, he writes in his preface, was "a man to whom literature is under so many obligations that it would be unpardonable to neglect this opportunity of informing those who may have received any pleasure from the work, that they owe it to a person whose merit and abilities raised him from an obscure situation in life to affluence and independence. 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 greater part of his life with those whose names will be revered by Posterity." And it is on account of his various friendships that the story of his life must appeal to all who are interested in the eighteenth century.
Isaac Reed's few words give, indeed, the pith of his character. Dodsley was a man of a serious turn of mind, full of sentiment which was occasionally extended into sentimentality, whose happiness depended most of all upon the domestic virtues. Of his purely literary merit, however, despite the acclamations of some of his contemporaries, it is impossible to speak in very high terms. The reflected glory of his friends has vanished with the source of it, and a more sober judgment will place him amongst the minor people of his time. He had been born with a certain literary taste, and had early developed a liking for books. If one considers, moreover, the really rather surprising success that was secured by most of his dramatic productions, one is bound at the same time to wonder why they should so soon have been relegated to a background of obscurity. The answer would appear to be simple, for it seems that without any very astounding genius, he was able by the exercise of some unknown instinct to discern the precise turn of public opinion and popular taste, and so well managed the appearance of his works that they came in almost every case at the crest of the wave. In many ways, indeed, Dodsley may be said to have been ahead of his day. The Toy-shop was something fresh — it made people think of themselves; the Miller of Mansfield was one of the first dramatic pieces that illustrated a local legend; the Chronicle of the Kings popularized the language of the Bible; the Oeconomy of Human Life aimed at a novelty of form; while domesticity, the keynote of Cleone, was at that time almost unknown as a subject for the dramatist's art. And so in a little way, in an agreeable little way, Dodsley advanced letters. Let him have merit for that.
In Cooke's edition of Dodsley's poems — it must be borne in mind that the three largest collections of British Poets all give a separate volume or division to Dodsley — a "candid and judicious writer" says of him: "As an author he merits honourable mention." This is possibly more pregnant than the "candid and judicious writer" may have imagined. For, indeed, Dodsley's work entitles him to be amongst those whom the examiner of the literature of the eighteenth century might place together with the words "proxime accessunt." His worth is recognized, there are in it even occasional glimpses of something in the first rank, but he can only be honourably mentioned; he is not a prize-winner. And this judgment is rendered all the easier from a certain uniformity in all his works. As all his biographers have said, he possesses wit, neatness and considerable technique, and if he never rises very high, he never sinks very low. The dialogue of his Miller, for example, is pointed and well-woven: there is in it some feeling and some dramatic sense. Cleone has similar charms: so has the Oeconomy of Human Life, but there is nothing distinctive, nothing that a hundred other men of his day could not have written with equal ease, with equal success, and nothing, with one or two exceptions, that will be remembered. But like many mediocrities who have left a mass of undistinguished writings, Dodsley is the author of at least one song which is near to immortality. In his "One kind kiss before we part," he seems to have approached nearer to the essence of deep love and feeling than on any other occasion of his somewhat vegetable existence. By meeting continually men of wit, too, he himself became capable of neat epigram, and the following two verses show him at his best:
Cries Sylvia to a reverend dean,
What reason can be given,
Since marriage is a holy thing,
That there are none in Heaven?
There are no women, he reply'd:
She quick returns the jest—
Women there are, but I'm afraid
They cannot find a priest!
It is, then, not primarily as a writer or poet that Dodsley may be regarded with feelings of interest. It is rather as a remarkable personage, who, like his erstwhile master Mr. Dartineuf, knew everyone and everything, that he deserves a higher place than he has hitherto secured. The man who had been patronized by Defoe and Pope, the man who had first published for Johnson and Gray, the man with whom Horace Walpole and David Garrick delighted to dine, the man, too, who had fathered the Annual Register and introduced Edmund Burke to half the world, is certainly entitled to some consideration. Mr. Edmund Gosse succinctly sums up the situation. It would, he says, in a letter which the author is permitted to quote, be impossible to make "a genteel hero of the little man" or "a great writer. He was just 'Doddy' — everybody's friend, in love with books and bookish people, a delightful serviceable bourgeois personality. And," he continues, "Robert Dodsley was in some curious respects like, or parallel with, Izaak Walton. Each was a serviceable man, of low degree but self-respecting, each enthusiastic about literary society of the higher kind, and each, in a very exclusive age, admitted to more or less free intercourse with learned men of quality. In a future life, we could imagine Izaak Walton selling the hosiery which Dodsley wore before he rose to be a footman." And so it is: both Walton and Dodsley have a niche to themselves, the fisherman with his popular handbook, the bookseller with his anthologies and plays. Walton, maybe, was the greater man: Dodsley was no less loveable, no less interesting.
The few lines that he wrote to a friend, desirous of having his advice, fitly enshrine his own simple philosophy:
Dost thou, my friend, desire to rise
To honour, wealth and dignities,
Virtue's paths, tho' trod by few,
With constant steps do thou pursue.
For as the coward-soul admires
That courage which the brave inspires;
And his own quarrels to defend,
Gladly makes such a one his friend;
So in a world which rogues infest,
How is an honest man caress'd!
The villains from each other fly,
And on his virtue safe rely!