1831 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Shiels

John Wilson Croker, Note in Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 3:395-96n.



Here followed, in the former editions, a note containing a long extract from the Monthly Review for 1792, controverting the above assertion [that Shiels had "entirely" written the Lives of the Poets], which, on account of its length, the Editor has thrown into an Appendix; but he must observe, with more immediate reference to the statement in the text, that notwithstanding the weight which must be given to Dr. Johnson's repeated assertions on a subject in which he alleged that he had indisputable evidence in his own possession, yet there are some circumstances which seem at variance with his statements. It is true that the title-page of the first volume says, "compiled by Mr. Cibber," but all the other volumes have "compiled by Mr. Cibber and other hands;" so that Johnson was certainly mistaken in representing that Cibber was held out as sole author. In the third vol., p. 156, the life of Betterton, the actor, is announced as "written by R. S." no doubt "Robert Shiels," and to it is appended the following note, "As Mr. Theophilus Cibber is publishing (in another work) the 'Lives and Characters of eminent Actors,' he leaves to other gentlemen concerned in this work the account of some players, who could not be omitted here as poets." A similar notice accompanies the Life of Booth, v. iv. p. 178; and again, in a note on the "Life of Thomson," vol. v. p. 211, Theophilus Cibber, in his own name, states, that he read the tragedy of Agamemnon to the theatrical synod with so much applause, that he was selected to play the part of Melisander. These circumstances prove that "a Cibber" had some share in the work, — that there was no intention to conceal that it was Theophilus, — and that Robert Shiels and others were avowed assistants. Mr. Boswell, in a former passage, (see ante, vol. 1, p. 161.) intimated, that "some choice passages of these lives were written by Johnson himself." That opinion the Editor thought Johnson's own assertion sufficiently negated; but he must admit, on reconsideration, that there is some colour for Mr. Boswell's suspicion; for it appears that Johnson was at one time employed to contribute to that work the lives of, at least, Shakspeare and Dryden (see ante, v. 1. p. 514, and post, 15th May, 1776), and though he certainly did not write those lives, yet several passages throughout the work are much in his style. That, however, might arise from the imitation of Shiels; but what is most important is, that the plan in which these lives are written is substantially the same as that which Johnson adopted in his own beautiful work.