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This article is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

'Faults' and 'Impartial Criticism': Lives of the Poets I Peter McDonald
In 2007, the Modern Language Association awarded its prize for a distinguished scholarly edition to Roger Lonsdale 's four-volume edition of Samuel Johnson's The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; With Critical Observations on their Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 4 vols, £320.00). In the citation, praising 'the first scholarly edition of this major work in over one hundred years,' the editor is rightly congratulated: 'Lonsdale brings fresh editorial work with manuscripts, a book-length introduction at once scholarly and literate, and a wealth of annotation that draws on the last century of scholarship to illuminate both the poets and Johnson's essays on them [...] in the broad context of the century in which The Lives was written, published, and first read.' None of this is hyperbole; the depth and range of Lonsdale 's scholarship are outstanding, and the value of the resulting edition will be proved over many decades, as successive generations of readers come to terms with what the MLA calls 'the durable importance of Johnson 's great work'. In this short series of essays, each of which is reliant for much of its information on 'Lonsdale 's vital labours' (as the citation identifies them), I want to survey part of that 'durable importance', observing Johnson's last great critical monument with a view to understanding its bearing on the poetry, criticism, and literary history that we sometimes like to call contemporary.

I: 'Faults' and 'Impartial Criticism'

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