Jacob Tonson Essay - Critical Essays

Tonson, Jacob


Jacob Tonson 1655?-1736

English publisher, editor, and poet.

Considered the “father of modern publishing,” Tonson published and promoted the works of some of the greatest writers in the Western tradition. His enormously popular Miscellanies (1684 to 1709), which contained works by classical authors as well as important new and established authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brought literature of a high quality to a large audience. Tonson published almost every work written by his friend and close associate John Dryden; acquired the copyrights of John Milton's work and made his poetry available to a wide reading public; and popularized Shakespeare's plays. Tonson was a powerful figure in literary and political circles, and some scholars see him as having established the key principles of publishing—most notably concerning the relationship between author and publisher—that are used even to the present day.

Biographical Information

Tonson was born in London around 1655. His father was a successful barber-surgeon and his mother came from a family of well known publisher-booksellers. Tonson was a young boy when the city of London experienced two major calamities—the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. Despite the chaos of those years, he received a sound classical education. In 1668 Tonson's father died, after which Tonson and his four siblings were raised by their mother. When he was fifteen Tonson became a bookseller's apprentice to Thomas Basset. Because many books had been destroyed in the 1666 fire, it was a fortuitous time to become involved in the book trade, as there was a high demand to replace titles that had been lost. During this time Tonson embarked on a program of self-education, immersing himself in literature and discovering the poetry of Milton and other great English writers. He also became acquainted with a number of important figures in the publishing world. In 1677 Tonson completed his apprenticeship and set up his own business. He first brought out works jointly with other publishers, including his brother, Richard, with whom he shared copyrights of two plays by Aphra Behn. In 1679 Tonson began his career as the publisher of his friend Dryden, and his association with the poet laid the foundation for an enormously successful career.

In the 1680s Tonson's reputation grew with the publication of Dryden's works and his first two volumes of Miscellany Poems (1684 and 1685), and by 1690 he was powerful enough to acquire the copyright of Milton's Paradise Lost, which proved to be one of his most lucrative investments. In the early 1690s his brother Richard died, and Tonson moved his business into his brother's old premises and took on his nephew, Jacob Tonson II, as a junior partner to his firm. From 1695 to 1697 Tonson and Dryden feuded over finances and the particulars of Dryden's publications, but they remained close associates until the poet's death in 1700. By this time Tonson had become secretary of the infamous Kit-Cat Club, a political and literary club that included leading Whig politicians, artists, and writers. Tonson was an intimate friend of many of the members, including the writers William Congreve, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele.

As his business flourished, Tonson was able to acquire a vast number of copyrights. He also imported sophisticated press equipment from Holland, enabling him to publish beautiful but inexpensive editions as well as luxurious volumes. He undertook a number of ambitious projects, including an edition of Shakespeare, works of classical authors, plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and new writing by some of the finest authors of the day. Tonson became the exclusive publisher of Shakespeare's works, and it was fitting when he moved to new premises in 1710 that he changed his shop sign to “Shakespeare's Head.” In 1718 Tonson quarreled with his nephew and threatened to disinherit him, but the two resolved their differences, and when Tonson retired in 1720 his nephew took over the business. After his retirement Tonson continued his association with leading literary figures, advising writers and reading and correcting proofs. In 1735 Tonson's nephew died and passed the business on to his sons, Richard and Jacob. Tonson died a year later, in 1736.

Major Works

According to some estimates Tonson published more than 700 titles during his career. He brought out titles by the foremost poets and playwrights of the age, including Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Congreve, Addison, and Behn. Beginning with the publication of Dryden's Troilus and Cressida in 1679, Tonson published almost everything Dryden wrote, including the enormously popular Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and Dryden's English translation of The Works of Virgil, (1697). Tonson's first great successes as a publisher were his Miscellanies, in six parts, of which the earliest were edited and largely written by Dryden. These anthologies, sometimes known as “Dryden's Miscellanies” and sometimes as “Tonson's Miscellanies,” appeared between 1684 and 1709 and contained translations from Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, and Virgil as well as original work by contemporary writers. The sixth Miscellany contained a poem by an unknown named Alexander Pope; Tonson was thus instrumental in launching the great Augustan poet's career. In 1683 Tonson acquired half the copyright of Milton's Paradise Lost, and in 1688 he published the fourth edition of the poem in a luxurious illustrated edition. The volume was of interest only to scholars, but in 1695, having bought the complete rights to the work, he published an expanded edition of Milton's writings and subsequently published cheaper, more accessible versions of Milton's great epic for the general reading public. Tonson published a version of Ovid's Metamorphoses in 1717, an example of his ability to coordinate the work of others; Addison, Pope, John Gay, and Congreve were among the many translators employed for the volume. Another notable publication undertaken by Tonson was the 1709 edition of Shakespeare's works edited by Nicholas Rowe. Tonson also published separate texts of a number of Shakespeare's plays, and he was instrumental in popularizing the playwright's works; indeed, many scholars claim that if it had not been for Tonson, Shakespeare would not have achieved the status he enjoys today.

Although he did not advertise his own work, Tonson included some of his own poems in the volumes he published. They include “On the Death of Mr. Oldham,” which appeared in the second volume of the Miscellanies; “To the Lovely Witty Astraea,” which appeared as a preface to Behn's poems; and “To Mr. Creech,” a dedicatory poem to a volume of works by Lucretius.

Critical Reception

Tonson was a powerful and conspicuous figure in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literary society. He made the careers of a number of authors, “discovering” Pope and promoting the works of such luminaries as Dryden, Behn, and Congreve. As a founding member of the Kit-Cat Club, he interacted with the most powerful Whig figures of his day. His portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery together with paintings of other Kit-Cat Club members, an unusual honor for a publisher-bookseller of the eighteenth century. He had a reputation as being blunt and forthright, flattering nobody and speaking his mind. Some of the greatest writers of the day were intimidated by his forceful personality, even as they mocked his pudgy, unattractive body. Dryden, for example, made fun of his “two left legs, and Judas-coloured hair,” and Pope mentions his ungainly legs in the Dunciad (1728). Because of his enormous influence and his production and promotion of some of the most important works of Western literature, Tonson has been called “the greatest of English publishers” and “the father of modern publishing.” His efforts in promoting the works of Shakespeare and Milton alone have had lasting effects on the Western canon and literary history. Despite his importance in the history of English literature, however, few biographical or critical studies have appeared on the man and his career. This is likely because Tonson did not produce any original work of importance; his anonymously published poetry is clearly the work of an amateur. But his importance as a mentor and promoter of literary persons cannot be overstated, and the methods he used to advance the careers of his authors continue to be used by publishers into the twenty-first century.

Principal Works

Troilus and Cressida, by John Dryden [publisher] (poetry) 1679

Ovid's Epistles [publisher] (letters) 1680

Absalom and Achitophel, by John Dryden [publisher] (poetry) 1681

The Duke of Guise, by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee [publisher] (play) 1683

Plutarchs Lives. 5 vols. [publisher] (prose) 1683-86

Miscellany Poems [publisher] (poetry) 1684

Poems Upon Several Occasions, by Aphra Behn [publisher] (poetry) 1684

Sylvae: Or, The Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies [publisher] (poetry) 1685

Paradise Lost, by John Milton [publisher] (poetry) 1688

Examen Poeticum: being the third part of Miscellany poems [publisher] (poetry) 1693

The annual miscellany: for the year 1694. Being the fourth part of Miscellany poems [publisher] (poetry) 1694

The Poetical Works of John Milton. Containing Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained. Samson Agonistes, and his Poems on several occasions. Together with explanatory notes on each book of the Paradise Lost. 5 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1695

The Works of Virgil, translated by John Dryden. 12 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1697

The Comedies, Tragedies, and Operas Written by John Dryden. 2 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1701

Poetical Miscellanies: The Fifth Part [publisher] (poetry) 1704

Poetical Miscellanies: The Sixth Part [publisher] (poetry) 1709

The Works of William Shakespeare, In Six Volumes, Adorn'd With Cuts, Revis'd and Corrected, with An Account of the Life and Writings of the Author, by N. Rowe, Esq. 6 vols. [publisher] (plays) 1709

The Works of Mr. William Congreve. 3 vols. [publisher] (poetry and plays) 1710

The Works of Mr. Francis Beaumont and Mr. John Fletcher. 7 vols. [publisher] (plays) 1712

The Works of Mr. Thomas Otway. 2 vols. [publisher] (poetry and plays) 1712

The Works of William Shakespeare. 9 vols. [publisher] (poetry and plays) 1714

The Works of Mr. Edmund Spenser. 6 vols. [publisher] (poetry and prose) 1715

*Miscellany Poems. 6 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1716

Ovid's Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books. Translated by the most Eminent Hands. 15 vols. [publisher] (poetry) 1717

The Dramatic Works of Thomas Shadwell, Esq. 4 vols. [publisher] (plays) 1720

*This collection contains all six of the earlier Miscellanies, revised and expanded.


Richard C. Boys (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: Boys, Richard C. “Some Problems of Dryden's Miscellany.” ELH 7, no. 2 (June 1940): 130-43.

[In the following essay, Boys discusses the mystery surrounding the publication of the various editions of Dryden and Tonson's Miscellany and Tonson's part in the matter.]

In 1684 the rising young bookseller, Jacob Tonson, added another feather to his cap by publishing Miscellany Poems, which came to be known as Dryden's or Tonson's Miscellany and enjoyed popular approval until 1727. In all there were six parts to the anthology in the forty-three years of its existence. Constantly re-issued it proved to be the most successful of the early...

(The entire section is 5248 words.)

Sarah Lewis Carol Clapp (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: Clapp, Sarah Lewis Carol. “Foreword.” In Jacob Tonson in Ten Letters by and About Him, pp. 4-8. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1948.

[In the following excerpt, Clapp discusses the style and content of Tonson's letters, which she says provide insights into the man's character.]

“To entertain you I will show you … a phenomenon worth seeing and hearing, Old Jacob Tonson, who is the perfect image and likeness of Bayle's Dictionary;1 so full of matter, secret history, and wit and spirit, at almost four-score.” Thus wrote Pope in 1731 to Lord Oxford. Imitating Pope, this pamphlet makes and hopes in some measure to fulfil the same promise,...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)

Mary Hyde (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Hyde, Mary. “Shakespeare's Head.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 2 (Spring 1965): 139-43.

[In the following essay, Hyde considers whether a signboard with a large image of Shakespeare, which was exhibited in the United States in 1964, once belonged to Tonson.]

Any unusual portrait of Shakespeare holds interest and this is true of the picture used here as a frontispiece. It came to this country from England in the spring of 1962 and aroused considerable curiosity when shown at Shakespeare's Four Hundredth Anniversary Exhibition at the Morgan Library in April, 1964. It is unusual, first of all, because it is extremely large, an uncomfortable size for enjoyment...

(The entire section is 2415 words.)

Harry M. Geduld (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Geduld, Harry M. “Miscellany Poems,” “Tonson and Paradise Lost,” and “Shakespeare and Tonson.” In Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson, pp. 87-109; 113-32; 135-48. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Geduld discusses Tonson's compilations of verse, his publication of Milton's epic poem, and his popular editions of Shakespeare's works.]


A phenomenon such as Tonson's Miscellany is rare in the history of English literature. There are few instances in which a single collection of verse is representative of major developments in...

(The entire section is 16908 words.)

Kathleen M. Lynch (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Lynch, Kathleen M. “Dryden and Tonson,” “Jacob's Ladder to Fame,” and “Eminent Publisher.” In Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher, pp. 17-36; 67-94; 116-37. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971.

[In the following essays, Lynch examines Tonson's complex relationship with John Dryden; explores some of his ambitious publishing projects; and discusses his influence and the distinguished authors whose careers flourished after their association with him]


For twenty years, until Dryden's death, Jacob Tonson was to remain the poet's publisher. Those who have made much of their quarrels might instead have...

(The entire section is 29117 words.)

Alfred W. Hesse (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Hesse, Alfred W. ‘Pope's Role in Tonson's “Loss of Rowe.”’ Notes and Queries n.s. 24, no. 3 (June 1977): 234-35.

[In the following essay, Hesse explains a reference in Pope's “A Farewell to London” as having to do with Tonson losing one of his authors to a rival publisher.]

Lintot, farewell! thy Bard must go;
          Farewell, unhappy Tonson!
Heaven gives thee for thy Loss of Rowe,
          Lean Philips, and fat Johnson.

The “Loss of Rowe” in these lines from Pope's “A Farewell to LONDON. In the Year 1715.” is inadequately explained in the Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope (vi, 131)—“i.e. when...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Stuart Gillespie (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Gillespie, Stuart. “The Early Years of the Dryden-Tonson Partnership: The Background to Their Composite Translations and Miscellanies of the 1680s.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700 12, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 10-19.

[In the following essay, Gillespie offers a reinterpretation of the evidence concerning the translation projects undertaken by Dryden and Tonson in the 1680s.]

One of the most influential literary partnerships of the seventeenth century commenced when, in 1679, Jacob Tonson first printed the work of John Dryden. In the following seven years, four unusual productions emerged from their alliance to set a number of decisive...

(The entire section is 5895 words.)

Stuart Bennett (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Bennett, Stuart. “Jacob Tonson: An Early Editor of Paradise Lost?” The Library 10, no. 3 (September 1988): 247-52.

[In the following essay, Bennett considers the textual evidence for the case that Tonson was involved in the publication of the 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost.]

Most of the evidence for Jacob Tonson's editorial involvement with the publication of the 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost can be derived from two sources: variations, not previously remarked, between the text of the 1688 folio and the previous three editions of Paradise Lost, and the controversy some forty years later over Richard Bentley's 1732 version of...

(The entire section is 2979 words.)

Paul Hammond (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Hammond. Paul. “The Printing of the Dryden-Tonson Miscellany Poems (1684) and Sylvae (1685).” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 84, no. 4 (Dec. 1990): 405-12.

[In the following essay, Hammond reconstructs the process by which Dryden and Tonson's Miscellany Poems and Sylvae reached their final form.]

The first two in the series of verse miscellanies published by Tonson with some editorial supervision by Dryden are important volumes in the publishing and cultural history of the Restoration. Miscellany Poems (1684) and Sylvae (1685)1 were particularly influential in fostering a taste for...

(The entire section is 3290 words.)

Keith Walker (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Walker, Keith. “Jacob Tonson, Bookseller.” The American Scholar 61, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 424-30.

[In the following essay, Walker discusses Tonson's career as a publisher and notes his influence during his own time and on the publishing world to this day.]

“Before the eighteenth century it was indecorous to make a living out of poetry; afterwards it became almost impossible,” Pat Rogers begins a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement (April 26, 1991), with some sacrifice of accuracy to elegance. The responsibility for writers being able, for however short a time, to make money out of poetry rests largely with the bookseller Jacob Tonson....

(The entire section is 5042 words.)

John Barnard (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Barnard, John. “The Large- and Small-Paper Copies of Dryden's The Works of Virgil (1697): Jacob Tonson's Investment and Profits and the Example of Paradise Lost (1688).” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 92, no. 3 (September 1998): 259-71.

[In the following essay, Barnard discusses Tonson's publication of Dryden's The Works of Virgil and considers the profits he made from this and other similar projects.]

The existence of large and small copies of the first folio edition of Dryden's The Works of Virgil published by Jacob Tonson in 1697 is well established. Hugh Macdonald reported seeing copies of what he called...

(The entire section is 4602 words.)

Further Reading


Geduld, Harry M. Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969, 245 p.

Detailed study of Tonson's life and career; includes chapters on his personal life, his career during and after the Restoration, his relationship with John Dryden, his publication of Shakespeare's and Milton's works, and his involvement with the Kit-Cat Club.

Lynch, Kathleen M. Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971, 241 p.

Biographical review of Tonson's many-faceted career.

Papali, G. F. Jacob Tonson,...

(The entire section is 137 words.)