Robert Dodsley Essay - Critical Essays

Dodsley, Robert


Robert Dodsley 1703-1764

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Nathan Ben Saddi) English publisher, editor, journalist, poet, playwright, and essayist.

Dodsley was one of the most important and influential English literary figures of the eighteenth century. An accomplished poet, playwright, and essayist, his lasting fame rests with his efforts at Tully's Head, the bookstore and publishing house where, during a quarter of a century of literary patronage, he published works by many of the great English authors of the time. Some of the figures with whom Dodsley is associated as publisher include Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Daniel Defoe, William Shenstone, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Gray, Edmund Burke, and the Earl of Chesterfield. Over the course of his career, Dodsley would publish over 1,100 books, the most famous of which is his six-volume anthology of contemporary poetry, A Collection of Poems. By Several Hands (1748-58). Other distinguished works published at Tully's Head were the twelve-volume A Select Collection of Old Plays (1744-45), Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar, and Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The literary journals that Dodsley edited, most importantly The Museum (1756-47) and The World (1753-56), are famous for publishing both established and new poetic talent. Dodsley's own literary output is as varied as that which he published: his plays The Toy-Shop (1735) and Cleone (1758) are held in high regard; his Preceptor (1748) was long considered the greatest English educational manual; and his Oeconomy of Human Life (1751), a collection of original moral maxims, was one of the most popular books of the eighteenth century. While Dodsley's poetry is generally considered inferior to the verse he published by other authors, it too won contemporaneous acclaim for the bookseller. Despite Dodsley's own literary accomplishments, however, his final place in the history of English letters is in his role as editor, publisher, and patron of some of the most prominent writers of the eighteenth century.

Biographical Information

Dodsley was born into a poor family in Mansfield. As a boy, he was apprenticed to a local weaver, but, detesting the work, he ran away to London, where he became the footman for Charles Dartineuf, the illegitimate son of Charles II. His job as Dartineuf's footman, and his master's friendship with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, provided something of an education for Dodsley, furnishing him with material for some of his own earliest publications, including a 1729 pamphlet of advice to servants entitled Servitude and “The Footman” (1731), a poem that later appeared in his 1732 collection A Muse in Livery: or the Footman's Miscellany. In 1733, Dodsley sent a copy of his play The Toy-Shop to Pope, who recommended it to John Rich, the manager at London's Covent Garden Theatre, where in 1735 it was produced and received critical praise. Soon after the success of The Toy-Shop, Pope loaned Dodsley the capital to open his Tully's Head bookshop and made Dodsley the publisher of his own works. Over the next thirty years, Tully's Head would become London's greatest publishing house as well as a meeting place for literary figures. During these decades, Dodsley continued to write, publishing his own plays, poems, essays, and other works as well as editing three literary journals. As popular as much of Dodsley's own original writings were, however, it was his work as patron and publisher of his country's most distinguished authors that brought him fame and fortune. Soon after the production of his final dramatic work, Cleone, Dodsley turned over the operations of Tully's Head to his brother James, who would continue to publish works there until 1797. Dodsley died in 1764.

Major Works

Among Dodsley's most celebrated works are the dramatic pieces The Toy Shop, The King and the Miller of Mansfield (1737), and Cleone, all of which were successful when staged in London theaters. Cleone is often praised as one of the finest tragedies of its time. Dodsley's first poetic efforts, collected in A Muse in Livery, were known for the surprising quality of the work considering the author's lowly background and lack of formal education. In 1745, Dodsley published Trifles, a self-deprecating title for a collection of his poems and plays. In 1748, he published The Preceptor, a two-volume educational book of immense popularity. His 1750 The Oeconomy of Human Life, a book of moral maxims little studied today, was one of the most reprinted books of its time, going through at least 142 editions by 1800. additionally, Dodsley's 1761 Select Fables of Esop and other Fabulists was as critically acclaimed as it was popular.

While he was a successful author in his own right, Dodsley remains best remembered as a publisher. Three of Dodsley's literary journals—The Public Register (1741), The Museum, and The World—published poetry and essays by some of England's most distinguished writers in addition to others whom Dodsley helped make famous through his patronage. Dodsley became known for his ability to recognize literary talent. Dodsley's best-known work, his 1748-58 A Collection of Poems. By Several Hands, collected some of the best contemporary poetry that had appeared in his journals in addition to others never before published. An equally ambitious undertaking, A Select Collection of Old Plays, published a number of dramas that Dodsley believed would otherwise be forgotten despite their literary merit.

The number of works that Dodsley published from Tully's Head is far too long to list and comprise more than 1,100 works in various genres, including poetry, drama, fiction, philosophy, and literary criticism. Dodsley accorded early recognition to Samuel Johnson by publishing the latter's poem, London. Later it was Dodsley who gave Johnson the idea, as well as the funds, to begin work on his Dictionary. Poetry was obviously Dodsley's greatest interest, and he published works by Pope, Edward Young, Shenstone, Joseph Warton, Thomas Warton, Williams Collins, Thomas Gray, and many others. Notable publications in other genres include Mark Akenside's 1744 Pleasures of the Imagination, David Hume's 1758 Remarks upon the Natural History of Religion, Laurence Sterne's 1760 Tristram Shandy, and Lowth's 1761 A Short Introduction to English Grammar.

Critical Reception

Dodsley's own literary work has been greatly overshadowed by his role as publisher of many of the eighteenth century's most renowned literary talents. Scholarship devoted to Dodsley tends to concentrate on his work as critic, editor, and publisher. His journals, especially The Museum and The World, are heralded not only as great literary magazines but also as arbiters of the poetic taste of the period. Likewise, Dodsley's Collection of Poems. By Several Hands is almost unanimously considered the greatest single collection of mid-eighteenth century poems, and Dodsley's fine perception of contemporary talent, as well as his skill as an editor of poetry, receive the bulk of scholarly attention. Dodsley's own poetry, on the other hand, is typically regarded as imitative and below the level of the masters he is famed for publishing. Dodsley's plays, some of which were popular and critical successes in their day, are now rarely mentioned; his Preceptor, which James Boswell called “one of the most valuable books for the improvement of young minds,” and Oeconomy of Human Life are all but forgotten today. Dodsley's Select Fables, on the other hand, receives continued critical attention for its style and originality, and his prefatory essay to this volume has long been considered a pioneering work in the analysis of the fable. While nearly every critic of Dodsley's work credits its literary value to some extent, most acknowledge that he would be another in a long list of minor literary figures were it not for his publishing work at Tully's Head.

Principal Works

Servitude (nonfiction) 1729

An Epistle from a Footman in London to the Celebrated Stephen Duck (nonfiction) 1731

The Footman's Friendly Advice to his Brethren of the Livery (poetry) 1731

A Muse in Livery: or the Footman's Miscellany (poetry) 1732

The Toy-Shop (play) 1735

The King and the Miller of Mansfield (play) 1737

The Art of Preaching (poetry) 1738

Sir John Cockle at Court (play) 1738

The Chronicle of the Kings of England [as Nathan Ben Saddi] (history) 1740

The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (play) 1741

Colin's Kisses (poetry) 1742

Pain and Patience (poetry) 1742

A Select Collection of Old Plays. 12 vols. [editor] (plays) 1744-45

Rex Et Pontifex (play) 1745

Trifles (plays and poetry) 1745; enlarged edition, 1777

The Museum [editor] (literary journal) 1746-47

The Preceptor. 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1748

A Collection of Poems. By Several Hands. 6 vols. [editor] (poetry) 1748-58

The Triumph of Peace (play) 1749

The Oeconomy of Human Life (maxims) 1751

Public Virtue (poetry) 1753

The World [editor] (literary journal) 1753-56

Melpomene, or The Regions of Terror and Pity (poetry) 1757

Cleone (play) 1758

Select Fables of Esop and other Fabulists [editor] (fables) 1761

Essay on Fable (essay) 1965

The Correspondence of Robert Dodsley, 1733-1764 (letters) 1989


Alexander Chalmers (essay date 1810)

SOURCE: Chalmers, Alexander. “Life of Dodsley.” In The Works of the English Poets, From Chaucer to Cowper, pp. 313-23. 1810. Reprint. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1971.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1810, Chalmers provides an early assessment of Dodsley's life and literary output.]

An account of Mr. Dodsley was added to the new edition of the Biographia Britannica by Dr. Kippis, but without much information from personal inquiry, which at that time must have been in the doctor's power; nor does he appear to have seen The Muse in Livery, which would have cleared up the doubts respecting the early condition of our author. In...

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Ralph Straus (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: Straus, Ralph. “Theatrical Work, 1737-1749” and “Select Fables.” In Robert Dodsley: Poet, Publisher and Playwright, pp. 57-66 and pp. 282-92. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1910.

[In the following excerpt, Straus analyzes Dodsley's dramatic works written between 1737 and 1749, his work in preserving forgotten dramas in his Collection of Old Plays, and his fables.]


Speaking of 1737, Doran says: ‘Drury gained this season a new author in Dodsley,’ who ‘gave wholesome food to satisfy the public appetite; and the man who had not long before slipped off a livery, showed more respect for...

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Jeanne K. Welcher and Richard Dircks (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Welcher, Jeanne K., and Dircks, Richard. Introduction to An Essay on Fable, by Robert Dodsley, pp. i-viii. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1965.

[In the following essay, Welcher and Dircks discuss the warm critical attention Dodsley received for his Select Fables and the originality and scholarship of “An Essay on Fable.”]

When Robert Dodsley published his Select Fables of Aesop and other Fabulists in 1761, he prefixed to it a study of the fable genre entitled “An Essay on Fable.” In undertaking a comprehensive study of the subject for the first time in English and in the method of organizing his material, Dodsley...

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James E. Tierney (essay date summer 1973)

SOURCE: Tierney, James E. “The Museum, the ‘Super-Excellent Magazine.’” Studies in English Literature 13 (summer 1973): 503-15.

[In the following essay, Tierney argues that Dodsley's literary journal The Museum was a far more important reflection of the age than the Gentleman's Magazine.]

Robert Dodsley's fortnightly, The Museum: or, Literary and Historical Register (London, 1746-1747) survives as a rather comprehensive portrait of its age. Edited by Mark Akenside, this periodical did not imitate the Gentleman's Magazine, as has been suggested. Unlike Cave's production, the Museum did not chronicle...

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James Gray (essay date summer 1974)

SOURCE: Gray, James. “‘More Blood than Brains’: Robert Dodsley and the Cleone Affair.” Dalhousie Review 54 (summer 1974): 207-27.

[In the following essay, Gray describes the rivalry between two London theater companies and how it affected the writing, staging, and critical reception of Dodsley's Cleone.]

When Robert Dodsley's tragedy Cleone opened at Covent Garden on Saturday evening, December 2, 1758, one of the most heated controversies in the history of the London stage came to the boiling point.1 Once in service as a footman and now in business as a bookseller, Dodsley had earned the distinction of ranging some of the great names in...

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Richard Wendorf (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Wendorf, Richard. “Robert Dodsley as Editor.” Studies in Bibliography 31 (1978): 235-48.

[In the following essay, Wendorf analyzes Dodsley's editorial work on Collection of Poems, arguing that although Dodsley often changed wording and punctuation in the poems he published, he usually did so with the consent of the authors.]

In spite of the considerable amount of bibliographical work which has been devoted to Robert Dodsley and his Collection of Poems, surprisingly little attention has been paid to Dodsley's role as an editor of eighteenth-century poetry.1 That an examination of editorial influence should focus on Dodsley is natural...

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James E. Tierney (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Tierney, James E. “Robert Dodsley: The First Printer and Stationer to the Society.” In The Virtuoso Tribe of Arts and Sciences: Studies in the Eighteenth Century Work and Membership of the London Society of Arts, edited by D. G. C. Allan and John L. Abbott, pp. 281-92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Tierney recounts Dodsley's five-year association with the London Society of Arts.]

With noticeable pride, Secretary George Box recorded in the three-year-old Society's Minutes on 6th April 1757 that Robert Dodsley ‘who has long taken Care of correctly printing whatever has been order'd for...

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James E. Tierney (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Tierney, James E. Introduction to The Correspondence of Robert Dodsley 1733-1764, pp. 3-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Tierney examines Dodsley's work as dramatist, journalist, editor, publisher, and bookseller.]


Writing to Thomas Percy in 1761, William Shenstone took obvious delight in recounting an anecdote arising from Lady Gough's recent visit. Apparently the Lady had taken the liberty of peeking into a letter from Dodsley that lay open on the table. Confusing the bookseller with the deistical pamphleteer Henry Dodwell (d. 1784), she soon thereafter sent...

(The entire section is 10732 words.)

Michael F. Suarez (essay date June 1994)

SOURCE: Suarez, Michael F. “Dodsley's Collection of Poems and the Ghost of Pope: The Politics of Literary Reputation.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 88, no. 2 (June 1994): 189-206.

[In the following essay, Suarez argues that the first three editions of Dodsley's Collection of Poems were indebted to the patronage, editorial style, literary circle, and poetic ideals of Alexander Pope.]

In 1756, Richard Graves published some verses praising his friend Robert Dodsley. One especially laudatory section celebrates the London publisher's great stature in the literary world of his day:

Where Tully's Bust, the Honour'd Name...

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Harry M. Solomon (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Solomon, Harry M. “Apology: ‘Dodsley's life should be written,’” and “Creating Canons: 1741-1748.” In The Rise of Robert Dodsley: Creating the New Age of Print, pp. 1-6; 88-117. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

[In the first essay which follows, Solomon argues that a new biography of Dodsley is warranted, one that does not treat the publisher as a secondary literary figure to the authors he published. In the second, Solomon recounts Dodsley's many literary achievements as a poet, dramatist, journalist, editor, bookseller, and patron of the arts.]



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Michael F. Suarez (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Suarez, Michael F. “Trafficking in the Muse: Dodsley's Collection of Poems and the Question of Canon.” In Tradition in Transition: Women Writers, Marginal Texts, and the Eighteenth-Century Canon, edited by Alvaro Ribeiro and James G. Basker, pp. 297-313. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Suarez discusses how Dodsley's Collection of Poems was edited, marketed to a specialized readership, and came to be thought of as representative of mid-eighteenth-century English poetics.]


In his ‘Introduction’ to The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (1984), Roger Lonsdale presents a...

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Further Reading


SOURCE: Eddy, Donald D. “Dodsley's Oeconomy of Human Life: A Partial Checklist, 1750-1800.” Cornell Library Journal 7 (winter 1969): 48-88.

Comprehensive bibliography of English and translated editions of Oeconomy of Human Life published between 1750 and 1800.


Havens, Raymond D. “Changing Taste in the Eighteenth Century: A Study of Dryden's and Dodsley's Miscellanies.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 44, no. 2 (June 1929): 501-36.

Compares Dodsley's Collection of Poems and John Dryden's Miscellanies in order to...

(The entire section is 229 words.)