Robert Dodsley Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.