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He was born near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where his father was master of the free school. He is said to have been apprenticed to a stocking-weaver in Mansfield, from whom he ran away, going into service as a footman. Profits from his literary works enabled Dodsley to establish himself with the help of his friends--Alexander Pope lent him £100—as a bookseller at the "Tully's Head" in Pall Mall in 1735.
He soon became one of the foremost publishers of the day. One of his first publications was Samuel Johnson's London, for which he paid ten guineas in 1738. He published many of Johnson's works, and he suggested and helped to finance the English Dictionary. Pope also made over to Dodsley his interest in his letters. In 1738 the publication of Paul Whitehead's Manners, voted scandalous by the House of Lords, led to a short imprisonment. Dodsley published for Edward Young and Mark Akenside, and in 1751 brought out Thomas Gray's Elegy.
In 1759 Dodsley retired, leaving the conduct of the business to his brother James (1724–1797), with whom he had been many years in partnership. He died at Durham while on a visit to his friend the Rev. Joseph Spence.
In 1729 Dodsley published his first work, Servitude: a Poem written by a Footman, with a preface and postscript ascribed to Daniel Defoe; and a collection of short poems, A Muse in Livery, or the Footman's Miscellany, was published by subscription in 1732, Dodsley's patrons comprising many persons of high rank. This was followed by a satirical farce called The Toyshop (Covent Garden, 1735), in which the toymaker indulges in moral observations on his wares, a hint which was probably taken from Thomas Randolph's Conceited Pedlar.
He also founded several literary periodicals: The Museum (1746–1767, 3 vols.); The Preceptor containing a general course of education (1748, 2 vols.), with an introduction by Dr Johnson; The World (1753–1756, 4 vols.); and The Annual Register, founded in 1758 with Edmund Burke as editor. To these various works, Horace Walpole, Akenside, Soame Jenyns, Lord Lyttelton, Lord Chesterfield, Burke and others were contributors.
Dodsley is, however, best known as the editor of two collections: Select Collection of Old Plays (12 vols., 1744; 2nd edition with notes by Isaac Reed, 12 vols., 1780; 4th edition, by William Carew Hazlitt, 1874–1876, 15 vols.); and A collection of Poems by Several Hands (1748, 3 vols.), which passed through many editions. In 1737 his King and the Miller of Mansfield, a "dramatic tale" of King Henry II, was produced at Drury Lane, and received with much applause; the sequel, Sir John Cockle at Court, a farce, appeared in 1738.
In 1745 he published a collection of his dramatic works, and some poems which had been issued separately, in one volume under the modest title of Trifles. This was followed by The Triumph of Peace, a Masque occasioned by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1749); a fragment, entitled Agriculture, of a long tedious poem in blank verse on Public Virtue (1753); The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green (acted at Drury Lane 1739, printed 1741); and an ode, Melpomene (1751). His tragedy of Cleone (1758) had a long run at Covent Garden, 2000 copies being sold on the day of publication, and it passed through four editions within the year.
Lord Chesterfield is, however, almost certainly the author of the series of mock chronicles of which The Chronicle of the Kings of England by "Nathan ben Saddi" (1740) is the first, although they were included in the Trifles and "ben Saddi" was received as Dodsley's pseudonym. The Economy of Human Life (1750), a collection of moral precepts frequently reprinted, may also be written by Lord Chesterfield, although the 1817 edition has a "Sketch of the Life of Dodsley", that explicitly states (pp. vi-vii ) that Dodsley really is the author; his name is now on the title page.
He published two more works, The Select Fables of Aesop translated by R. D. (1764) and the Works of William Shenstone (3 vols., 1764–1769).
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Shadows of the Old Booksellers, by Charles Knight (1865), pp. 189–216
- "At Tully's Head" in Eighteenth Century Vignettes, 2nd series, by Austin Dobson (1894)
- H. Solly in The Bibliographer, v. (1884) pp. 57–61.
- Dodsley's poems are reprinted with a memoir in Alexander Chalmers's Works of English Poets, vol. xv. (1810).
- Banham, Martin (1995). The Cambridge Guide to the Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521434379.
- Hartnoll, Phyllis (1983). The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192115461.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Dodsley.|
- "Dodsley, Robert" in Encyclopedia Britannica (11th ed.)
- The King and the Miller of Mansfield (1737) at the Internet Archive