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Tonson's Tonic
January/February 2013

The bookseller Jacob Tonson the Elder was perhaps the greatest of English literary entrepreneurs, and a pivotal figure at an important moment in English literary culture.  He was also an enthusiastic pioneer of English wine.

Tonson was born in 1655 or 1656 into a bookselling family; although his father was a barber surgeon, his uncle on his mother's side, Matthew Walbancke, was a bookseller. Initially Tonson published books jointly with his elder brother Richard. However, his bookselling career took off when he became Dryden's publisher. As well as publishing all Dryden's original compositions from Absalom and Achitophel onwards, Tonson and Dryden began to enrich English literature with a series of translations from the classics. Simply to review the list of their authors is to see how much of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome Tonson was responsible for introducing into English, either for the first time or in updated and more reliable translations: Ovid, Plutarch, Juvenal, Persius, Virgil, Caesar, Catullus, Horace, Lucan, Lucretius, Terence, Sallust, Aesop.  In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, for many English men and women Tonson was the prime gatekeeper to the classics.  

Tonson also built up a dominant position in the copyrights of earlier English literature. From 1681 he published all Dryden's work. But he also began to buy up the copyrights on Dryden's earlier poems and plays. This allowed him to publish in 1695 the first collected edition of Dryden's Works. He went on to acquire a controlling interest in the plays of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher. Reaching yet farther back into the literary past, Tonson published editions of Chaucer and Spenser.  

But most significantly, Tonson played a crucial part in transmitting the poetry of Miltonand principally Paradise Lost—to later generations. If Tonson had not safeguarded Paradise Lost through decades hostile to its literary and political values, later generations might have been denied easy access to the most important single poem in English. It was not a wholly disinterested gesture. Asked in later life to name the author from whom he had made most money, Tonson unhesitatingly replied "Milton". Even so, it had been a brave gamble. Tonson had bought half the rights to Paradise Lost in 1683, with the Stuart dynasty apparently secure upon the throne, and popular literary preferences set firmly in favour of rhymed couplets, sex comedy and bawdy lyric, rather than blank verse and lofty epic.  

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