Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shiels, Robert

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SHIELS, SHIELLS, or SHIELDS, ROBERT (d. 1753), compiler, of humble origin, was born in Roxburghshire about the end of the seventeenth century, and came to London as a journeyman printer. Though he lacked education, he had ‘a very acute understanding’ and a retentive memory. Johnson, to whom he was further recommended by his devout Jacobitism, employed him as an amanuensis upon the ‘Dictionary,’ along with Peyton, Alexander Macbean [q. v.], and three others. At the conclusion of that work Shiels was recommended to Griffiths and employed upon the ‘Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland to the time of Dean Swift’ (London, 5 vols. 8vo, 1753), to which the name of ‘Mr. Cibber’ was attached. The compilation was based upon Langbaine and Jacobs, with the aid of Coxeter's notes, and contains little original matter. Any research displayed was due to Shiels, but the whole work was revised by Theophilus Cibber [q. v.] The later volumes are ascribed on the title-page to Cibber ‘and other hands.’ Johnson was in error in attributing the whole credit of the work to his former assistant. Apart from his compilations, Shiels wrote a didactic poem on ‘Marriage’ in blank verse (London, ‘at the Dunciad in Ludgate Street,’ 1748, 4to), and another piece in praise of Johnson's ‘Irene,’ called ‘The Power of Beauty’ (printed in Pearch's ‘Collection,’ i. 186). Above even Dr. Johnson Shiels venerated his countryman, James Thomson, upon whose death he published an elegy of some merit—‘Musidorus’ (London, 1748, 4to). But his admiration for the poet seems to have been rather more fatuous than discriminating, if Johnson may be believed. ‘I once read him,’ says the latter, ‘a long passage of Thomson. “Is not this very fine?” I said. “Splendid!” exclaimed Shiels. “Well, sir, I have omitted every other line.”’ Shiels died of consumption in May's Buildings, London, on 27 Dec. 1753. ‘His life was virtuous,’ says the doctor, ‘and his end pious.’

[Gent. Mag. 1753, p. 590; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. v. 308; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, ii. 329; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 30, and ed. Croker, p. 504; Monthly Rev. May 1792; D'Israeli's Curiosities of Lit. 1834, iii. 375; Morel's Vie de James Thomson, 1896, p. 176; Cibber's Lives of the Poets (with manuscript notes in British Museum).]

T. S.