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It is to be hoped that every reader of this collection, however he may have been trained, will find in the great variety of its contents something conformable to his taste.
I suppose it is not necessary to give a reason for adding another to the collections of this nature, already in print. They abound in every language, for the simple reason that there is a demand for them. German literature, prolific as it is in verse, has many of them, and some of them compiled by distinguished authors. The parlor table and the winter fireside require a book which, when one is in the humor for reading poetry, and knows not what author to take up, will supply exactly what he wants.
I have known persons who frankly said that they took no pleasure in reading poetry, and perhaps the number of those who make this admission would be greater were it not for the fear of appearing singular. But to the great mass of mankind poetry is really a delight and a refreshment. To many, perhaps to most, it is not requisite that it should be of the highest degree of merit. Nor, although it be true that the poems which are most famous and most highly prized are works of considerable length, can it be said that the pleasure they give is in any degree proportionate to the extent of their plan. It seems to me that it is only poems of a moderate length, or else portions of the greater works to which I refer, that produce the effect upon the mind and heart which make the charm of this kind of writing. The proper office of poetry, in filling the mind with delightful images and awakening the gentler emotions, is not accomplished on a first and rapid perusal, but requires that the words should be dwelt upon until they become in a certain sense our own, and are adopted as the utterance of our own minds. A collection such as this is intended to be furnishes for this purpose portions of the best English verse suited to any of the varying moods of its readers.
Such a work also, if sufficiently extensive, gives the reader an opportunity of comparing the poetic literature of one period with that of another; of noting the fluctuations of taste, and how the poetic forms which are in fashion during one age are laid aside in the next; of observing the changes which take place in our language, and the sentiments which at different periods challenge the public approbation. Specimens of the poetry of different centuries, presented in this way, show how the great stream of human thought in its poetic form eddies now to the right and now to the left, wearing away its banks first on one side and then on the other. Some author of more than common faculties and more than common boldness catches the public attention, and immediately he has a crowd of followers who form their taste on his and seek to divide with him the praise. Thus Cowley, with his undeniable genius, was the head of a numerous class who made poetry consist in farfetched conceits, ideas oddly brought together, and quaint turns of thought. Pope, following close upon Dryden, and learning much from him, was the
founder of a school of longer duration, which found its models in Boileau and other poets of the reign of Louis XIV., - a school in which the wit predominated over the poetry, -- a school marked by striking oppositions of thought, frequent happinesses of expression, and a carefully balanced modulation, numbers pleasing at first, but in the end fatiguing. As this school degenerated, the wit almost disappeared ; but there was no new infusion of poetry in its place. When Scott gave the public the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and other poems, which certainly, considered as mere narratives, are the best we have, carrying the reader forward without weariness and with an interest which the author never allows to subside, a crowd of imitators pressed after him, the greater part of whom are no longer read. - Wordsworth had, and still has, his school; the stamp of his example is visible on the writings of all the poets of the present day. Even Byron showed himself, in the third canto of Childe Harold, to be one of his disciples, though he fiercely resented being called so.
The same poet did not disdain to learn of Scott in composing his narrative poems, such as the Bride of Abydos and the Giaour, though he could never tell a story in verse without occasional tediousness. In our day the style of writing adopted by eminent living poets is often seen reflected in the verses of their younger contemporaries, sometimes with an effect like that of a face beheld in a tarnished mirror. Thus it is that poets are formed by their influence on one another; the greatest of them are more or less indebted for what they are to their predecessors and their contemporaries.
While speaking of these changes in the public taste, I am tempted to caution the reader against the mistake often made of estimating the merit of one poet by the too easy process of comparing him with another. The varieties of poetic excellence are as great as the varieties of beauty in flowers or in the female face. There is no poet, indeed no author in any department of literature, who can be taken as a standard in judging of others; the true standard is an ideal one, and even this is not the same in all men's minds. One delights in grace, another in strength ; one in a fiery vehemence and enthusiasm on the surface, another in majestic repose and the expression of feeling too deep to be noisy ; one loves simple and obvious images strikingly employed, or familiar thoughts placed in a new light; another is satisfied only with novelties of thought and expression, with uncommon illustrations and images far sought. It is certain that each of these modes of treating a subject may have its peculiar merit, and that it is absurd to require of those whose genius inclines them to one that they should adopt its opposite, or to set one down as inferior to another because he is not of the same class. As well, in looking through an astronomer's telescope at that beautiful phenomenon, double star, in which the twin flames are one of a roseate and the other of a golden tint, might we quarrel with either of them because it is not colored like its fellow. Some of the comparisons made by critics between one poet and
another are scarcely less preposterous than would be a comparison between a river and a mountain.
The compiler of this collection has gone as far back as to the author who may properly be called the father of English poetry, and who wrote while our language was like the lion in Milton's account of the creation, when rising from the earth at the Divine command and
for it was still clogged by the unassimilated portions of the French tongue, to which in part it owed its origin. These were to be thrown aside in after years. The versification had also one characteristic of French verse, which was soon after Chaucer's time laid aside, the mute or final e had in his lines the value of a syllable by itself, especially when the next word began with a consonant. But though these peculiarities somewhat embarrass the reader, he still finds in the writings of the old poet a fund of the good old English of the Saxon fireside, which makes them worthy to be studied, were it only to strengthen our hold on our language. He delighted in describing natural objects which still retained their Saxon names, and this he did with great beauty and sweetness. In the sentiments also the critics ascribe to him a degree of delicacy which one could scarcely have looked for in the age in which he wrote, though at other times he avails himself of the license then allowed. There is no majesty, no stately march of numbers, in his poetry, still less is there of fire, rapidity, or conciseness; the French and Italian narrative poets from whom he learned his art wrote as if the people of their time had nothing to do but to attend to long stories; and Chaucer, who translated from the French the Romaunt of the Rose, though a greater poet than any of those whom he took for his models, made small improvement upon them in this respect. His Troylus and Cryseyde, with but little action and incident, is as long as either of the epics of Homer. The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's best things, have less of this defect; but even there the narrative is over-minute, and the personages, as Taine, the French critic, remarks, although they talk well, talk too much. The taste for this prolixity in narratives and conversations had a long duration in English poetry, since we find the same tediousness, to call it by its true name, in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and his Lucrece, written more than two hundred years later. Yet in the mean time the old popular ballads of England and Scotland had been composed, in which the incidents follow each other in quick succession, and the briefest possible speeches are uttered by the personages. The scholars and court poets doubtless disdained to learn anything of these poets of the people; and the Davideis of Cowley, who lived three hundred years after Chaucer, is as remarkable for the sluggish progress of the story and the tediousness of the harangues as for any other characteristics.
Between the time of Chaucer and that of Sidney and Spenser we find little in the poetic literature of our language to detain our attention. That age produced many obscure versifiers, and metrical romances continued to be written after the fashion of the French and Italian poets, whom Chaucer acknowledged as his masters. During this period appeared Skelton, the poet and jester, whose special talent was facility in rhyming, who rhymed as if he could not help it, — as if he had only to put pen to paper, and the words leaped of their own accord into regular measure with an inevitable jingle at the endings. Meantime our language was undergoing a process which gradually separated the nobler parts from the dross, rejecting the French additions for which there was no occasion, or which could not easily be made to take upon themselves the familiar forms of our tongue. The prosody of English became also fixed in that period; the final e, which so perplexes the modern reader in Chaucer's verse, was no longer permitted to figure as a distinct syllable. The poets, however, still allowed themselves the liberty of sometimes making, after the French manner, two syllables of the terminations tion and ion, so that nation became a word of three syllables and opinion a word of four. The Sonnets of Sidney, written on the Italian model, have all the grace and ingenuity of those of Petrarch. In the Faerie Queene of Spenser it seems to me that we find the English language, so far as the purposes of poetry require, in a degree of perfection beyond which it has not been since carried, and I suppose never will be. A vast assemblage of poetic endowments contributed to the composition of the poem, yet I think it would not be easy to name one of the same length, and the work of a genius equally great, in any language, which more fatigues the reader in a steady perusal from beginning to end. In it we have an invention ever awake, active, and apparently inexhaustible; an affluence of imagery grand, beautiful, or magnificent, as the subject may require ; wise observations on human life steeped in a poetic coloring, and not without touches of pathos; a wonderful mastery of versification, and the aptest forms of expression. We read at first with admiration, yet to this erelong succeeds a sense of satiety, and we lay down the book, not unwilling, however, after an interval, to take it up with renewed admiration. I once heard an eminent poet say that he thought the second part of the Faerie Queene inferior to the first; yet I am inclined to ascribe the remark rather to a falling off in the attention of the reader than in the merit of the work. A poet, however, would be more likely to persevere to the end than any other reader, since in every stanza he would meet with some lesson in his art.
In that fortunate age of English literature arose a greater than Spenser. Let me only say of Shakespeare, that in his dramas, amid certain faults imputable to the taste of the English public, there is to be found every conceivable kind of poetic excellence. At the same time and immediately after him flourished a group of dramatic poets who drew their inspiration from nature and wrote with manly vigor. One would naturally suppose that their example, along with the more illustrious ones of Spenser and Shakespeare, would influence and form the taste of the succeeding age; but almost before they had ceased to claim the attention of the public, and while the eminent divines, Barrow, Jeremy Taylor, and others, wrote nobly in prose with a genuine eloquence and a fervor scarcely less than poetic, appeared the school of writers in versę whom Johnson, by a phrase the propriety of which has been disputed, calls the metaphysical poets, -- a class of wits whose whole aim was to extort admiration by ingenious conceits, thoughts of such unexpectedness and singularity that one wondered how they could ever come into the mind of the author. For what they regarded as poetic effect they depended, not upon the sense of beauty or grandeur, not upon depth or earnestness of feeling, but simply upon surprise at quaint and strange resemblances, contrasts, and combinations of ideas. These were delivered for the most part in rugged diction, and in numbers so harsh as to be almost unmanageable by the reader. Cowley, a man of real genius, and of a more musical versification than his fellows, was the most distinguished example of this school. Milton, born a little before Cowley, and like him an eminent poet in his teens, is almost the only instance of escape from the infection of this vicious style; his genius was of too robust a mould for such petty employments, and he would have made, if he had condescended to them, as ill a figure as his own Samson on the stage of a mountebank. Dryden himself, in some of his earlier poems, appears as a pupil of this school; but he soon outgrew — in great part, at least the false taste of the time, and set an example of a nobler treatment of poetic subjects.
Yet though the genius of Dryden reacted against this perversion of the art of verse, it had not the power to raise the poetry of our language to the height which it occupied in the Elizabethan age. Within a limited range he was a true poet; his imagination was far from fertile, nor had he much skill in awakening emotion, but he could treat certain subjects magnificently in verse, and often where his imagination fails him he is sustained by the vigor of his understanding and the largeness of his knowledge. He gave an example of versification in the heroic couplet, which has commanded the admiration of succeeding poets down to our time, — a versification manly, majestic, and of varied modulation, of which Pope took only a certain part as the model of his own, and, contracting its range and reducing it to more regular pauses, made it at first appear more musical to the reader, but in the end fatigued him by its monotony. Dryden drew scarcely a single image from his own observation of external nature, and Pope, though less insensible than he to natural beauty, was still merely the poet of the drawing-room. Yet he is the author of more happy lines, which have passed into the common speech and are
quoted as proverbial sayings, than any author we have save Shakespeare; Land, whatever may be said in his dispraise, he is likely to be quoted as long