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A New Volume of Selections from the Poets demands a few words of explanation from the Editor, as to the plan of the work.
The character of the old “ Elegant Extracts,” which have now fallen into oblivion, was greatly modified by the literary taste which prevailed at the time of their publication.
When Goldsmith in his Essays was writing criticisms depreciating Shakspeare, and Dr. Johnson, in his “Lives of the Poets," was declaring, that if he were asked to point out the finest passage in English poetry, he did not know what he could prefer to some lines from Congreve's “Mourning Bride,” which can scarcely be said to be poetry at all, it was no wonder that the compilers of Poetry Books should conform to the taste of the age, and mix with much sterling matter, a far larger quantity of worthless rhyme.
Although many volumes of selections have lately been published, the Editor believes that the present work is not identical in its character with any of them; and he ventures to hope that it may be welcomed as an addition to the Books of the same description which have already appeared, and not be looked upon as a rival to any one of them.
Whatever defects may be found in the Volume must be attributed entirely to the taste of the Editor;-he had in the course of his reading marked a considerable number of Poems as the basis of a book, and this is, therefore, not a selection from other selections. but is derived from the perusal of the authors themselves from whom the extracts are drawn.
The space at the Editor's disposal has compelled him to exclude Dramatic Poetry; but many of the Sonnets and Lyrical Poems of Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and other great Dramatists, will be found in these pages.
With the exception of two or three of the old Ballads, the selection has been confined to the Poets from Spenser to the present time.
The Editor hopes that the character of the book may make it a welcome companion to readers of all ages and of all temperaments. Of all kinds of composition, Poetry is that which gives to the lovers of it the greatest and most enduring pleasure, and almost every one of them can heartily respond to the beautiful words of one who was not only a great Poet, but a profound philosopher, Coleridge-who, speaking of the delight which he had experienced in writing his Poems, says-“Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward.' It has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the Good and the Beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me.” *
The essential requisites of good Poetry are Simplicity and Truth. By Simplicity is not to be understood nakedness, but that direct mode of appealing to the sympathies or affections, which is an invariable characteristic of the greatest writers.
This directness does not exclude the exercise of fancy and imagination, but, in fact, increases their effect on the mind. Percy, in his " Reliques,” mentions a fragment of an old Ballad, where the description is the reverse of prosaic, although it is as concise as prose.
* Preface to Poems, page xix., Moxon's Edition.
The passage runs thus (speaking of an old man):
“Down his neck his reverend lockes
In comelye curls did wave ;
The blossoms of the grave.” * Another instance of condensation and, at the same time, full descripcription in Poetry, occurs in Paradise Lost, Book 5, line 479:
- “So from the root
Spirits odorous breathes." In this exquisite passage the whole plant is presented to the eye as vividly as in a picture.
The second requisite, Truth, is even more indispensable, without it no kind of writing is valuable, and the higher the nature of the composition the more lifeless and worthless will it appear in the absence of this quality. It is owing to their fidelity to nature that the great Poets have taken such strong hold on our minds; and to this characteristic is to be attributed the affection with which they have been regarded by all lovers of Poetry, and the delight with which their names are repeated even by those who are not familiar with their works.
The following passage by Coleridge, describing a scene which almost every reader has witnessed, may serve as an instance of this strict adherence to Nature and Truth, without any neglect of the beauties of poetic diction;
“ The mother with anticipated glee
Smiles o'er the child, that, standing by her chair
* Percy's Reliques, Vol. 2, p. 155. ED. 1765.
And flattening its round cheek upon her knee,
Then is she tenfold gladder than before.” * As human nature is the same in all ages, the descriptions of the great writers touch us as nearly as they touched their first readers; -Homer and the Greek Dramatists still exercise an irresistible control over the minds of men; and our own great Poets were perhaps never so thoroughly appreciated as they are now; though we may reasonably look forward to a time when (from the general spread of education, and the consequent increase of intellectual refinement) the number of their readers and admirers shall be many-fold greater than at present.
Henry IVth of France is said to have expressed a wish that every peasant in his kingdom could have a fowl on his table. We may reasonably anticipate a time when every man shall receive an education which shall give him the power of reading the works of our great authors. As the necessary business of life demands some relaxation, it is surely better that the sweet society of books and music should be chosen, than those coarser pleasures to which uncultivated minds resort in the absence of refined enjoyments. Dr. Johnson wisely observes, “Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.” + Let us hope that what has already been effected in this
* "The Blossoming of the Solitary Date Tree.”
+ Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.