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The first questiơn which I asked myself, when I resumed a purpose long ago entertained, and then for a long while laid aside, of publishing such a selection of English Poetry as the present, was this, namely, whether Mr. Palgrave by his Golden Treasury had not so occupied the ground that there was no place for one who should come after. The selection is one made with so exact an acquaintance with the sources from which such a Treasury as his should be replenished, with so fine a taste in regard of what should be admitted there, that this was the conclusion to which at the first I was disposed to arrive. But on further consideration I saw reason to change my mind. The volume which I meditated was on so different a scheme and plan from his, that, while no doubt I should sometimes go over ground which he had gone over before, it seemed likely that for the most part our paths would be different, and the poems which I should select not identical with those already chosen by him. This to so great an extent has proved the case, that of more than three hundred pieces which compose this volume, less than sixty have appeared in his. And it is easy to perceive how this should be. His is a Treasury of the best Songs and lyrical Poems in the English Language, and of these exclusively; but within this circle he proposes to include all which is of first-rate excellence in our language by authors not living. My scheme is at once broader and narrower: broader, in that I limit myself to no one particular class of poetry, and include the living no less than the dead; narrower, while I make no attempt to be exhaustive, or to give more than a very few samples of poets who would easily have yielded me ten or twenty times as much, and of a quality not inferior to that on which my choice has fallen.
But if Mr. Palgrave had not forestalled me, I certainly did not feel that any other had so done. Most of the collections which have fallen under my eye have failed to leave the impression of being the result of investigation at first hand, on the part of the collector, into the treasures of our English Poetry. There is so much there which invites citation, and which has never been cited yet in any of our popular anthologies, that it is difficult to think that any one who had himself wandered in this garden of riches would not have carried off some flowers and fruits of his own gathering; instead of offering to us again, as most do, though it may be in somewhat different combinations, what already has been offered by others. When I see, for example, ‘ Queen and huntress chaste and fair,' doubtless a very graceful lyric, with one or two other familiar poems, doing duty in one collection after anoother as the specimens of Ben Jonson's verse, it is hard
to suppose that his rich and pleasant Underwood has been wandered through; since in that case something which others have not brought already would surely have been brought away from thence; the same constant recurrence of the same from other poets provoking a similar misgiving. Whatever merit or demerit this may imply, the volume here presented lays claim to a certain originality,—or, if that word cannot in this matter be allowed,—to a certain independence of selection. There has not, indeed, been any attempt, as certainly I have no desire, to reverse the general judgment and decision about the great poems of the language. He who should offer to do this would merely betray his own presumption, and his unfitness for even so humble a task as that which is here attempted. But in poems of a very high merit, which yet do not attain to the highest rank of all, there is ample space for the play of an independent judgment, and I have not hesitated to exercise this. Many, which almost all collections have hitherto contained, will be looked for in vain in this; not a few which, so far as I know, none have found room for, have been included in it. It is not always that I have considered what I bring forward better than what to make place for it I set aside; but where I have only counted it as good, it has seemed a real gain to put new treasures within the reach of those who are little able, or, if able, are little likely, to go and discover such for themselves. But in very many instances I feel sure that what I have admitted is not merely as good, but better than that which, to make room for it, has been displaced; nor has it been a slight satisfaction to draw from obscure retreats, or from retreats only familiar to those who have made English Poetry more or less of a special study, and acquainted themselves with its bye ways no less than its high ways, poems which deserve much better than that complete oblivion into which they had fallen.
I would gladly have kept this volume within a moderate siže, merely by the excluding from it of everything of secondary value; but it will be evident to all who are at all acquainted with the inexhaustible opulence of English Poetry that I could only do this by continual acts of self-denial; having, at every step of my progress, to set my seal to the truth of that Eastern proverb, 'You may bring a nosegay to the city, but you cannot bring the garden.' To bring the nosegay is all which in this anthology I have attempted. Had I allowed this volume to grow to a larger bulk, this would have defeated my hopes that it might be one which the emigrant, finding room for little not absolutely necessary, might yet find room for in his trunk, and the traveller in his knapsack; and that on some narrow shelves where there are few books this might be one. But indeed the actual amount which such a volume may contain, whether it be more or less, is of slighter consequence in our eyes, when once we have apprehended that Horace was only under the mark when he affirmed of good poetry that ten times repeated it will please. It would be truer to say of a