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Among the various means of instruction which we possess, there cannot be a doubt that book-reading occupies a prominent and important place, and to attain the effect desired, claims the serious attention of the teacher. In order that the pupil may be enabled to garner up the knowledge thence derived, the selections for reading should be made with a constant view to unity of purpose and arranged according to their natural order. The various subjects thus grouped and classified should be studied by the pupil in such a manner as to render him sensible of their necessary connection and, by constantly comparing them, to give him a faithful impression both of their relative value and of the whole composing this great variety of individual parts.
But unfortunately the reverse of this too often takes place. A multitude of unconnected facts, fortuitously gathered from desultory reading, jostle one another in the mind in chaotic confusion, and render the understanding turbid instead of enlightening it. To guide the pupil therefore in the selection of his readings is not less important than to teach him the laws of a language, by which he is enabled to arrive at the meaning of the words.
For the upper classes of schools so little has been done in this way that they have been compelled to have recourse to the complete works of modern English authors; thus occasioning a needless waste of time and trouble, the perfect and the imperfect models of style being studied without discrimination, and a far smaller portion of the richer treasures of English literature falling to the pupil's share than he might otherwise enjoy; his knowledge of English life, customs, manners and feeling is needlessly stinted; nor is he so well able to appreciate and to enter into such elements of thought and action as may be termed peculiarly English.
If the study of modern languages may lay claim to intrinsic value, and an honourable position in our educational establishments equal to that of the classic languages, they should be taught so as to impart, with the language, both the general information possessed by the respective people, and their history, which is always found embodied in their literature. The language of a people elucidates only one point of its existence, is inseparable from it, and becomes, as it were, the corporeal mind of the nation; whilst the various phases of that mind indicate the nation's history. Hence the teaching of a language imparts not the language alone, but-and this more particularly-furnishes the pupil with a key to the civilization, the social habits and the political organization of the people, all of which are most faithfully reflected in the national literature.
Herrig, British Auth.
This national literature can only be taught in our schools by a method which will at once impart the material of which it consists, at least in its leading features. A mere abstract of reasoning would only lead to vague and fruitless speculation. We require a book that shall furnish us with the original true colours for the national picture, we must hear the orator deliver his harangue in the senate and on the platform, we must feel political parties grow hot in their controversy, we must watch the rural sport on the village green and listen to the country maiden's evening song; the rich and the poor, the powerful and the humble, the wise and good, as well as the low and scurrilous must pass before our eyes, each arrayed in his own dress and speaking his own language. Then we shall not only have learned words, rules of grammar and a literature, but we shall have comprehended the innermost being and spirit of a nation.
Encouraged by the advice of several friends I ventured, several years ago, to publish a class-book of English national literature for the students. of our schools, in chronological order. By this method the gradual development of the English language and literature may be duly traced by the reader; whilst by subdivisions of the great historical periods, the different kinds of composition also are distinguished, showing the relative importance of individual writers in each period, as well as their full influence in the general field of literature; and I hope thus to have exhibited the matter in its clearest possible light and to have attained that degree of perfection so essentially desirable in our school-books.
The present complication, of course, affords no place for ancient English literature. It has been my object to give an historical organism of English literature, by pieces carefully selected and arranged in chronological order, so that all changes and peculiar features may readily be traced in the respective specimens. And where pieces were too long or tedious to be inserted at full length, I have selected such parts as were complete in themselves-taking care that the characteristics of the author, and of his time, should in each be duly preserved. I have felt compelled, in certain instances, to omit passages offensive in a moral point of view, in order to render the work as pure as I trust it will be found useful and promotive of the interest now so generally felt for the treasures of English literature.
It is in the very nature of a compilation like the present, that it should approach to perfection by degrees; we may remain true to one principle, and yet, when the store from which we select is so vast as that of the whole Literature of a nation, alterations may be made in innumerable instances without materially affecting the character of the work. In this new edition several improvements have been made. The work has been supplemented by a concise but tolerably complete historical outline of English literature; and some useful notes have been appended to the text.