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THE present volume is intended to supply a deficiency which has long existed, and which has been in some measure felt, in the apparatus for rhetorical instruction, and especially in that for the education of young ladies. When it is considered that an intimate acquaintance with true poetry has a direct tendency to refine the taste, to soften the affections, to strengthen the imagination and improve the understanding, it seems somewhat surprising that so little room has been allotted to this important as well as delightful branch of study in the books of elementary instruction. When it is farther considered how essential is the practice of poetical reading to the acquisition of a graceful, easy, and impressive style in reading prose, it is evident, that notwithstanding the remarkable improvements which have been made in some of the class books now used in this country, there still remains, in this respect, a very great deficiency. The poetry which they contain bears no proportion to the prose, and of course cannot afford the pupil a great variety, either in subject, versification, rythm, or in the general character of the pieces selected. It is, indeed, a deficiency, which it requires a separate volume fully to supply, and which could not well be avoided in a class book, without at the same time rendering it inadequate to the accomplishment of the other purposes for which it is designed.
The Editor has endeavoured, in the present volume, entirely to remedy this imperfection. But he has a higher object than this: he aims to present the pupil with what may be called a book of practical poetical rhetoric; a volume which shall refine and regulate the taste and prepare the youthful mind to judge for itself, and to relish with discrimination, whatever is beautiful in the whole compass of English poetry. For this purpose, the greatest care and the nicest judgment have been exercised in making the selections. Not a piece has been
admitted, which is not in itself a gem, worthy to be committed to memory by the pupil, and made the object of thoughtful and minute examination. L'ame se méle a tout.
In order to make the poetry itself more interesting, and to excite the curiosity of the pupil in the pursuit of a branch of biographical study in the highest degree elegant and useful, it has been judged best to prefix some sketch, however concise, of the life or character of most of the poets, to the specimens selected from their works; and, that the pupil may be guided in making a correct estimate of their individual merits, a few critical remarks, descriptive of particular characteristics, have in most cases been added. For these, the Editor is often indebted to the poet Campbell, who unites to his own original genius, an exquisite taste, strong feeling, a philosophic acuteness of discrimination, and a noble impartiality in criticising the productions of other minds. In regard to the extracts which have been made from his critical writings, the Editor only regrets that the necessary limits of his volume did not permit him to adorn it with more passages of the same character.
Both the biographical and critical notices are designed likewise to serve as a germ for the additional remarks of the instructer, in pursuing with his pupils the farther study of the personal and poetical character of each author, with the reciprocal influence, which his own genius and the character of his age may have exerted upon each other. That such a course of study ought in some measure to be adopted, wherever it is an object to make the pupil in a good degree acquainted with English literature, especially its poetical department, (and where is it not?) might easily be made evident.
It is a little singular that we should use so much caution with our children in early life to make them familiar with the purest classic models of the prose style in their native tongue, while in the formation of a relish for what is truly beautiful in poetry, they are left almost completely to themselves, without direction or assistance. Yet this latter taste is more nice in its character, more difficult to be attained, and more likely to be vitiated, than the relish for what is excellent in prose; while at the same time it exerts an influence not
less sure, though more delicate and imperceptible, in the growth and accomplishment of the mind, and in enabling the pupil to acquire a habit of expressing his own thoughts in easy, idiomatic, and forcible language.
Such is the object of the present work. It embraces rich specimens of poetry in the English language, from the father of English verse, down to the present time; and it is confidently believed, that the gradual study of this volume cannot fail to aid essentially in producing that just and delicate perception and enjoyment of the excellence of poetry in general, and of the respective merits of individual poets, which at present is an accomplishment so rarely to be found. It is hoped that an edition of Paradise Lost may soon be published, with notes sufficiently copious and plain to make that likewise a book of study and keen relish, where it is now unknown, or only ignorantly admired and wondered at.
The Editor had intended at first to prefix to this volume a short and plain sketch of the early rise and progress of English poetry, from the period during which it formed the only ray of intellect in the English nation, till it became incorporated as an original and prominent part of our native literature, and to trace particularly the progressive changes in its moral character. Upon consideration, it was found that such a history must exclude either the notices of biography and criticism entirely, or a good part of the poetical specimens. Should it hereafter be judged fit, such a sketch may be prepared in another volume, or introduced into a second edition of this.
It is believed that one great excellence of this book will be found in the purity of its moral influence. It has been the endeavour of the Editor, not only to exclude from these pages every poem and every line which might be injurious or even doubtful in its tendency, but to give them a decided tone of piety. Wherever the rare union of a religious and poetical spirit could be found, he has eagerly availed himself of his privilege, to select pieces not merely moral in principle, but devotional in feeling. At the same time there will be observed a great degree of variety in the character of his selections,
from the deeply pathetic and devotional, to the humorous and droll; for it has been his object to present, if possible, a specimen from every good department, in the whole range of poetical subjects.
He has also endeavoured, for the benefit and instruction of the pupil, to characterize as minutely as might be in his critical remarks, the moral qualities and merits of each poet. A very difficult task, and one which perhaps he has not performed as rigidly as could be wished. The poets have hitherto been almost a privileged people so far as it may be considered a privilege to transgress the dictates of piety without reproach. Wherever they have not been guilty of outrageous license, their inaccuracies in morality have been passed by as matters of course; and many a sentiment has been admitted almost with applause in a line of elegant poetry, which would have been rejected with strong censure had it appeared in plain prose. This fact makes the impious or immoral poet far more criminal, and should make the virtuous reader more anxiously watchful;-watchful lest under the garb of innocent and cultivated pleasure, he receive into his bosom what, in the strong language of scripture, will bite like a serpent, and sting like an adder.
It was the Editor's intention to have added to a sketch of the history of poetry, a plan for poetical reading and study; but the judicious care of an instructer will make such a work needless. Of the higher poets, Spenser, Milton, Thomson, Collins, Goldsmith, Gray, Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Campbell, and notwithstanding his inequalities, Young, are those whose works the pupil should study with diligence, to form and sustain a perfectly pure and elevated taste. These are to be studied; but without excluding the poets who may perhaps be ranked together in a second class, such as Rogers, Scott, Grahame &c, whose writings are so beautiful, that they may always be perused with benefit and pleasure; though at the same time they do not possess that character of profound and elevated genius, which belongs preeminently to the former. An intellectual relish thus formed and supported, will be the source of more exquisite delight as well as virtuous feeling, (which indeed is in itself the sublimest pleasure,) than if the mind possessed an infinite range of mingled
and many coloured poetry, to dip into with superficial haste. A taste so cultivated will be in no danger of perversion from that which is immoral or unnatural in its character; for it will reject such with instinctive disgust. A mind imbued with the spirit of the noble writers who have just been mentioned, will expel one or two of the most celebrated modern poets, and some likewise of the ancient, entirely from its collection, without any regret, except for the melancholy waste of genius; since it will scarcely love the most beautiful poetry, if that be dark with passion, or uninfused with pure and affectionate thought.
The Editor would be sorry to hear it objected to his book, that its contents are above the capacity of those, for whom particularly it is intended; for such a remark would indicate but a poor conception of the business and purposes of education. It is his object, as far as possible, in so short a compass, to form and elevate the taste and judgment of his youthful readers; and such an object could hardly be gained by giving them a volume of extracts exactly on a level with their present attainments. He has accordingly, in making his selections, been guided exclusively by the desire of having their poetical and moral spirit as intense and pure as possible; whatever might be the depth of understanding, the refinement of wisdom, or the richness of philosophy displayed in them. If any piece be found which the pupil cannot comprehend, it is the duty the instructer to explain its meaning, and teach the youthful mind to appreciate its beauty.
Besides this, it was intended that the volume should be found suitable for a parlour companion, and full of enjoyment to the man of genius and taste, in bringing again to his view the delightful passages he has so often dwelt upon with pleasure.
The book opens with an extract from Chaucer, because it was thought proper to give the pupil a view of English Poetry from its very commencement. The extract from Allan Ramsay is introduced rather for the intellectual pleasure of the reader, and as a curious specimen of the Scotch poetic dialect, than as an exercise in reading aloud, for which its Scotticisms will perhaps render it unsuitable.