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This book is intended for all lovers of poetry and the sister arts, but more especially for those of the most poetical sort, and most especially for the youngest and the oldest: for as the former may incline to it for information's sake, the latter will perhaps not refuse it their good-will for the sake of old favorites. The Editor has often wished for such a book himself; and as nobody will make it for him, he has made it for others.
It was suggested by the approbation which the readers of a periodical work bestowed on some extracts from the poets, commented, and marked with italics, on a principle of co-perusal, as though the Editor were reading the passages in their company. Those readers wished to have more such extracts; and here, if they are still in the mind, they now possess them. The remarks on one of the poems that formed a portion of the extracts (the Eve of Saint Agnes), are repeated in the present volume. All the rest of the matter contributed by him is new.
He does not expect, of course, that every reader will agree with the preferences of particular lines or passages, intimated by the italics. Some will think them too numerous ; some perhaps too few; many who chance to take up the book, may wish there had been none at all ; but these will have the goodness to recollect what has just been stated,—that the plan was suggested by others who desired them. The Editor, at any rate, begs to be considered as having marked the passages in no spirit of dictation to any one, much less of disparagement to all the admirable passages not marked. If he assumed anything at all (beyond what is implied in the fact of imparting experience), it was the probable mutual pleasure of the reader, his companion ; just as in reading out-loud, one instinctively increases one's emphasis here and there, and implies a certain accordance of enjoyment on the part of the hearers. In short, all poetic readers are expected to have a more than ordinary portion of sympathy, especially with those who take pains to please them; and the Editor desires no larger amount of it, than he gratefully gives to any friend who is good enough to read out similar passages to himself.
The object of the book is threefold ;-to present the public with some of the finest passages in English poetry, so marked and commented ;-to furnish such an account, in an Essay, of the nature and requirements of poetry, as may enable readers in general to give an answer on those points to themselves and others ;—and to show, throughout the greater part of the volume, what sort of poetry is to be considered as poetry of the most poetical kind, or such as exhibits the imagination and fancy in a state of predominance, undisputed by interests of another sort. Poetry, therefore, is not here in its compound state, great or otherwise (except incidentally in the Essay), but in its element, like an essence distilled. All the greatest poetry includes that essence, but the essence does not present itself in exclusive combination with the greatest form of poetry. It varies in that respect from the most tremendous to the most playful effusions, and from imagination to fancy through all their degrees ;—from Homer and Dante, to Coleridge and Keats ;-from Shakspeare in King Lear, to Shakspeare himself in the Midsummer Night's Dream; from Spenser's Faerie Queene, to the Castle of Indolence; nay, from Ariel in the Tempest, to his somewhat presumptuous namesake in the Rape of the Lock. And passages,
both from Thomson's delightful allegory, and Pope's paragon of mock-heroics, would have been found in this volume, but for that intentional, artificial imitation, even in the former, which removes them at too great a distance from the highest sources of inspiration.
With the great poet of the Faerie Queene the Editor has taken special pains to make readers in general better acquainted; and in furtherance of this purpose he has exhibited many of his best passages in remarkable relation to the art of the Painter.
For obvious reasons no living writer is included; and some, lately deceased, do not come within the plan. The omission will not be thought invidious in an Editor, who has said more of his contemporaries than most men; and who would gladly give specimens of the latter poets in future volumes.
One of the objects indeed of this preface is to state, that should the Public evince a willingness to have more such books, the Editor would propose to give them, in succession, corresponding volumes of the Poetry of Action and Passion (Narrative and Dramatic Poetry), from Chaucer to Campbell (here mentioned because he is the latest deceased poet); the Poetry of Contemplation, from Surrey to Campbell ;--the Poetry of Wit and Humor, from Chaucer to Byron ; and the Poetry of Song, or Lyrical Poetry, from Chaucer again (see in his works his admirable and only song, beginning
Hide, Absalom, thy gilded tresses clear),
to Campbell again, and Burns, and O'Keefe. These vo. lumes, if he is not mistaken, would present the Public with the only selection, hitherto made, of none but genuine poetry; and he would take care, that it should be unobjectionable in every other respect.*
KENSINGTON, Sept. 10, 1844.
* While closing the Essay on Poetry, a friend lent me Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, which I had not seen for many years, and which I mention, partly to notice a coincidence at page 31 of the Essay, not otherwise worth observation; and partly to do what I can towards extending the acquaintance of the public with a book containing masterly expositions of he art of poetry.