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This book is designed to serve as a kind of compendium or manual, not only for students and teachers, but for the general reader who takes interest in the materials and history of the higher English poetry, and seeks a simple statement of its principles in relation to life, conduct, and art.
In the preface to a little volume, entitled the Poetry of the People, I have said that the poetry of refined self-consciousness and deliberate art, the poetry that requires analysis, should not be forced down the throats of children. The love of poetry should precede the study of it. Ballads, poems of national history and sentiment, songs and lays that were ever on the lips of our forefathers because they sprang from the heart, — the poetry of the people, in short, — should be made familiar to our children, because it is simple, ingenuous, manly, redolent of national tradition and fitted to inculcate national ideals in the rising generation. Such poetry is enjoyed and loved ; and learned because it is a joy to learn it. So a gateway is opened to the Courts of Song, where once admitted the novitiate turns not back. He presses from cloisters of far-heard melody to the chanting choir; the echoing clerestory calls to his imagination ; his sense is ravished and his soul refined with ever new delight. The poetry of the people appeals to the communal consciousness and the untutored taste. The one it welds, the other fashions. The poetry of art is the poetry of the individual, of personal effort or thought, of yearnings rarely all comprehended and less than half expressed, of conscious idealization, of social themes made spiritual. Sometimes it is the criticism of life, sometimes of manners; sometimes the genial mirroring of the truth, sometimes the smile that plays upon its face — that mocks, but mocking enlightens and diverts. Suggestive and allusive, and elusive too, its pleasure is not bounded by the melody, but is in the counterpoint and thorough-bass and over-tones. It is of the poet of simpler kind that the Bard of Venusia writes
Os tenerum pueri balbumque poeta figurat,
and of the poet who has become more conscious of a social aim —
Mox etiam pectus praeceptis format amicis,
Instruit exemplis —
inopem solatur et aegrum.
The poetry of art comforts, heartens, and uplifts; illumines life and purifies, creates, and recreates. Such poetry calls for study that it may be understood, and so enjoyed. And it is with such poetry that this volume deals.
When the Macmillan Company asked me to collaborate in preparing a book planned by Mr. Young, - a book which aimed to print with running historical and critical comment the poems required for entrance to most American colleges, — and to write an introduction thereto on the principles of poetry, I felt that I could not well refuse. For the book was to appear whether I chose to be the collaborator or not; and it was of just the design that I had long hoped I might see realized. There had been collections of poems by the score, with notes and without, and many histories of English literature in general, but no volume of poetry and the special history of poetry in one. There had been independent and exhaustive treatises on poetics, but very few adapted to the use of schools and of the general reader, and none accompanied by the historical and poetic material from which the principles were drawn and to which they might be directly applied.
The chance to collaborate in a history of poetry certified by the • masterpieces themselves, limited to the greatest poets and to the
simplest purpose, and to set some brief outline of a poetic creed before a body of readers, ingenuous, because not yet perverted by wrong teaching, or at any rate because still desirous of learning, - such a chance I felt that I had no right to forego. The practical experience of my colleague, his scholarship and assiduity, have rendered the whole task pleasant, - profitable also, let us hope, to those for whom it was undertaken.
At the request of Mr. Young, and with his coöperation, I have attempted in what follows to outline the method of this volume. The introduction on the Principles of Poetry aims to answer the questions that inevitably arise when poetry is the subject of discussion, and to give the questioner a grasp upon the essentials necessary to appreciation and to the formation of an independent judgment. Hence the discussion of the relation of art to nature, and of literature to art; of poetry to literature, and of verse and prose to poetry; of the creative or imaginative expression in poetry proper, and of its association with rhetoric and logic; of rhythm and metre, melody, harmony, and structural form in verse, and the relation of all these to the organic principles of speech; of the kinds of poetry, ballad and epic, reflective and descriptive recital, lyric, elegy, and ode, drama, pastoral and idyl, satire and philosophical poem, and the æsthetic conditions precedent to and attendant upon each in turn; finally, of poetic tests and of the terminology of such criticism as the general reader is likely to consider or apply. This portion of the book should be mastered by the teacher, and retailed to younger pupils as occasion offers and discretion dictates. By the more advanced student it should be read, as a whole, sometime during the course, for it presents a system ; and it should be applied continually in the appraisement of poems as they are studied.
The chapters on the Progress of English Poetry aim to focus in one study the theory, history, and practice of the art. Some years ago it was customary in school, and too frequently in college, to teach a catalogue of names and dates and barren biographies under the style of History of Literature, — little attention being paid to the masterpieces of prose and poetry that gave the names, dates, and biographies a raison d'être. Yesterday the pendulum had swung almost to the other extreme and Doctor Syntaxes, in search of the “pedagogesque," not infrequently would light upon High School pupils, and graduates, too, who displayed commendable familiarity with The Ancient Mariner or Lycidas, the Elegy in a Country Churchyard or The Rape of the Lock, but had not the vaguest idea of the lives or periods of the respective authors. Burns, Wordsworth, Milton, Pope, Chaucer, and Spenser might all have been contemporaries in the latter half of the nineteenth century, for all the rising generation cared. The unwarranted and absurd reduction of the spelling used by authors of widely separate age to a common level of modernity was partly to blame ; but more still, the lack of all attempt on the part of those in educational authority to connect our poetry with the social and historical conditions from which it springs.
As a corrective to these one-sided tendencies none but the most important poets are here represented or even inentioned. These and their poems have been grouped in the literary periods to which they successively belong. The account of each author has been introduced by a more general account of the characteristics and tendencies of his age ; and, in the special criticism of the poems by which he is represented (whether in the text or the Notes), consideration has been given not only to his personal and historical conditions, but to the relation of his work to poetic principles and the development of national literature. It will, naturally, be found necessary, when dealing with High School pupils, to read the poems in order of simplicity — as outlined below. But even so, the reading of the biographies concerned should precede the reading of the poem; and so far as possible the literary and historical period should be characterized. At the end of the course, — say during the last term of the senior year, — the history should be read in review from beginning to end, and supplemented by some larger treatise on the development of English literature ; its relation to social and political history, and the history of literary types. For the cultivation of the historical sense is no less important than that of the æsthetic, the moral, the spiritual. Without the former the latter are out of alignment.
While this book attempts to cover as much as possible of the poetry — save the Shakespearian drama, the epic, and the metrical romance, of which numerous excellent editions already exist required for admission, not to one, but to all of our American colleges or universities, it has also included such other poems