This is the first volume of a series of SELECT ENGLISH CLASSICS whichthe publishers have in course of preparation. The series will include anextensive variety of selections chosen from the different departments ofEnglish literature, and arranged and annotated for the use of classes inschools. It will embrace, among other things, representative specimensfrom all the best English writers, whether of poetry or of prose;selections from English dramatic literature, especially of theeighteenth and nineteenth centuries; choice extracts from the writingsof the great essayists; selections from famous English allegories; avolume of elegies and elegiacal poetry; studies of English prosefiction, with illustrative specimens, etc. Each volume will containcopious notes, critical, explanatory, and biographical, besides thenecessary vocabularies, glossaries, and indexes; and the series whencomplete will present a varied and comprehensive view of all that isbest in English literature. For supplementary reading, as well as forsystematic class instruction, the books will possess many peculiarlyvaluable as well as novel features; while their attractive appearance,combined with the sterling quality of their contents, will commend themfor general reading and make them desirable acquisitions for everylibrary.
There is but one study more interesting than the history of literature,and that is the study of literature itself. That the former should oftenbe mistaken for the latter is scarcely to be wondered at when weconsider the intimate and almost indivisible relationship existingbetween them. Yet, in truth, they are as capable of separateconsideration as are music and the history of music.
The Transition Period
Any careful investigation of the history of English poetry wouldnaturally begin at a point of time some six or seven hundred yearsearlier than that of Chaucer. From such investigation we should learnthat even as early as the ninth century—perhaps, indeed, theeighth—there were in England some composers of verse in the Anglo-Saxontongue; that the songs of these poets were chiefly of religion or ofwar, and that being written in a language very different from our modernEnglish they can scarcely be considered as belonging properly to ourliterature; that among them, however, is a noble poem, “Beowulf,” theoldest epic of any modern people, which was probably sung or recited bypagan minstrels long before it was written down in permanent form; that,after the conquest of England by the Normans, the early language of theEnglish people underwent a long and tedious process of transition,—ablending, in a certain sense, with the Latinized and more polishedtongue of their conquerors,—and that the result was the language whichwe now call English and are proud to claim as our own; that it was aboutthree hundred years after the Norman Conquest, namely, in 1362, thatthis new tongue was officially recognized and authorized to be used inthe courts at law throughout the land; and that about the same timeGeoffrey Chaucer composed and wrote his first poems. We should learn,moreover, that, during the transition period mentioned above, there weremany attempts at writing poetry, resulting in the production of tediousmetrical romances (chiefly translated from the French) and interminablerhyming chronicles, pleasing, of course, to the people of that time, butwholly devoid of poetic excellence and unspeakably dull to modernreaders; that these poems, so called, were little better than rhymeddoggerels, written in couplets of eight-syllabled lines and having fortheir subjects the miraculous deeds of saints and heroes and theoccurrence of supernatural or impossible phenomena; that the composersof these metrical romances and chronicles, although giving free rein tothe imagination, were utterly destitute of poetic fancy and henceproduced no true poetry; that, nevertheless, some writer was now andthen inspired by a flash of real poetic fire, producing a few lines ofremarkable freshness and beauty,—little lyrics shining forth like gemsin the great mass of verbiage and rubbish and foretelling the gloriouspossibilities which were to be realized in the future.
Continuing this most interesting study, we should learn that just at thetime that Chaucer was beginning the composition of his immortal works,there appeared an allegorical poem of considerable length, so earnest intone, so richly imaginative, so full of picturesque descriptions, thatit seemed rather a fulfilment than a prophecy; that this poem—called“The Vision of William concerning Piers Ploughman,” and written by anobscure monk whose name was probably William Langland—was the greatestpoem and the most popular that had ever been written in England, and yetthat it failed in many ways of being true English poetry: its metre wasirregular, and its rhythm was imperfect; its verses instead of rhymingwere constructed in accordance with certain rules of alliteration; itssubjects, while interesting, no doubt, to those for whom it was written,were not such as bring into play the highest powers of the imaginationor incite the poetic fancy to its noblest flights. Then we should learnthat while the ink from good Langland’s pen was yet scarcely dry afterhis third revision of “Piers Ploughman,” Geoffrey Chaucer came forwardwith his sweet imaginings bodied in immortal verse, his tuneful numbers,his “well of English undefiled,”—and English poetry, which now for morethan five centuries has been the chief glory of our literature, had itstrue beginning.
Three Schools of Poetry
Pursuing the study on lines which would now be more distinctly marked,we should observe that Chaucer’s best poetry, as well as that of thepoets who followed him in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, wasdistinguished by its truthfulness to nature, by its expression in heartyand harmonious words of the finer emotions of the soul, and by thefreedom and elasticity of its versification. We should learn that in theseventeenth century this style of poetry—sometimes called theromantic—was succeeded by another and very different fashion in poeticcomposition, introduced into England in imitation of continental andclassical models: that this new style of versification—ignoring natureand making everything subservient to art—was purely artificial,characterized by “an oratorical pomp, a classical correctness, atheatrical dressing, abundance of moralizing”; and that, with Waller forits sponsor and Dryden and Pope for its high priests, it remained for acentury and a half the favorite of the literary world, the model ofpoetic diction, the standard of poetic taste. We should learn that,towards the end of the eighteenth century, certain writers began toperceive that although attention to artistic rules in composition may benecessary to the best poetry, yet natural feeling, a cultivatedimagination, and a fancy unrestrained by merely arbitrary limitationsare even more indispensable; that these writers, rebelling against theestablished order of things, taught that there are elements of truepoetry in the popular ballads of earlier times, that even the wearisomemetrical romances of the Middle Ages are rich in suggestiveness and inmaterials for a nobler poetry, and that, instead of going to theclassics and to society for subjects and models, the poet may find themin nature, in the life which is about him, and in a thousand sourcesnever before suspected. Finally, we should learn that, at the very timewhen great revolutions in politics and philosophy were beinginaugurated, a new spirit thus began to manifest itself in ourliterature,—a spirit of revolt against artificial restrictions andtraditional methods,—which produced a glorious revival in Englishpoetic composition and ushered in a third great school of poetry,distinguished for its breadth and freedom, as that which it supersededhad been known for its elegance and precision.
The History of English Poetry
A study of the development of English poetry such as we have outlinedabove would involve a knowledge of the history of the English people andof the various circumstances and events which from time to timeinfluenced our language and literature. It would also embrace many othertopics, biographical, philological, rhetorical, and speculative, whichhave only a secondary relationship to the central idea of poetry. Infact, it would be a study not of poetry, but about poetry,—of thecircumstances which suggested it, of the men who produced it, and of theorigin of the word-forms and methods of versification which distinguishit. Such a study, altogether interesting and eminently profitable thoughit be, should not be undertaken by any student until he has acquired anextensive personal acquaintance with poetry itself. We may enjoy thebeautiful creations of Tennyson, of Shelley, of Burns, even of Chaucer,without knowing one word of the history of poetry, without so much asknowing the names of the writers or the circumstances under which theywrote. But, on the other hand, to him who knows nothing of themasterpieces of our literature, save at second hand, the history ofEnglish letters must of necessity be dull, uninteresting, and oftenunintelligible. While to him who has prepared himself for its study byfitting himself for an appreciation of these noble creations andbecoming thoroughly imbued with their spirit, what a field of delightfulstudy does it offer!
Object of this Book
Methods of Study
The object of the present compilation is to aid in this preparatorywork,—that is, to offer a plan for promoting the study OF poetry beforethe broader but less important study ABOUT poetry is undertaken. To thisend we present for the student’s consideration a few representativepoems written at different times and by men of widely different tastesand talents during the six centuries which may be said to have elapsedsince the formation of the modern English tongue. Our chief aim is tolead to such a study of these selections as shall help the reader toperceive and appreciate their true poetic qualities and enter into fullsympathy with the thoughts and feelings which their writers intended toexpress. The first object to be sought in the study of these poems isthe perception of those characteristic excellences which have made themuniversally admired and placed them among the classics of our language.To accomplish this object rationally and successfully, it is best tobegin with those productions which are nearest to us in point of timeand which are more in harmony with our own thoughts, and thereforeeasiest to understand and enjoy. An attempt to pursue these studies inchronological order, beginning with the works of Chaucer and the olderpoets, would oblige the student to encounter at the outset so manypurely mechanical difficulties that he would fail to discern thespiritual qualities of truth, beauty, and goodness, which are the veryessence of all genuine poetry. He would very naturally acquire adistaste for poetry long before he was able to understand it, and whilehe might attain to some considerable knowledge of the history ofpoetical literature, that literature itself would remain to himpractically a sealed book. Hence, in the study of this subject, as inthat of other branches, the true method is to present first that whichis the least difficult, to “proceed from the known to the unknown,” tobegin with that which is near at hand and from it to proceed to theconsideration of things more remote. Not only are the most of Tennyson’spoems easily understood, but their beauty is readily apparent even tothe most superficial readers. By the time we have read and extracted allthe sweets from three or four of these, we shall be prepared to go astep farther and undertake the study of Wordsworth’s immortalproductions,—productions but little more difficult and but little lesspoetic. Thus, step by step, we may review the six centuries of Englishpoetry which lie behind, and when at last we reach the time of Chaucerwe shall be able to take hold of his works with understanding and withthe zest which is begotten of true sympathy and appreciation. After thebook has been thus completed, it may be well to run through it again,reversing the order of the lessons and this time considering thesubjects in strict chronological order. Our first study of the book willhave introduced us to English poetry, our second study of it will havegiven us some insight into the history of its development.