This is the first volume of a series of SELECT ENGLISH CLASSICS which the publishers have in course of preparation. The series will include an extensive variety of selections chosen from the different departments of English literature, and arranged and annotated for the use of classes in schools. It will embrace, among other things, representative specimens from all the best English writers, whether of poetry or of prose; selections from English dramatic literature, especially of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; choice extracts from the writings of the great essayists; selections from famous English allegories; a volume of elegies and elegiacal poetry; studies of English prose fiction, with illustrative specimens, etc. Each volume will contain copious notes, critical, explanatory, and biographical, besides the necessary vocabularies, glossaries, and indexes; and the series when complete will present a varied and comprehensive view of all that is best in English literature. For supplementary reading, as well as for systematic class instruction, the books will possess many peculiarly valuable as well as novel features; while their attractive appearance, combined with the sterling quality of their contents, will commend them for general reading and make them desirable acquisitions for every library.
There is but one study more interesting than the history of literature, and that is the study of literature itself. That the former should often be mistaken for the latter is scarcely to be wondered at when we consider the intimate and almost indivisible relationship existing between them. Yet, in truth, they are as capable of separate consideration as are music and the history of music.
The Transition Period
Any careful investigation of the history of English poetry would naturally begin at a point of time some six or seven hundred years earlier than that of Chaucer. From such investigation we should learn that even as early as the ninth century—perhaps, indeed, the eighth—there were in England some composers of verse in the Anglo-Saxon tongue; that the songs of these poets were chiefly of religion or of war, and that being written in a language very different from our modern English they can scarcely be considered as belonging properly to our literature; that among them, however, is a noble poem, “Beowulf,” the oldest epic of any modern people, which was probably sung or recited by pagan minstrels long before it was written down in permanent form; that, after the conquest of England by the Normans, the early language of the English people underwent a long and tedious process of transition,—a blending, in a certain sense, with the Latinized and more polished tongue of their conquerors,—and that the result was the language which we now call English and are proud to claim as our own; that it was about three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, namely, in 1362, that this new tongue was officially recognized and authorized to be used in the courts at law throughout the land; and that about the same time Geoffrey Chaucer composed and wrote his first poems. We should learn, moreover, that, during the transition period mentioned above, there were many attempts at writing poetry, resulting in the production of tedious metrical romances (chiefly translated from the French) and interminable rhyming chronicles, pleasing, of course, to the people of that time, but wholly devoid of poetic excellence and unspeakably dull to modern readers; that these poems, so called, were little better than rhymed doggerels, written in couplets of eight-syllabled lines and having for their subjects the miraculous deeds of saints and heroes and the occurrence of supernatural or impossible phenomena; that the composers of these metrical romances and chronicles, although giving free rein to the imagination, were utterly destitute of poetic fancy and hence produced no true poetry; that, nevertheless, some writer was now and then inspired by a flash of real poetic fire, producing a few lines of remarkable freshness and beauty,—little lyrics shining forth like gems in the great mass of verbiage and rubbish and foretelling the glorious possibilities which were to be realized in the future.
Continuing this most interesting study, we should learn that just at the time that Chaucer was beginning the composition of his immortal works, there appeared an allegorical poem of considerable length, so earnest in tone, so richly imaginative, so full of picturesque descriptions, that it seemed rather a fulfilment than a prophecy; that this poem—called “The Vision of William concerning Piers Ploughman,” and written by an obscure monk whose name was probably William Langland—was the greatest poem and the most popular that had ever been written in England, and yet that it failed in many ways of being true English poetry: its metre was irregular, and its rhythm was imperfect; its verses instead of rhyming were constructed in accordance with certain rules of alliteration; its subjects, while interesting, no doubt, to those for whom it was written, were not such as bring into play the highest powers of the imagination or incite the poetic fancy to its noblest flights. Then we should learn that while the ink from good Langland’s pen was yet scarcely dry after his third revision of “Piers Ploughman,” Geoffrey Chaucer came forward with his sweet imaginings bodied in immortal verse, his tuneful numbers, his “well of English undefiled,”—and English poetry, which now for more than five centuries has been the chief glory of our literature, had its true 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 the poets who followed him in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was distinguished by its truthfulness to nature, by its expression in hearty and harmonious words of the finer emotions of the soul, and by the freedom and elasticity of its versification. We should learn that in the seventeenth century this style of poetry—sometimes called the romantic—was succeeded by another and very different fashion in poetic composition, introduced into England in imitation of continental and classical models: that this new style of versification—ignoring nature and making everything subservient to art—was purely artificial, characterized by “an oratorical pomp, a classical correctness, a theatrical dressing, abundance of moralizing”; and that, with Waller for its sponsor and Dryden and Pope for its high priests, it remained for a century and a half the favorite of the literary world, the model of poetic diction, the standard of poetic taste. We should learn that, towards the end of the eighteenth century, certain writers began to perceive that although attention to artistic rules in composition may be necessary to the best poetry, yet natural feeling, a cultivated imagination, and a fancy unrestrained by merely arbitrary limitations are even more indispensable; that these writers, rebelling against the established order of things, taught that there are elements of true poetry in the popular ballads of earlier times, that even the wearisome metrical romances of the Middle Ages are rich in suggestiveness and in materials for a nobler poetry, and that, instead of going to the classics and to society for subjects and models, the poet may find them in nature, in the life which is about him, and in a thousand sources never before suspected. Finally, we should learn that, at the very time when great revolutions in politics and philosophy were being inaugurated, a new spirit thus began to manifest itself in our literature,—a spirit of revolt against artificial restrictions and traditional methods,—which produced a glorious revival in English poetic composition and ushered in a third great school of poetry, distinguished for its breadth and freedom, as that which it superseded had been known for its elegance and precision.
The History of English Poetry
A study of the development of English poetry such as we have outlined above would involve a knowledge of the history of the English people and of the various circumstances and events which from time to time influenced our language and literature. It would also embrace many other topics, biographical, philological, rhetorical, and speculative, which have only a secondary relationship to the central idea of poetry. In fact, it would be a study not of poetry, but about poetry,—of the circumstances which suggested it, of the men who produced it, and of the origin of the word-forms and methods of versification which distinguish it. Such a study, altogether interesting and eminently profitable though it be, should not be undertaken by any student until he has acquired an extensive personal acquaintance with poetry itself. We may enjoy the beautiful creations of Tennyson, of Shelley, of Burns, even of Chaucer, without knowing one word of the history of poetry, without so much as knowing the names of the writers or the circumstances under which they wrote. But, on the other hand, to him who knows nothing of the masterpieces of our literature, save at second hand, the history of English letters must of necessity be dull, uninteresting, and often unintelligible. While to him who has prepared himself for its study by fitting himself for an appreciation of these noble creations and becoming thoroughly imbued with their spirit, what a field of delightful study does it offer!
Object of this Book
Methods of Study
The object of the present compilation is to aid in this preparatory work,—that is, to offer a plan for promoting the study OF poetry before the broader but less important study ABOUT poetry is undertaken. To this end we present for the student’s consideration a few representative poems written at different times and by men of widely different tastes and talents during the six centuries which may be said to have elapsed since the formation of the modern English tongue. Our chief aim is to lead to such a study of these selections as shall help the reader to perceive and appreciate their true poetic qualities and enter into full sympathy with the thoughts and feelings which their writers intended to express. The first object to be sought in the study of these poems is the perception of those characteristic excellences which have made them universally admired and placed them among the classics of our language. To accomplish this object rationally and successfully, it is best to begin with those productions which are nearest to us in point of time and which are more in harmony with our own thoughts, and therefore easiest to understand and enjoy. An attempt to pursue these studies in chronological order, beginning with the works of Chaucer and the older poets, would oblige the student to encounter at the outset so many purely mechanical difficulties that he would fail to discern the spiritual qualities of truth, beauty, and goodness, which are the very essence of all genuine poetry. He would very naturally acquire a distaste for poetry long before he was able to understand it, and while he might attain to some considerable knowledge of the history of poetical literature, that literature itself would remain to him practically a sealed book. Hence, in the study of this subject, as in that of other branches, the true method is to present first that which is the least difficult, to “proceed from the known to the unknown,” to begin with that which is near at hand and from it to proceed to the consideration of things more remote. Not only are the most of Tennyson’s poems easily understood, but their beauty is readily apparent even to the most superficial readers. By the time we have read and extracted all the sweets from three or four of these, we shall be prepared to go a step farther and undertake the study of Wordsworth’s immortal productions,—productions but little more difficult and but little less poetic. Thus, step by step, we may review the six centuries of English poetry which lie behind, and when at last we reach the time of Chaucer we shall be able to take hold of his works with understanding and with the zest which is begotten of true sympathy and appreciation. After the book has been thus completed, it may be well to run through it again, reversing the order of the lessons and this time considering the subjects in strict chronological order. Our first study of the book will have introduced us to English poetry, our second study of it will have given us some insight into the history of its development.
It is well to remember, while pursuing this course, that a taste for poetry is not acquired or fostered by an analysis of grammatical forms or by any study of words merely as such. To analyze a puzzling sentence or to trace the derivation of an interesting word to its roots sometimes helps one to understand a difficult expression or to perceive in it a meaning hitherto unsuspected; but to make the study of any selection consist largely of exercises of this kind is to substitute grammar or philology for literature. So, also, should it be borne in mind that while it is often interesting and sometimes necessary to become acquainted with certain details relative to the life of an author—the date of his birth, the character of his education, the influences which shaped his life and his work—yet such knowledge belongs to biography and is in no sense literature. The study of authors should never be substituted for the study of their works, and is usually profitable only so far as it helps the student to understand the peculiarities which distinguish those works and which are the result of certain personal characteristics. And yet it is no uncommon thing to find students acquainted with the minutest particulars in the lives of the great writers, while of the masterpieces of thought and expression, which are the glory of our literature, they betray a deplorable ignorance. Nor is this the case with pupils at school alone. “For once that we take down a Milton, and read a book of that ‘voice,’ as Wordsworth says, ‘whose sound is like the sea,’ we take up fifty times a magazine with something about Milton, or about Milton’s grandmother, or a book stuffed with curious facts about the houses in which he lived, and the juvenile ailments of his first wife.”
In the study of the selections contained in this volume, the following method is recommended:—
1. The piece should be thoroughly committed to memory.
2. It should be recited or read by each member of the class in such manner as to bring out, if possible, his understanding of the meaning of every passage.
3. Study the poem as a whole, and let each pupil point out the beauties of thought or expression which distinguish it as a poetical composition.
4. Now study each stanza, or each independent thought, in its order, and endeavor to understand each word or expression just as the poet intended that it should be understood. The Notes appended to most of the selections are intended rather to suggest the line of study in this regard than to serve as exhaustive aids. The pupil should, so far as possible, investigate for himself and make his own discoveries. Questions concerning the derivation of words and the syntax of sentences are to be discussed only so far as they will aid in the understanding of some passage or of the piece as a whole.
5. Learn some of the most important facts connected with the author’s life. What were the conditions under which he wrote this piece? What was the character of his education and of the other influences which shaped his life and distinguished his works? Learn what some of the leading critics have said concerning his works as a poet.
6. Finally, read the poem again, as a whole, and discuss its qualities as a work of literary art, and again point out its distinctive beauties and characteristic excellences.
The extracts given at the beginning of each Century will serve to keep in mind the leading peculiarities which distinguished the poetry of each period; and the lists of poets and their works will be found valuable for purposes of reference. Before beginning the study of the selections both teacher and pupils should read this Introduction carefully.
“Now appeared the English romantic school, a sect of ‘dissenters in poetry,’ who spoke out aloud, kept themselves close together, and repelled settled minds by the audacity and novelty of their theories. They had violently broken with tradition, and leaped over all classical culture, to take their models from the Renaissance and the middle-age. They sought, in the old national ballads and ancient poetry of foreign lands, the fresh and primitive accent which had been wanting in classical literature, and whose presence seemed to them to be a sign of truth and beauty. They proposed to adapt to poetry the ordinary language of conversation, such as is spoken in the middle and lower classes, and to replace studied phrases and a lofty vocabulary by natural tones and plebeian words. In place of the classic mould, they tried stanzas, sonnets, ballads, blank verse, with the roughness and subdivisions of the primitive poets… . Some had culled gigantic legends, piled up dreams, ransacked the East, Greece, Arabia, the Middle Ages, and overloaded the human imagination with hues and fancies from every clime. Others had buried themselves in metaphysics and moral philosophy, had mused indefatigably on the condition of man, and spent their lives on the sublime and the monotonous. Others, making a medley of crime and heroism, had conducted, through darkness and flashes of lightning, a train of contorted and terrible figures, desperate with remorse, relieved by their grandeur. Men wanted to rest after so many efforts and so much success. On the going out of the imaginative, sentimental, and Satanic school, Tennyson appeared exquisite. All the forms and ideas which had pleased them were found in him, but purified, modulated, set in a splendid style. He completed an age.”—TAINE.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850). See biographical note.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”; “The Lady of the Lake”; “Marmion”; “The Lord of the Isles”; short poems.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). See biographical note.
Robert Southey (1774-1843). “Thalaba”; “Roderick, the last of the Goths”; “Joan of Arc”; “Madoc”; “The Curse of Kehama”; numerous short poems.
Charles Lamb (1775-1834). Chiefly short poems.
Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864). “Gebir”; and other poems.
Thomas Campbell (1777-1844). “Gertrude of Wyoming”; “The Pleasures of Hope”; short poems.
Thomas Moore (1779-1852). “Irish Melodies”; “Lalla Rookh”; “Rhymes on the Road”; “The Loves of the Angels,” etc.
Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). “Francesca Rimini”; “A Legend of Florence”; “Stories in Verse,” etc.
Bryan Waller Procter (“Barry Cornwall”) (1787-1874). “A Sicilian Story”; “English Songs,” etc.
Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel) (1788-1824). “Childe Harold”; “The Giaour”; “Bride of Abydos”; “The Corsair”; “Lara”; “Hebrew Melodies”; “Siege of Corinth”; “Parisina”; “Manfred”; “Don Juan,” etc.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). See biographical note.
John Keats (1795-1821). See biographical note.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845). Numerous short poems, chiefly humorous.
Lord Macaulay (1800-1859). “Lays of Ancient Rome.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1809-1861). “Prometheus Bound”; “Casa Guidi Windows”; “Sonnets from the Portuguese”; “Aurora Leigh”; “Poems before Congress”; “Last Poems.”
Alfred Tennyson (Lord Tennyson) (1809-). See biographical note.
Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) (1809-1885). “Historical Poems”; “Poetry for the People”; “Poems of Many Years.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889). “Christmas Eve and Easter Day”; “Men and Women”; “The Ring and the Book”; “Balaustion’s Adventure”; “Fifine at the Fair”; “Aristophanes’ Apology,” etc.
William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1813-1865). “Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers”; “Ballads of Scotland,” etc.
Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861). “The Bothie”; “Ambarvalia,” etc.
Charles Kingsley (1819-1875). “Andromeda”; many short poems.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1889). “The Strayed Reveller and other Poems”; “Balder.”
Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864). “Legends and Lyrics”; “A Chaplet of Verses.”
Robert Bulwer-Lytton (“Owen Meredith”) (1831-1892). “Lucile”; “Marah,” etc.