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LECTURE ON ENGLISH POETRY BEFORE

THE TIME OF MILTON.

LECTURE

ON

ENGLISH POETRY,

BEFORE THE

TIME OF MILTON.

The review of literature in its early ages is an occupation probably as useful as it is interesting. We may thence gather considerable information of the manners and intelligence of the times, and obtain an insight into those domestic habits and popular pursuits which escape the eye or do not enter into the design of the historian. It is only when the feelings and observations of our ancestors are known, when we see the models by which their opinions were formed, or the objects that excited their admiration, that we can properly appreciate their actions; and thus, while we obtain from history an account of public events and public characters, it is from the more

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diffuse but popular records of contemporary literature that we discern those many circumstances of society that are wanting to give a proper tone and color to the picture of the period, and finish that bold sketch of which history is the grand outline.

There are perhaps few branches of literature more calculated to supply part of this information than poetry. While we occasionally meet with subjects furnished and adorned wholly by the imagination, we more often see poetic genius dwelling on realities, discoursing of the ambitions, or heightening the affections of mankind ; painting in glowing colors whatever prominently excites our hopes or fears, our desire or our hatred, yet still affording an index of common opinion, and presenting us with images of those motives and passions by which human nature is impelled. In proportion as the author is confined to subjects that fall under his actual observation, the manners and usages of real life are interwoven with, and become the principal of his theme, and the persons of his fictions are endued with the same views that influence the common mass around him; they have the same superstitions, the same prejudices, and there is an impress of reality in the design that even the least reflective must appreciate.

It was in poetry, rude as the times in which it arose, that the early traditions of most nations were preserved. Nay, even, in the primitive world, the precepts of the

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