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T would be doing injustice to the compiler of this volume to suppose
gies already published in this country. Dana's “Household Book of Poetry” is no misnomer; and the honored names of Bryant and Emerson are a sufficient guaranty for “Parnassus” and the “Library of Song.” With no thought of superseding or even of entering into direct competition with these large and valuable collections, it has been my design to gather up in a comparatively small volume, easily accessible to all classes of readers, the wisest thoughts, rarest fancies, and devoutest hymns of the metrical authors of the last three centuries. To use Shelley's definition of poetry, I have endeavored to give something like “a record of the best thoughts and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds.” The plan of my work has compelled me to confine myself, in a great measure, to the lyrical productions of the authors quoted, and to use only the briefer poems of the old dramatists and such voluminous writers as Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Cowper, Pope, Byron, Scott, Wordsworth, and the Brownings. Of course, no anthology, however ample its extracts, could do justice to the illimitable genius of Shakespeare.
It is possible that it may be thought an undue prominence has been given to the poetry of the period beginning with Cowper and reaching down to Tennyson and his living contemporaries. But it must be considered that the last century bas been prolific in song; and, if Shakespeare and Milton still keep their unapproachable position, “ souls like stars that dwell apart," there can be little doubt that the critical essayist of the twentieth century will make a large advance upon the present estimate, not only of Cowper and Burns, but of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Tennycon, and Emerson.
It will be seen that the middle of the sixteenth century is the earliest date of my citations. The great name of Chaucer does not appear ; and some of the best of the early ballad poetry of England and Scotland has been reluc
tantly omitted. James I., whose Queen's Quhair has hidden his kingly crown under the poet's garland, William Dunbar, and Sackville, Earl of Dorset, may well be thought worthy of a place in any collection of English verse, but the language and rhythm of these writers render them wellnigh unintelligible to the ordinary reader.
The selections I have made indicate, in a general way, my preferences; but I have not felt at liberty to oppose my own judgment or prejudice to the best critical authorities, or to attempt a reversal of the verdicts of Time. It would be too much to hope that I have, in all cases, made the best possible exposition of an author's productions. Judging from my own experience in looking over selected poems, I cannot doubt that my readers will often have occasion to question the wisdom of my choice, and regret the omission of favorite pieces. It is rarely that persons of equal capacity for right judging can be found to coincide entirely in regard to the merits of a particular poem. The canons of criticism are by no means fixed and infallible; and the fashion of poetry, like that of the world, “passeth away.” Not only every age, but every reader, holds the right of private judgment. It would be difficult for any literary inquisitor-general to render a good reason for condemning as a heretic the man who finds the “Castle of Indolence” pleasanter reading than the “Faerie Queene,” who prefers Cowper to Dryden, Scott to Byron, and Shelley to Scott, who passes by Moore's “
“Lalla Rookh” to take up Clough's “Bothie of Tober-na Vuolich," who thinks Emerson's “
Threnody” better than Milton's "Lycidas,” and who would not exchange a good old ballad or a song of Burns for the stateliest of epics.
The considerable space which I have given to American authors will, I trust, find its justification in the citations from their writings. The poetical literature of our country can scarcely be said to have a longer date than that of a single generation. As a matter of fact, the very fathers of it are still living. It really commenced with Bryant's “Thanatopsis” and Dana's “ Buccaneer.” The grave, philosophie tone, chaste simplicity of language, freedom of versification, and freshness and truth of illustration, which marked the former poem, and the terse realism of the “ Buccaneer," with its stern pictures of life and nature drawn with few strokes sharp and vigorous as those of Retzsch’s outlines, left the weak imitators of an artificial school without an audience. All further attempts to colonize the hills and pastures of New England from old mythologies were abandoned ; our boys and girls no longer figured in impossible pastorals. If we have no longer ambitious Columbiads and Conquests of Canaan, we have at least truth and nature, wit and wisdom, in Bryant's “Robert of Lincoln,” Emerson's“ Humblebee,” Lowell's “ Courtin',” and “ The One-Hoss Shay” of Holmes.
In dealing with contemporary writers I have found myself embarrassed by
the very large number of really noticeable poems, many of which, although in my own estimation vastly better than those of some of the old versifiers whose age and general reputation have secured them a place in this volume, I have been compelled to omit solely from lack of space. The future gleaner in the fields over which I have passed will doubtless find many an ungarnered sheaf quite as well worth preserving as these I have gathered within the scanty limits of my compendium. The rare humorists of our time, especially such poets as Holmes and Lowell, can be only partially represented in these necessarily brief selections.
It may be observed that the three divisions of the book do not strictly correspond to the headings which indicate them, the first, for instance, beginning before Shakespeare and ending somewhat after Milton. It is difficult to be quite exact in such classifications; and as it seemed desirable to make their number as small as possible, I trust the few leading names mentioned may serve to characterize the periods they accompany with a sufficient degree of accuracy. Pope was doubtless the great master of what is sometimes spoken of as artificial verse, shaping the mould of poetic thought for his own and the succeeding generation ; but as Dryden stands in point of time nearer to the colossal name which closes the first period of English song, he has been chosen as a representative of the second, in connection and contrast with Burns, who, in his vigorous rebound from the measured pomp of rhymed heroics to the sturdiest and homeliest Scottish simplicity, gave to the modern lyric its inspiration, striking for the age the musical pitch of true and tender emotion, as decidedly as Wordsworth has touched for it the key-note of the thoughtful harmonies of natural and intellectual beauty. Tennyson undoubtedly stands at the head of all living singers, and his name might well serve as the high-water mark of modern verse ; but as our volume gives a liberal space to American authorship, I have ventured to let the name of the author of “Evangeline” represent, as it well may, the present poetic culture of our English-speaking people at home and abroad.
While by no means holding myself to a strict responsibility as regards the sentiment and language of the poems which make up this volume, and while I must confess to a large tolerance of personal individuality manifesting itself in widely varying forms of expression, I have still somewhat scrupulously endeavored to avoid in my selections everything which seemed liable to the charge of irreverence or questionable morality. In this respect the poetry of the last quarter of a century, with a few exceptions, has been noteworthy for purity of thought and language, as well as for earnestness and religious feeling. The Muse of our time is a free but profoundly reverent inquirer ; it is rarely found in “the seat of the scorner.” If it does not always speak in the prescribed language of creed and formula, its utterances often give evidence of fresh communion with that Eternal Spirit whose
responses are never in any age or clime withheld from the devout questioner.
My great effort has been to make a thoroughly readable book. With this in view I have not given tedious extracts from dull plays and weary epics, but have gathered up the best of the old ballads and short, timeapproved poems, and drawn largely from contemporary writers and the waifs and estrays of unknown authors. I have also, as a specialty of the work, made a careful selection of the best hymns in our language. I am prepared to find my method open to criticism from some quarters, but I have catered not so much for the scholarly few as for the great mass of readers to whose “snatched leisure” my brief lyrical selections would seem to have a special adaptation.
It only remains for me to acknowledge the valuable suggestions and aid I have received from various sources during the preparation of this volume, and especially the essential assistance I have had from Lucy LaRCom of Beverly Farms, to whose services I have before been indebted in the compilation of “ Child Life.”
J. G. W. AMESBURY, 9th mo., 1875.