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Floods with a
This is love, who, deaf 6 pays;
blessings anac ves Draw, if then
man which durur,
So large a collection of poems as this demands of its compiler an extensive familiarity with the poetic literature of our language, both of the early and the later time, and withal so liberal a taste as not to exclude any variety of poetic merit. At the request of the Publishers I undertook to write an Introduction to the present work, and in pursuance of this design I find that I have come into a somewhat closer personal relation with the book. In its progress it has passed entirely under my revision, and, although not absolutely responsible for the compilation or its arrangement, I have, as requested, exercised a free hand both in excluding and in adding matter according to my judgment of what was best adapted to the purposes of the enterprise. (Such, however, is the wide range of English verse, and such the abundance of the materials, that a compilation of this kind must be like a bouquet gathered from the fields in June, when hundreds of flowers will be left in unvisited spots, as beautiful as those which have been taken. " It may happen, therefore, that many who have learned to delight in some particular poem will turn these pages, as they might those of other collections, without finding their favorite. Nor should it be matter of surprise, considering the multitude of authors from whom the compilation is made, if it be found that some are overlooked, especially the more recent, of equal merit with many whose poems appear in these pages. It may happen, also, that the compiler, in consequence of some particular association, has been sensible of a beauty and a power of awakening emotions and recalling images in certain poems which other readers will fail to perceive. It should be considered, moreover, that in poetry, as in painting, different artists have different modes of presenting their conceptions, each of which may possess its peculiar merit, yet those whose taste is formed by contemplating the productions of one class take little pleasure in any other.) Crabb Robinson relates that Wordsworth once admitted to him that he did not much admire contemporary poetry, not because of its want of poetic merit, but because he had been accustomed to poetry of a different sort, and added that but for this he might have read it with pleasure. I quote from memory. It is to be hoped that every reader of this collection, however he may have been trained, will find in the great variety of its contents something conformable to his taste.
I suppose it is not necessary to give a reason for adding another to the collections of this nature, already in print. They abound in every language, for the simple reason that there is a demand for them. German literature, prolific as it is in verse, has many of them, and some of them compiled by distinguished authors. The par
lor table and the winter fireside require a book which, when one is in the humor for
I have known persons who frankly said that they took no pleasure in reading
Such a work also, if sufficiently extensive, gives the reader an opportunity of comparing the poetic literature of one period with that of another; of noting the fluctuations of taste, and how the poetic forms which are in fashion during one age are laid aside in the next; of observing the changes which take place in our language, and the sentiments which at different periods challenge the public approbation. Specimens of the poetry of different centuries presented in this way show how the great stream of human thought in its poetic form eddies now to the right and now to the left, wearing away its banks first on one side and then on the other. Some author of more than common faculties and more than common boldness catches the public attention, and immediately he has a crowd of followers who form their taste on his and seek to divide with him the praise. Thus Cowley, with his undeniable genius, was the head of a numerous class who made poetry consist in far-fetched conceits, ideas oddly brought together, and quaint turns of thought. Pope, following close upon Dryden, and learning much from him, was the founder of a school of longer duration, which found its models in Boileau and other poets of the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, -a school in which the wit predominated over the poetry,— a school marked by striking oppositions of thought, frequent happinesses of expression, and a carefully balanced modulation, — numbers pleasing at first, but in the end fatiguing. As this school degenerated the wit almost disappeared, but there was no new infusion of poetry in its place. When Scott gave the public the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and other poems, which certainly, considered as mere narratives, are the best we have, carrying the reader forward without weariness and with an interest which the author never allows to subside, a crowd of imitators pressed after him, the greater part of whom are no longer read. Wordsworth had, and still has, his school ; the stamp of his example is visible on the writings of all the poets of the present day.
Even Byron showed himself, in the third canto of Childe Harold, to be one of his disciples, thongh he fiercely resented being called so. The same poet did not disdain to learn of Scott in composing his narrative poems, such as the Bride of Abydos and the Giaour, though he could never tell a story in verse without occasional tediousness. In our day the style of writing adopted by eminent living poets is often seen reflected in the verses of their younger contemporaries, — sometimes with an effect like that of a face beheld in a tarnished mirror, Thus it is that poets are formed by their influence on one another; the greatest of them are more or less indebted for what they are to their predecessors and their contemporaries.
While speaking of these changes in the public taste, I am tempted to caution the reader against the mistake often made of estimating the merit of one poet by the too easy process of comparing him with another. The varieties of poetic excellence are as great as the varieties of beauty in flowers in the female face. There is no poet, indeed no author in any department of literature, who can be taken as a standard in judging of others; the true standard is an ideal one, and even this is not the same in all men's minds. One delights in grace, another in strength; one in a fiery vehemence and enthusiasm on the surface, another in majestic repose and the expression of feeling too deep to be noisy ; one loves simple and obvious images strikingly employed, or familiar thoughts placed in a new light, another is satisfied only with novelties of thought and expression, with uncommon illustrations and images far sought. It is certain that each of these modes of treating a subject may have its peculiar merit, and that it is absurd to require of those whose genius inclines them to one that they should adopt its opposite, or to set one down as inferior to another because he is not of the same class. As well, in looking through an astronomer's telescope at that beautiful phenomenon, a double star, in which the twin flames are one of a roseate and the other of a golden tint, might we quarrel with either of them because it is not colored like its fellow. Some of the comparisons made by critics between one poet and another are scarcely less preposterous than would be a comparison between a river and a mountain. :)
The compiler of this collection has gone as far back as to the author who may properly be called the father of English poetry, and who wrote while our language was like the lion in Milton's account of the creation, when rising from the earth at the Divine command and
pawing to get free
His hinder parts," for it was still clogged by the unassimilated portions of the French tongue, to which in part it owed its origin. These were to be thrown aside in after years. The versification had also one characteristic of French verse which was soon after Chaucer's time laid aside,
the mute or final e had in his lines the value of a syllable by itself, especially when the next word began with a consonant. But though these peculiarities somewhat embarrass the reader, he still finds in the writings of the old poet a fund of the good old English of the Saxon fireside, which makes them worthy to be studied were it only to strengthen our hold on our language. He delighted in describing natural objects which still retained their Saxon names, and this he did with
great beauty and sweetness. In the sentiments also the critics ascribe to him a degree of delicacy which one could scarcely have looked for in the age in which he wrote, though at other times he avails himself of the license then allowed. There is no majesty, no stately march of numbers, in his poetry, still less is there of fire, rapidity, or conciseness ; the French and Italian narrative poets from whom he learned his art wrote as if the people of their time had nothing to do but to attend to long stories, and Chaucer, who translated from the French the Romaunt of the Rose, though a greater poet than any of those whom he took for his models, made small improvement upon them in this respect. His Troylus and Cryseyde, with but little action and incident, is as long as either of the epics of Homer. The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's best things, have less of this defect; but even there the narrative is overminute, and the personages, as Taine, the French critic, remarks, although they talk well, talk too much. The taste for this prolixity in narratives and conversations had a long duration in English poetry, since we find the same tediousness, to call it by
its true name, in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and his Lucrece, written more i than two hundred years later. Yet in the mean time the old popular ballads of Eng
land and Scotland had been composed, in which the incidents follow each other in quick succession, and the briefest possible speeches are uttered by the personages. The scholars and court poets doubtless disdained to learn anything of these poets of the people, and the Davideis of Cowley, who lived three hundred years after Chaucer, is as remarkable for the sluggish progress of the story and the tediousness of the harangues as for any other characteristics.
Between the time of Chaucer and that of Sidney and Spenser we find little in the poetic literature of our language to detain our attention. That age produced many obscure versifiers, and metrical romances continued to be written after the fashion of the French and Italian poets, whom Chaucer acknowledged as his masters. During this period appeared Shelton, the poet and jester, whose special talent was facility in rhyming, who rhymed as if he could not help it, as if he had only to put pen to paper, and the words leaped of their own accord into regular measure with an inev. itable jingle at the endings. Meantime our language was undergoing a process which gradually separated the nobler parts from the dross, rejecting the French additions for which there was no occasion, or which could not easily be made to take upon themselves the familiar forms of our tongue. The prosody of English became also fixed in that period ; the final e which so perplexes the modern reader in Chaucer's verse was no longer permitted to figure as a distinct syllable. The poets, however, still allowed themselves the liberty of sometimes making, after the French manner, two syllables of the terminations tion and ion, so that nation became a word of three syllables and opinion a word of four. The Sonnets of Sidney, written on the Italian model, have all the grace and ingenuity of those of Petrarch. In the Faerie Queene of Spenser it seems to me that we find the English language, so far as the purposes of poetry require, in a degree of perfection beyond which it has not been since carried, and, I suppose, never will be. A vast assemblage of poetic endowments contributed to the composition of the poem, yet I think it would not be ensy to name one of the same length, and the work of a genius equally great, in any language,