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THESE volumes are intended to give a fair representation of the works of those British writers who have attained full recognition and hold a permanent place among the guild of poets. In some cases almost the entire poetical works of an author are here included; in others this was impossible, and in others undesirable; but in every case the editor has endeavored to give the best and the most characteristic. Some poems which are good in themselves have been omitted because they cannot be read intelligently without long prose prefaces or cumbrous foot-notes, which are generally fatal to all poetic effect. Others have become virtually obsolete, even since the issue of Dr. Aikin's work, on which this is founded, fifty years ago.
It has been customary, in collections like this, to give at least a specimen of every versifier who had any prominence in his day, though he may never have written a line which any critic could praise, or any reader would cherish. The present editor has not thought it necessary to waste space in carrying out such an idea of completeness or comprehensiveness, yet doubtless he has admitted some whom the next editor would properly discard. There are fashions in poetry, as in all else; and it is only the fabric whose warp and woof are of pure genius and art which outlasts them. All others must “have their day and cease to be."
In selecting from contemporary poets, a free hand has been used; both because the book is for contemporary readers, and because here discrimination must rest almost solely upon an individual judgment, while the test of time has drawn its dividing line among the singers of the past. We all feel certain that Tennyson and the Brownings have established a fame which time can never destroy; but what it will do with Morris and Buchanan and Swinburne, with Owen Meredith and Matthew Arnold and Jean Ingelow and the Rossettis, is still problematical. The life-principle in poetry is so subtile that no philosopher can evolve a rule for finding it, and no listener can be certain that the numbers which delight him will not provoke the contempt of his grandchild. Genuine poetry
is the longest-lived of all human creations, but the builder of the lofty rhyme can never know whether it will stand the wear of centuries, or crumble away while yet his own epitaph is legible in the churchyard. The poetry that endures is of slow growth. Tennyson, since he first published, has averaged two lines a day; and we find that the present volumes (though they do not profess to contain all the good English poetry that has been written) represent the same average of two lines a day for the five hundred years from Chaucer to Morris.
The hundred and fifty poets who have contributed to this collection present the widest diversity of genius, life, and opportunities. The naturalness of Shakespeare and the artificialness of Pope, the seventeen years of Chatterton and the ninety of Rogers, Milton with his load of elaborate scholarship and Hogg learning to read after he had arrived at manhood, Montgomery's piety and Byron's recklessness, Campbell's fire and Gray's serenity, Crabbe's plainness and Browning's subtilety, Tennyson's art, Scott's artlessness, the allegories of Spenser, the songs of Burns, and the romances of Morris—from such varied sources come the charms of English poetry, which forms perhaps the noblest of all profane literatures.
New YORK, January 27, 1876.
Ode to the Right Honorable Francis, Earl of