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The way now, is to spin out a thought into as many lines as it can be stretched, and to charge it with all the fine phrases and high sounding expressions that can be lugged into the subject, to the exclusion of many an old English word, excellently well suited to the nonce, and much better adapted to the ears and the understandings of Englishmen. This practice, however useful in the progress of novel-writing and book-making, presents no charms to those who have perused with attention the works of our old authors, who flourished about the time of the Refor. mation, and in a few of the succeeding reigns.
The chief advantage that ancient writers can boast over modern ones, seems (as it is observed by Mr. Shenstone) to have been owing to "Simplicity.” “Every noble truth and sentiment was "expressed by the former in the natural manner, in word and " phrase, simple, perspicuous, and unadorned; what then re"mained for latter writers, but affectation, witticism, and " conceit ?"*
The truth of this observation will be generally acknowledged, nor will it be denied, that at a time when little was studied of the elegancies of style, and the arbitrary rules of composition, now established among us, it was natural for persons to express themselves in a way, at once simple, concise, and to the purpose. Hence it follows, that the productions of our old writers display none of that exuberance of diction, that frippery ornament, so generally adopted by the moderns; but, on the contrary, contain a vast fund of that "comprehensive English energy," that "substantial massy sense," which, like the castellated mansions of our ancestors, in comparison with the ornamented structures of their descendants in the present day, exhibit so great a contrast of solidity, durability, and strength, with gewgaw weakness and instability.
The following observations of a sensible writer on this subject, in the Gentleman's Magazine, for September last, are so much in unison with the ideas of the Author of the preceding remarks, that he is happy in having been so fortunate as to meet with them just in time to introduce in this place. "However" (observes the writer) "we may be disposed to smile at the homeli"ness of phrase and coarseness of metaphor, sometimes exhi"bited in the writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centu "ries, they frequently contain passages as truly eloquently arranged, and forcibly illustrated, as any of the works of anti"quity. The literary productions of the present day generally 66 possess those qualifications of which the early writers were destitute; but they, in their turn, are totally deficient in the "beauties which abound in their predecessors: and inasmuch "as the display of vivid genius is superior to that of taste, so "must the beauties of the early writers be allowed to be supe"rior to those of the moderns. The latter, indeed, possess an
easy flow of diction, a refinement of language, a delicacy of "expression, and an arrangement of facts; but in the higher requisites they are generally defective. We look in vain for "the genius and imagery of Taylor, the conciseness and depth " of Bacon, the majesty and invention of Milton, or the luxuri"ance and fancy of Spenser. The difference between the two
æras seems chiefly to be, the one deals in ideas, the other in "words; the former displays genius, the latter cultivation. The "early writers have formed a rich and exuberant soil, which "requires only the skilful hands of the moderns, to render it productive of every thing necessary to the ornament and im"provement of the literary world.
"These sentiments are not confined to a few, who might be supposed to be attached to the writings of their ancestors, from "their having been early committed to their perusal, and in con" sequence having left a favourable impression on their mind:
"they are the opinions of all who have had patience and oppor"tunity to examine the stores of the early centuries; but many "of those who decry these exploratory pursuits, probably never "have perused those writings which are to be procured only in "old and scarce editions, and are ignorant of their beauties.
They would shrink with dismay from the ponderous folio of "Jeremy Taylor, though it displays one of the most inventive "minds that ever committed its excursions to paper: each page " is a constellation of dazzling figures and imagery. They would "read with surprise, in some of the early and almost-forgotten "dramatic writers, as much originality of thought displayed in "a single scene, as there is in a whole season of modern dramas. "Let them read the "Muses' Looking-glass" and "Jealous "Lovers" of Randolph, with many others that might be enu"merated, and they will be convinced of the correctness of this "assertion, Some late republications of this nature have agree"ably surprised those who had been unacquainted with them; “who had condemned them for fashion, or, perhaps, because "their language was not so refined as what they had been ac"customed to. Even with respect to diction, they may be sub"mitted to modern writers, as examples worthy of imitation. "Our great Lexicographer, Dr. Johnson, in his Preface to the English Dictionary, makes the following observations: "I have "studiously endeavoured to collect examples and authorities from "the writers before the Restoration, whose works I regard as "the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of English "diction.The writers of the Elizabethan age furnish expres"sions fully adéquate to the conveyance of our ideas with elegance and ease.”
The Compiler of this Volume being, as it will he perceived, a great admirer of our old writers, has devoted many leisure hours to the perusal of such as formed a part of his own library, and in the progress of his reading, made it a practice to extract such
passages as appeared to contain excellent and appropriate remarks on subjects of general importance: these extracts he has thrown into the present form, flattering himself that they may give rise to a desire in the breasts of others, to dig more deeply in the mines of our ancient literature, whose treasures will be found most enriching to the mind, and cannot fail to yield more sterling knowledge and permanent gratification, than all the tinsel and flimsy ornament pervading the general run of litter-ary* productions in the present day.
It has been a matter of consideration with the Editor, during the arrangement of his materials for the press, whether he should extend the size of the volume, by pursuing his extracts from the works of other contemporary writers; but being doubtful as to his plan meeting with the approbation of the public, he thought it best, first to venture his little bark, to try the wind's course and the strength of the tide, before he should launch a vessel of greater burthen and more deeply laden, to encounter the surges and blasts of critical animadversion.
It was, moreover, his first intention to have preserved the original orthography of the respective writers, in the following extracts, which might serve to exhibit the gradual progression of our langnage in that particular; but this being thought likely to encumber the text with an ancient garb, to which the great mass of readers are not much accustomed, and thereby become a bar in the way of usefulness, the intention has been abandoned, and the present mode of spelling adopted in its stead.
As to the few notes that occur in the course of the Volume,
• Vide Capel Lofft's Preface to "The Farmer's Boy," first edition.
they may perhaps be considered altogether unnecessary: if, however, the commentator has, in the opinion of a few readers, been fortunate enough to illustrate the text, or contribute any thing to their entertainment by his remarks, he trusts that the rest will be inclined to pass over his superfluities, seeing they occupy so very small a share of their observation.
Islington, December, 1812.