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When asked to prepare a manual of English poetry, my only hesitation arose from the number and the excellence of the collections which are already in existence. It is not long since the Archbishop of Dublin published his Household Book of English Poetry, and the late Mr. Emerson his Parnassus ; and though more than twenty years have elapsed since the publication of Mr. Palgrave's Golden Treasury, that little volume is still exceedingly precious to all lovers of Songs and Lyrics.
My hesitation was removed when I considered that the plan here adopted differs in some respects from that which is found in most other selections; and still more when I remembered the deep pleasure which thousands of readers have derived from multitudes of different volumes of the same character with this. In my own school-days it was part of our weekly work to learn by heart a certain amount of English poetry, and an Anthology was put into our hands for this purpose. The book has probably long been out of prints, nor had it any very predominant claims to ritention. İt admitted many poems by writers altogether unknown::orilorg forgotten ; and while it made room for some passages of only. tenth-rate excellence it excluded others of the supremest merit. Yet I can testify that the little volume gavé 110 sınáli amount of innocent pleasure to many boys, and that the impressions left by frequent reading of the passages there collected formed a valuable part of my own early education. The practice of learning English poetry by heart in Public Schools is not, I fear, so common as it used to be, but I am quite sure that it would with very small
expenditure of time produce more valuable results than some of the studies in which long hours are weekly spent.
Since familiarity with the best English poetry is so desirable, I have come to the conclusion that I can at least do no harm by publishing the following selections. This volume is not meant to come into competition with any existing manuals. I have collected from our best poets in each main epoch of English poetry such complete poems, or brief passages from longer works, as seemed most likely to be of use in forming the taste of young readers. No one could read or learn by the passages here collected without being morally and mentally the richer and better for it. " The noble mansion, says Walter Savage Landor, “is most distinguished by the beautiful images it retains of beings passed away ; and so is the noble mind.” The picture gallery of a pure imagination cannot be stored with loftier or lovelier images than those which it may derive from the writings of the true singers who are here represented. The poets, better than any other moral teachers, lead us to "the great in conduct, and the pure in thought." No one has better described their highest function than the poet who so nobly fulfilled it-William Wordsworth. “I doubt not,” he wrote to a friend,“ that you will share with me an invincible confidence that my writings, and among them these little poems, will co-operate with the benign tendencies of human nature and society, wherever found ; and that they will in their degree, be efficacious •jë making ontoir wiser and better.
. To console the efficted ; të add sunlight to daylight by making the happy happier.;: to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to thinky-to-feet, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtucis;»this is their office, which I trust they will faithfällý -perførin;-iong* after we, that is, all that is mortal of us, are mouldered in our graves.” Surely this is a lofty description of the aim of poetry ; yet, lofty as it is, our truest poets have set before themselves no lower standard.
The first few passages are taken from Chaucer. The paucity of them must not be taken, any more than in the case of other poets, for a measure of Chaucer's greatness. The task of selection has been guided in every instance by special reasons, and it seemed undesirable to multiply for young readers passages which abound in archaic words and phrases.
But even from the short specimens here given, it may be seen that Chaucer resembles Shakespeare in happy sprightliness and serene benignity ; that he is, as all poets should be, “ simple, sensuous, passionate” ; that he knows how to awaken laughter by delicate touches of satire, and also to bring tears into the eyes by natural pathos. If he resembles Shakespeare in his cheerfulness, and power of describing character and telling a story, he resembles Wordsworth in his freedom from mere “poetic phraseology.”
And anone, as I the day espied,
Could anything be more exquisitely true yet more absolutely simple than the little touch of simple white and green with which the poet brings a spring meadow under the sunlight before our eyes ?
Chaucer has been compared to an April day, full in itself of warmth and brightness, but followed often by rough weeks and frosty nights, which nip all the early blossoms. He died in 1400, and the whole remainder of the fifteenth century does not produce a single pre-eminent poet. The jealousy and opposition of the clergy to all novelties-a prescient intuition of the day when they should smart under the scourge of such poets as Skelton, Lindsay, and Butler—the absence of all patronage, the troubles in the civil wars of the Roses, in which, says the
chronicler, “the sound of the church bells was not heard for drums and trumpets,” may have contributed to the dearth of prominent poets. Possibly, however, to the middle of this century is due, in its oldest form, that grand old ballad of Chevy Chase, which Sir Philip Sidney used to say “ stirred his heart like the blast of a trumpet"; and it is at least probable that during this prosaic period many another of our great ballads sprang from the heart of the people. These ballads form a distinct and separate phrase of literature, and are well worth study and attention. Even the ruggedness of their antiquity, and the uncertainty of their original form in the multitudinous shapəs they have assumed in the traditions of the people, only make them more venerable, just as one venerates an old sword all the more for the rust upon its scabbard and the hacks and dents upon its blade. They deal in strong situations, and describe with unsparing yet reverent truth the fiercest passions of human nature. Undoubtedly they are hot, rude, graphic : he whose mind is not strong enough to walk among scenes of battle and murder and sudden death ; he whose “slothful loves and dainty sympathies” are too fine spun to face the darkest and most unspoken tragedies of human life, must turn elsewhere. Yet, as Mr. Allingham observes, “ All is not darkness and tempest in this region of song ; gay stories of true love with a happy ending are many ; and they who love enchantments, and to be borne off into fairy land, may have their wish at the turning of a leaf.”
Take the well-known ballad of Helen of Kirkconnel. Her lover is talking to Helen, when his rival aims a shot at him, which the maiden receives into her own heart :
O think na ye my heart was sair,
On fair Kirkconnel lea ;
On fair Kirkconnel lea.