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THE volume here presented to the public is an attempt to improve upon the plan of the Elegant Extracts in Verse by the late Dr. Knox. From the length of time which had elapsed since the first appearance of that work, a similar undertaking admitted of considerable improvement, although the size of the volume has been compressed by means of a more severe selection of matter At least, a third of the former popular and in many respects valuable work was devoted to articles either entirely worthless, or recommended only by considerations foreign to the reader of poetry. The object and indeed ambition of the present compiler has been to offer to the public a BODY OF ENGLISH POETRY, from Chaucer to Burns, such as might at once satisfy individual curiosity and justify our national pride. We have reason to boast of the genius of our country for poetry and of the trophies earned in that way; and it is well to have a collection of such examples of excellence inwoven together as may serve to nourish our own taste and love for the sublime or beautiful, and also to silence the objections of foreigners, who are too ready to treat us as behindhand with themselves in all that relates to the arts of refinement and elegance. If in some respects we are so, it behoves us the more to cultivate and cherish the superiority we can lay claim to in others. Poetry is one of those departments in which we possess a decided and as it were natural preeminence: and therefore no pains should be spared in selecting and setting off to advantage the different proofs and vouchers of it.
All that could be done for this object, has been attempted in the present instance. I have brought together in one view (to the best of my judgment) the most admired smaller pieces of poetry, and the most striking passages in larger works, which could not themselves be given entire. I have availed myself of the plan chalked out by my predecessor, but in the hope of improving upon it. To possess a work of this kind ought to be like holding the contents of a library in one's hand without any of the refuse or "baser matter." If it had not been thought that the former work admitted of considerable improvement in the choice of subjects, inasmuch as inferior and indifferent productions not rarely occupied the place of sterling excellence, the present publication would not have been hazarded. Another difference is that I have followed the order of time, instead of the division of the subjects. By this method, the progress of poetry is better seen and understood; and besides, the real subjects of poetry are so much alike or run so much into one another, as not easily to come under any precise classification.
The great deficiency which I have to lament is the small portion of Shakespear's poetry, which has been introduced into the work; but this arose unavoidably from the plan of it, which did not extend to dramatic poetry as a general species. The extracts from the best parts of Chaucer, which are given at some length, will, it is hoped, be acceptable to the lover both of poetry and history. The quotations from Spenser do not occupy a much larger space than in the Elegant Extracts; but entire passages are given, instead of a numberless quantity of shreds and patches. The essence of Spenser's poetry was a continuous, endless flow of indescribable beauties, like the galaxy or milky way :Dr. Knox has "taken him and cut him out in little stars," which was repugnant to the genius of his writings. I have made it my aim to exhibit the characteristic and striking features of English poetry and English genius; and with this view have endeavoured to give such specimens from each author as showed his peculiar powers of mind and the peculiar style in which he excelled, and have omitted those which were not only less remarkable in themselves, but were common to him with others, or in which others surpassed him, who were therefore the proper models in that particular way. Cuique tribuitur suum. In a word, it has been proposed to retain those passages and pieces with which the reader of taste and feeling would be most pleased in the perusal of the original works, and to which he would wish oftenest to turn again—and which con
sequently may be conceived to conduce most beneficially to form the taste and amuse the fancy of those who have not leisure or industry to make themselves masters of the whole range of English poetry. By leaving out a great deal of uninteresting and common-place poetry, room has been obtained for nearly all that was emphatically excellent. The reader, it is presumed, may here revel and find no end of delight, in the racy vigour and manly characteristic humour, or simple pathos of Chaucer's Muse, in the gorgeous voluptuousness and romantic tenderness of Spenser, in the severe, studied beauty and awful majesty of Milton, in the elegance and refinement and harmony of Pope, in the strength and satire and sounding rhythm of Dryden, in the sportive gaiety and graces of Suckling, Dorset, Gay, and Prior, in Butler's wit, in Thomson's rural scenes, in Cowper's terse simplicity, in Burns's laughing eye and feeling heart. Others might be mentioned to lengthen out the list of poetic names
"That on the steady breeze of honour sail
In long possession, calm and beautiful:"
but from all together enough has been gleaned to make a "perpetual feast of nectar'd sweets, where no crude surfeit reigns." Such at least has been my ardent wish; and if this volume is not pregnant with matter both "rich and rare," it has been the fault of the compiler, and not of the poverty or niggardliness of the ENGLISH MUSE.
A CRITICAL LIST
AUTHORS CONTAINED IN THIS VOLUME.
CHAUCER is in the first class of poetry (the natural) and one of the first. He describes the common but individual objects of nature and the strongest and most universal, because spontaneous workings of the heart. In invention he has not much to boast, for the materials are chiefly borrowed (except in some of his comic tales); but the masterly execution is his own. He is remarkable for the degree and variety of the qualities he possesses-excelling equally in the comic and serious. He has little fancy, but he has great wit, great humour, strong manly sense, great power of description, perfect knowledge of character, occasional sublimity, as in parts of the Knight's Tale, and the deepest pathos, as in the story of Griselda, Custance, the Flower and the Leaf, &c. In humour and spirit, the Wife of Bath is unequalled.
SPENSER excels in the two qualities in which Chaucer is most deficient invention and fancy. The invention shown in his allegorical personages is endless, as the fancy shown in his description of them is gorgeous and delightful. He is the poet of romance. He describes things as in a splendid and voluptuous dream. He has displayed no comic talent, except in his Shepherd's Calendar. He has little attempt at character, an occasional visionary sublimity, and a pensive tenderness approaching to the finest pathos. Nearly all that is excellent in the Faery Queen is contained in the three first Books. His style is sometimes ambiguous and affected; but his versification is to the last degree flowing and harmonious.
Sir PHILIP SIDNEY is an affected writer, but with great power of thought and description. His poetry, of which he did not write much, has the faults of his prose without its recommendations.