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THE Editors of this collection have endeavoured within the compass of a single volume to bring together those English poems, neither epical in scope nor yet wholly lyrical in quality, which have attained a high measure of critical approbation. There will be found here poems of very varied type-narrative, didactic, satirical, elegiac, eulogistic, and reflective verses. Some odes have also been included, which though properly classed as lyrical are separated by their elaborate structure from song or ballad.
The choice of the editors has been guided by principles more easily indicated in a general fashion than precisely defined. Their aim was to select, in the first instance, all those poems which had as it were been chosen for them-had received, that is, the approval of successive generations of readers, and so in some sense and measure become classic. It was not their aim to begin with the poets usually reckoned the greatest in our literature and to give examples of their work, but rather to begin with the poems, by whomsoever written; a method which may lead to unexpected results, the exclusion, for example, of so great a poet as Scott from the present collection.
The book was thus planned to contain in the first instance those longer English pieces which were familiar to many readers never numbered among professional students, and probably not acquainted with the less popular works by the same authors. The question soon emerged, What is the cause of this comparative popularity and what is its worth as a critical test? Understanding by the word 'popular' simply favour or preference among readers of poetry, one naturally asks, How far is such favour or preference to be taken as conferring classic rank upon a poem, and without it is that rank attainable ? Consider
Gray's Elegy, for example. Is it, as some eminent critics have declared, a second-rate performance, a much overrated poem, or is it indeed a classic, a composition the authorship of which is an exploit more enviable, as Wolfe thought it, than to capture the heights of Abraham and win a province for the empire ? Or consider Donne's Second Anniversary or Shelley's Alastor and Epipsychidion. Are these classic in the same sense as the more famous Elegy? They are certainly not as popular. The wide divergence, indeed, between the general and the critical estimate has provoked at times the angry protest of the specialist. That Chance is the ruler of the world,' said Swinburne, 'I should be sorry to believe and reluctant to affirm; but it would be difficult for any competent and careful student to maintain that Chance is not the ruler of the world of letters. Gray's Odes are still, I suppose, familiar to thousands who know nothing of Donne's Anniversaries, and Bacon's Essays are conventionally, if not actually, familiar to thousands who know nothing of Ben Jonson's Discoveries. And yet it is certain that in fervour of inspiration, in depth and force and glow of thought and emotion and expression, Donne's verses are as far above Gray's as Jonson's notes or observations on men and morals, on principles and on facts, are superior to Bacon's in truth of insight, in breadth of view, in vigour of reflection and in concision of eloquence.' This is the verdict of the enthusiast and poet, stated with entire conviction and eloquence. But the philosopher, always loath to accept the intervention of chance in any sphere, disposed to regard the cutting of the knot by the sword of chance as a mere method of despair, will prefer to dispute the particular instances upon which the induction is based than to accept the conclusion. You have indicated,' he might urge, with unerring precision the great qualities of Donne's poems in which Gray's are relatively wanting, but you have omitted the other side of the account. You have said nothing of the gross and revolting hyper
boles', the fantastic strain of argument, the frigid and far-fetched conceits which for some readers so obscure the splendours of Donne's poetry, that they turn with relief to the rhetorical felicities and finish, the liquid trillings and studied sonorities, the romantic colouring of Gray's Odes.' He may cite against Swinburne's, the dictum upon Donne and his school of a critic, Dr. Johnson, not less eminent : Nature and Art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons and allusions; their learning instructs and their subtlety surprises, but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires is seldom pleased.' Pondering with some interest and curiosity such divergences of opinion, the philosopher may seek a middle way. He may ask, Is it not probable that Donne's Anniversary and Shelley's Alastor and Gray's Odes and even the Elegy are all classical, are all in a high, though doubtless a varying degree, excellent as poems ? He may ask, Is it not probable that enduring popularity in a poem argues some kind of poetical merit, above and beyond mere interest of theme or sentiment, and yet that theme and sentiment will necessarily and naturally count for much with the simply human, uncritical, and unsophisticated reader? He may even venture to follow Dr. Johnson when he says of Gray: 'In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader, for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudice, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.' Yet while admitting that the qualities which give a poem the power to find an echo in every bosom are certainly great qualities, Haud facile communia dicere, he will remind himself that in poetry, as in science and philosophy, common sense is a useful though neither a far-reaching nor an unerring guide. Even within her own sphere her judgements must be endorsed
by the critic, by subtlety and learning, for subtlety is not necessarily sophistry, nor learning pedantry. Left to itself 'the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudice' might assign to The May Queen or The Psalm of Life equal rank with the Elegy. Nor is it well to forget that there are spheres where common sense ceases to be a guide. Poetry has its Newtons,
Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone
but returning from these far journeys to enrich the sum of human experience.
My song, I fear that thou wilt find but few
The Vita Nuova, nay, even the Divina Commedia, could never be popular in the same way as the Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Their position among the world's classics is none the less high and secure. It seems indisputable that there are classic poems which can never in any true sense be popular, by reason it may be of the very purity of their poetic interest, because they are 'poet's poetry', or by reason of the remoteness of their themes from the sphere of ordinary human occupations, or because blended with their undeniable beauties are equally undeniable faults of form or feeling due to individual idiosyncrasy or the passing fashions of a day. Yet the worth even of poems in the last of these classes may be, for some readers at least, profound and perennial.
In the attempt, therefore, to place in the hands of the student or general reader a book of superlative poems, the editor must follow a perilous and precipitous path where danger lies both to left and right. If he inclines to the belief that Securus iudicat orbis terrarum, he will be quickly reminded that in literary, as in ecclesiastical history, truth has often been on the side of Athanasius contra mundum: if, on the other hand, he leans towards the acceptance of authority, he will find the Fathers at variance, the Church without a head, the kingdom of