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This little volume, like the SPECIMENS OF SACRED AND SERIOUS POETRY, has been selected on views somewhat different from those which have guided the editors of the various agreeable compilations known under the name of Beauties, Elegant Extracts, &c. &c. Instead of “ orient pearls at random strung,” among which are sometimes interspersed not a few French pastebeads, recommended solely by fashion, smoothness, and glitter, the design of this volume, so far as compatible with its limits, is to exhibit the de. velopment and progress of English poetry by a selection of specimens of its fairest productions arranged in order ; and to form as it were an index to our poetical literature out of its own choicest materials.
The occasional appearance of cheap reprints of valuable old works, and of selections like the present, is one of the most important features in modern literature. It is that careless scattering of the good seed by the way-side, which must delight the casual traveller with an unexpected flush of blooms and buds, even where the soil has not sufficient depth and vigour to put forth fruit after many days. Let us but imagine for a moment what a mine of wealth and enjoyment, what a golden treasury of exquisite models, of graceful fancies, of fine inventions, of beautiful diction, this one little volume would have formed to such a youth as Robert Burns, in the days when at home and afield, in labour and at rest, he pored over his Old Song-book,—and we may come to estimate aright the value of compilations of this kind. Such books very generally fall into the hands of the young, with whom poetry is a passion, but whose tastes are still either false or unripe. Instead of pampering the insatiable appetite for novelty, and preferring fleeting fashion to permanent excellence, it is the duty of the selectors for this important class of readers to endeavour to raise their poetical feelings to a higher standard—even to the highest of all, that formed by the Fathers of English poetry—rather than to gratify their immature tastes either with shewy trash, or works of ephemeral fame but questionable merit. With a very few exceptions, no specimen has been admitted into this compilation that has not either stood the test of time, or been allowed to possess those enduring qualities which will make the contents of this small volume as valuable centuries hence as at the present hour. Nor is it a bold prophecy to say, that it contains more beautiful verse_far more English poetry of the very highest order—than is likely to appear in all the periodical volumes that shall be published in Britain for the next hundred years.
There are many living, or recent writers, from which it would have been agreeable to select much more. The little pieces given are rather records of their names than specimens of their genius. I make no apology for the length of the extracts given from the very early poets. It is a main object of the compilation to diffuse a more intimate knowledge of their names and of their writings. Into what raptures would thousands of fashionable readers be thrown, could such lyrics as those here selected from Herrick, Carew, and Lovelace, be presented to them for the first time under the at. tractive name of Moore. Nor shall I apologize for the copious extracts given from what are called “ The Lake Poets," while comparatively so little space is afforded to more popular writers. Were it possible, by some short-hand process of printing yet to be discovered, to compress half the pages of Wordsworth into a cheap work, adapted to the daily household use of the people of England, it would gladly have been done, in the warm and sincere conviction, that no poems of nearly equal merit now remain to be freely diffused among them. Nearer home, I hope to be pardoned for not crowding into this narrow tablet such beloved and familiar names as those of Hamilton, Ramsay, Fergusson, and other
“ Lyric singers of our high-souled land”since their place is necessarily occupied by yet nobler names—by those of Dunbar, James I., Douglas, Barbour, and Lyndsay-names that ought to be better known among us.
To that ancient poetry, which forms the grace and glory of Scotland, and of the early periods of English literature the old ballads I have no more adverted than to dramatic poetry. The lat. ter lay quite beyond the scope of my design; for the former a good time may yet come.
To avoid occupying too much room, where space was so valuable, such of the more important biographical notices as were given at length in the SPECIMENS OF SACRED AND SERIOUS POETRY, are here restricted merely to a date. Among the poets thus passed over are Milton, Cowper, Young, Blair, Grahame, Byron, &c. And other lives have been given here, which did not fall so directly within the scope of the preceding work, as those of Surrey, Shakspeare, Chatterton, Burns, &c. &c. On the same principle, no specimens are given from those poets whose principal writings, being sacred and serious, had already been noticed at length. But, between the two volumes, the BIOGRAPHICAL NOTICES, as well as SPECIMENS of all the Poets, are, it is hoped, tolerably full and complete, though each small work is, so far as it goes, entire in itself.
Edinburgh, May, 1828.