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TYPOGRAPHY BY J. S. CUSHING & Co., BOSTON.
This is the first volume of a series of SELECT ENGLISH CLASSICS which the publishers have in course of preparation. The series will include an extensive variety of selections chosen from the different departments of English literature, and arranged and annotated for the use of classes in schools. It will embrace, among other things, representative specimens from all the best English writers, whether of poetry or of prose ; selections from English dramatic literature, especially of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; choice extracts from the writings of the great essayists; selections from famous English allegories; a volume of elegies and elegiacal poetry ; studies of English prose fiction, with illustrative specimens, etc. Each volume will contain copious notes, critical, explanatory, and biographical, besides the necessary vocabularies, glossaries, and indexes; and the series when complete will present a varied and comprehensive view of all that is best in English literature. For supplementary reading, as well as for systematic class instruction, the books will possess many peculiarly valuable as well as novel features; while their attractive appearance, combined with the sterling quality of their contents, will commend them for general reading and make them desirable acquisitions for every library.
TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS.
THERE is but one study more interesting than the history of literature, and that is the study of literature itself. That the former should often be mistaken for the latter is scarcely to be wondered at when we consider the intimate and almost indivisible relationship existing between them. Yet, in truth, they are as capable of separate consideration as are music and the history of music.
Any careful investigation of the history of English poetry would naturally begin at a point of time some six or seven hundred years earlier than that of Chaucer. From such investigation we should learn that even as early as the ninth century — perhaps, indeed,
the eighth — there were in England some comAnglo-Saxon
posers of verse in the Anglo-Saxon tongue; that Poetry.
the songs of these poets were chiefly of religion or of war, and that being written in a language very different from our modern English they can scarcely be considered as belonging properly to our literature; that among them, however, is a noble poem, “ Beowulf,” the oldest epic of any modern people, which was probably sung or recited by pagan minstrels long before it was written down in permanent form ; that, after the conquest of England by the Normans, the early language of the English people underwent a long and tedious process of transition, - a blending, in a certain sense, with the Latinized and more polished tongue of their conquerors, — and that the result was the language which we now call English and are proud to claim as our own; that it was about three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, namely, in 1362, that this new tongue was officially recognized and authorized to be used in the courts at law throughout the land; and that about the same time Geoffrey Chaucer composed and wrote his first poems. We should learn, moreover, that, during the transition
period mentioned above, there were many attempts The Transition
at writing poetry, resulting in the production of Period.
tedious metrical romances (chiefly translated from the French) and interminable rhyming chronicles, pleasing, of course, to the people of that time, but wholly devoid of poetic
excellence and unspeakably dull to modern readers; that these poems, so called, were little better than rhymed doggerels, written in couplets of eight-syllabled lines and having for their subjects the miraculous deeds of saints and heroes and the occurrence of supernatural or impossible phenomena; that the composers of these metrical romances and chronicles, although giving free rein to the imagination, were utterly destitute of poetic fancy and hence produced no true poetry; that, nevertheless, some writer was now and then inspired by a flash of real poetic fire, producing a few lines of remarkable freshness and beauty, — little lyrics shining forth like gems in the great mass of verbiage and rubbish and foretelling the glorious possibilities which were to be realized in the future.
Continuing this most interesting study, we should learn that just at the time that Chaucer was beginning the composition of his immortal works, there appeared an allegorical poem of considerable length, so earnest in tone, so richly imaginative,
Piers so full of picturesque descriptions, that it seemed
Ploughman. rather a fulfilment than a prophecy; that this poem — called “The Vision of William concerning Piers Ploughman," and written by an obscure monk whose name was probably William Langland — was the greatest poem and the most popular that had ever been written in England, and yet that it failed in many ways of being true English poetry : its metre was irregular, and its rhythm was imperfect; its verses instead of rhyming were constructed in accordance with certain rules of alliteration; its subjects, while interesting, no doubt, to those for whom it was written, were not such as bring into play the highest powers of the imagination or incite the poetic fancy to its noblest Alights. Then we should learn that while the ink from good Langland's pen was yet scarcely dry after his third revision of “ Piers Ploughman,” Geoffrey Chaucer came forward with his sweet imaginings bodied in immortal verse, his tuneful numbers, his “ well of English undefiled," — and English poetry, which now for more than five centuries has been the chief glory of our literature, had its true beginning.
Pursuing the study on lines which would now be more distinctly marked, we should observe that Chaucer's best poetry, as well as that of the poets who followed him in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was distinguished by its truthfulness to nature, by its expression in hearty and harmonious words of the
Three Schools finer emotions of the soul, and by the freedom
of Poetry. and elasticity of its versification. We should learn that in the seventeenth century this style of poetry — sometimes called the romantic - was succeeded by another and very different