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This History of English Literature is essentially biographical, for true criticism cannot separate the author from his book. Leaving entirely out of sight what is no light matter in a work written for the young,--the living interest thus given to a subject for which some have little love,—so much do the colour and the flavour of that wonderful Mind-fruit, called a Book, depend upon the atmosphere in which it has ripened, and the soil whence its sweet or sour juices have been drawn, that these important influences cannot be overlooked in tracing, however slightly, the growth of a Literature.
It has, accordingly, been my principal object to shew how the books, which we prize among the brightest of our national glories, have grown out of human lives—rooted oftener, perhaps, in sorrow than in joy; and how the scenery and the society, amid which an author played ouư his fleeting part, have left indelible hues upon the pages that he wrote.
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And here, in passing, I may say that only those who have tried it can estimate the difficulty of striking a balance in the case of certain names, when space and plan will admit of no choice but between a chapter and a paragraph. With great regret, and not without some misgivings, was I forced to assign to a secondary place Defoe, Adam Smith (in spite of Buckle’s praise), Lamb, Wilson, De Quincey, Chalmers, Kingsley, Hugh Miller, and many others. The same difficulty met me in the formation of the Supplementary Lists, which, however, will serve to give what, I hope, is a tolerably accurate idea of those third-class writers, or rather first-class writers of the third degree, who adorn the present century.
In the opening chapter of the various Eras I have ventured to add to the simple history of our Literature what I believe to be a novelty in a book of this kind. Recognising the value of such pictures to the student of national history, I have attempted to reproduce, with some vividness, scenes of vanished author-life, and to trace the chief steps by which a green leaf has become a printed volume. For, to know something of the dress our books have worn at various times, and the stuff of which the older ones were made ; to see the minstrel singing in the Castle hall, and the monk at work in the still Scriptorium; to peep at Caxton in the Almonry, and watch the curtain rise on Shakspere at the Globe; to trace the lights and shadows flung upon English books from
Cavalier satins and the more sober-coloured garments of their opponents; to see courtly poison withering Dryden's wreath of bay, and men like Johnson starving their way to fame: these are surely things of no slight interest and value to the earnest student of English Literature. And to such this book is offered.
W. F. C.