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The Vignette — The Muse and her Genius -reproduces a
design by Raphael Sanzio engraved in chiar' oscuro by a contemporary artist.
In the former volume of this selection our lyrical poetry was brought down to 1850 (including hence six of the greatest poets who have ennobled the century), but limited also to the work of writers no longer alive in 1861. We have hence now to retrace the stream, beginning with a period nearly corresponding to what has been called the Victorian, during part of which Wordsworth in solitary grandeur was the one surviving link between those whom we now almost think of, as poets ancient and modern. The two ages in fact overlap. And it was therefore my first wish to include in the same volume the later risen of our stars.
But this plan proved impossible. A decided preference for Lyrical poetry, — to which in all ages the perplexed or overburdened heart has fled for relief and confession, — has shown itself for sixty years or more; an impulse traceable in large measure to the increasingly subjective temper of the age, and indeed already in different phases foreshown by Shelley and by Wordsworth. From this preference (whilst the national or commemorative Ode has become rare), followed also a vast extension in length of our lyrics : their work is apt to be less concentrated than that of their best predecessors, classical or English: whilst, concurrently, they have at the same time often taken a dramatic character, rarely to be found before; though Dryden's Alexander's Feast and Gray's Bard are splendid exceptions in our earlier poetry. Lastly, while during the first quarter of the century Keats, Shelley, Byron, died in actual or comparative youth,
within my present range England has been favoured with the long lives and persistent powers of our two most eminent singers, whilst few of real promise have been cut off prematurely..
Hence, also, despite this whole volume dedicated to a harvest of song more copious than even that famed Elizabethan outflowering, it has not been possible to renew the attempt made in the former book, wherein with but three or four exceptions on the ground of length, all our best lyrics (so far as I could judge) were gathered : and a selection only from the finest work of our greater Victorian poets (so far as my choice may have been happy) can alone be offered here. It should therefore be remembered that many famous and favourite beauties must inevitably be wanting from the present portrait gallery : but I have tried to make the specimens characteristic of each writer's genius. Despite, however, the wide difference between the work, for example, of Browning and Tennyson, the present series, as representing only the spirit of less than a single century, wears a certain monotony of character compared with the vast range of style exhibited in the earlier volume. Yet - and yet — after all, this little book, as I turn the pages over, seems to have a variety and wealth of power and beauty, which, its range considered, is wonderful.
This second Treasury has cost thrice the labour of the first. For nothing, it need scarcely be said, is harder than to form an estimate even remotely accurate of our own contemporary artists, whatever the sphere of their art. This difficulty, in the former book, was far less. For its contents, the verdict of Time had been already largely given, and I had also that invaluable assistance which my Dedication acknowledges. I may however add (asking pardon for egotism) that the best endeavour within my power has been made to hold the balance even between substance and form, the figure or the drapery, - and beauty always the last impression, — by spreading the choice over three or four years during which the poets, have been searched and read over, and the results noted at many months' interval. Some check on a choice necessarily imperfect, and indeed convincing
only when the verdict of Time has been given, - it is hoped may thus have been gained. But a personal element always remains, too often refusing to be excluded; especially in case of early favourites, and the haunting music which has seized on our youth, and passed perhaps physically into the very nerves or whatever may be that mysterious organ of Memory which transacts its secret and inexplicable life within the soul's furthest recesses.
The selection has been brought, near as I can venture, to our own day. But, especially in case of those later singers whose course is not yet run, it is all too soon even to attempt a valuation. Many indeed and bright are the blossoms springing up among us, though nightshade and yewberries be not absent. It were, however, presumption if we attempted with the microscope of criticism to classify these growths, or decide whether they belong to the children's •Adonis Garden' of cut flowers, or the true immortal amaranth.' This I leave to other hands than mine in the far-off summers. I have however tried my best to fill the book with such Underwoods (to take Jonson's phrase) as the early Roman poet Naevius spoke of wherein the copse-wood is sown by natural process, not planted; '
Ingenio arbusta ubi nata sunt, non insita : -a definition, more than two thousand years old, of the strange spell which lifts verse into poetry which it would be difficult to improve. — But here that wearisomely familiar 'tastes differ' warns that no invitation to its critical exercise more liberal and alluring can be held out, than is offered by a selection like the present. One of the worldly-wise Goethe's best aphorisms was that his opinion on any matter was immensely strengthened if he found it accepted by any one fellow-creature. But I cannot hope even as much acceptance for this book. Varieties in taste, often deeply rooted and strenuously held, will lead every reader to condemn me for omissions and inclusions: inevitably, and rightly. For such judgments reveal the power which poetry, our own recent poetry in especial, holds over us. They testify