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Selections from Standard Authors.
WITH EXPLANATORY AND CRITICAL FOOT-NOTES.
REV. HENRY N. HUDSON.
Of the pieces contained in this volume, much the larger number, as may readily be seen, are from standard English authors, — books that have already lived so long as to afford some fair guaranty that they will not soon die. Not one of the pieces has been taken for the author's sake: the selection has proceeded on the twofold ground of intrinsic merit and of fitness to the purposes of the volume; due care being had, withal, for a reasonable variety both in matter, style, and authorship
It is not unlikely that some of the selections may be thought rather too severe in style, too weighty in matter, and of too high a pitch, for the use here intended. So it may be, for instance, with some of the pieces from Hooker, from Jeremy Taylor, from Milton's prose, from Sir Thomas Browne, from Dr. South, and several others. And such an objection may press, with something of special force, against Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and a few other pieces of poetry. These are not indeed exactly “milk for babes.” The Hymn, especially, is very severe, - of a severity decidedly sculpturesque: the thought, the imagery, the diction feel, to the touch, as if chiselled out of the finest and hardest marble; so that the piece stands a markworthy specimen of what Cicero calls “ austere and solid sweetness."
Such workmanship is no doubt something beyond the reach and capacity of the average pupil in grammar-schools and academies. But, on the whole, it seems not unfitting nor undesirable that, among many pieces of a light and easy texture, a few should be put before young minds, of a quality to
apprise them of heights which they have not yet scaled, — something of a nature to invite them further onward, and to draw them further upward. And my own experience somewhat favours the belief, that compilers of books like the present are rather apt to undermark the receptiveness of the minds and tastes for which they are catering.
As a general rule, it is, I think, hardly right or expedient to draw much on living authors. for the use here designed. To form the minds and tastes of the young, nothing should be served up or recommended, short of the best there is to be had. Surely, at all events, boys and girls ought not to be fed from authors who will have passed into oblivion by the time they shall have
to be men and women. So that some apology may well be judged due, for the number of pieces here gathered from authors still alive. Especially it may be deemed a wrong, or at least an error, that the selections of American poetry are confined to the three very eminent poets who are still with us, and whose labours in that kind, it is to be hoped, are not yet closed. But to pass by our American poetry altogether, rich as it now is, would surely have been a much graver fault. And I have to confess that the choice workmanship of Bryant, Longfellow, and Whittier has well-nigh spoilt, for me, all the poetry previously written in this country. As for the living British poets, I had no difficulty in regard to them. In this matter, England's past is so immeasurably superior to her present, that one can hardly be tempted to deviate into the latter. Besides, to the best of my judgment, not one of her poets now alive equals either member of our own noble trio; albeit these have not yet had time enough to get fairly established in the rank of classics.
And the same may be said touching our historian, Mr. Bancroft. The volume has one piece, of considerable length, from him. But the character of WASHINGTON is one of our dearest national treasures, — it is among the most precious treasures of humanity itself; and it ought ever, both for moral and for political reasons, to be kept before the minds of our youth. Of course so august and beautiful a theme must not here be left altogether unvoiced :
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
I dare not pronounce the piece from Mr. Bancroft fully equal to the theme; for, indeed, what can be that? but it was taken simply because I really did not know of any thing else so good.
It was deemed advisable to have a considerable number of pieces suitable for exercises in declamation. Most of these are from Burke and Webster, confessedly the two greatest of English-speaking orators. Both are consummate masters of rhetoric; yet the rhetoric of both is charged to the utmost with strength and solidity of thought: no hollowness whatsoever here; no "sweet smoke”; nothing of mere surface-splendour. Several of the pieces from Webster have indeed been used much and long; but this has only proved the more strongly that no frequency of reading or hearing can wear the freshness and verdure out of them. And in the line of parliamentary or senatorial eloquence, nearly every thing else produced in this country seems to me tame and flat beside Webster's; while, beside Burke's, pretty much all else in the language seems tame and flat, except Webster's. Doubtless many would like to have more of variety in this kind; but, as the volume was to be mainly occupied with other matter, it seemed best not to travel much in walks of less than firstrate workmanship.
It may be remarked with some surprise, that so little of Milton's poetry, and so much of his prose, is here to be met with. The reason is, because his poetry, or the more suitable portions of it are, as indeed they well may be, largely used in our schools already, and are easily accessible in various cheap and convenient forms. Much the same is to be said of Cowper's poetry, none of which is given in this volume; also of Goldsmith's poetry; also of Addison's prose. Gray's Elegy has won a sort of prescriptive right to be in every book of the kind. His Eton College is here added; which is