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THE editor of this volume has done very little more than rearrange and combine the materials furnished in "Gems of the British Sacred Poets," published recently by a member of the University of Oxford, and in critical and very interesting "Lives of the English Sacred Poets," by Robert Aris Willmott, of Trinity College, Cambridge, which appeared under the direction of a committee of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He has, however, added some thirty authors not quoted in either of those works, among whom are Shirley, Baxter, Toplady, Wesley, Williams, Moultrie, and Mrs. Steele; and own country, President Dwight, John Quincy Adams, Bishop Doane, Mr. Hillhouse, Wilcox, Croswell, Norton, Whittier, and Coxe; and he has carefully revised the selections from earlier and later English authors, making such changes as he thought would enhance the value of the work.
The religious poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is eminently worthy of study, and it is little known. "Its characteristic qualities," observes Mr. Willmott, " were fervor of sentiment, and melody of language; the fervor often degenerating into fantastic enthusiasm, the melody often running into grotesque extravagance of rhythm and expression. That intellectual eyesight to which criticism has given the name of Taste, seldom attains to its perfect vision either in the youth or the manhood of literature. Homer undergoes the polishing refinement of Virgil, and Pindar catches a sweeter note from his Latin imitator, and the orator of the Bench is supplied in the Forum, before they assume the form of grace and shine with the subdued lustre, and speak with the harmonious accents of intellectual beauty. The file, however, when it ceases to polish begins to weaken, and modern poetry has declined in strength, while it has increased in flexibility. But the calm diffusion of light is more agreeable than the uncertain blazes livelier invention, and we can read a Grahame with satisfaction which the sublimer genius of Quarles will not always afford, and recollect the humble rhymes of Watts, when the more passionate songs of Herbert sound harshly upon the ear."
Mr. Willmott and the author of the "Gems from the Sacred Poets," (who is said to be Mr. Isaac Williams, the competitor of Mr. Keble for the professorship of Poetry at Oxford,) have performed an acceptable service to the readers of religious literature, by drawing from undeserved obscurity so many authors who had been forgotten, or were remembered only by the antiquary. "The ridicule of Dryden," says Mr. Willmott, "transmitted the name of Shirley to the contempt of posterity, and we have seen Pope and Butler embalming Quarles and Wither for perpetual disgrace. But as the dramatist has risen from the scorn of Dryden, so Quarles and his companions have shaken off the missiles of their satirists."
There is no poetry so rare as the poetry of devotion. It would be as difficult, however, for a true poet as for a true philosopher not to be imbued with the spirit of piety, and we find that sacred songs are among the finest productions of nearly all the great poets, whether they were technically religious or not.
The romance obtains a quicker popularity than the history, the melodrama than the tragedy, and the ballad a more general admiration than the ode. In this collection are many pieces without the highest attributes of poetry; but very few, it is believed, which have not the simplicity, harmony, and purity that will secure a welcome from every variety of readers.
The importance of having works of this description, to elevate the taste and deepen the religious sentiments, can hardly be too highly estimated. Poetry is the expression of beauty, and every thing truly good is beautiful. Devout reflections upon life, death, and the destiny of the soul, may by the poet be sung to men who would never hear them from another teacher, and thus a simple song be as the voice of the FATHER to an erring child, calling him into the way of life.