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WITH CRITICAL INTRODUCTIONS
BY VARIOUS WRITERS
AND A GENERAL INTRODUCTION BY
THOMAS HUMPHRY WARD, M.A.
Late Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford
CHAUCER to DONNE
MACMILLAN AND CO.
[ All rights reserved ]
The aim of this book is to supply an admitted want—that of an anthology which may adequately represent the vast and varied field of English Poetry.
Nothing of the kind at present exists. There are great collections of the whole works of the poets, like that of Chalmers; there are innumerable volumes of ‘Beauties of a more or less unsatisfactory kind; there are Selections from single poets; there are a few admirable volumes, like that of Mr. Palgrave, which deal with special departments of our poetical literature. The only book which attempts to cover the whole ground and to select on a large scale is Campbell's; and Campbell's, though the work of a true poet and, according to the standard of his time, a critic of authority, can no longer be regarded as sufficient. It is indeed impossible that a selection of the kind should be really well done, should be done with an approach to finality, if it is the work of one critic alone. The history of English poetry is so wide, its various sections and stages have become the objects of so special a study, that a book which aims at selecting the best from the whole field and pronouncing its judgments with some degree of authority, must not be the work of one writer, but of many. It was on this plan that M. Crépet's excellent book, Les poètes français, was constructed twenty years ago; and what he there did for French poetry we here wish to do for English poetry--to present a collection of what is best in it, chosen and judged by those whose tastes and studies specially qualify them for the several tasks they have undertaken.
Our design has not been to present a complete collection of all that may fairly be called masterpieces—if it had been so, the volumes would of necessity have been three times as many as they are. Still less has it been to give a complete history of English poetry-if it had been so, many names that we have passed over would have been admitted. It has been, to collect as many of the best and most characteristic of their writings as should fully represent the great poets, and at the same time to omit no one who is poetically considerable. There are writers who were famous in their day and who played a great part in the history of English literature, but who have faded from public notice and are no longer generally read; men like Sidney, and Cowley, and Waller. Again, there are writers who never were well known, but who wrote a few beautiful poems as it were by accident; men like some of the minor Elizabethans, or Lovelace, or Christopher Smart. We have endeavoured to do justice to both these classes ; to gather from the former what may serve to explain why they were famous, and from the latter whatever they wrote that is of real poetical excellence.
We have not included the writings of living poets, nor the drama, properly so called. Had we admitted the drama we should have been compelled to double our space; besides, in spite of Charles Lamb, we may venture to say that by the nature of the case a play lends itself selection less than any other form of literature. But where a play is only a play in name, like Comus or the Gentle Shepherd, we have not excluded it ; and songs from the dramatists have of course been admitted.