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So many collections of favourite poetical pieces have appeared of late years, appealing to nearly every variety of taste, that some apology may seem due to the public for adding another volume to the number already in existence.
But although there have been sentimental, humorous, lyrical, descriptive, and devotional collections, there is another kind of poetry which was more in vogue in the reign of Queen Anne, and indeed in Ante-Reform-Bill times, than it is at the present day; a species of poetry which, in its more restricted form, bears somewhat the same relation to the poetry of lofty imagination and deep feeling, that the Dresden China Shepherds and Shepherdesses of the last century do to the sculpture of Donatello and Michael Angelo ; namely, smoothly written vers de société, where a boudoir decorum is, or ought always to be, preserved ; where sentiment never surges into passion, and where humour never overflows into boisterous merriment. The Editor is not aware that a collection of this peculiar species of exquisitely rounded and
polished verse, which, for want of a better title, he has called Lyra Elegantiarum, has ever yet been offered to the public.
Hitherto this kind of poetry has remained difficult of access to the majority of ordinary readers, because its most finished specimens have often lain scattered among masses of verse, more ambitious in aim, but frequently far less worthy of preservation. It seems only reasonable, then, that those people who delight in this lighter kind of verse should be enabled to study their favourite pieces in a single volume.
In commencing his task the Editor's first endeavour was to frame a correct definition of vers de société and vers d'occasion, with sufficient clearness to guide him in making his selection, and he has been desirous of giving them their broadest signification. His second endeavour was to choose those pieces which most completely reached this ideal standard. But it will be easily understood that no exact line of demarcation can in all cases be maintained, and that such verse frequently approximates closely to other kindred species of poetry, such as the song, the parody, the epigram, and even the riddle.
Lest any reader who may not be familiar with this description of poetry should be misled by the adoption of the French title, which the absence of any precise English equivalent renders necessary, it may be as well to observe, that vers de société need by no means be confined to topics of artificial life. Subjects of the most exalted, and of the most trivial character, may be treated with equal success, provided the manner of their treatment is in accordance with the following characteristics, which the Editor ventures to submit as expressive of his own ideas on this subject. In his judgment genuine vers de société and vers d'occasion should be short, elegant, refined, and fanciful, not seldom distinguished by chastened sentiment, and often playful. The tone should not be pitched high; it should be idiomatic, and rather in the conversational key; the rhythm should be crisp and sparkling, and the rhyme frequent and never forced, while the entire poem should be marked by tasteful moderation, high finish, and completeness : for, however trivial the subject-matter may be, indeed rather in proportion to its triviality, subordination to the rules of composition and perfection of execution should be strictly enforced. The definition may be further illustrated by a few examples of pieces which, from the absence of some of the foregoing qualities, or from the excess of others, cannot be properly classed as vers de société, though they may bear a certain generic resemblance to that species of poetry. The ballad of “John Gilpin,” for instance, is too broadly and simply humorous ; Swift's “ Lines on the Death of Marlborough,” and Byron's “Windsor Poetics,” are too savage and truculent; Cowper's "My Mary” is far too pathetic; Herrick's lyrics to “Blossoms” and “Daffodils” are too elevated; “ Sally in our Alley” is too homely, and too entirely simple and natural; while the “Rape of the Lock,” which would otherwise be one of the finest
specimens of vers de société in any language, must be excluded on account of its length, which renders it much too important.
Every piece which has been selected for this volume cannot be expected to exhibit all the characteristics above enumerated, but the two qualities of brevity and buoyancy are absolutely essential. The poem may be tinctured with a well-bred philosophy, it may
gay and gallant, it may be playfully malicious or tenderly ironical, it may display lively banter, and it may be satirically facetious; it may even, considering it merely as a work of art, be pagan in its philosophy, or trifling in its tone, but it must never be ponderous or common-place.
Having thus fixed upon a definition, the Editor proceeded to put it to a practical use, by submitting it as a touchstone to the various pieces which came under his notice. In the first place it is scarcely necessary to say that all poetry of a strictly religious character, on account of the singleness and earnestness of its tone, is inadmissible in a collection where jest and earnest are inextricably intermingled. All pieces of quasi fashionable jingle have been excluded, because they are usually pretentious and vulgar. Some of our best writers of vers de société are not merely tinged with coarseness, they seem to revel in it, and often show much raciness in their revelry, but they are hardly ever vulgar. Vulgarity appears to be a rock on which so many would-be writers of this species of verse have suffered, and will continue to suffer, shipwreck.