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Poets have multiplied during the present century as at no previous period. Never was the accomplishment of verse so general as now. “Weren't we in the luck of it," said Scott to Moore, “ to have come before all this talent was at work ?" If the remark was apt in their day, how much more so is it at the present time! Works in verse, that would have made a reputation a century ago, fall now almost unnoticed from the press. It is hard for the most diligent critic to keep pace with the fertility of our poets. The present compiler had despaired of doing this long before he had proceeded far in his labors. The consequence is that there have been omissions for which no better reason can be given than that they were anavoidable. An apology under such circumstances would be ont of place.
It cannot be overlooked, too, that much of the best poetry of recent times has been the product of feminine genius. The progress of women in enlarging the sphere of their occupations, and competing with the employments of the stronger sex, is represented in no department of intellectual work more signally than in verse. Every month new poetry, far above mediocrity, if not of really superior quality, is sent forth.
This is a sign to be welcomed. True poetry, like the religious prompting itself, springs from the emotional side of man's complex nature, and is ever in harmony with his highest intuitions and aspirations. It cannot be poetry if it conflict with these. Its cultivation, therefore, apart from all calculations of profit or of reputation-since few can now realize their dream of fame—must always be an elevating pursuit. There are some great truths for the expression of which the speculative understanding is less fitted than that which is the issue of right feelings and noble impulses.
That poets have not always practised what they have preached, only shows how hard it is for a man to act up to his best ideals.
It is profoundly true that poetry is to be found nowhere, unless we have it within ns. Here, as throughout all nature and all art, we receive but what we give. And so it is that great poets like Goethe-of whom it was said that his praise of some of the younger poets of his day was "a brevet of mediocrity”-often detect in what
may strike an inferior judge as cominonplace, something to which the broad poetical nature may respond.
In poetry, as in other forms of art, tastes must differ widely, not only among different persons, but among the same persons at different periods of their lives. The youth, in whose estimate the verse of Byron once had the highest place, often finds himself, as he grows older, transferring his affections to Coleridge or Wordsworth. Then, too, it frequently happens that our fondness for a certain poem may lie unconsciously in some early association with it, or in the fact that it was admired by some one near and dear to us. We shut onr eyes to minor flaws, and are “pleased we know not why and care not wherefore,"—wholly regardless of the critic's shrug or even the grammarian's objection. All, then, that the compiler can do is, while admitting largely what he may regard as best and highest, to remember still that in the exercise of his individual taste he must not arbitrarily rule out the representation of any legitimate style or topic. Some of our best humorous poems, like Thackeray's “ Ballad of Bouillabaisse,” have in them an element of pathos which redeems their character as poetry.
There are many minor poets who, by some felicity of subject or of treatment, have produced one successful piece, but never repeated the achievement. Like the boy who shot an arrow through a ring, but would not make a second trial lest he should fail, they have been constrained to rest their fame on the one little waif by which they have been made known. This class, and such anonymous writers as have produced pieces that the world does not allow to become obsolete, are largely represented in the present volume; and our Index of First Lines will be found a convenient concordance for the discovery of many a poem which everybody remembers, but few know where to find.
In the introductory notices of poets, in reference to the most distinguished, the aim has been to condense, or to sum up briefly, the most interesting incidents of their lives, and the choicest characteristics of their writings. In doing this, occasional forms of expression, not designated by quotation - marks, have been adopted, with alteration or abridgment, from biographer or critic; but credit has been given in cases of any importance. Original matter has been largely introduced; but, inasmuch as the license of a compiler has been used to enrich the work with all that is most apt in the way of facts and of criticism, whether new or old, no pretensions to uniform originality in these respects are made.
Bostox, December, 1880.
The concluding pages of this volume were put in type only a few days before the genial and cultured editor passed away from the scene of his labors. It was the crowning work of a life devoted to literature. Projected several years ago, it engrossed Mr. Sargent's thoughts and time almost to the very last day of his life, and every page passed under his careful supervision. Although he did not live to see it published, he had the pleasure of putting the final touches to it, and of knowing that his work was finished.
Mr. Sargent was eminently fitted for the preparation of a work of this kind. Few men possessed a wider or more profound knowledge of English literature, and his judgment was clear, acute, and discriminating. He designed this volume especially for household use; and he could have desired no kindlier remembrance than that associated with the innocent pleasure and refining influence it will carry to many a domestic fireside.
HARPER & BROTHERS. FRANKLIN SQUARE, NEW YORK,
February 22, 1881.