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Oxford Treasury of English
Vol. I: Old English to Jacobean
G. E. Hadow
This is the first of three volumes the object of which is to indicate, so far as the limits of space permit, the chief landmarks in the progress of English literature. They are intended primarily for students who wish to look at the subject in general perspective before proceeding to a closer and more detailed survey of special forms or periods. Vol. I traces the course of prose and poetry (other than dramatic) from Beowulf to the writers of the Jacobean age; Vol. II will follow the history of the English drama to the same terminal limit; Vol. III will take up the record at the time of Milton and will continue it to that of Tennyson and Browning. The method of each will be the selection of characteristic examples, with such brief introductions, critical, explanatory, or biographical, as the occasion seems to require.
In the work of selection there are two obvious alternatives. One is to cite the largest possible number of authors, with a short extract from each: the other is to restrict the number of illustrations and proportionately to widen their extent. The former has certain historical advantages : it covers a broader area, it gives a greater variety; but it is open to the accusation, often levelled at anthologies, that it has 'been at a feast of learning and stolen away the
scraps'. The latter affords, at any rate in the earlier centuries, a truer and more comprehensive picture of literary development, and it has accordingly been adopted in the present volume. The extracts from Beowulf, from Sir Gawayn, and from the works of Chaucer, Malory, and Spenser, have been made on a scale as far as possible commensurate with their importance: and the principle here illustrated has, except for one consideration, been maintained throughout.
This consideration is the awakening of literary interest. Many authors are here omitted because, though historically significant, they belong to a later and more advanced course of study. Of these Langland is perhaps the most conspicuous instance. Piers Ploughman is a work with which, in the long run, all students of English literature must needs reckon: it is not a work which will help the beginner to a real love and appreciation of our poetry. Accordingly it finds here little more than the bare mention, and its period and movement are represented by Sir Gawayn, which, in a sense less typical, is unquestionably more attractive. The same holds good in regard of the Homilies, the Chronicles, and the distinctively scientific and philosophical writings. To the historian all are important: to the student of literature as such it is better that attention be concentrated on works of higher intrinsic beauty or of more direct social portraiture.
It may be objected that, from this point of view, insufficient space has been allotted to the early lyrics, and undue space to Gower, Lydgate, and even
Sackville. But in the first place the early lyrics are difficult to read, and all the best of them have been made accessible in the Oxford Book of English Verse. It has therefore seemed enough for our purpose to select those which most clearly exhibit the different modes of expression and to leave the task of further investigation to the reader. In the second place Gower and Lydgate are absolutely necessary as offsets to Chaucer: and the examples quoted from them have been selected with as much reference to his work as to their own real interest and value. And thirdly, Sackville, needed for a due appreciation of Spenser, deserves full inclusion on his own account, both for the severity of his style and for the special way in which he illustrates the effect of the Italian Renaissance. Indeed we are far more concerned to regret the poets whom we have been obliged to omit than to apologize for any whose writings we have here inserted.
In the examples of Old English-Beowulf, Cynewulf, Alfred-and in the deliberate antiquarian revival of Sir Gawayn, we have replaced the originals by translations. The language is so remote from our own that no modification in detail would be of any service, and the exact transcription would have been as alien as a foreign tongue. In this matter we desire to offer all cordial acknowledgements to Miss Moore, who has aided and enriched our work by allowing us to make use of her own. From thenceforward a double problem confronted us. We felt that it would be unscholarly to present Chaucer in the spelling of the twentieth century,