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PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
Two things are attempted in the following work, which the author believes have not hitherto been systematically accomplished. My chief object has been to bring into as clear light as possible the characteristics of the several poets within the period chosen. And as a secondary object to this, I have endeavoured to trace how far each poet was influenced by his literary predecessors and his contemporaries. This is what I have attempted to do. The reader must not in this volume expect to find the works of our poets treated with reference to their race or their social surroundings. "What sort of man was he?" not "How was he formed?" is the leading question to which I have endeavoured to supply an answer.
In thus deliberately adopting a method that is in one vital respect the opposite of M. Taine's, I should be sorry if it were supposed that I am insensible to the value of what M. Taine has done for English literature. It may be, as one of his critics has said, that M. Taine has added little to the popular conception of the Englishman, as expressed in the nickname "John Bull"; but none the less on that account is it a great and valuable work to have shown that the characteristics thus vaguely summed up really pervade the whole of our literature. Justly viewed, indeed, the method pursued in this volume is not so much the opposite as the complement of M. Taine's. His endeavour was to point out what our writers had in common; mine has been to point out what each has by distinction. I might advance, as a justification of my attempt, that a thorough study of
the individual is indispensable to that higher study which has for its object the determination of the characteristics of the race. And besides, the most interesting study for mankind will always be the individual man.
It may be objected to my method that it does not systematically follow successive periods in the career of the individual, the opening of new veins, the development of new powers, the subjection to new influences. That is a method by itself, with its own value and its own dangers. It is the method suitable to monographs, or to history on a larger scale than is here attempted. I must say that it seems to me to have been of late somewhat overdone. It has been pursued without due respect to the individuality of the individual. Men's lives have been divided into clear-cut periods, and those periods characterised as if it were a law of nature that the individual became at sudden and definite epochs a wholly new creature. All division into periods, unless cautiously carried out, tends to obscure the fact that every animated being retains its individual characteristics from birth to maturity, from maturity to decay. The child is father to the man: a young cabbage does not become an old fig-tree. To trace the gradual growth of powers and qualities, extended range of effort, increased mastery of materials, is a most interesting task. This I have incidentally endeavoured to do. But I conceive that it is of prior interest to know what characteristics are of the essence of a man's being, and are manifested in all his outcomes; and therefore my chief aim in each case has been to seize those characteristics, and to make my interpretation of them as plain and unmistakable as lay in my power.
A smaller point in which I am especially open to hostile criticism, is the modernised spelling of the texts of Chaucer and his contemporaries and immediate successors. I have done this after much consideration, resolving to attempt it more by way of experiment and for the purpose of eliciting opinion, than from any settled conviction that it is the only
proper course. I am not insensible to the charm of the archaic spelling; and I know that to some minds modernisation of spelling is as obnoxious as the performance of Othello in a dress-coat. My object is to help my readers. to forget such small points as orthographical differences between them and those poets of an elder time, and to get nearer to the living spirit of them. The tendency of all archaisms, as I shall point out more fully in the case of Chaucer, is to impart into the text a sentiment of old age and childishness, very delightful in itself, but not so favourable to truth of criticism.
August 1, 1874.
PREFACE TO SECOND EDITION.
THERE are three points in particular on which I have made any considerable alteration from the text of the first edition -the relation of Chaucer to the English Court and to French poetry (chap. i.); the connection, or rather the non-connection, of the Wars of the Roses with the decadence of English poetry in the fifteenth century (chap. ii. sect. iii.); and the "causes" of the development of the Elizabethan drama (chap. vi.) On these points I have tried to express more fully and clearly the views originally put forward. In revising this edition I have gained less than I had expected from the enormous mass of interesting commentary on Chaucer and Shakespeare published within the last ten years, the reason doubtless being that my book is concerned with one main purpose the exposition of the characters, personal and artistic, of the poets dealt with. Every student of English literature must rejoice to find so many able and ingenious scholars at work in this field, and everybody must be sensible of the great value of their results; but as regards my own special purpose, I have not found occasion
for material change. How far this is due to prejudice and preoccupation, others must judge.
Some of the writer's incidental essays in the hazardous work of verifying anonymous allusions in Elizabethan literature, have been more favourably received than he had ventured to hope. Two of them have been almost universally accepted, the identification of the rival poet of Shakespeare's Sonnets with Chapman, and the identification of Spenser's "Aetion" with Drayton, under his poetical name Rowland." The identification of "Our pleasant Willy" with Sidney, and of "That same gentle Spirit with Spenser himself (Appendix A), I regard as equally certain, but such does not seem to be the general opinion of those who have taken any notice of my arguments.
The discussion of the age and character of Hamlet is much more argumentative than I should make it now when Goethe's view of the character is less generally accepted. The views I contended for were novel at the time. The arguments for Hamlet's age contained in the body of the play (see p. 309) had strangely escaped the notice of Shakespearian critics.
I have added in an Appendix a commendatory sonnet, of date 1591, and have put forward some considerations, originally printed in the 'Examiner' some ten years ago, for believing it to be Shakespeare's. I cannot expect many to take the trouble of following arguments of such minuteness. Most readers will judge, as I did myself at first, from a general impression. But I must beg those who do interest themselves in such a dilettante inquiry, to observe the nature of my argument, that it is not founded on single coincidences of expression, such as might be made out from any Elizabethan author, but on coincidence with a whole circle of associated ideas, images, and words.