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THE NEW ORK
ASTOR, LENOX AND
Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1875, BY HENRY N. HUDSON,
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
IT is really as important that people should be disposed to read what is good, as it is that they should know how to read. For the ability to converse with books is as liable to abuse as any other gift, and is in fact as much abused at this very time, and that too to the injury of the readers themselves, both in mind and heart. It is abundantly in proof that, of the books now appearing from day to day, the meanest and the worst, those made up of the cheapest and the foulest sensational flash, are read a great deal the most. The reason of this surely must be that, while people are taught to read, due care is not taken to plant and cherish in them right intellectual and literary tastes. In our education, therefore, it is of prime concern that such tastes should be early set or quickened in the mind; that while we are giving people the ability to converse with books, no pains should be spared to inspire them with the love of books that are good. Once possess them with a genuine, hearty love of a few first-rate authors, and then their culture in all its parts, so far as books can minister to it, is duly cared for: that love, those tastes, will become a sort of instinct, to prompt and guide them to what is wholesome and pure. And in this, as in other things, the ways of purity and health are also the ways of lasting and ever-growing pleasure and delight. The abiding, uncloying sweetness, the living, unwithering freshness of books in which conscience presides, truth illuminates, and genius inspires, are the proper food and delectation of a chaste and well-ordered mind; and to have a due sense and relish of those qualities, is at once the proof and the pledge of moral and intellectual health: for here it may with special fitness be affirmed that "love is an unerring light, and joy its own security."
It is on this principle, it is with a constant view to this end, that I have worked in selecting and ordering the contents of the present volume. These are the thoughts that prompted, and have throughout governed, the undertaking. In my own teaching, I have long felt the want of such a text-book, and have supplied the lack thereof as I best could. As for the reading-books, of which so many are in common use, I neither could nor would have any thing to do with them. I have no faith in them whatsoever: the very principle of
them I hold to be radically vicious and wrong. Assuredly, the right way of teaching English literature, so as to develop the intellectual tastes, is by using authors, and not miscellaneous literary chips, such as the books in question are made up of. Both experience and the reason of the thing amply instruct us that a mere collection of scraps and specimens gathered from a multitude of writ ers is rather a hindrance than a help to the end proposed; because in such a course the pupil does not stay long enough with any one author to catch his spirit, to find his virtue, or to feel at home with him. In such a rapid flight from author to author, no true intellectual loves or tastes can possibly germinate in the mind: for these loves are like our domestic loves, which grow from long intercourse of heart with heart and soul with soul in the familiar atmosphere of home, and the companionship of faces endeared by time. In short, these current reading-books are alike tedious in the use and worthless in the result: no mental delight can spring up from their pages: for any purpose but a mere mechanical pronouncing of words and sentences, they are sheer impertinences. On the other hand, a taste for a good author is a thing of slow and silent growth, and can by no means be extemporized: to the forming and fixing of it nothing will serve, but that the author's virtue just soak into the mind from communing with him through many a studious and thoughtful hour. Such is indeed the method, such the process of all fruitful converse with intellectual and moral beauty, the only way to drink-in the efficacy thereof; a converse which Milton so well describes as "beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies."
The upshot of all which is that, for the ends of culture, instead of a course of nibbles and snatches over a wide, miscellaneous field of authorship, we should take a very few of the best authors, and then use them a great deal. A taste for Shakespeare or Wordsworth alone, once thoroughly set in the mind, will readily guide him who has it to other good authors, and will at the same time keep him away from the bad by a spontaneous disgust of them.
The contents of this volume, as will at once be seen, are all drawn from six authors. Nor does this list include any author now living. I set out with the determination not to admit any author who had not fairly won the rank of a classic; a thing that is seldom if ever done during an author's life: generally a hundred years is little time enough for settling so grave a question. And it is a fixed principle with me, that none but the very best authors should be taken for the use to which this volume is addressed; while, again, to be used as a text-book in school, and for setting the tastes and forming the minds of the young, is the highest honour to which any author can justly aspire. Of the several authors here
included, I have aimed to select, if not the pieces best in them. selves, such at least as seemed best fitted for the use here designed. Therewithal, except in a few cases, which are duly remarked in the notes, I have given entire poems; and this to the end that a sense of artistic completeness and harmony may be secretly quickened and fostered in the pupil's mind.
All, or nearly all, the pieces set forth in this collection are old, familiar, long-tried friends of mine: if I had not been in the habit of returning to them often, and conversing with them, for many, many years; and if I had not believed the verdure and freshness of them to be perennial, and such as no frequency of perusal can exhaust; I should not have admitted them: in a word, to my sense, "age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety"; for I would fain have the volume so composed as to gather about itself
"the fixed delights of house and home, Friendships that will not break, and love that cannot roam."
It may be thought that some apology, or some explanation, is due from me for having filled so much of the volume with Wordsworth. On this point I can but say that the book contains no more of Wordsworth than I really want, and have long been in the habit of using more or less, in my own classes; nor any more than I think may be generally used with good effect in a course of English studies. And I am thoroughly satisfied that, next after Shakespeare, Words worth is the best of all the English poets for such use; and this chiefly because he is apt to inspire a deeper, stronger, and more abiding enthusiasm. In my observation, no mind that has once rightly felt the touch of his hand ever shakes off or outgrows its power; nor can I think of any thing better which the school can do for young minds than to seize them with a life-long passion for him.
Of the other authors and poems embraced in this volume, it may be enough to say that the consorting or grouping of them is by no means arbitrary. Strongly marked as the authors severally are with individual and characteristic traits, yet they naturally gravitate each to all, and all to each, by the force of mutual sympathy. To my sense, they are six highly congenial souls, and the more congenial for having each his original and independent strength. Thus the group affords a large variety of interest and attraction, while at the same time they all draw smoothly together under a common spirit, and to a common purpose; so that a right study of any one will serve to sharpen the student's relish and deepen his enjoyment of all the others.
As to what is here done in the way of notes and comments, perhaps the less said, the better. Still it may not be amiss to observe
that I have aimed at fitness, not for recitations proper, but simply for exercises; that teacher and pupils may commune together with the beauty and wisdom and eloquence of the authors, without having their thoughts too much diverted and drawn away to irrelevant points. I have been specially desirous not to encumber pupils with excessive or superfluous help; deeming that the right way is, to bring the minds of the student and the author fairly together, to put the former in direct and free communication with the latter, a process that may easily be defeated by thrusting too much of explanation and comment between them; -and then to leave the proper results to come in their own way and time, knowing that the more silent they are in coming, the surer they are to come, and the better when they come. In such studies, the great thing is, to get the pupils really to understand and relish what is before them, to taste its sweetness, to inhale its spirit, to catch its virtue: this done, the main end of the study is secured; this left undone, that end is missed, and the work is to be set down as a failure, whatever incidental benefits may accrue from the process. And here may be fitly applied to the study of poetry what Coleridge says in reference to his own poetical composition: "Poetry has been to me its own 'exceeding great reward': it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the Good and the Beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me."
In the sketches of the several authors' lives, I have endeavoured, with my best care and judgment, and with as much fulness as the space would allow, to sort out and draw together such particulars of personal history and of native idiom as would best serve to impress their characteristic traits, and to illustrate the correspondences between the man and his works. In such swift biographical summaries, it is very difficult to avoid a most unattractive dryness of style; and I dare not hope that these specimens stand clear of that fault.
It may be well to add, that I am far from ignoring or disparaging various other English poets, especially Spenser and Milton, in reference to the purpose for which this volume is designed. But those great authors, or large portions of them, are now and long have been widely in use as text-books, and are to be had in suitable form, and set forth with a much better editorial preparation than I could give them. Moreover, Spenser was of the same age as Shakespeare, and Milton of the age next succeeding; and, as I was making large use of Shakespeare, as a second to him I preferred to have, for my own classes, a poet who lived nearer our own time, and who represents a very different stage in the course of English thought and style.