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PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
THE contents of this volume, written during leisure weeks of recent summers, originally appeared in the “North British Review.” They were put together not hastily at first, and have since been revised, in some places retrenched, in more enlarged. This is true of all the papers, except the third, which stands now much as it did at first. Though each of the four Essays has a distinct subject of its own, it is hoped that they will be found to have a unity both of thought and purpose. The first three were written from a desire to acknowledge, as far as possible, a debt of gratitude long owed to three eminent teachers of the last age. The only way in which that acknowledgment could now be rendered, was by trying to hand on some knowledge of the men and of the work they did to a few at least of the younger generation. Each of these three papers has been introduced by a short biography, in the hope that the concrete facts might throw light on the abstract thoughts, and add to them a human interest.
The thought of Wordsworth and Coleridge is
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of such worth, that too much cannot be done to commend it to those unacquainted with it. They deserve to be known for this, if for nothing else, that they two were the men of most original genius who have been born into England for a century and more. But original genius has sometimes done questionable work, for which perhaps small thanks are due. Theirs, however, was not only original, it was beneficent genius. To a sense-bound age, rejoicing in a mechanical philosophy, they came speaking from the soul to the soul. In time they awakened a response. Younger men, one by one, turned towards them, and found in their teaching that which at once called out and satisfied their aspirations as no other writings of the time did. Whatever is best, deepest, most spiritual in the thinking and feeling of the last thirty years, is either their product or akin to it. But now again the recoil has come, and we are once more in the midst of a way of thinking which excludes the spiritual. As against this compacted system Wordsworth and Coleridge have certainly no complete system, no spiritual theory of life to furnish, but they supply a body of thought which, though unsystematized, is the best counteractive to be found in English literature, till the full spiritual theory gets born.
There is another aspect in which the mental experience of these men is instructive. This is proclaimed on all hands to be an age of disintegration, when all old things must either be reconstructed or disappear. An uneasy, restless searching after something larger and more satisfying, is no doubt visible on the surface both of books and of society. In this mood of men's minds, is there not something to be learnt from the experience of Wordsworth and Coleridge ? Here were two men of amplest power, born into an age fuller of anarchic change than our own. They threw themselves fearlessly on their time, broke with old faiths and institutions, in search of truth set their faces to the wilderness, and after sojourning for a season there, came out on the other side, and found peace. They have been branded for this as mere timid reactionaries. But this I believe to be no true account of them. If they returned in some sense to their first faiths, they did so not in blind conservatism, not as grasping at mere tradition in despair of truth, but as having, after long soul-travail, discovered a meaning in old truths they had not divined before. After wandering many ways of thought, and having learnt in their wanderings to know themselves, they came back and found in Christian truth that which alone met their need. They held it no longer by hearsay from without, but learned it anew from within, apprehending it not in oldness of the letter, but in newness of the spirit. The spiritual principles, which as thinkers they held, found their complement in
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evangelical religion, and gave to this last increased depth and expansion. This experience of theirs has not lost its import for our own day.
Keble, the subject of the third essay, was not in mental endowments at all the equal of Wordsworth and Coleridge. But he had gifts of his own as singular and as interesting as theirs. The devoutness and saintly purity, embalmed in his poetry, are as rare among men as their genius. Then he represents the most winning, to wit, the poetical and devotional, side of that great movement which has in so many ways changed the religious, the ecclesiastical, and the æsthetical aspects of English life. Many, no doubt, will think this small praise to him. But without entering on this subject, which has many sides, every religious heart must acknowledge not only the devout depth but the catholic sentiment of 6. The Christian Year."
His strain, overheard among louder-voiced poets, is like that of his favorite red-breast among the other song-birds, and has added to English poetry the note in which it was most wanting.
The last essay is different from the other three. It does not centre round one man and his teaching, but deals with an abstract subject. But the thoughts it contains are, I believe, in harmony with the views set forth in the first three essays, - are indeed, as it were, but a prolongation of these views. In this country the ground principles of morality and religion have generally been carefully kept apart. The moralist and the religious teacher have each warned the other off his own ground, and resented any attempt to combine the two departments as an interference. Both have suffered from this unnatural estrangement. This fourth essay is an attempt to find the common ground on which these two subjects meet. It is certain that, when seen in their close and vital bearing on each other, moral thought will give substance and steadfastness to religion, and religion will give to morality a transcendent sanction and spiritual energy.
This volume is published chiefly in the hope that it may reach some of the thoughtful young. Older persons do not much affect books of this kind. It is otherwise with those in whom thought is just awakening. If what I have written should lead any of these to acquaint themselves with the men here described, and to assimilate their thought, they will, I am sure, be the better for it, and the happier.
ST. ANDREW'S, March, 1868.