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The compiler of this work has not designed to make a compendium of English Literature, but to provide the means of acquiring a fair knowledge of that literature, for those who may not be able to procure a regular course of study on the subject. So far as gradation is concerned, the book is intended to fill the place usually occupied by the “Sixth” or “ Advanced” Reader. The extracts will be found of suitable length, and in other respects well adapted, it is hoped, for this purpose. In the ordinary catalogue of common-school studies literature, practically, holds but a humble place : its value to the mass of scholars has been underestimated, and it has been esteemed a branch of knowledge really useful only to the few who aspire to a liberal education.” Public sentiment has fortunately undergone a change touching this matter, within a few years; and in the hope of furthering that change and confirming literature in its true place among school studies, this book has been prepared. The people of the United States are, above all others, a nation of readers, and no thoughtful person need be told how potent in the formation of character and in the shaping of, the national life is the influence of books. The rapid increase of our schools in numbers and efficiency, the multiplication of public libraries, and the ever-growing volume of new publications, indicate beyond the possibility of doubt that, practical people though we are, we find in books the chief source of our intelligence and national strength. Books embody the accumulated wisdom of ages; in them we have the garnered experience of centuries long past; in them we find, so to speak, formulas for our guidance, precedents in the conduct of our fathers, which time has stamped with the validity of rules. Human nature is, in effect, unchanged since the earliest days of the world; and the record of its thought and manifestations, which consti
tutes the history of civilization, is the most precious inheritance that could have come down to us. The literature of a nation is its history in the subtlest form; and he who intelligently reads it apprehends the spirit of the time, while history itself gives him only results. Literature is, indeed, the most faithful expression of the national spirit, which seems to inspire and inform it; and the reader of this volume can readily trace in the chronologically arranged extracts from her writers the many stages that mark the vicissitudes of England's thought : religion, polities, general culture, all disclose their changing features in the theology, the poetry, and the drama of succeeding centuries.
English Literature, it is hardly necessary to say, antedates the time at which our extracts begin. Its birth is generally assigned to the last half of the fourteenth century. Three chief forces produced it, -- classical learning, the influence of Italian culture, and Norman poetry, known as Romance literature, which was gradually introduced into England after the Conquest. But of this period — and of the earlier centuries to which belong the Saxon poem of Beowulf, Caedmon's paraphrase of Scripture, the Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede (who lived 673 – 735), Layamon’s “Brut,” the metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, etc., etc. -- it has been thought best to reproduce in this volume no representative fragments, for the reason that these archaic writings are valuable only to the professed scholar. The same reason operates, less powerfully indeed, to exclude specimens of Chaucer's poems. He was, it is true, the founder of English literature, and the first who demonstrated that the English language was susceptible of forcible and harmonious arrangement in rhythmical form. But his writings present serious obstacles to the ordinary reader in their multitude of obsolete words and phrases, and an acquaintance with them may properly follow the study of more modern writers. Moreover, the reform which he inaugurated in letters was not steadily progressive. The century immediately following his life was notably barren of literary growth ; a barrenness mainly due to the stern repression of free inquiry by the ecclesiastical authorities, and secondarily to the prevalence of civil wars, which diverted attention from the peaceful pursuit of letters. Near the close of this century, however, printing was introduced into England, as if in preparation for the season of intellectual activity which was near at hand. This season is known as the Elizabethan age, the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and has been called the creative period in English literature.
It may be regarded as the legitimate result of the Reformation, which loosened the bonds that had trammeled men's minds, and encouraged free investigation and free expression. It has three representatives, par excellence, — Hooker of the theological spirit, Bacon of the philosophical, and Shakespeare of the poetic and dramatic. With the last of these, “the most illustrious of the sons of man,” our series of glimpses at English literary history begins.
As even the merest mention of all distinguished writers was obviously impracticable, it has been attempted, in the preparation of this volume, to introduce those of the number who most faithfully and forcibly represent the several stages and departments of English literature. In Shakespeare we see a delegate at large from every literary interest known in his time; Milton gives voice to the thoughtful and devout poetry of Puritanism; Swift illustrates the power of satire with a brilliancy that has never been surpassed; Addison inaugurates the revival of classicalism in literature, and gives the world a pattern of rigid, though beautiful, accuracy in style; Johnson exemplifies ponderousness in matter and manner, and leaves a lasting impress on English letters ; Goldsmith, more thoroughly than any writer had done before his time, transfuses himself into his writings, revealing his own gentle, genial, and poetical nature in his books with almost unequaled fidelity of portraiture; Gibbon, first of all Englishmen, demonstrated the power of the historian, not only to rescue the past, but to mold the future. But the catalogue is too long to be thus continued. What is here left undone, the student may profitably do for himself, recording briefly his judgment of each writer and specifying his distinguishing services or office in literature.
As helps to history, these brief interviews with typical representatives of different periods cannot fail to be valuable. To the epics of Homer we are largely indebted for our knowledge of the politics, theology, and social customs of the Greeks and Trojans ; and our debt for similar acquisitions to English writers of early times, though rarely acknowledged, is even greater. Chaucer gives us pictures of a life that, but for him, we could only imagine, - a life in which rude ecclesiasticism held unquestioned dominion. Dryden describes or suggests the vicissitudes of religious faith that were the most conspicuous feature of English life in his time, and the pervading corruption that demoralized all classes. Coleridge enlightens us as to the first movements of that spirit of free inquiry whose results have
pre-eminently distinguished the nineteenth century. It would be easy to enlarge upon this point if space permitted; but a little reflection will convince the intelligent reader that the literature of a nation is its true history: it is spontaneous and unprejudiced, while formal historical narratives are invariably colored by prejudice, personal, political, or theological. If Hume's and Macaulay's and Froude's Histories were suddenly destroyed, the surviving general literature of England would afford ample materials for their reconstruction.
American Literature has a liberal representation in THE LITERARY READER, which presents one feature that may be said to be unique; that is, its recognition of distinctively scientific writers as contributors to letters. In its early days science was dry and almost repellent to all save its favored students; but its modern exponents have not failed to see the importance of introducing it in an attractive guise, and the writings of Agassiz, Tyndall, Gray, Dana, Maury, Huxley, and others abound in passages of marked beauty even when judged according to the standards of pure literature. This feature of the work seems to mark not only a due acknowledgment of the growing love for scientific study in this country, but also a welcome addition to the treasures of literature.
While this work is primarily intended for the use of schools, as a textbook by the use of which the learner may acquire, simultaneously, proficiency in reading, and no inconsiderable familiarity with what may be called the headlands of English literature, it will, it is believed, also be found serviceable by the general reader. One who desires to acquaint himself with the best literary products of the Anglo-Saxon intellect will find in these pages a convenient and agreeable introduction to them. Indeed, the book may fitly be described as a collection of samples which set forth the peculiar qualities of the chief literary fabrics of England and America, made during nearly three hundred years.
The compiler acknowledges, with pleasure, his obligations to Mr. S. R. Crocker, the accomplished editor of the Literary World, for much valuable literary assistance, and also to Messrs. James R. Osgood & Co., Messrs. G. P. Putnam's Sons, Messrs. D. Appleton & Co., and others, for their courtesy in permitting the use of selections from their copyright editions of American writers.
G. R. C.