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(Originally prefired to Vol. X. of the former
A PERFECT collection of all the English poetry published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would be an invaluable treasure, not only for curiosity, but for
It is in poets that we must study all the varieties of language, all the force of words, both singly and in combination; and all the energy and vivacity of ideas. That bright mirror of things, which exists in the poet's brain, reflects them back with a proportionate clearness and brilliance of expression.
The difficulty of attaining a large portion of these volumes has rendered it necessary to recur to modern compilations of selections and extracts from them, made by the honourable industry of those, whose love of literature combined with opportunity has stimulated their researches in these obsolete and forbidding tracks of study. The taste of the public has kept pace with the labours of these bibliographers and critics. We have seen the fashion for black letter reading increase in the last ten years with wonderful celerity. It has given a new cast to our modern compositions in verse; extended their subjects; enlarged their phraseology; varied and enriched their imagery; and brought back their productions nearer to the vigorous simplicity of better days.
However uninviting the black-letter page, with its reduudant spelling, and its unusual or strangely-accented words, may appear at first, a little practice reconciles us to these objections. We then find a new delight in the contrast with modern modes of communicating our thoughts: forms of phrase, which have lost all force from their triteness, are relieved by new combinations; and the operations of the mind seem to derive an infusion of vigour from the new light in which they are clothed.
The generous and enlarged intellect swells with a proud satisfaction at thus having spread before it all the stores of the most cultivated geniuses of its country for centuries back. All literary merit is relative: the products of a single age may be puny when compared with those of others; but when the standard of comparison is extended to those of every age of a country since the revival of letters, the most inquisitive and hesitating research must be satisfied. It may proceed to draw results with a confidence, which future facts will not be likely to disturb. The experience, with which it will be furnished, will shew, with almost unerring certainty, what are the vital ingredients in a composition which will preserve its fame to fut ages.
If it be a just and praiseworthy desire in a cultivated and extensive mind to see foreign countries and foreign manners, that we may shake off those narrow attachments and views of things, which a narrow scene and narrow acquaintance with the actions and customs of mankind almost necessarily generates, is not this desire as applicable to times as to countries? Does not the lapse of ages vary the modes and thoughts of the inhabitants of the world, as much as the diversity of scenes and elimates? Is there not something still more worthy of a noble and refined curiosity, in unfolding the mantle of Time, in opening the grave, and bidding the dead speak?
I have at length read so much of Elizabethan poetry, and Elizabethan biography, that all the wits of that age, all its genius, and all its state, seem to be brought upon the stage before and
my ears are full of their figures, and their language! Their modes of thinking; their feelings; their customs; their phraseology, are brought back to life, and offer themselves for a comparison with what I hear and see among my cotemporaries. I would not draw their “ frailties from their dread abode" in the tomb: but I delight to revive their virtues; and talk with their spirits, though their bones have long since mouldered into dust!
It would be an impertinent repetition, again to bring forward all the arguments which the Prefaces of the first Edition contain in favour of Bibliography. They are all preserved in those Prefaces now reprinted together; and will be a memorial of the ardour with which the Compiler has formerly persevered in these labours. If his time might have been better applied, and his energies directed in more congenial paths, regret is now worse than useless, because it can only give pain for that which cannot be undone. But what right has he to complain? The Public, by calling for a second Edition of this expensive Work, have been more indulgent to his humble efforts on this subject than they merit.
That a Work, of which the cost in resetting the press is so great, must, as it is confined to One Hundred Copies, always be of high price, cannot, he thinks, admit of any reasonable doubt.
Jan, 19, 1816.
S. E. B.
[The following Observations having been, by mistake,
omitted in their proper place (as prefatory to the Lives of Modern Poets, in Vol. VII.), it is thought advisable to print them here.]
The Lives of Poets consist principally of their works; for they are seldom much engaged in any other operations than those of the mind.
In an acute examination of their writings we shall probably derive a much more accurate and discriminative idea of their characters, than from the garrulous anecdotes of their superficial acquaintance; or a few accidental traits of singularities or defects.
It may gratify the envy and malignity which are too prevalent in maukind, to bring down those who have possessed exalted talents, to the common level; to tell depreciating stories ; and enforce a truth, we too well know, that the most eminent have had their hours of folly, if not of crime.
It shall be my endeavour to steer a different course. I trust that without running into fulsome panegyric I shall be able to treat genius with the reverence to which it is entitled, and bestow praise which will gain credit from the truth of its appropriation.
Experience proves, how seldom the various qualities,