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PRINTED FOR J. JOHNSON; J. NICHOLS AND SON; R. BALDWIN; F. AND C. RIVINGTON; W. OTRIDGE AND SON;
THE Preface to a collection like the present, necessarily involves an attempt to apologize for its defects, and from this some degree of egotism is inseparable. Candour, however, will not fail to make liberal allowance for the many difficulties which surround an undertaking of this magnitude: and it is hoped that the excuses which are offered, if not satisfactory, will at least be received as marks of respect. The labour of some years in forming this collection has been exerted with an anxious desire that it may prove worthy of public favour, but at the conclusion of the task, I cannot flatter myself that I have succeeded in forming the best plan, or in executing the plan which I formed.
The fate of the few collections which have been made of this kind readily pointed out that the objections of critics would be directed, either against redundancy, or defect, and it is as likely that I shall be blamed for admitting too many, as for admitting too few, into a work professing to be a BODY OF THE STANDARD ENGLISH POETS. It cannot, however, be unknown to those who have paid any attention to the subject, that the question of too much or too little in these collections, does not depend on the previous consideration of the merit of the poet, so frequently as on the relative rank which he seems destined to hold among his brethren. Some may be admissible in a series, who would make but an indifferent figure by themselves, and it is not improbable that by perpetuating editions in this manner, the fame that has sunk in one revolution of taste may be revived in another.
There are perhaps but two rules by which a collector of English poetry can be guided. He is either to give a series of the BEST poets, or of the most POPULAR, but simple as these rules may appear, they are not without difficulties, for whichever we choose
to rely upon, the other will be found to interfere. In the first instance, the question will be perpetually recurring "who are the best poets?" and as this will unavoidably involve all the disputed points in poetical criticism, and all the partialities of individual taste, an editor must pause before he venture on a decision from which the appeals will be numerous and obstinately contested.
On the other hand, he will not find much more security in popularity, which is a criterion of uncertain duration, sometimes depending on circumstances very remote from taste or judgment, and, unless in some few happy instances, a mere fashion. Any bookseller can tell an editor that popularity will frequently elude his grasp, if he waits for the decision of time; that authors, popular within the memory of some of the present generation, are no longer read, and that others who seemed on the brink of oblivion, if not sunk in its abyss, have by some accountable or unaccountable revival, become the standing favourites of the day. It has often been objected to Dr. Johnson's Collection, that it includes authors who have few admirers, and it is an objection which perhaps gains strength by time, but it ought always to be remembered, that the collection was not formed by that illustrious scholar, but by his employers, who thought themselves, what they unquestionably were, the best judges of vendible poetry, and who included very few, if any, works in their series for which. there was not, at the time it was formed, a considerable degree of demand.
Aware of the difficulties of adding to that collection without reviving the usual objections, what is now presented to the public could never have been formed, had I imposed on myself the terms either of abstract merit, or of popular reception. When applied to, therefore, by the proprietors, and left at liberty, generally, to form a collection of the more ancient poets to precede Dr. Johnson's series, and of the more recent authors to follow it, I conceived that it would be proper to be guided by a mixed rule in admitting the additions from these two classes. Although the question of popularity seemed necessary and decisive in selecting from the vast mass of poetical writers since the publication of Dr. Johnson's volumes, yet in making up a catalogue of the older poets, it was requisite to advert to the only uses which such a
catalogue can at all be supposed to answer. Popularity is here so much out of the question, that however venerable some of the names are which occur in this part of the work, it will probably be impossible by any powers of praise or criticism to give them that degree of favour with the public which they once enjoyed.
For these reasons, in selecting from this class, it was the Editor's object to give such a series as might tend, not only to revive genuine and undeservedly neglected poetry, but to illustrate the progress and history of the art from the age of Chaucer to that of Cowley. What has been done so excellently by Mr. Ellis, in SPECIMENS, it was the intention to execute more amply by ENTIRE WORKS, copied from the best editions, and as nearly as possible in a chronological succession': and a plan of this kind, to him who does not attempt to execute it, will appear to have every advantage, and not many difficulties.
On trial, however, it was soon discovered that some limits must be set to such a collection; that it would be in vain to attempt to revive authors whom no person would read, and to fill thousands of pages with discarded prolixities, merely because they characterized the dulness of the age in which they were tolerated. It was also discovered, that the plan of giving entire works would be objectionable in another point of view, and that the licentious language of some of our most eminent poets, whether their own fault or that of their age, must necessarily be omitted. In this dilemma, therefore, a SELECTION has been attempted, with less severity of rule than in the case of the modern poets, and it is presented to the public with the diffidence in which it was made, and with the deference due to superior judgment.
Besides the difficulties which presented themselves from the circumstances just noticed, another embarrassment, of late origin indeed, but almost invincible, was occasioned by the extreme rarity and high price of many of the works which it would have been desirable to reprint. To professed collectors of ancient English poetry it would be superfluous to enter upon any explanation of the causes of this high price, and to others it may be
This has been departed from in a few instances, owing to the difficulty of procuring the copies at the time they were wanted, but the deviations, it is hoped, will be found slight.