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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.
sufficient to intimate, that within the last twenty years, a taste for collecting the writings of our old poets has diffused itself so widely as to put them wholly out of the reach of moderate fortunes, as well as to induce those into whose hands they have fallen, to guard them with the most scrupulous anxiety. Even where, as in the present instance, the spirit of the proprietors would not have suffered the high price to keep back what was necessary, it was sometimes found that private sales and barters among the tribe of collectors had almost entirely removed the articles in question from the public market.
But notwithstanding these impediments, I hope I have succeeded in procuring such a number of the rarer authors as is, in a great measure, if not quite, sufficient to preserve somewhat more than an outline of the principal revolutions of our poetical taste and style, and probably more than sufficient to gratify the curiosity of those who do not wish to pursue the study of poetical antiquities in all its branches. By those who have that taste, and who are not only readers, but students of poetry, (a class which seems to be increasing) more ample gratification must be derived from the libraries of the collectors, and from the labours of the Wartons, the Ritsons, the Ellis's, the Parks, the Hazlewoods, and the Brydges'. Nor can I quit this part of my subject without acknowledging the obligations I owe to the writings of these eminent antiquaries and critics, as well as to the personal kindness of some of them, which it was my intention to have acknowledged more particularly had I not been afraid of implicating them in what may be found objectionable. Yet something must be added, which cannot involve this consequence. To Thomas Hill, Esq. I consider myself as highly indebted. This gentleman's very valuable collection of English poetry is open to the inspection and use of every literary inquirer, and his rarest volumes were lent to me with a ready confidence and kindness that demand my sincerest thanks. I have likewise to acknowledge the liberal offers of Sir Egerton Brydges, Richard Heber, Esq. and Mr. Park. The public will hear with gladness, and may with confidence, that Mr. Park is now engaged on a new edition, and continuation, of Warton's History of Poetry; and from his well known taste, and superior accuracy, there can be no doubt that he will render this work all that the utmost hopes of its original author could have reached. In the biographical part of this collection, I owe much to the contributions and hints of my intelligent and steady friends, Mr. Nichols and Mr. Payne, but I am restrained by an obvious delicacy from expatiating on their kindness.
In forming this collection, it yet remains to be mentioned that Dr. Johnson's Lives are retained, with some additional notes, originally given in the edition of his works, printed in 1806. Few words, however, are necessary in making this intimation. Dr. Johnson's Lives, after all the objections that have been offered, must ever be the foundation of English poetical biography. To substitute any thing in their room would be an attempt, by the ablest, hazardous, and by inferior pens, ridiculous.
With respect to the new Lives, a part of this work for which I am particularly responsible, they are the result of more anxious and painful research than may appear to those who do not examine my authorities. In rectifying preceding accounts, many of which I found erroneous and inconsistent, either from carelessness or partiality, and in procuring original information, in which I hope it will appear that I have not been altogether unsuccessful, it was my object to ascertain those truths, in whatever they might end, which display the real character. And I am sorry it should be necessary to add, that I have not thought it incumbent to represent every man whose works are here admitted as a prodigy of genius or virtue. This practice, it is true, has been lately adopted in collections of biography, as well as in single lives; but I am yet to learn what advantages can be reaped, and what solid interest can be promoted by a practice which violates the principles of truth, destroys public confidence, and defeats every valuable purpose of biography. The imaginary beauties of the biographer are, at least, as absurd as those of the portrait-painter, while they have less excuse, and are attended with far more pernicious consequences. After the lapse of a few years it becomes a matter of inferior importance how a man looked, but it is always important to know how he thought and how he acted. Nor if the practice alluded to proceeds from real feeling, or only an affectation of sympathy and veneration, is it less ob
jectionable. It is a gross errour in judgment that any man, who deserves to be commemorated, can be the worse for a disclosure of his failings, unless, indeed, he has no virtues to counterbalance them, and even in that rare case, the portrait, if faithfully given, is not without its uses. It would be happy if a closer correspondence could be found between an author and his writings, if genius were always dignified by virtue, and wisdom always recommended by urbanity; but we look in vain for objects of uniform panegyric, and the fair display of the striking contrarieties we find in the human character must ever be preferable to those unnatural sketches in which there is no discrimination, but all is purity and perfection, or in which the most degrading vices are either suppressed by fraud, or vindicated by sophistry. Of all human beings, the sons of imagination require to be led most carefully to correct notions of virtue and happiness, and to be reconciled to a world in which their splendid dreams cannot be realized, and which makes no allowance for irregular desires and extravagant passions. .
The CRITICISMS advanced in these lives are as sparing as appeared consistent with the general plan, and are the opinions of one who is aware that reputation is not in his gift. As, however, they are the result of a judgment derived from no partial school, I have only to hope they will not be found destitute of candour, or improperly interfering with the general and acknowledged principles of taste.
London, Nov. 1809.