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THE great Doctor Johnson, in one of the essays reprinted in this volume, condemns the multiplication of books undertaken by those who " have often no other task than to lay two books before them out of which they compile a third, without any new materials of their own." But if it be supposed on this ground that he would frown on the present undertaking, one might plead his own admission that there is an occasional compiler who, “though he exerts no great abilities in the work, facilitates the progress of others" and makes "that easy of attainment which is already written.” Here, at any rate, are suggested the origin and purpose of this collection. For some time it has been possible for those studying periods of English, literature to find in single volumes fairly representative selections from the poets of the several ages; but to represent prose writings adequately is much more difficult, and those who have met this problem have found it one involving no little trouble and expense. Through the coöperation of the publishers, who have shown themselves ready to undertake the making of a volume sufficiently generous to accomplish for prose what relatively meagre books will do for poetry, it is hoped that the needs of students of eighteenth-century literature have been sufficiently met. If this hope shall be justified by experience, similar volumes may be undertaken for the earlier and later periods.
The principles governing the choice of selections may be briefly explained. In the first place, it was thought well to represent the half-dozen (more or less) most important prose writers of the century by fairly generous and complete specimens of their work, approximating some twenty to thirty thousand words each. These selections cover, in the experience of the editor, the assignments of prescribed reading set for one or two weeks, in college courses dealing with the century as a whole. The authors thus largely represented are Defoe, Swift, Steele, Addison, Johnson, Boswell, and Burke.
In the second place, it was desired to represent the lesser
writers of the age by briefer specimens of their work, to which students could be referred for the cursory illustration of matters discussed in lectures or text-books. Such are the selections from the philosophers, the epistolarians, the pamphleteers, and the novelists of the century. The last of these groups - the novelists — it was not at first proposed to include at all, since their work in its most important aspects can hardly be represented by extracts. But it was suggested by some of the friends who were good enough to criticise the first draft of the contents of the collection, that the novelists might be represented as prose writers, in perhaps the same proportion that they would occupy in a course dealing with the period as a whole but without special attention to the novel or the drama; and this suggestion has been followed. The selections made from the novelists, then, must not be supposed to exhibit the authors as novelists; but they may serve to illustrate the farcical humor of Fielding, the contrasting sentimentalism of Richardson and Sterne, and the romantic machinery of the “tales of terror.”
This is as far as the collection need go, for those concerned only with the intrinsic values of literature. But it was desired to go further, and include specimens — sometimes of no considerable literary quality - which are suggestive for what might be called the laboratory study of the history of literature, — passages exemplifying important critical doctrines or literary tendencies of the age. Such are the selections from Dennis, Cibber, the Wartons, and Hurd, the critical chapters from Fielding and the Prefaces of Richardson. In like manner the critical writings of Addison and Johnson have been represented more largely than intrinsic interest might dictate, especially where they touch on poetry which the reader may be presumed to have been studying. The wise teacher or student will surely seek, where it is possible, to make one writer illustrate another, and to find examples of contemporary judgments and aims which will make less mysterious for the modern reader literary fashions of an earlier age. So there is value, not only in Johnson's lastingly sound analyses of the poetry of Dryden and Pope, but also in the characteristic limitations of his appreciation of Milton. And there is real interest, even for those who have no desire to go deeply into literary theory, in
the discussion of poetic justice by Dennis and Addison, in Johnson's final exposure of the fallacy in the doctrine of the unities, in Fielding's penetrating comments on his own art, and in the casual but significant remarks of Cowper and Gray on their work as poets. Those who care to do so may be enabled to go still further into the criticism of the century, making the acquaintance of its efforts in the direction of an æsthetic theory, through the selections from Addison's and Hume's essays on Taste, Reynolds's discussion of Beauty, and Burke's account of the Sublime and Beautiful. A similar attempt has been made to enable the student to illustrate for himself "the spirit of 1789,” through the selections from Godwin, Paine, and The Anti-Jacobin.
Certain books, from which extracts would otherwise have been a matter of course, have been passed by because they are commonly familiar in more elementary reading: these include the first two parts of Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, the De Coverley papers, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Burke's writings on the American Revolution. A place has been made for the dubious prose of Macpherson's Ossianic writings, on the purely practical ground that they should be known to the student of the period, but are not represented in any of the standard collections of eighteenth-century poetry.
Complete compositions have of course been preferred, other things being equal, especially from the more important writers. But where actual utility, or exigencies of space, demanded, the editor has freely excerpted, in the manner of one reading aloud under circumstances where it is desirable that the knowledge of the reader should save the time of the hearer. Omissions have been indicated scrupulously, and in most cases it is possible, by noting these indications, to discover whether any selection includes the beginning and the end of the chapter, essay, or letter from which it is taken. There are, however, a very few unnoted omissions pudoris causa, to which it seemed unnecessary to call attention in a non-critical text.
The geographical situation of the editor has made it impossible, regrettably, to present a verified text of a considerable number of the selections; in other words, in many cases it has been necessary to depend on the work of previous editors and publishers. In some cases one need have little fear of the re
sults; in others there is too much reason to suspect that the text must be bettered hereafter, since for several of the writers represented no good modern editing has been accomplished. It has fortunately been possible to give a sound text in certain cases where there has been conspicuous need of one: for example, the text of Defoe's essay on Academies and his Shortest Way with the Dissenters has been taken from original sources, and corrects errors which have been multiplied in earlier reprints. Spelling and punctuation have been everywhere modernized.
Footnotes have been supplied according to a principle which cannot be followed with consistency, but which amounts to this: give only such information as may be assumed to be necessary for the apprehending of the general meaning of the text and not to be available in a convenient dictionary. Extended or uncommon quotations from Latin writers, so beloved in our period, have been translated; phrases which should be the property of every cultivated person have not. Perhaps an incidental result of the reading of this book may prove to be some mitigation of the heresy that it is possible to know English literature without understanding the Latin tongue.
And now, if any one may be presumed to have read this Preface thus far, the editor may venture to ask the privilege, after setting forth impartially the words of so many other and better men, to do himself the pleasure of adding two remarks which follow from the repeated reading, in manuscript and proof, of the whole contents of the volume. The first remark is in no way a matter of literature, but tends toward cheerfulness of mind so clearly that it may be justifiable in any connection. Whoever dips far into these eighteenth-century authors will discover that in their age it was believed that men were more eager than in earlier times for the getting and the display of wealth; that the whole world was forsaking the country and making life wretched in cities; that old-fashioned honesty and simplicity of manners were becoming hard to find; that young persons were increasingly disrespectful of their elders; that books and periodicals were being multiplied to an alarming excess; and that churchgoing, with other practices of the Christian religion, was rapidly going out of use. These were some of the characteristic ills of the period. Perhaps, then, when the reader is next told that they are the characteristic ills of the early twentieth