« السابقةمتابعة »
ROM the time when men first created literature, they began,
and they have continued ever since, the collection and preservation of its records. Before the days of writing even, and when literature existed only in the most primitive forms of rerse and prose, - in ballads and liturgic chants on the one hand, and in apologues, fables, and folk-tales on the other, each generation transmitted to the next these simple efforts of untaught genius, and they transmitted them through those who memorized them and in turn taught them to their successors, It was in this way that some of the greatest epics of the world have been preserved to us; and it is evidence of the high esteem in which collected literature was held even in the days when civilization was only dawning, that the persons of these reciters and transmitters of verse and prose were almost universally held to be sacred.
After writing had been invented, but before printing was known, and in the days when the permanent preservation of literary material was possible only by inscribing it upon stone and brick, extraordinary care was taken to secure its permanency. Modern excavations on the sites of oriental cities in Assyria and Babylonia have brought to light whole libraries of books inscribed and burnt into bricks, or carved upon the imperishable rock. Still later, the same spirit was evinced in the formation of those famous libraries at Alexandria, and Pergamus, and Rome, wherein was stored, and catalogued, and classified, what was memorable in the recorded thought of classical antiquity.
These facts are immensely significant. They show, in the first place, the continuity of literature, and in the second place, the continuity of man's interest in literature. They indicate, also, something more. They indicate that civilized human beings very early grasped the thought that literature was to be read and studied, not in an isolated way and in the form of single masterpieces, but comparatively, and in such a manner that the recorded thought of each generation should illustrate and illuminate the thought and life of the generations that went before, and of the generations that were to follow after. Finally, it is made evident that only in this way, — by the comparative method, by studying one author in his relation to others, - can the true meaning of literature be grasped and understood.
We have reached an age when literary production has been stimulated to enormous activity. It would be impossible for any one man, even in a lifetime, to make himself thoroughly familiar with all the works that issue from the presses of the different countries of the earth in the space of a single year. How much more impossible, therefore, would it be for him to assimilate in a crude form the undigested mass of books that have descended to us from the past, augmented as they have been by the additions that almost every day has brought. What the student of literature requires, therefore, is to have before him a collection of what is substantially all that is best, to be guided, as it were, through a bewildering labyrinth of books, by the aid of the accumulated criticism and selection of many trained minds, so as to be able at once to read and to enjoy the whole world's literature through the medium of those productions that are most perfect, most characteristic, most instructive, and most entertaining, and most worthy, therefore, of permanent preservation.
Many attempts have been made, from time to time, to give the reader and the student of literary masterpieces a collection that should carry out this idea. Some of these attempts have been deserving of approval, for they were attempts to secure an object that was most commendable; yet nearly all of them have been hampered by too great narrowness of choice, by an unwillingness to give the reader more than fragments instead of full and comprehensive quotations, and they have all suffered more or less from the fact that they were necessarily experimental. One learns as much from the failures as from the successes of other men; and the editors of the “ MASTERPIECES OF THE WORLD'S LITERATURE," which is now for the first time offered to the public, have endeavored in the preparation of this work not only to emulate and multiply such successes as their predecessors were able to attain, but also to avoid the errors which they made. This Library, therefore, in the first place, has been prepared after a careful study of all the other collections that have anything like a similar aim in view; but it also embodies the purpose of supplying what is absent from other works and of developing ideas that had not occurred as yet to other laborers in this field.
Masterpieces of the World's Literature, however, should not be regarded merely as something based upon other existing collections. In it there have been embodied the results of a careful and critical examination of the entire mass of existing literature belonging to every language and to every period. This examination was made with a single thought in mind - to decide what writers stand out as pre-eminent and permanently representative in every department of letters, and also to determine what portions of these writers' works are most deserving of admission to a collection which is to include only those passages that may be regarded as the jewels of literature to be preserved and admired for all time. For it must be remembered that a great book, or a great poem, or a great oration, or in fact any great masterpiece of intellect and genius, is more than a book or a poem or an oration. Behind it there is always a human being, and in the case of these specimens of creative literature, that human being is always in some way representative of his own time, or of his own nation, or of the history of
his own race.