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This book has been made with a definite, practical object in view, which has set certain limits to it and determined its nature and method. It is intended for use with college classes in introductory courses in literature; and the chief purpose of it is to cultivate in the undergraduate a liking for good English prose, and to give him some knowledge of English thought as it has found expression in English essays of the last three hundred years, by putting into his hands a not too bulky collection of interesting texts by some of the greater essayists from Bacon to Stevenson. In selecting material, therefore, chief regard has been paid to intrinsic interest of thought and style, and entire essays or chapters have been given whenever that was possible; when it was not, only such extracts are presented as have a certain completeness in themselves. The title English Essays, which best indicates the nature of the collection as a whole, has been interpreted liberally, in order to include some interesting and valuable matter which is not strictly of the essay type. On the other hand, there has been no attempt to include all the good essayists since Bacon, for that would have swelled the volume unduly unless the selections were unduly short. It has not been a main object, either, to afford illustrations of the historical development of English prose style, although to a certain extent the book may be so used, and to increase its value in this respect specimens of English prose before Bacon have been added in the Appendix.
In furtherance of intelligibility and interest, the spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and sometimes the paragraphing have been modernized, except in the earlier extracts in the Appendix and in the essays of Lamb and Carlyle, where the peculiarities of capitalization and punctuation have special charm or significance. Much care has been taken to secure a correct text; and whenever it has been advisable, for any reason to omit portions of the original, the omission has been indicated by a row of points.
Biographies of the essayists represented, exposition of the thought, and literary criticism have been excluded from the Notes, in the belief that such matters are better conveyed by histories of literature and by lectures. The explanatory notes are perhaps fuller and more precise than some teachers will care for. These may be reminded of Hazlitt's remark about the allegory in The Faerie Queene; if one lets the notes alone, they won't bite him. In many cases the more precise form of statement has been used because it is more concise, as well as more valuable for reference; thus it takes less space to give the dates of a man's birth and death than to say that he lived in the latter part of such-and-such a century, but it does not follow that the student should be required to learn the exact dates. As to number of notes, I cannot be alone in my experience that most college undergraduates, in the earlier years of their course, are lamentably ignorant, not only of literature, but of history, biography, and art, and that if they are to understand what they read considerable annotation is necessary. Furthermore, although the text may often be intelligible, in a general way, without the reader's knowing the significance of an allusion or the source of a quotation, it may well be one of the secondary benefits of reading essays like those here contained that the student should widen, if only superficially and at second hand, his knowledge of the world of letters and men. I hope, however, that all teachers who use the book will urge their classes to read each essay through, at first, without looking at a note, in order to get the thought as a whole and the general effect; but also that they will then adopt the apostolic method of St. Philip, and put to the rider in these literary chariots that embarrassing but profitable question, “Understandest thou what thou readest?