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Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1874, by RALPH WALDO EMERSON,
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
THIS volume took its origin from an old habit of copying any poem or lines that interested me into a blank book. In many years, my selections filled the volume, and required another; and still the convenience of commanding all my favorites in one album, instead of searching my own and other libraries for a desired song or verse, and the belief that what charmed me probably might charm others, suggested the printing of my enlarged selection. I know the convenience and merits of the existing anthologies, and the necessity of printing in every collection many masterpieces which all English-speaking men have agreed in admiring. Each has its merits; but I have found that the best of these collections do not contain certain gems of pure lustre, whilst they admit many of questionable claim. The voluminous octavos of Anderson and Chalmers have the same fault of too much mass and too little genius; and even the more select "Golden Treasury" of Mr. Palgrave omits too much that I cannot spare. I am aware that no two readers would make the same selection. Of course, I shall gladly hail with the public a better collection than mine.
Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words, and, in proportion to the inspiration, checks loquacity. It requires that splendor of expression which carries with it the proof of great thoughts. Great thoughts insure musical expressions. Every word should be the right word. The poets are they who see that
spiritual is greater than any material force, that thoughts rule the world. The great poets are judged by the frame of mind they induce; and to them, of all men, the severest criticism is due.
Some poems I have inserted for their historical importance; some, for their weight of sense; some, for single couplets or lines, perhaps even for a word; some, for magic of style; and I have admitted verses, which, in their structure, betray a defect of poetic ear, but have a wealth of truth which ought to have created melody. I know the peril of didactics to kill poetry, and that Wordsworth runs fearful risks to save his mental experiences. Some poems are external, like Moore's, and have only a superficial melody: others, like Chaucer's, have such internal music as to forgive a roughness to the modern ear, which, in the mouth of the. bard, his contemporaries probably did not detect. To Chaucer may be well applied the word of Heraclitus, that "Harmony latent is of greater value than that which is patent."
There are two classes of poets, the poets by education and practice, these we respect; and poets by nature, these we love. Pope is the best type of the one class: he had all the advantage that taste and wit could give him, but never rose to grandeur or to pathos. Milton had all its advantages, but was also poet born. Chaucer, Shakspeare, Jonson (despite all the pedantic lumber he dragged with him), Herbert, Herrick, Collins, Burns, of the other. Then there are poets who rose slowly, and wrote badly, and had yet a true calling, and, after a hundred failures, arrived at pure power; as Wordsworth, encumbered for years with childish whims, but at last, by his religious insight, lifted to genius.
Scott was a man of genius, but only an accomplished rhymer (poet on the same terms as the Norse bards and minstrels), admirable chronicler, and master of the ballad, but never crossing the threshold of the epic, where Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton dwell.
The task of selection is easiest in poetry. What a signal convenience is fame! Do we read all authors to grope our way to the best? No; but the world selects for us the best, and we select from these our best.
Chaucer fulfils the part of the poet, possesses the advantage of being the most cultivated man of his time, and so speaks always sovereignly and cheerfully. Often the poetic nature, being too susceptible, is over-acted on by others. The religious sentiment teaching the immensity of every moment, the indifference of magnitude, the present is all, the soul is God; this lesson is great and greatest. Yet this, also, has limits for humanity. One must not seek to dwell in ethereal contemplation: so should the man decline into a monk, and stop short of his possible enlargement. The intellect is cheerful.
Chaucer's antiquity ought not to take him out of the hands of intelligent readers. No lover of poetry can spare him, or should grudge the short study required to command the archaisms of his English, and the skill to read the melody of his verse. His matter is excellent, his story told with vivacity, and with equal skill in the pathos and in triumph. I think he has lines of more force than any English writer, except Shakspeare. If delivered by an experienced reader, the verses will be found musical as well as wise, and fertile in invention. He is always strong, facile, and pertinent, and with what vivacity of style through all the range of his pictures, comie or tragic! He knows the language of joy and of despair.
Of Shakspeare what can we say, but that he is and remains an exceptional mind in the world; that a universal poetry began and ended with him; and that mankind have required the three hundred and ten years since his birth to familiarize themselves with his supreme genius? I should like to have the Academy of Letters propose a prize for an essay on Shakspeare's poem, "Let
the bird of loudest lay," and the "Threnos" with which it closes; the aim of the essay being to explain, by a historical research into the poetic myths and tendencies of the age in which it was written, the frame and allusions of the poem. I have not seen Chester's "Love's Martyr," and "the Additional Poems" (1601), in which it appeared. Perhaps that book will suggest all the explanation this poem requires. To unassisted readers, it would appear to be a lament on the death of a poet, and of his poetic mistress. But the poem is so quaint, and charming in diction, tone, and allusions, and in its perfect metre and harmony, that I would gladly have the fullest illustration yet attainable. I consider this piece a good example of the rule, that there is a poetry for bards proper, as well as a poetry for the world of readers. This poem, if published for the first time, and without a known author's name, would find no general reception. Only the poets would save it.
To the modern reader, Ben Jonson's plays have lost their old attraction; but his occasional poems are full of heroic thought, and his songs are among the best in the language. His life interests us from the wonderful circle of companions with whom he lived, with Camden, Shakspeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Bacon, Chapman, Herbert, Herrick, Cowley, Suckling, Drayton, Donne, Carew, Selden, and by whom he was honored. Cowley tells us, "I must not forget Ben's reading: it was delicious: never was poetry married to more exquisite music:" and the Duchess of Newcastle relates, that her husband, himself a good reader, said he "never heard any man read well but Ben Jonson."
Spence reports, that Pope said to him, "Crashaw is a worse sort of Cowley: Herbert is lower than Crashaw," an opinion which no reader of their books at this time will justify. Crashaw, if he be the translator of the Sospetto d'Herode,' has written masterly verses never learned from Cowley, some of which I have transcribed; and Herbert is the psalmist dear to all who love