« PreviousContinue »
given in regard to a large number of authors and their writings. But, of a great many of these, all that is told amounts to very little; and I may say, generally, that names of minor note, inserted only on account of circumstances marking them off from the vast crowd of names omitted, receive no further scrutiny than such as is required for indicating cursorily the position of those who bore them. On a few of those great men, who have been our guides and masters in the departments of thought and invention that are most widely interesting, there is bestowed an amount of attention which may by some readers be thought excessive, but which to myself seemed likely to make the book both the more readable and the more useful. There must, however, be great diversity of opinion among diverse critics, both as to the selection of names to be commemorated, and as to the comparative prominence due to different authors, and works, and kinds of composition. It is enough for me to say, that, in these matters as in others, I have formed my judgment with due deliberation, and made the best use I could of all the information that is at my command.
Many little points have been managed with a view to facilitate the use of the volume in public teaching. Dates, and other particulars, which, though often not to be dispensed with, tend to obstruct reading aloud, are always, where it is possible, thrown into the margin. Bibliographical details are generally avoided, except a few, which illustrate either the works described or the history of the author or his time. Hardly any where, for instance, are successive editions noted, anless when the student is asked to make himself acquainted with the English Translations of the Holy Bible; an exception which is surely not wrong, in a work designed to assist in informing the minds of Christian youth.
The Series of Illustrative Extracts is as full as it was found possible to make it: and it is ample enough to throw much light on the narrative and observations furnished by the Text. The selections have been made in obedience to the same considerations, which dictated copious criticisms of a few leading writers. The works quoted from are not many in comparison with those named in the body of the book, being only some of those that are most distinguished as masterpieces of genius or most eminently characteristic as products of their age : and the intention was, that every specimen should be large enough to convey a notion, not altogether inadequate, of its author's manner both in thought and in style. No Extracts are given in the First Part. The writers of those ancient times could not, at least till we reach the very latest of them, be understood by ordinary readers without explanatory and glossarial notes. Accordingly the quotations from their writings are thrown into the Second Part, where verbal interpretation is less out of place; and where, also, they serve the double use of illustrating the progress of the language, and of relieving the philological text by contrast or by their poetical pictures. In the Third Part, the Extracts are subjoined, as foot-notes, to the passages of the text in which the several authors are commemorated. No Extracts are presented from the Nineteenth century. Its literary abundance and variety could not have been exemplified, either fairly or instructively, without the apparatus of specimens so bulky as to be quite inadmissible: and the books are not only more widely known, but more easily to be found, than those of preceding times.
The Second Part, offering a brief Summary of the Early History of the English Language, fills about one-seventh of the volume. It must have, through the nature of the matter, a less popular and amusing aspect than the other Parts. But the topic handled in these Philological Chapters is quite as important as those that occupy the Literary ones. The story which this part tells, should be familiar to every one who would understand, thoroughly, the History of English Literature; and therefore it deserved, if it did not rather positively require, admission as an appendix to a narrative in which that History is surveyed. A knowledge of it is yet more valuable to those who desire to gain, as every one among us must if he is justly to be called a well-educated man, an exact mastery of the Science of English Grammar. The description here given of the principal steps by which our native tongue was formed, illustrates, almost in every page, some characteristic fact in our literary history, or some distinctive feature in our ordinary speech.