« PreviousContinue »
It is really as important that people should be disposed to read what is good, as it is that they should know how to read. For the ability to convei se with books is as liable to abuse as any other gift, and is in fact as much abused at this very time, and that too to the injury of the readers themselves, both in mind and heart. It is abundantly in proof that, of the books now appearing from day to day, the meanest and the worst, those made up of the cheapest and the foulest sensational flash, are read a great deal the most. The reason of this surely must be that, while people are tanght to read, due care is not taken to plant and cherish in them right intellectual and literary tastes. In our education, therefore, it is of prime concern that such tastes should be early set or quickened in the mind; that while we are giving people the ability to converse with books, no pains should be spared to inspire them with the love of books that are good. Once possess them with a genuine, hearty love of a few first-rate anthors, and then their culture in all its parts, so far as books can minister to it, is duly cared for: that love, those tastes, will become a sort of instinct, to prompt and guide them to what is wholesome and pure. And in this, as in other things, the ways of purity and health are also the ways of lasting and ever-growing pleasure and delight. The abiding, uncloying sweetness, the living, unwithering freshness of books in which conscience presides, truth illuminates, and genius inspires, are the proper food and delectation of a chaste and well-ordered mind; and to have a due sense and relish of those qualities, is at once the proof and the pledge of moral and intellectual health: for here it may with special fitness be affirmed that "love is an unerring light, and joy its own security."
It is on this principle, it is with a constant view to this end, (hat I have worked in selecting and ordering the contents of the present volume. These are the thoughts that prompted, and have throughout governed, the undertaking. In my own teaching, I have long felt the want of such a text-book, and have supplied the lack thereof as I best could. As for the reading-books, of which so many are in common use, I neither could nor would have any thing to do with them. I have no faith in them whatsoever: the very principle of
them I hold to be radically vicious and wrong. Assuredly, the right way of teaching English literature, so as to develop the intellectual tastes, is by using anthors, and not miscellaneous literary chips, such as the books in question are made up of. Both experience and the reason of the thing amply instruct us that a mere collection of scraps and specimens gathered from a multitude of writ ers is rather a hindrance than a help to the end proposed; because in such a course the pupil does not stay long enough with any one anthor to cateh his spirit, to find his virtue, or to feel at home with him. In such a rapid flight from anthor to anthor, no true intellectual loves or tastes-can possibly germinate in the mind: for these loves are like our domestic loves, which grow from long intercourse of heart with heart and soul with soul in the familiar atmosphere of home, and the companionship of faces endeared by time. In short, these current reading-books are alike tedious in the use and worthless in the result: no mental delight can spring up from their pages: for any purpose bnt a mere mechanical pronouncing of words and sentences, they are sheer impertinences. On the other hand, a taste for a good anthor is a thing of slow and silent growth, and can by no means be extemporized: to the forming and fixing of it nothing will serve, bnt that the anthor's virtue just soak into the mind from communing with him through many a stndious and thoughtful hour. Such is indeed the method, such the process of all fruitful converse with intellectual and moral beanty, the only way to drink-in the eflicacy thereof; a converse which Milton so well describes as "beholding the bright countenance of trnth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies."
The upshot of all which is that, for the ends of culture, instead of a course of nibbles and snatehes over a wide, miscellaneous field of anthorship, we should take a very few of the best anthors, and then use them a great deal. A taste for Shakespeare or Wordsworth alone, once thoroughly set in the mind, will readily guide him who has it to other good anthors, and will at the same time keep him away from the bad by a spontaneous disgust of them.
The contents of this volume, as will at once be seen, are all drawn from six anthors. Nor does this list inclnde any anthor now living. I set ont with the determination not to admit any anthor who had not fairly won the rank of a classic; a thing that is seldom if ever done during an anthor's life: generally a hundred years is little time enough for settling so grave a question. And it is a fixed principle with me, that none bnt the very best anthors should bo taken for the use to which this volume is addressed; while, again, to be used as a text-book in school, and for setting the tastes and forming the minds of the young, is the highest honour to which any anthor can justly aspire. Of the several anthors here Included, I have aimed to select, if not the pieces best in themselves, such at least as seemed best (itted for the use here designed. Therewithal, except in a few cases, which are duly remarked in the notes, 1 have given entire poems; and this to the end that a sense of artistic completeness and harmony may be seeretly quickened and fostered in the pupil's mind.
All, or nearly all, the pieces set forth in this collection are old, familiar, long-tried friends of mine: if I had not been in the habit of returning to them often, and conversing with them, for many, many years; and if I had not believed the verdure and freshness of them to be perennial, and such as no frequency of perusal cau exhanst; I should not have admitted them: in a word, to my sense, "age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite varlety"; for I would fain have the volume so composed as to gather about itself
" the fixed delights of house and home, Friendships that will not break, and love that cannot roam."
It may be thought that some apology, or some explanation, is due from me for having filled so much of the volume with Wordsworth. On this point I can but say that the book contains no more of Wordsworth than I really want, and have long been in the habit of using more or less, in my own ckisses; nor any more than I ihiuk may be generally used with good effect in a course of English studies. And I am thoroughly satisfied that, next after Shakespeare, 'Wordsworth is the best of all the English poets for such use; and this chiefly becanse he is apt to inspire a deeper, stronger, and more abiding enthusiasm. In my observation, no mind that has once rightly felt the touch of his hand ever shakes off or outgrows its power; nor can I think of any thing better which tho school can do for young minds than to seize them with a life-long passion for him.
Of the other anthors and poems embraced in this volume, it may be enough to say that the consorting or grouping of them is by no means arbitrary. Strongly marked as the anthors severally are with individual and characteristic traits, yet they naturally giaviUite each to all, and all to each, by the force of mutual sympathy. To my sense, they are six highly congenial souls, and the more congenial for having each his original and independent strength. Tims the group affords a large variety of interest and attraction, while at the same time they all draw smoothly together under a common spirit, and to a common purpose; so that a right study of any one will serve to sharpen the student's relish and deepen his enjoyment of all the others.
As to what is here done in the way of notes and comments, perhaps the less said, the better. Still it may not be amiss to observe