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in its processes, an art which obeys a consistent and philosophical theory; how it is, in its.effects, one of the highest and most powerful of those influences, that have been appointed to rule and change the social and moral life of man.
The nature of the plan, according to which the materials are disposed, will appear from a glance at the Table of Contents. The History of English Literature being distributed into Two great Sections, the First Part treats the earlier of the two. It describes the Literary Progress of the Nation from its dawn in the AngloSaxon Times, to the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, which is taken as the close of the Middle Ages. In the course of that long period, not only were the foundations of our native speech laid, but its structure may correctly be held to have been in all essential points completed. Accordingly, the Outline of the Origin and Growth of the English Language, which could not conveniently have been incorporated with the earlier literary chapters, seemed to find its fit place in the Second Part. The Third Part, resuming the History of our Literature at the opening of Modern Times, traces its revolutions down to the present day. The changes that have occurred in the language during this most recent period, appearing to be really nothing more than varieties of style, do not require a separate review, but receive incidental notice as they successively present themselves.
The Historical Survey of English Literature, announced in the title-page as the principal business of the volume, thus occupies the First and Third Parts. The former of these, dealing with the Anglo-Saxon Times and the Middle Ages, is short. It is so constructed, likewise, (unless the aim has been missed,) as to introduce the reader gradually and easily to studies of this sort. It contains comparatively little speculation of any kind: and those literary monuments of the period, which were thought to be most worthy of attention, are described with considerable fulness, both in the hope of exciting interest, and because the books fall into the hands of few. In the Summary of Modern Literature which fills the Third Part, more frequent and sustained efforts are made to arouse reflection, both by occasional remarks on the relations between intellectual culture and the other elements of society, and by hints as to the theoretical laws on which criticism should be founded. Modern works, also, while the characteristics of several of the most celebrated are discussed at considerable length, are hardly ever Analyzed so fully as were some of the older ones; and, as we approach our own times, it is presumed that particular description of the contents of popular books becomes less and less imperative.
In the course of those Literary Chapters, some information is 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 anywhere, for instance, are successive editions noted, unless 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 footnotes, 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 an 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 welleducated 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.