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To call a sketch of English authorship between 1660 and 1780 a history of Eighteenth Century Literature is, on the face of it, to be guilty of a misnomer. Eighteenth Century Literature should include everything between the death of Dryden and the birth of Sir Henry Taylor, and nothing else. At the same time, no other name has occurred to us by which, without confusion or affectation, those literary developments might be concisely described which came to their climax in the early part of the eighteenth century, and seem to be related to what we are in the habit of considering the characteristic features of that age in social, intellectual, and artistic matters. To call this the Augustan period would be to narrow it most unduly ; to call it the classical period would be to introduce a series of ideas incongruous as well as inexact.
No newly discovered nickname would please all readers at this time of day, and we must be content with a title so patently imperfect as that which we have chosen. The dates on the title-page may at least guard the writer against any misconception of the purpose which he set before himself to fulfil.
In dealing with a section of literary history which has been mapped out so minutely as the greater part of Eighteenth Century Literature, the first problem which presents itself to a critic in attempting to form a general survey of the whole, is that of proportion. The vast landmarks of the preceding century, the colossal Shakespeares and Bacons and Miltons, are absent here; the general level of merit is much higher, while the solitary altitudes are more numerous but considerably less commanding The first and by far the most arduous duty of the writer was to make a rough plan of his work, selecting and excluding names, determining the relative value of each, and deciding what proportion of the space at his command could be spared for the individual figures. This was done with very great care, and it was when this skeleton was being filled up that the necessity of such a plan became obvious. It was then that the attraction of those fascinating minor figures in which the eighteenth century was so singularly rich made itself felt. It was difficult indeed to pass such names as those of Temple and Arbuthnot and Anstey without loitering longer in their company than the proportions of the plan permitted. But to keep to the plan the writer conceived to be the central feature of his work, and he forced himself to resist the temptation. For the relative prominence given to the various names, therefore, he must take the responsibility, and the critical taste of the reader will decide whether, in the main, the proportions are correctly designed. But those who have made special fragments of the century, or special figures in it, their main study, will recollect, if they glance into these pages, that the first
duty of a general critic of literature is to resist the attraction of personal favourites.
In every case I have attempted to set forward my own view of the literary character of each figure, founded on personal study. Hence, in a few cases, it may be discovered that the verdicts in this volume differ in some degree from those commonly held. A few names which are habitually found chronicled are here omitted, and still fewer, which are new to a general sketch, are included. I am conscious that certain writers receive here more prominence than has hitherto been given to them, while others receive less. But, on the whole, I have striven to be conservative in taste. Where my judgment has differed on important questions from that of preceding critics, I have been slow to suppose that I could be right and they wrong.
But it was absolutely essential that such an outline of literary history, if it was to have any stimulating quality at all, should be pervaded by the results of a personal impression; and if any reader is offended at an opinion which appears to him heretical, let him acquit me, while he rejects it, of any intention to startle him with a paradox.
The pages have been somewhat copiously starred with dates, for which interruptions of comfort in reading I must offer an apology, I have the impression that dates, if reasonably treated, present a great assistance to the comparative student, and really should prevent, instead of causing, interruption. Moreover, almost the only contribution to actual fact which I could hope to offer in such a critical volume as this was a running bibliography, the accurate chronicling of the original dates and forms of publication being one of the few departments of eighteenth century literature which have, except in certain provinces, been neglected. It is not very important, perhaps, but I may add that in almost every case of a well-known book I have made a point of referring to the actual first issue. Among my thousands of dates, though I have carefully revised them, some must be wrong. Any corrections of fact will be very gratefully received by myself or the publishers.
In the final chapter I have stated my theory with regard to the mode in which the philosophical, theological, and political writing of the period should be examined. But I may explain here that it has been my object, while giving a rough sketch of the tenets of each didactic specialist, to leave the discussion of those tenets to critics of the specialist's own profession, and to treat his publications mainly from the point of view of style.
TRINITY COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE,