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Not only is poetry one of the noblest and most uplifting of the arts; it is peculiarly fitted, from one aspect at least, to be the art most universally enjoyed. Few can hope to own-even to see—the greatest pictures or statues; their beauty must of necessity be monopolized by a country, or a class, while the elaborate requirements of performance keep much of the greatest music from the multitude; but the beauty of the greatest poems is spread for men's delight almost as liberally as the wonders of dawn and sunset; it is almost as free as sunlight or the stars.
Yet it is not unlikely that many of us are deceived by the very ease with which the greatest poetry can be obtained; it is not unlikely that many of us who would cross the Atlantic to see the master-works of Raphael, and approach them in reverence and awe, would leave the master-works of Milton neglected on our shelves or glance over them with an easy self
It is easy to confuse the physical ownership of a book with the actual or spiritual possession of it; it is easy to forget that, obtainable as poetry may seem to be, it is often made inaccessible to us by our own limitations, and that in our reading of it " we receive but what we give.” The truth is that an appreciation of poetry at once fine and liberal, capable of delighting in widely different kinds of excellence, and combining a delicate susceptibility to beauty with a vigorous intellectual grasp ;-the truth is that such a high appreciation is rarely attained even among what are called the educated classes. The first step is to recognize the difficulty of gaining this power.
We shall then cease to regard great poetry as a means of casual amusement, and learn to approach it reverently, as one of the lofti. est of the arts; we shall come to realize the presumption and absurdity of facile and ignorant judgments, knowing that good taste in poetry is not merely a matter of nature but of nurture. I know of nothing, at least among the arts, that is fairly comparable to poetry as a means to general culture, but I am convinced that, available as it seems, this means is far too little used. In a vast number of cases poetry fails to exert its full influence, because so many never perceive that it is a serious and even exacting subject of study. There is a prevalent impression that if we do not “like poetry,” nothing can be done; and that, on the other hand, if we do “like” it, nothing further is required. Others again have a vague feeling that the pure enjoyment of a poem is marred by an endeavor to analyze and understand it; that, because it is possible to enjoy some poems without knowing what they mean, enjoyment and understanding are in some way antagonistic. These fallacies or half-truths all tend to retard the true appreciation of poetry, and keep it out of the place it ought to hold. The power to take the greatest poems into our lives is almost invariably dependent upon a strenuous effort of mind and will, as well as upon the sympathetic response of our spirits. Poetry may speak from the heart and to the heart; it may be the apparently spontaneous expression of irrepressible feeling; but we must remember that it is also a difficult and highly technical art; that it is often the profoundest thought touched by emotion; and that it frequently demands for its interpretation both a substantial basis of learning and an unusual penetration of mind. In a word, it is by the systematic and strenuous study of poetry, by sedulously training ourselves to view it in all its historic and human relations, by broadening and deepening our appreciation until we learn to delight in all its rich variety, its wit, satire, cleverness, and depth of thought, as well as in its beauty, color, or haunting musical cadences, -it is only by this that we can hope to win from it those great benefits that it is so peculiarly fitted to bestow.
I have tried to make a collection of English verse, which should serve as an introduction to such a serious and systematic study of one of the richest and noblest poetic literatures the world has produced. I have hoped to make a book which should promote the genuine love and appreciation of English poetry by promoting a fuller understanding of it; a book which should furnish a convenient avenue of approach to poetry of many different styles and of many times. In this attempt I have kept before me a few simple and, as it seems to me, obvious principles.
With a few exceptions, I have given only complete poems; believing that the practice of misrepresenting an author by extracts or fragments of poems is unjust both to the poet and his reader; a bar to the fullest enjoyment, and a discouragement to any rational method of study. In the few cases in which I have departed from this rule, I have broken it in the letter rather than in the spirit. For instance, although selections are given from the Faerie Queene, The Seasons, The Task, and Childe Harold, each of these poems has a looseness of structure which permits it to be fairly represented in this manner, if the selections are reasonably full and are carefully chosen and arranged. Three of these poems consist of a series of descriptive and meditative passages, each of which is practically complete in itself. In the Faerie Queene, the only one of these poems in which there is any approach to a continous narrative, I have connected the selections by a brief prose argument and arranged them so as to preserve the continuity of the story; I have also given in the notes the general scheme and purpose of the poem. At best the Faerie Queene is itself a gigantic fragment, marvellous in parts, but lacking in symmetrical proportion as a whole; this seems to justify the belief that Spenser can be more adequately represented by selections from his masterpiece than by some of his
On the other hand, poems of closer