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The main design of this book is to assist in directing students of English composition to the merits and the defects of our principal writers of prose. It is not, however, merely a collection of received critical opinions. It may be of some value to the inquirer after general information, as well as to readers more advanced than those kept specially in view.
The characteristics of the work are briefly these. It deals with prose alone, assigning books of fiction to the department of poetry; it endeavours to criticise upon a methodical plan, fully explained in an Introduction; it selects certain leading authors for full criticism and exemplification; and it gives unusual prominence to three select authors of recent date.
Little need be said to justify taking up Prose by itself. In criticising Poetry we are met by very different considerations from those that occur in the other kinds of composition. What is more, many people not particularly interested in Poetry are anxious for practical purposes to have a good knowledge of Prose style ; and when Prose and Poetry are discussed in the same volume, Prose is generally sacrificed to Poetry.
In excluding Romance or Fiction from a Manual of Prose Literature, I follow a division suggested by the late Professor George Moir, in his treatises on Poetry, Romance, and Rhetoric. Romance has a closer affinity with Poetry than with Prose: it is cousin to Prose but sister to Poetry; it has the Prose features, but the Poetical spirit.
The advantages of criticising upon a methodical plan in terms previously defined, will be at once apparent. Criticising methodically is like ploughing in straight lines : we get over the field not only sooner, but to much better purpose; besides, it is easier to see both what we accomplish and what we miss. As regards the defining of critical terms, it was a favourite position with De Quincey that “ before absolute and philosophic criticism can exist, we must have a good psychology.” The present work makes little pretension to be philosophic, much less to be absolute; but it is an attempt to apply in criticism some of the light thrown upon the analysis of style by the newest psychology. I am aware that methodical critical dissection is considered by many a cold disenchanting process. But however cold and disenchanting, it is indispensable to the student: it is part of the apprenticeship that every workman must submit to. Before learning to put a complicated mechanism together, we must take it to pieces, and study the parts one by one. If the student goes to work at random, picking up a hint here and a hint there, he is completely at the mercy of every pedantry that comes to him under the sanction of a popular name. The only true preservative against literary crotchets and affectations, is a comprehensive view of the principal arts and qualities, the principal means and ends, of style.
It may be said that criticism on a uniform plan tends to destroy individuality ; that a book constructed on such a plan can be nothing but a featureless inventory. This can happen only if the plan is narrow, and if specific modes of the various qualities of style are not distinguished with sufficient delicacy. Uniformity of plan,