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This History of English Literature is essentially biographical, for true criticism cannot separate the author from his book. Leaving entirely out of sight what is no light matter in a work written for the young,the living interest thus given to a subject for which some have little love, so much do the colour and the flavour of that wonderful Mind-fruit, called a Book, depend upon the atmosphere in which it has ripened, and the soil whence its sweet or sour juices have been drawn, that these important influences cannot be overlooked in tracing, however slightly, the growth of a Literature.
It has, accordingly, been my principal object to shew how the books, which we prize among the brightest of our national glories, have grown out of human lives-rooted oftener, perhaps, in sorrow than in joy; and how the scenery and the society, amid which an author played out his fleeting part, have left indelible hues upon the pages that he wrote.
Instead of trying to compress the History of our
Books into the framework formed by the accession of our Sovereigns, I have adopted a purely literary division. Selecting such great landmarks as the Birth of Chaucer, and the Introduction of Printing, I find that Ten Eras, each possessing a very distinct character, will embrace every name of note, from the oldest Celtic bards to Tennyson and Carlyle. The Pre-English Era takes a rapid view of British books and book-makers before the birth of Chaucer, about whose day the true English Literature began to exist. In the nine remaining Eras an entire chapter is devoted to each greatest name, writers of less mark being grouped together in a closing section. Short illustrative specimens, intended mainly to form the basis of lessons on variety of style, are appended to all the leading lives. Since names that cannot be passed over grow very thick towards the end, the closing chapters of the, last two Eras have been arranged upon a plan which prevents confusion, and, by the use of Supplementary Lists, admits the mention of many authors who must otherwise have been left out.
The method of the entire book aims at enabling a student to perceive at a glance the relative importance of certain authors, so that his reading may be either confined to the lives of our great Classics, or extended through the full range of our Literature, without much risk of confusion or mistake as to proportionate great
And here, in passing, I may say that only those who have tried it can estimate the difficulty of striking a balance in the case of certain names, when space and plan will admit of no choice but between a chapter and a paragraph. With great regret, and not without some misgivings, was I forced to assign to a secondary place Defoe, Adam Smith (in spite of Buckle’s praise), Lamb, Wilson, De Quincey, Chalmers, Kingsley, Hugh Miller, and many others. The same difficulty met me in the formation of the Supplementary Lists, which, however, will serve to give what, I hope, is a tolerably accurate idea of those third-class writers, or rather first-class writers of the third degree, who adorn the present century.
In the opening chapter of the various Eras I have ventured to add to the simple history of our Literature what I believe to be a novelty in a book of this kind. Recognising the value of such pictures to the student of national history, I have attempted to reproduce, with some vividness, scenes of vanished author-life, and to trace the chief steps by which a green leaf has become a printed volume. For, to know something of the dress our books have worn at various times, and the stuff of which the older ones were made; to see the minstrel singing in the Castle hall, and the monk at work in the still Scriptorium; to peep at Caxton in the Almonry, and watch the curtain rise on Shakspere at the Globe; to trace the lights and shadows fung upon English books from