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It is profoundly interesting to notice the unanimity with which the public judgment settles at last upon those poems which are worthy to receive the boon of immortality. One after another, by a process which no man takes the trouble to study, they pass beyond the sphere of criticism into that of universal acceptance. Some of them, recognized as loyal in their construction and material to the highest canons of literary art, come to be regarded as classics. These, though not unfrequently popular, are not always so; but the popular mind never questions them, or, if it do, it is humbly to search for their secret. Others, though they fail to win the position of classics, are so vital in their inspiration, so stimulating in their influence, so significant as the embodiment of human passion or human experience, that, in a great degree independent of their literary merits, the people crown them as their favorites.
No collection of poems can be complete, of course, that does not embrace both these classes; and many collections have been made which have undertaken, and, more or less
successfully, accomplished this result.
Still the distinction exists and forms the basis of a classification about which one may definitely write, and on which new combinations and collections may be framed.
Popular poems are popular treasures, and there is probably no intelligent American into whose nature and culture the poetic element enters in the smallest degree, who does not hold and cherish in his heart the music of more than one. He finds some line, or stanza, or complete poem, so full of light and hope and courage, or so charged with the expression of his highest and deepest feeling, or so declarative of his grandest thought, or so redolent of his sentiment, that he adopts and uses it as a form in which he bears or breathes that sacred part of his life which has given it sympathetic response. Pets of the fancy, favorites of the imagination, chosen vehicles of aspiration, selected companions for seasons of joy or sorrow or peaceful solitude, the popular poems of the mother tongue than which there is none sweeter or stronger are among the best things we possess, and deserve, next to the Book of Books, the highest place in our households.
A noteworthy fact in connection with the production of popular poems, is, that but few writers, however high their names may stand upon the roll of fame, have been able to write more than one or two that possess all the qualities essential to procure their universal and affectionate approval. Their position as poets may not rest to any considerable extent, even, on these. It is not the great poems that men
write which win our affections. A thousand fames rest upon admiration-fames of men whom we have learned to love only through a little poem to whose utterance they have been touched by some common experience or aspiration, and by which they have opened for themselves a door to the heart of humanity. So, in the works of all the writers of verse, popular poems stand exceptional and lonely; and it is only by learning what and where they are, and collecting them in a single volume, that the great masses of the people are able to possess them. A volume made up of these, judiciously and faithfully selected, is a treasure which should be in the possession of every man and woman, and every home.
The present volume has been selected from the wide range of English verse by no less than three skillful and sympathetic hands, with the definite object of bringing together the popular poems of the language, embracing not only those which are purely popular, but a large number of those considered classical and popular at the same time. Tennyson's "Bugle Song," Stoddard's "It never comes again," Whittier's "Maud Müller” and Poe's "Raven," are all modern, popular poems, that are taking on, or have already taken on, the character of classics; but nobody would think of designating "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "Sweet Home" as classical poems. These have become popular through their appeal to, or expression of, popular sentiment, and not through any literary merits which they possess. So, if the literary reader miss in this collection many of the gems of classic poetry, he will only need to remember that no poem in the volume was selected with reference only to its classical character.
While it is generally understood that pictures "speak for themselves," and need no introduction, it is so rare that an illustrated book can boast the names and exhibit the work of our best artists, that is impossible to do justice to this volume without an allusion to the eminence of its illustrators and the excellence of its engravings. Eytinge, White, Nast, Hennessey, Hoppin, Boughton, Ehnringer, McEntee, Darley, Fenn, Church, Johnson, Kensett, these are only a few of the eminent artists whose pictures are to be found in the book, and it may legitimately be doubted whether any volume of verse ever published in America has called to its illustration an equal array of talent universally acknowledged to be eminent.
With these brief words of introduction the volume is cordially commended to the public, as one not only good in itself, in that it contains the popular element of a whole library of verse, classsic and otherwise, but good as an influence upon the every-day life of the world. To make one's self and one's family familiar with the poems of this volume, is to take many steps in the direction of the purest and highest culture, alike of the heart and the intellect. As a fireside companion, as a book to be taken up in broken hours, as a corrective of the influence of the trash poured out by the periodical press, as a minister to pure tastes, refined pleasures, and the love of home, country, man and God, I know of nothing better than this, and I can hardly utter a more kindly wish for a hundred thousand homes than that it may pass into an honored position in every one of them.
J. G. H.