A Collection of English Poems, 1660-1800

By Ronald S. Crane | Go to book overview

PREFACE

This book is designed primarily for the convenience of advanced students of Restoration and eighteenth-century literature in American colleges and universities. Its main purpose is to give such students, many of whom cannot rely upon access to adequately equipped libraries, a selection of representative poems published in England and Scotland between 1666 and 1800 sufficiently generous to enable them to judge the achievement of the age, in all its variety of themes and styles, for themselves.

It is an age about which it is increasingly easy to form sympathetic and properly instructed views. The prejudices of a hundred years, to be sure, die hard; and there are many readers and critics among us to whom the verdict pronounced by Romantics and Victorians upon the "classical" school of the eighteenth century remains even yet the final word. That true poetry is always a direct outpouring of personal feeling; that its values are determined by the nature of the emotion which it expresses, the standard being naturally set by the preferences of the most admired poets in the nineteenth-century tradition; that its distinctive effort is "to bring unthinkable thoughts and unsayable sayings within the range of human minds and ears"; that the essence of its art is not statement but suggestion--these are still for many persons self- evident propositions; and their effect is still to fasten a taint of the unpoetic upon even the greatest productions of an age which by principle eschewed personal confessions, which loved wit and cultivated regularity, precision, and a "satisfying completeness" of form, and which drew the substance of its verse from such-- to the nineteenth century--prosaic things as the scorn of Tory for Whig or of wit for pedant and dunce, as the coming of a city shower, or as the optimistic theory of the world.

But it is clear that the tyranny of these presuppositions about the nature of poetry and of the inhibitions of taste which they have tended to encourage is far less complete at the present moment than it was even a few years ago. There have of course always been readers who have found in the poetry of Dryden and Pope and Swift and Prior and Johnson a source of unfailing delight. The difference is that today such admirers of "classical" verse need no longer feel themselves isolated in the midst of a hostile world. No more are they on the defensive; it is not they but the surviving disciples of Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold who are out of harmony with the movement of modern

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