It is an old-fashioned practice, but one which is perhaps none the worse for being old-fashioned, that an author should offer some kind of apology for undertaking a book, especially on a great and important subject. My only excuse for undertaking to write on the greatest period of the greatest literature of the world is that I have been diligently reading the productions, small and great, of this period for some five-and-twenty years with ever-increasing admiration, and that I find the increase of my admiration due in no small degree to the comparison with other periods and other literatures, ancient and modern, which I have been enabled to make in the meantime. As for the particular purposes and methods by which I have been guided in writing this book, they are easily explained. I have endeavoured to give as complete and clearly arranged a view as I could of the actual literary performance of the period from 1560 to 1660, excluding or only lightly touching on those authors in its later part who may be said to have anticipated or prepared the post-Restoration changes, but including those who, even long after 1660, produced great work in the ante-Restoration styles. In doing this I have endeavoured to criticise each author from a uniform and independent standpoint, and I have never (unless in some very rare case specially indicated) delivered on any author mentioned a judgment based on second-hand information, whether I may agree or not with that of some previous writer. In regard, however, to what some moderns call the "Bio-Bibliographical" side of the matter, I have made much less attempt to be complete, and I do not pretend at all to first-hand information. To obtain this last completely (and if incomplete it is of little use) by personal visits to registers and tombstones, and by personal inspection and collation of early editions, would occupy, if it would not overtask, the entire life of a man who enjoyed in other respects perfect leisure and command of his time. And the result, though no doubt not valueless, would, in my judgment at least, be far less valuable than that which, however imperfectly, I have attempted to achieve. For although, for instance, the British Museum Catalogue is a marvel of combined and accumulated, and Mr. Arber Transcript a marvel of single-handed, labour, the consulting of each, though I am told that some reputations for exact and careful knowledge have been based upon it, is only a degree less second-hand than the consulting of an encyclopædia. In other words, I will warrant every critical judgment and description, general and particular, in the following pages to be, unless the contrary is stated, based on original reading and thought. My dates and my biographical facts I take for the most part from others; and though I shall be glad (after verification) to make any correction, I shall not feel deeply convinced of sin if it turns out that I have dated this poet's Tears of Melancholy in March 1593, when the true date is May 1595; or asserted that that poet's grandmother was Joan Smith, who is buried at Little Peddlington, instead of Jane Smith, who was married at Kennaquhair. These things, interesting perhaps and sometimes valuable in their own way, are but ancillary, if even that, to the history of literature in the proper and strict sense; and it is the history of literature in the proper and strict sense with which I have to deal.
As to my manner of dealing with it, that, I suppose, must be left to the appreciation of the reader. Being strongly convinced that in order to understand the literary history of a period it is necessary to study the minor as well as the major illustrations of it, I have given what some may think disproportionate space to authors who have seldom before found much if any room in succinct histories of the kind; and I have endeavoured rather to map out the country carefully than to write about it brilliantly. In regard to the extracts which, though they curtail the available space somewhat, it seemed, to others besides myself, desirable to give, I have neither been afraid of a piece because it has been frequently given before, nor thought myself obliged to give it for the same reason. Of Shakespere, Spenser, Milton, and Bacon I have thought it best to give no extracts at all.