The purpose of the present book will be sufficiently apparent--to provide a comprehensive history of the literature of England, an account that is at once scholarly and readable, capable of meeting the needs of mature students and of appealing to cultivated readers generally. While the literature of England is commonly thought of as literature in English, it is not likely that any one will quarrel with the fact that some mention is made of writings in Latin and French during the medieval period, at a time when these languages served as vernaculars for certain classes. The Latin writings of the Renaissance and later periods, however, have been omitted for lack of space. Nor will any one object to the inclusion of Scottish and Irish writers who do not belong geographically to England. Custom sufficiently sanctions including them. The original plan brought the history to an end with the year 1939 (the outbreak of the Second World War); but delay in publication caused by the war has permitted reference to a few events of a date subsequent to 1939.
The extent of English literature is so great that no one can hope to read more than a fraction of it, and the accumulated scholarship--biographical, critical, and historical--by which writers and their works, and the forms and movements and periods of English literature have been interpreted, is so vast that no single scholar can control it. A literary history of England by one author, a history that is comprehensive and authoritative over the whole field, is next to impossible. Hence, the plan of the present book. A general harmony of treatment among the five contributors, rather than rigid uniformity of plan, has seemed desirable, and there is quite properly some difference of emphasis in different sections. Thus, there is more of strictly philological matter in the section on Old English literature, and more of political, economic, and social history in the treatment of the Nineteenth Century and After. It is hoped that the approach to the different sections will seem to be that best suited to the literature concerned.
Since it is expected that those who read this history or consult it will wish for further acquaintance with the writings and authors discussed, it has been a part of the plan to draw attention, by the generous use of footnotes, to standard editions, to significant biographical and critical works, and to the most important books and articles in which the reader may pursue further the matters that interest him. A few references to very recent publications . . .