Ideally, of course, one cannot completely understand American poetry unless one reads all the poems of all our poets. In practice, however, few if any readers can do this, and it is utterly impossible in the limited time available in the average college course devoted to the subject. Selection becomes necessary, then, although the choice of poets and poems is perhaps justifiable only in the light of its guiding principles, and therefore the reader is entitled to a candid statement of the principles which have governed the making of the present book.
1. The Poets Included. Most teachers today agree that it is preferable to acquaint oneself thoroughly with a considerable body of the work of a relatively few major figures who are representative than to try to read snippets from a multitude who soon become mere names. Thus the present book includes the ten generally recognized major American poets, along with Freneau to illustrate the neglected but important early development of our poetry as inspired by scientific deism, and along with Robinson and Lindsay to represent two contrasting aspects of the modern temper in the East and the West, respectively.
2. Range of Ideas. One must follow the trail of a poet's thought wherever it may lead. Our poets were closely interested in the full cycle of the ideas of their time. An attempt has therefore been made to include not only poems which are intrinsically good as works of art but also those poems which express each poet's political, religious, social, economic, and æsthetic views. Not only do poems dealing with such a variety of ideas enable a reader to learn the logical articulation of a poet's thought but they illustrate the manner in which the poet inspired or was inspired by the life of his time and place. The poetry included thus constitutes an index to the intellectual history of America which parallels and helps to illuminate other aspects of American history.
3. Genetic Development. Some of our poets reveal themselves, when studied closely, as having gone through many changes of view from youth to old age, changes so' striking in some cases as to make the same man seem composed of different individuals. By disregarding chronology, by artificially arranging the order of a poet's poems, or by omitting all his early or all his mature poems, one is in danger of securing a portrait of the poet which fails to present him faithfully proportioned and integrated as a "man against the sky." Materials have therefore been provided which should enable a reader to trace the growth of the poet's mind and art from his earliest to his latest expression in order that he may emerge as a complete, organic personality in his intellectual habit as he lived.