THE studies comprised in this volume range over a good many years in their original composition, and over portions of a large field in their subject. That field is indeed inexhaustible; nor do these essays attempt to do more than indicate and exemplify lines of approach which may be of use for guidance or suggestion; they may help, perhaps, towards appreciation of the attitude in which poetry may be read so as to be alive, and to communicate its vitalising quality. Their aim throughout has been, in the first place, to disengage the living and effective poetical value of the work of selected English poets, and, secondly, to bring that work into its place in the organic evolution of English poetry. In a previous volume, The Springs of Helicon, as indicated by the sub-title A Study in the Progress of English Poetry from Chaucer to Milton, this was the line of approach taken and it is retained here on different ground.
The best use, to be sure, that we can make of the poets is not to comment on them, but to read them. Much of what is called poetical criticism is obscuration of the poetry by the interposition of an opaque or distorting medium. Many biographical accounts of poets seem to throw light on anything but their poetry, and to divert attention from that by an irrelevant and (in the proper sense of the word) an extravagant curiosity. Textual study has its own separate value, which is always great and often highly illuminating. But commentary of whatever kind is only useful in so far as it throws light on the poetry itself and allows a more unimpeded access to it.