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It may be regarded as the legitimate result of the Reformation, which loosened the bonds that had trammeled men's minds, and encouraged free investigation and free expression. It has three representatives, par excellence, Hooker of the theological spirit, Bacon of the philosophical, and Shakespeare of the poetic and dramatic. With the last of these, "the most illustrious of the sons of man," our series of glimpses at English literary history begins.
As even the merest mention of all distinguished writers, was obviously impracticable, it has been attempted, in the preparation of this volume, to introduce those of the number who most faithfully and forcibly represent the several stages and departments of English literature. In Shakespeare we see a delegate at large from every literary interest known in his time; Milton gives voice to the thoughtful and devout poetry of Puritanism; Swift illustrates the power of satire with a brilliancy that has never been surpassed; Addison inaugurates the revival of classicalism in literature, and gives the world a pattern of rigid, though beautiful, accuracy in style; Johnson exemplifies ponderousness in matter and manner, and leaves a lasting impress on English letters; Goldsmith, more thoroughly than any writer had done before his time, transfuses himself into his writings, revealing his own gentle, genial, and poetical nature in his books with almost unequaled fidelity of portraiture; Gibbon, first of all Englishmen, demonstrated the power of the historian, not only to rescue the past, but to mold the future. But the catalogue is too long to be thus continued. What is here left undone, the student may profitably do for himself, recording briefly his judgment of each writer and specifying his distinguishing services or office in literature.
As helps to history, these brief interviews with typical representatives of different periods cannot fail to be valuable. To the epics of Homer we are largely indebted for our knowledge of the politics, theology, and social customs of the Greeks and Trojans; and our debt for similar acquisitions to English writers of early times, though rarely acknowledged, is even greater. Chaucer gives us pictures of a life that, but for him, we could only imagine, a life in which rude ecclesiasticism held unquestioned dominion. Dryden describes or suggests the vicissitudes of religious faith that were the most conspicuous feature of English life in his time, and the pervading corruption that demoralized all classes. Coleridge enlightens us as to the first movements of that spirit of free inquiry whose results have
pre-eminently distinguished the nineteenth century. It would be easy to enlarge upon this point if space permitted; but a little reflection will convince the intelligent reader that the literature of a nation is its true history: it is spontaneous and unprejudiced, while formal historical narratives are invariably colored by prejudice, personal, political, or theological. If Hume's and Macaulay's and Froude's Histories were suddenly destroyed, the surviving general literature of England would afford ample materials for their reconstruction.
American Literature has a liberal representation in THE LITERARY READER, which presents one feature that may be said to be unique; that is, its recognition of distinctively scientific writers as contributors to letters. In its early days science was dry and almost repellent to all save its favored students; but its modern exponents have not failed to see the importance of introducing it in an attractive guise, and the writings of Agassiz, Tyndall, Gray, Dana, Maury, Huxley, and others abound in passages of marked beauty even when judged according to the standards of pure literature. This feature of the work seems to mark not only a due acknowledgment of the growing love for scientific study in this country, but also a welcome addition to the treasures of literature.
While this work is primarily intended for the use of schools, as a textbook by the use of which the learner may acquire, simultaneously, proficiency in reading, and no inconsiderable familiarity with what may be called the headlands of English literature, it will, it is believed, also be found serviceable by the general reader. One who desires to acquaint himself with the best literary products of the Anglo-Saxon intellect will find in these pages a convenient and agreeable introduction to them. Indeed, the book may fitly be described as a collection of samples which set forth the peculiar qualities of the chief literary fabrics of England and America, made during nearly three hundred years.
The compiler acknowledges, with pleasure, his obligations to Mr. S. R. Crocker, the accomplished editor of the Literary World, for much valuable literary assistance, and also to Messrs. James R. Osgood & Co., Messrs. G. P. Putnam's Sons, Messrs. D. Appleton & Co., and others, for their courtesy in permitting the use of selections from their copyright editions of American writers.
G. R. C.