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This book was announced for publication last autumn; and it would have appeared at that time but for a severe illness which the editor underwent during the progress of his Stories from the Italian Poets, and the consequences of which conspired with other untoward circumstances to delay it till now.
What additional amount of indulgence therefore may be required by his portion of the work, the goodnatured reader will not withhold. Luckily, the far greater part of the volume cannot fail to amuse; and in order to make amends for that absence of prose wit and humor which its limitation to verse rendered at once unavoidable and provoking (considering how much some of the best of the writers excelled in prose, often to the far greater advantage of their pleasantry), the Introductory Essay has been plentifully supplied with examples of both sorts. Comedy, indeed, has had comparatively little to say for itself in verse, even in Shakspeare. Wit and satire, and the observation of common life, want, of necessity, the enthusiasm of poetry, and are not impelled by their nature into musical utterance. They may call in the aid of verse to concentrate their powers and sharpen their effect; but it will never be of any high or inspired order. It will be pipe and tabor music ; not that of the organ or the orchestra. Juvenal
sometimes gives us stately hexameters; but then he was a very serious satirist, and worked himself up into a lofty indignation.
One of the perplexities that beset the Editor in his task was the superabundance of materials. They pressed upon him so much, and he overdid his selections to such an extent in the first instance, that he was obliged to retrench two-thirds of them, perhaps more ; and plenty of matter remains for an additional volume, should the public care to have it. At the same time, he unexpectedly found himself unable to extract a great deal of what is otherwise excellent, on account of the freedom of speech in which almost all the wits have indulged, and which they would in all probability have checked, could they have foreseen the changes of custom in that respect, and the effect it would have in bounding their admission into good company. It was lamentable and provoking to discover what heaps of admirable passages the Editor was compelled to omit on this account, from the works of Beaumont and Fletcher down to Don Juan. It was as if the greatest wits had resolved to do the foolishest things, out of spite to what was expected of them by common sense. But excess of animal spirits helps to account for it.
Should health enough be spared him (as change of air and scene has enabled him to hope), it is the Editor's intention to follow up this volume next year with the third of the series announced in the preface to Imagination and Fancy ; namely, a selection, edited in the like manner, from the Narrative and Dramatic Poets, under the title of Action and Passion.
The reason why so much of the book is printed in italics, was explained in the Preface above mentioned; but to those
who have not seen the explanation, it is proper to state, that it originated in a wish expressed by the readers of a periodical work, who liked the companionship which it implied between reader and editor. Otherwise, the necessity of thus pointing out particular passages for admiration in the writings of men of genius is rapidly decreasing, especially in regard to wit and humor ; faculties, of which, as well as of knowledge in general, of scholarship, deep thinking, and the most proved abilities for national guidance, more evidences are poured forth every day in the newspaper press, than the wits of Queen Anne's time, great as they were, dreamed of compassing in a month. And the best of it is,—nay, one of the great reasons of it is,—that all this surprising capacity is on the side of the Great New Good Cause of the World,—that of the Rights of the Poor; for it is only from the heights of sympathy that we can perceive the universal and the just.
Meantime, he is preparing for publication a volume apart from the series, and on quite another plan ; its object being to produce such a Selection from Favorite Authors, both in prose and verse, as a lover of books, young or old, might like to find lying in the parlor of some old country-house, or in the quietest room of any other house, and tending to an impartial, an unlimited, and yet entertaining and tranquillizing review of human existence. It is a book, he hopes, such as Mrs. Radcliffe would have liked in her childhood; Sir Roger de Coverley in his old age ; or Gray and Thomson at any time. And all those interesting persons will have their part in it.
Wimbledon, Sept. 22, 1846.