Preface to the Oxford Book of English Verse

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FOR this Anthology I have tried to range over the whole field of English Verse from the beginning, or from the Thirteenth Century to this closing year of the Nineteenth, and to choose the best. Nor have I sought in these Islands only, but wheresoever the Muse has followed the tongue which among living tongues she most delights to honour. To bring home and render so great a spoil compendiously has been my capital difficulty. It is for the reader to judge if I have so managed it as to serve those who already love poetry and to implant that love in some young minds not yet initiated.

My scheme is simple. I have arranged the poets as nearly as possible in order of birth, with such groupings of anonymous pieces as seemed convenient. For convenience, too, as well as to avoid a dispute-royal, I have gathered the most of the Ballads into the middle of the Seventeenth Century; where they fill a languid interval between two winds of inspiration—the Italian dying down with Milton and the French following at the heels of the restored Royalists. For convenience, again, I have set myself certain rules of spelling. In the very earliest poems inflection and spelling are structural, and to modernize is to destroy. But as old inflections fade into modern the old spelling becomes less and less vital, and has been brought (not, I hope, too abruptly) into line with that sanctioned by use and familiar. To do this seemed wiser than to discourage many readers for the sake of diverting others by a scent of antiquity which—to be essential—should breathe of something rarer than an odd arrangement of type. But there are scholars whom I cannot expect to agree with me; and to conciliate them I have excepted Spenser and Milton from the rule.

Glosses of archaic and otherwise difficult words are given at the foot of the page: but the text has not been disfigured with reference-marks. And rather than make the book unwieldy I have eschewed notes—reluctantly when some obscure passage or allusion seemed to ask for a timely word; with more equanimity when the temptation was to criticize or ‘appreciate.’ For the function of the anthologist includes criticizing in silence.

Care has been taken with the texts. But I have sometimes thought it consistent with the aim of the book to prefer the more beautiful to the better attested reading. I have often excised weak or superfluous stanzas when sure that excision would improve; and have not hesitated to extract a few stanzas from a long poem when persuaded that they could stand alone as a lyric. The apology for such experiments can only lie in their success: but the risk is one which, in my judgement, the anthologist ought to take. A few small corrections have been made, but only when they were quite obvious.

The numbers chosen are either lyrical or epigrammatic. Indeed I am mistaken if a single epigram included fails to preserve at least some faint thrill of the emotion through which it had to pass before the Muse’s lips let it fall, with however exquisite deliberation. But the lyrical spirit is volatile and notoriously hard to bind with definitions; and seems to grow wilder with the years. With the anthologist—as with the fisherman who knows the fish at the end of his sea-line—the gift, if he have it, comes by sense, improved by practice. The definition, if he be clever enough to frame one, comes by after-thought. I don't know that it helps, and am sure that it may easily mislead.

Having set my heart on choosing the best, I resolved not to be dissuaded by common objections against anthologies—that they repeat one another until the proverb δὶς ἤ τρὶς τὰ καλά loses all application—or perturbed if my judgement should often agree with that of good critics. The best is the best, though a hundred judges have declared it so; nor had it been any feat to search out and insert the second-rate merely because it happened to be recondite. To be sure, a man must come to such a task as mine haunted by his youth and the favourites he loved in days when he had much enthusiasm but little reading.

A deeper import
Lurks in the legend told my infant years
Than lies upon that truth we live to learn.

Few of my contemporaries can erase—or would wish to erase—the dye their minds took from the late Mr. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury: and he who has returned to it again and again with an affection born of companionship on many journeys must remember not only what the Golden Treasury includes, but the moment when this or that poem appealed to him, and even how it lies on the page. To Mr. Bullen’s Lyrics from the Elizabethan Song Books and his other treasuries I own a more advised debt. Nor am I free of obligation to anthologies even more recent—to Archbishop Trench’s Household Book of Poetry, Mr. Locker-Lampson’s Lyra Elegantiarum, Mr. Miles’ Poets and Poetry of the Century, Mr. Beeching’s Paradise of English Poetry, Mr. Henley’s English Lyrics, Mrs. Sharp’s Lyra Celtica, Mr. Yeats’ Book of Irish Verse, and Mr. Churton Collins’ Treasury of Minor British Poetry: though my rule has been to consult these after making my own choice. Yet I can claim that the help derived from them—though gratefully owned—bears but a trifling proportion to the labour, special and desultory, which has gone to the making of my book.

For the anthologist’s is not quite the dilettante business for which it is too often and ignorantly derided. I say this, and immediately repent; since my wish is that the reader should in his own pleasure quite forget the editor’s labour, which too has been pleasant: that, standing aside, I may believe this book has made the Muses’ access easier when, in the right hour, they come to him to uplift or to console—

ἄκλητος μὲν ἔγωγε μένοιμί κεν ἐς δὲ καλεύντων
θαρσήσας Μοίσαισι σὺν ἁμετέραισιν ἱκοίμαν.

My thanks are here tendered to those who have helped me with permission to include recent poems: to Mr. A. C. Benson, Mr. Laurence Binyon, Mr. Wilfrid Blunt, Mr. Robert Bridges, Mr. John Davidson, Mr. Austin Dobson, Mr. Aubrey de Vere, Mr. Edmund Gosse, Mr. Bret Harte, Mr. W. E. Henley, Mrs. Katharine Tynan Hinkson, Mr. W. D. Howells, Dr. Douglas Hyde, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. Richard Le Gallienne, Mr. George Meredith, Mrs. Meynell, Mr. T. Sturge Moore, Mr. Henry Newbolt, Mr. Gilbert Parker, Mr. T. W. Rolleston, Mr. George Russell (‘A. E.’), Mrs. Clement Shorter (Dora Sigerson), Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Francis Thompson, Dr. Todhunter, Mr. William Watson, Mr. Watts-Dunton, Mrs. Woods, and Mr. W. B. Yeats; to the Earl of Crewe for a poem by the late Lord Houghton; to Lady Ferguson, Mrs. Allingham, Mrs. A. H. Clough, Mrs. Locker-Lampson, Mrs. Coventry Patmore; to the Lady Betty Balfour and the Lady Victoria Buxton for poems by the late Earl of Lytton and the Hon. Roden Noel; to the executors of Messrs. Frederic Tennyson (Captain Tennyson and Mr. W. C. A. Ker), Charles Tennyson Turner (Sir Franklin Lushington), Edward Fitz-Gerald (Mr. Aldis Wright), William Bell Scott (Mrs. Sydney Morse and Miss Boyd of Penkill Castle, who has added to her kindness by allowing me to include an unpublished ‘Sonet’ by her sixteenth-century ancestor, Mark Alexander Boyd), William Philpot (Mr. Hamlet S. Philpot), William Morris (Mr. S. C. Cockerell), William Barnes, and R. L. Stevenson; to the Rev. H. C. Beeching for two poems from his own works, and leave to use his redaction of Quia Amore Langueo; to Messrs. Macmillan for confirming permission for the extracts from FitzGerald, Christina Rossetti, and T. E. Brown, and particularly for allowing me to insert the latest emendations in Lord Tennyson’s non-copyright poems; to the proprietors of Mr. and Mrs. Browning’s copyrights and to Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co. for a similar favour, also for a copyright poem by Mrs. Browning; to Mr. George Allen for extracts from Ruskin and the author of Ionica; to Messrs. G. Bell & Sons for poems by Thomas Ashe; to Messrs. Chatto & Windus for poems by Arthur O’Shaughnessy and Dr. George MacDonald, and for confirming Mr. Bret Harte’s permission; to Mr. Elkin Mathews for a poem by Mr. Bliss Carman; to Mr. John Lane for two poems by William Brighty Rands; to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge for two extracts from Christina Rossetti’s Verses; and to Mr. Bertram Dobell, who allows me not only to select from James Thomson but to use a poem of Traherne’s, a seventeenth-century singer rediscovered by him. To mention all who in other ways have furthered me is not possible in this short Preface; which, however, must not conclude without a word of special thanks to Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll for many suggestions and some pains kindly bestowed, and to Professor F. York Powell, whose help and wise counsel have been as generously given as they were eagerly sought, adding me to the number of those many who have found his learning to be his friends’ good fortune.
October 1900

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).