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Poetry being the most intimate expression of Man's Spirit, it is necessary to education ; since no man can be a worthy citizen of any earthly state unless he be first a citizen of the heavenly.
The other fine arts aim also at spiritual expression, but their material forms are more remote from ideas, and their interpretation often requires some special disposition of mind-as in Music, wherein also the appeal, being to moods and untranslatable emotions, is uncertain of its moral effects. But in poetry the material is language, and words are not only familiar to all of us, but are of all forms the most significant that we have.
Prose, while using the same material, is no rival to poetry in this part of education ; for though it be the logical guardian of Truth, and may rise to the highest pitch of expression, and—as we see in Plato, himself a poet-may duly claim the rank and name of Poetry, yet it is the common drudge of the Understanding for all work, and consequently inseparable from the usual routine of life, which is the chiefest enemy to spiritual abstraction. Poetry, on the other hand, with a more memorable form and a diction more musical, is of set purpose devoted to the high imaginative task of displaying the beauty, solemnity, and mystery of man's life on earth.
Language has a hidden but commanding influence in directing spiritual life. In whatever country we may be born, we imbibe the ideas inherent to its speech; nor can we escape
from the bias which that accident must give to our minds, unless we learn other languages and study
their literatures. In the physical and mathematical sciences, which can either employ precise definitions or fix the reference of their terms by sensible instances, this is not true: the signification of their corresponding terms in different languages is determinate and constant for all peoples; but our higher aspirations and imaginative faculties, having no measure nor any objects for the senses to grasp, cannot have their expression thus standardised: the commonest names in this field of thought (such words as spirit, soul, life, reason, and mind) do not mean to us precisely what their equivalents mean in other tongues, and the inter-relations of those other meanings are consequently alien to our thoughts.
And in these higher faculties themselves there are actual differences distinguishing the different races of mankind-differences that may be ascribed to radical peculiarities of mind; and the words which came to be coined to express them must in their currencies have reacted powerfully to strengthen those peculiar ways of thought and feeling, and to control the character of the men who used them, because our Ideals, which are formed upon habits of thought and feeling, influence and wholly prescribe our moral conduct and spiritual life.
Whence it follows that Poetry, which is made of this material, must be the expression of a nation's spirit : and English Poetry is the expression of the English Spirit in its most definite form.
Now, to speak of the English Spirit, what it is which is thus set before us, we shall not lightly underrate the heritage which has given us our high place among the nations ; but our part is to preserve it rather than to proclaim it, and to perfect it rather than to preserve it. The better our possession, the more capable is it of improvement; and the higher we stand, the baser our defection, if we seize not the yet higher good that we stand within reach of, nor take due occasion
of our position to be an example to others; that being the only true national pride, since by example only will mankind be led onward to well-being : which example is to be manifested in the improvement of the best, not in any extirpation or upraising of the worst, these being the proper effects, not the causes of amelioration.
This book is a Primer of English Poetry, and it it differ from others of its kind, that will be because it is unfalteringly faithful to a sound principle hitherto insufficiently observed. While in all other Arts it is agreed that a student should be trained only on the best models, wherein technique and aesthetic are both exemplary, there has been with respect to Poetry a pestilent notion that the young should be gradually led up to excellence through lower degrees of it; so that teachers have invited their pupils to learn and admire what they expected them to outgrow : and this was carried so far that writers, who else made no poetic pretence, have good-naturedly composed poems for the young, and in a technique often as inept as their sentiment.
This mistake rested on two shallow delusions ; first, that beauty must needs be fully apprehended before it can be felt or admired : secondly, that the young are unimaginative. A French writer has brushed all this fallacy aside in a few sentences in which he tells his own early experience.1
'In this little poem (he writes) there were many words and phrases that were new to me, and which I could not understand; but the general effect of them seemed to me so sad and so beautiful that I was thrilled
1 Anatole France in Livre de mon ami, p. 118.
by a feeling that I had never known before—the charm of melancholy was revealed to me by a score of verses the literal meaning of which I could not have explained. The fact is that unless one has grown old, one does not need to understand deeply in order to feel deeply: things dimly comprehended can be quite touching, and it is very true that what is vague and indefinite has a charm for youth.'
There should be nothing, then, in this book which a lover of poetry will ever cast aside, and within its proper limitations the collection should be as gratifying to the old as to the
young. The motives of selection can be thus sufficiently stated, but the principles guiding exclusion are not so readily described. The conspicuous absence of several famous poets will be easily understood, although their disqualifications are very unlike in kind; but the peculiar limitations of a book to be used in class may not be so well recognised, and they must be allowed for. On the other hand, it will be evident that some of the poems are too advanced for general use; but here it has to be considered that in all schools there are exceptionally poetic pupils, and this book would fail in its aim if it neglected them. Nor is it improbable that these very poems will make the first appeal to minds that seem least impressionable.
One of the advantages for us of our classical education has been that the boys who learned Greek and Latin had only masterpieces to study : and if our cultured class have generally a surer and better taste in Greek or Latin poetry than they have in English, this may be attributed to the advantage they have had in the one and not in the other. The most of them, if asked their opinion on the merits of some favourite English
you that on account of early association they are incapable of judging it, and in this predicament
poem, will tell