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The numerous text-books in English literature that have been within the last four years called forth by the growing interest in the study, are chiefly of two classes: one class consisting of brief selections accompanied with brief biographical sketches of authors, and presented in chronological order; the other class being characteristically histories of authorship in English. There seems to be wanting still a manual that shall introduce the learner to the literature itself as a growth. In order to this it is necessary to take specimens of our literature at certain marked stages of its growth, and as represented in its best forms by the best writers. Further, not mere fragments of poems or of prose discourses, comprising but a few verses or a few paragraphs, but entire artistic products, so far as practicable, must be presented. Still further, no worthy study of our literature as an historic growth is possible except as it is investigated in its proper form and style belonging to it at the time of its production. Modernized forms of it only mislead and hinder. Moreover, as the great objection to the study of English literature has been that it has no plan, no method ; as system is necessary which shall further the great disciplinary ends of education, and particularly shall give the learner possession of the principles which have presided over the growth and shaping of our language and literature, and of the general facts in regard to its manifold forms, so that he may appreciate its true excellences, understand its apparent anomalies, and so reduce them to rule and be prepared to prosecute his studies as well as guide his selections in the reading to be incidentally pursued in subsequent life, it is necessary to refer the learner all along to the elements of our literature, that by the study of single words, of single sentences, of single poems or discourses, he may gradually come to a methodical and familiar acquaintance with all the characteristic phenomena of our language and literature.
Such is accordingly the motive to the preparation of this new text-book, and such its design and plan. The book consists of two parts. In the first part, after a chapter on the origin and affinities of our language, selections preceded by brief biographical or historical notices are given from our greatest authors, those conceived to be the best representatives of our literature at the special stage of its growth when they wrote. As far as possible complete poems, or large extracts are presented, so that they may be studied in respect to the thought, its character and form, and also æsthetically as complete artistic products. These selections are followed by copious notes, etymological, grammatical, historical, and ästhetical, referring all along to the systematic presentation of the elements of our language and literature which constitute the second part. The selections are given in the orthographical form of the original editions so far as has been practicable ; as there can be no satisfactory study of the orthographical peculiarities of our language without such an historic study of the changes in the forms of our words. A special care has accordingly been taken to obtain a reprint from the best accessible editions; and where it has seemed important, a careful collation has been made with other editions of established reputation. In this connection grateful acknowledgment should be made of the courteous permission expressly accorded by Messrs. Ticknor and Fields, publishers of the works of Professor Longfellow, to insert the selections from “ Hiawatha.”
The second part presents our language and literature in their elements in systematic order. Here are exhibited the principles governing the rise and formation of language; of English orthoëpy, orthography, syllabication, word-formation, and of poetic forms in English ; the growth of our literature, also, in its several departments of oratory, history, scientific discourse, fiction, the drama, and poetry, with notice of leading authors in each department separately in their chronological succession.
The endeavor has been, while directing the study to the literature itself and not to a history of authorship, so to present the subject that it can be studied in specially assigned lessons, with a clear understanding of what is to be done in preparing the lesson, as in our common text-books in classical literature. Here has lain the chief difficulty in directing the study hitherto; the learner has not known what he is to do in the study, or if he may have conjectured this or that thing
as the proper thing to be done, the needful aids were wanting. And there was no system. He might study out this or that word ; this or that peculiarity in sentence-construction ; this or that rhetorical figure ; this or that poetical form ; this or that historic or æsthetic element. But this gathering of scattered, isolated parts with no eye to system, to order, or to completeness, is of as little profit as of satisfaction. Study to be of service must be definite and must be comprehensive; must know its road and see that it leads through to the end of the science.
In the study of the parallel versions of a portion of the Bible, an initiation is afforded into the etymology of the language. The individual word, in its history, its affinities, its form, its meaning and use, may be studied by the help of the Notes and the Glossary. It is thought that the student will be made to such a degree conversant with this branch of study, that he will not only be able, but will be prompted to study out afterwards any word that may occur, having the needful helps, just as the young botanist, after the analysis of a few scores or at least a few hundreds of flowers, is qualified to analyze any plant that may offer. This etymological study may be continued in the subsequent selections at pleasure ; but it has not been deemed necessary to work out for the student
word that occurs, but only such as for some reason invited special attention. There are in fact several distinct ends to be prosecuted in a study of literature which may advantageously be pursued, for a time at least, separately and successively. Thus the etymology, the history of the word-forms, may be exclusively studied at the outset ; then the grammatical features, the elements of the sentence, may be attended to; then the rhetorical elements; then the more general historical and biographical as well as æsthetic characteristics. In this way method and completeness, and thus satisfaction and profit, will be secured in the study.