Nothing of the kind at present exists. There are great collections of the whole works of the poets, like that of Chalmers; there are innumerable volumes of Beauties of a more or less unsatisfactory kind; there are Selections from single poets; there are a few admirable volumes, like that of Mr. Palgrave, which deal with special departments of our poetical literature. The only book which attempts to cover the whole ground and to select on a large scale is Campbells; and Campbells, though the work of a true poet and, according to the standard of his time, a critic of authority, can no longer be regarded as sufficient. It is indeed impossible that a selection of the kind should be really well done, should be done with an approach to finality, if it is the work of one critic alone. The history of English poetry is so wide, its various sections and stages have become the objects of so special a study, that a book which aims at selecting the best from the whole field and pronouncing its judgments with some degree of authority, must not be the work of one writer, but of many. It was on this plan that M. Crépets excellent book, Les poètes français, was constructed twenty years ago; and what he there did for French poetry we here wish to do for English poetryto present a collection of what is best in it, chosen and judged by those whose tastes and studies specially qualify them for the several tasks they have undertaken.
Our design has not been to present a complete collection of all that may fairly be called masterpiecesif it had been so, the volumes would of necessity have been three times as many as they are. Still less has it been to give a complete history of English poetryif it had been so, many names that we have passed over would have been admitted. It has been, to collect as many of the best and most characteristic of their writings as should fully represent the great poets, and at the same time to omit no one who is poetically considerable. There are writers who were famous in their day and who played a great part in the history of English literature, but who have faded from public notice and are no longer generally read; men like Sidney, and Cowley, and Waller. Again, there are writers who never were well known, but who wrote a few beautiful poems as it were by accident; men like some of the minor Elizabethans, or Lovelace, or Christopher Smart. We have endeavoured to do justice to both these classes; to gather from the former what may serve to explain why they were famous, and from the latter whatever they wrote that is of real poetical excellence.
We have not included the writings of living poets, nor the drama, properly so called. Had we admitted the drama we should have been compelled to double our space; besides, in spite of Charles Lamb, we may venture to say that by the nature of the case a play lends itself to selection less than any other form of literature. But where a play is only a play in name, like Comus or the Gentle Shepherd, we have not excluded it; and songs from the dramatists have of course been admitted.
Two points seem to require a word of noticethe order and the orthography. The first is approximately chronological; for in this matter it was found impossible to follow any rigid rule. To go uniformly by the date, either of birth or publication, would be in many cases misleading; for we often find a poet not beginning to write till after the death of some younger contemporary, and oftener still we find his poems only posthumously collected. A vague floruit circa is the only date that is often possible in literary history. With regard to the orthography, the principle adopted has been, to print according to contemporary spelling up to the time of Wyatt and Surreythe time of the Renascenceand since that date to adopt the uniform modern spelling. The exceptions that we have made are in the case of the Scotch poets (though with them it is a matter rather of language than of orthography), and of Spenser, who is so intentionally archaic that his spelling is peculiar, and is a part of himself. Spenser accordingly we have printed from Dr. Morriss text.
It remains for the Editor to express his cordial thanks to those who have so kindly co-operated with him; and he may be permitted to mention specially the names of Professor Skeat, who has revised the whole of the text of the poets down to Douglas; of Mr. Edmund W. Gosse, whose great knowledge of English poetry, especially of that of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has been of the greatest service to the book; and of Mr. Matthew Arnold, who, besides his direct contributions, has from time to time given most valuable advice.