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LITERATURE OF THE AGE.
The object of this work, and the circle of readers for which it is intended, must appear sufficiently obvious from its title. The Editor, at the same time, deems it necessary to state the considerations that have led to the publication. Elegant Extracts have been, in all ages, a favourite recreation to readers of taste; but in no era of our literature could such extracts be so interesting, or so necessary, as at present. During the classic age of Pope, every writer was studious of the most finished elegance. Those who possessed taste and genius attained it; so that, in selecting their beauties, it would not always be easy to determine, what to reject, and what to select, each part being so carefully finished, and touched with so delicate a hand, that if all were not equally beautiful, at least, their inequality did not remove them to any considerable distance from each other. Facies non omnibus una, nec diversa tamen. They attained this excellence, it is true, by imitating the best models, and always calling reason to their assistance, whenever they had cause to distrust the correctness of their imagination, or the direction which their feelings prompted them to pursue; but that they lost in spirit, invention, and that poetic enthusiasm which gives to poetry all its living and animating charms, what they gained in accuracy and method, is a position which, whatever may be our own opinion, we know few writers of the present day will feel disposed to question. Those who wanted genius, on the contrary, left nothing worthy of selection; so that the last century,
ter of poets Saint Exempe
particularly the early part of it, was, in every respect, unfavourable to the selection of Elegant Extracts. Whatever may be affirmed of the poets of any age, so far as regards the character of their style, and the correctness of their sentiments, will always be found equally applicable to its prose writers. Both influence, and are influenced by, each other, so that whatever justifies a selection from the poets of any age, will equally justify a selection from its prose writers.
Towards the close of the last century, an opinion began to prevail, that reason had hitherto exercised, or, rather, usurped an unlawful controul over the feelings, in works of imagination. It was maintained, that the poet should commune with the secret sympathies and affections of his own heart alone, as reason serves only to damp the ardour, and enchain the energies, which give to works of imagination all that fire and pathos which distinguish the productions of genius from the tame correctness of acquired sapience, and the prosing uniformity of laborious dulness. This was the origin of the romantic school. No theory could be more specious, none better calculated to deceive; nor could any theory have led to happier results, had the province of reason, in works of imagination, been clearly ascertained. Instead of this having been done, the doctrine of expelling it altogether, and of yielding implicitly to the guidance of the imagination, became a popular theory, particularly among poets of the second order, as it gave them a most licentious, or, rather, an unlimited career, permitting them to travel through the regions of sense or nonsense, as it suited them best. The critics were not behind-hand in lauding the new school of poetry, though they had every day reason to lament the extreme to which its principles were carried, and the unintelligible jargon of some of its disciples. The license which it gave, however, soon rendered it so fashionable, that to an abandonment of all analyzed thought, they held it necessary to add, an abandonment of all studied and chastened diction. Accordingly, from despising that pedantry, as they deemed it, which examines the cor
rectness of an idea before it ventures to give it expression, they proceeded to the very extreme of poetic absurdity, and expressed their rabble, indigested thoughts, in whatever form of expression presented itself first, deeming it inconsistent, as no doubt it was, to trust their thoughts to the regency of their feelings, and not trust their language to it also. Accordingly, they adopted the language of the peasant for their model, maintaining, that “the language of low and rustic life ought to be preferred.” These erroneous no. tions of poetry having taken the reins altogether out of the hands of reason, left poets afloat on the great ocean of doubt and uncertainty. Having no helm to guide them, they split, very naturally, into different sects, or schools of poetry, neither of them well understanding the principles of its own creed, nor the impassable line which separated them from each other, and the entire of them agreeing only in one dogma, that of acknowledging the supreme dominion of feeling in works of taste. The public acknowledged themselves pleased with a revolution that seemed to soften into ease and graceful playfulness, the severe austerity and lofty deportment of the classic muse: the critics reechoed the voice of the public ;-a new era of poetry succeeded to the classic, which still continues ; for, we have no hesitation to assert, that even such of our living poets, as profess to be admirers of the classic school, are still influenced in their works by the principles which we have mentioned. The critics, howcver, have had frequent occasions to regret a change, which, had it been effected with more caution, might have led to the highest excellence of which poetry is capable, or which can be conferred on the creations of mind, and the colouring of imagination.
The editor of the “ Beauties of Literature," professes, by no means, to be an unqualified admirer of the classical school. He believes, if the present be not the Augustan age, it is, at least, the brightest era of English literature, that it teems with the most exquisite productions of taste, and the most luxuriant fruits of