It is not the purpose of the author to add another to the many volumes containing a chronological list of English authors, with brief comments upon each. Such a statement of works, arranged according to periods, or reigns of English monarchs, is valuable only as an abridged dictionary of names and dates. Nor is there any logical pertinence in clustering contemporary names about a principal author, however illustrious he may be. The object of this work is to present prominently the historic connections and teachings of English literature; to place great authors in immediate relations with great events in history; and thus to propose an important principle to students in all their reading. Thus it is that Literature and History are reciprocal: they combine to make eras.
Merely to establish this historic principle, it would have been sufficient to consider the greatest authors, such as Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope; but it occurred to me, while keeping this principle before me, to give also a connected view of the course of English literature, which might, in an academic curriculum, show students how and what to read for themselves. Any attempt beyond this in so condensed a work must prove a failure, and so it may well happen that some readers will fail to find a full notice, or even a mention, of some favorite author.
English literature can only be studied in the writings of the authors here only mentioned; but I hope that the work will be found to contain suggestions for making such extended reading profitable; and that teachers will find it valuable as a syllabus for fuller courses of lectures.
To those who would like to find information as to the best editions of the authors mentioned, I can only say that I at first intended and began to note editions: I soon saw that I could not do this with any degree of uniformity, and therefore determined to refer all who desire this bibliographic assistance, to The Dictionary of Authors, by my friend S. Austin Allibone, LL.D., in which bibliography is a strong feature. I am not called upon to eulogize that noble work, but I cannot help saying that I have found it invaluable, and that whether mentioned or not, no writer can treat of English authors without constant recurrence to its accurate columns: it is a literary marvel of our age.
It will be observed that the remoter periods of the literature are those in which the historic teachings are the most distinctly visible; we see them from a vantage ground, in their full scope, and in the interrelations of their parts. Although in the more modern periods the number of writers is greatly increased, we are too near to discern the entire period, and are in danger of becoming partisans, by reason of our limited view. Especially is this true of the age in which we live. Contemporary history is but party-chronicle: the true philosophic history can only be written when distance and elevation give due scope to our vision.
The principle I have laid down is best illustrated by the great literary masters. Those of less degree have been treated at less length, and many of them will be found in the smaller print, to save space. Those who study the book should study the small print as carefully as the other.
After a somewhat elaborate exposition of English literature, I could not induce myself to tack on an inadequate chapter on American literature; and, besides, I think that to treat the two subjects in one volume would be as incongruous as to write a joint biography of Marlborough and Washington. American literature is too great and noble, and has had too marvelous a development to be made an appendix to English literature.
If time shall serve, I hope to prepare a separate volume, exhibiting the stages of our literature in the Colonial period, the Revolutionary epoch, the time of Constitutional establishment, and the present period. It will be found to illustrate these historical divisions in a remarkable manner.
The Lehigh University, October, 1872.