This work was begun many years ago, as a literary exercise, to meet the personal requirements of the writer, which were such as most persons experience on leaving school and “completing their education,” as the phrase is. The world of literature lies before them, but where to begin, what course of study to pursue, in order best to comprehend it, are the problems which present themselves to the bewildered questioner, who finds himself in a position not unlike that of a traveler suddenly set down in an unknown country, without guide-book or map. The most natural course under such circumstances would be to begin at the beginning, and take a rapid survey of the entire field of literature, arriving at its details through this general view. But as this could be accomplished only by subjecting each individual to a severe and protracted course of systematic study, the idea was conceived of obviating this necessity to some extent by embodying the results of such a course in the form of the following work, which, after being long laid aside, is now at length completed.
In conformity with this design, standard books have been condensed, with no alterations except such as were required to give unity to the whole work; and in some instances a few additions have been made. Where standard works have not been found, the sketches have been made from the best sources of information, and submitted to the criticism of able scholars.
The literatures of different nations are so related, and have so influenced each other, that it is only by a survey of all that any single literature, or even any great literary work, can be fully comprehended, as the various groups and figures of a historical picture must be viewed as a whole, before they can assume their true place and proportions.