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A HISTORY, CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL, OF BRITISH AUTHORS,
FROM THE EARLIEST TO THE PRESENT TIMES.
IN TWO VOLUMES.
PUBLISHED BY WILLIAM AND ROBERT CHAMBERS.
This work originated in a desire, on the part of the Publishers, to supply what they considered a deficiency in the Literature addressed at the present time to the great body of the People. In the late efforts for the improvement of the popular mind, the removal of mere ignorance has been the chief object held in view: attention has been mainly given to what might be expected to impart technical knowledge; and in the cultivation of what is certainly but a branch of the intellectual powers, it has been thought that the great end was gained. It is not necessary here to present arguments establishing that there are faculties for cognising the beautiful in art, thought, and feeling, as well as for perceiving and enjoying the truths of physical science and of fact. Nor is it needful to show how elegant and
reflective literature, especially, tends to moralise, to soften, and to adorn the soul and life of man. Assuming this as granted, we were anxious to take the aid of the press-or rather of the Printing
Machine, for by it alone could the object be accomplished-to bring the belles lettres into the list of those agencies which are now operating for the mental advancement of the middle and humbler portions of society.
It appeared that, for a first effort, nothing could be more suitable than a systematised series of extracts from our national authors ; "a concentration"—to quote the language of the prospectus --" of the best productions of English intellect, from Anglo-Saxon to the present times, in the various departments headed by Chaucer, Shakspeare, Milton-by More, Bacon, Locke--by Hooker, Taylor, Barrowby Addison, Johnson, Goldsmith—by Hume, Robertson, Gibbon-set in a biographical and critical history of the literature itself.” By this a double end might, it seemed, be served; as the idea of the work included the embodiment of a distinct and valuable portion of knowledge, as well as that mass of polite literature which was looked to for the effect above described. In the knowledge of what has been done by English literary genius in all ages, it cannot be doubted that we have a branch of the national history, not only in itself important, as well as interesting, but which reflects a light upon other departments of history-for is not the Elizabethan Drama, for example, an exponent, to some extent, of the state of the national mind at the time, and is it not equally one of the influences which may be presumed to have modified that mind in the age which followed ? Nor is it to be overlooked, how important an end is to be attained by training the entire people to venerate the thoughtful and eloquent of past and present times. These gifted beings may be said to have endeared our language and institutions—our national character, and the very scenery and artificial objects which mark our soil—to all who are acquainted with, and can appreciate their writings. A regard for our national authors enters into and forms part of the most sacred feelings of every educated man, and it would not be easy to estimate in what degree it is to this sentiment that we are indebted for all of good and great that centres in the name of England. Assuredly, in our common reverence for a Shakspeare, a Milton, a Scott, we have a social and uniting sentiment, which not only contains in itself part of our happiness as a people, but much that counteracts influences that tend to set us in division.
A more special utility is contemplated for this work, in its serving to introduce the young to the Pantheon of English authors. The “ Elegant Extracts” of Dr Knox, after long enjoying popularity as a selection of polite literature for youths between school and college, has of late years sunk out of notice, in consequence of a change in public taste. It was almost exclusively devoted to the rhetorical literature, elegant but artificial, which flourished during the earlier half of the eighteenth century, overlooking even the great names of Chaucer and Spenser, as well as nearly the whole range of rich, though not faultless productions extending between the times of Shakspeare and Dryden. The time seemed to have come for a substitute work, in which at once the revived taste for our early literature should be gratified, and due attention be given to the authors who have lived since the time of Knox. Such a work it has been the humble aim of the editor to produce in that which is now laid before the public.
He takes this opportunity of acknowledging that very important assistance has been rendered throughout the Cyclopædia of English Literature, and particularly in the poetical department, by Mr Robert Carruthers of Inverness.
EDINBURCH, August 15, 1843.