« PreviousContinue »
In order to make amends for that absence of prose-wit and humour which the limitation of this volume to verse rendered at once unavoidable and provoking (considering how much some of the best of the writers excelled in prose, often to the far greater advantage of their pleasantry), the Introductory Essay has been plentifully supplied with examples of both sorts. Comedy, indeed, has had comparatively little to say for itself, in verse, even in Shakspeare. Wit and satire, and the observation of common life, want, of necessity, the enthusiasm of poetry, and are not impelled by their nature into musical utterance. Wits and satirists may write verse in order to concentrate their powers and sharpen their effect; but it will never be of any high or inspired order. It will be pipe and tabor music; not that of the organ or the orchestra. Juvenal sometimes gives us stately hexameters; but then he was a very serious satirist, and worked himself up into a lofty indignation.
One of the perplexities that beset the Editor in this task was the superabundance of materials. They pressed upon him so much, and he overdid his selections to such an extent in the first instance, that he was obliged to retrench twothirds of them, perhaps more. At the same time, he unexpectedly found himself unable to extract a great deal of what is otherwise excellent, on account of the freedom of speech in which almost all the wits have indulged, and which they would in all probability have checked, could they have foreseen the changes of custom in that respect, and the effect it would have in bounding their admission into good company. It was lamentable and provoking to discover what heaps of admirable passages the Editor was compelled to omit on this account, from the works of Beaumont and Fletcher down to Don Juan. It was as if the greatest wits had resolved to do the foolishest things, out of spite to what was expected of them by common sense. But excess of animal spirits helps to account for it.
The reason why so much of the book is printed in italics, was explained in the Preface to the companion volume on Imagination and Fancy; but to those who have not seen the explanation, it is proper to state, that it originated in a wish expressed by readers, who liked the companionship which it implied between reader and editor. Otherwise, the necessity of thus pointing out particular
passages for admiration in the writings of men of genius is rapidly decreasing, especially in regard to wit and humour; faculties, of which—as well as of knowledge in general, of scholarship, deep thinking, and the most proved abilities for national guidance—more evidences are poured forth every day in the newspaper press, than the wits of Queen Anne's time, great as they were, dreamed of compassing in a month. And the best of it is--nay, one of the great reasons of it is, that all this surprising capacity is on the side of the Great New Good Cause of the World, -that of the Rights of the Poor; for it is only from the heights of sympathy that we can perceive the universal and the just.