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The idea of this compilation was suggested by Mr. Ellis's “ Specimens of Early English Poets;" of which work it may be considered in some sort as forming the counterpart. My first intention was, to exhibit simply a chronological series of selections, as specimens of the progress of English prose style, without any other comment or observation than short biographical notices of the several authors, like those in the two last volumes of Mr. Ellis. But I soon reflected, that a bare list of unconnected, often of incomplete passages, would probably afford but a meagre entertainment to the general reader; and that a useful principle of connection may be communicated by the interspersion of such remarks and historical matter, as should tend to elucidate the
progress of our national literature, as well as language. Conceiving, too, that a work of this nature is likely to fall into the hands of young and uninformed readers, I have thought it of consequence to mark distinctly the great literary æras, with a view less to give information, than to stimulate enquiry. For various literary sketches and remarks (particularly, however, in the first volume,) I have been indebted to Warton's History of English Poetry; in a slight degree also to Mr. Godwin's Life of Chaucer. My general source for the lives has been the Biographia Britanica. Other sources are referred to, where it could be of any utility. It were idle to make a display of authorities in a work which has no pretensions to originality even of compilement. Indeed, I consider myself as having done little more, than collected into a convenient form and arrangement, some information (I hope'entertaining and useful) before incommodiously dispersed either in scarce or cumbrous volumes.
From the period of lord Bacon, both the language and people's habits of thought, become settled in a regular order of progression; and my observations of every kind are less frequent, because less necessary. A few introductory, remarks only to the several reigns have sufficed, with the customary extension of the biographies, where the subjects seeined to require it; in general, the lives consist merely of a few dates,
It appeared to me also, that it would add greatly to the usefulness, and particularly to the convenience of the work, as a book of occasional reference, if I inserted lists of the different productions of the several authors. This has, therefore, been commonly done, with a brief account of principal works. Such lists are not without their use, in the view simply of indicating the subjects which have interested the curiosity, and exercised the talents of different ages.
Moreover, the work comprises an account of, and extracts from, most of the ancient chroniclers and historians who have written in English.
The principles by which I have generally been influenced in my choice of extracts have been, to select passages curious or remarkable, as relating directly to the subject of language; as possessing intrinsic value as examples of style; as characteristic of the author; or as distinctive of the manners and sentiments of the age. In writers of continuous reasoning, which abound from the reign of Elizabeth, my aim has commonly been to present as elear a view of the general principles of the author, as my limits would admit, and as could be done in the words of the author himself; and which has been aftempted, not simply by the