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We have quoted you poems from the grand old masters, those "bards sublime,"
"Whose distant footsteps echo
and many a verse:—
'from some humbler poet
Whose songs gushed from his heart
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Since you will not like everything in the book equally well, may we advise you how to use it? First find something you know and love, and read it over again. (Penitent, indeed, shall we be if it has been omitted!) The meeting will be like one with a dear playfellow and friend in a new and strange house, and the house will seem less strange after you have met and welcomed the friend.
Then search the pages until you see a verse that speaks to you instantly, catches your eye, begs you to read it, willy-nilly. There are dozens of such poems in this collection, as simple as if they had been written for six-year-olds instead of for the grown-up English-speaking
world: little masterpieces like Tennyson's Brook, Kingsley's Clear and Cool, Shakespeare's Fairy Songs, Burns's Mountain Daisy, Emerson's Rhodora, Motherwell's Blithe Bird, Hogg's Skylark, Wordsworth's Pet Lamb, Scott's Ballads, and scores of others.
This so far is pure pleasure, but why not, as another step, find something difficult, something you instinctively draw back from? It will probably be Milton, Pope, Dryden, Browning, of Shelley. You cannot find any “story” in it; its rhymes do not run trippingly off the tongue; there are a few strange and unpronounceable words, the punctuation and phrasing puzzle you, and worse than all you are obliged to read it two or three times before you really understand its meaning. Very well, that is nothing to be ashamed of, and you surely do not want to be vanquished by a difficulty. You will realize some time or other that all learning, like all life, is a sort of obstacle race in which the strongest wins.
I once said to a dear old minister who was preaching to a very ignorant and unlearned congregation," It must be very difficult, sir, for you to preach down to them"; for he was a man of rare scholarship and true wisdom;—“ I try to be very simple a part of the time," he answered, ་་ but not always; about once a month I fling
the fodder so high in the rack that no man can catch at a single straw without stretching his neck!
Now pray do not laugh at that illustration; smile if you will, but it serves the purpose. Just as we develop our muscles by exercising our bodies, so do we grow strong mentally and spiritually by this " stretching” process. You are not obliged to love an impersonal, remote, or complex poem intimately and passionately, but read it faithfully if you do not wish to be wholly blind and deaf to beauties of sense or sound that happier people see and hear. Joubert says most truly: "You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some with you," but there are some splendid things in verse as in prose that you stand in too great awe of to love in any real, childlike way. It is never scenes from Paradise Lost that run through your mind when you are going to sleep. It is something with a lilt, like:
or a poem with a gallant action in it like Marco Bozzaris, or with a charming story like The Singing Leaves, or a mysterious and musical one, like Kubla Khan or The Bells, or something that
when first you read it made you a little older and a little sadder, in an odd, unaccustomed way quite unlike that of real grief:
"A feeling of sadness and longing
That is not akin to pain
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles rain.”
When you read that verse of Longfellow's afterwards you see that he has expressed your mood exactly. That is what it means to be a poet, and that is what poetry is always doing for us; revealing, translating thoughts we are capable of feeling, but not expressing.
Perhaps you will not for a long time see the beauty of certain famous reflective poems like Gray's Elegy, but we must include a few of such things whether they appeal to you very strongly or not, merely because it is necessary that you should have an acquaintance, if not a friendship, with lines that the world by common consent has agreed to call immortal. They show you, without your being conscious of it, show you by their lines "all gold and seven times refined," how beautiful the English language 'can be when it is used by a master of style. Young people do not think or talk very much about style, but they come under its spell unconsciously and respond to its influence quickly
enough. To give a sort of definition: style is a way of saying or writing a thing so that people are compelled to listen. When you grow sensitive to beauty of language you become, in some; small degree at least, capable of using it yourself. You could not, for instance, read daily these "honey-tongued" poets without gathering a little sweetness for your own unruly mem
There are certain spiritual lessons to be gained from many of these immortal poems, lessons which the oldest as well as the youngest might well learn. Turn to Milton's Ode on his Blindness. It is not easy reading, but you will. begin to care for it when experience brings you. the meaning of the line, "They also serve who only stand and wait." It is one of a class of poems that have been living forces from age to age; that have quickened aspiration, aroused energy, deepened conviction; that have infused a nobler ardor and loftier purpose into life wherever and whenever they were read.
Prefacing each of the divisions of this volume you will find a page or "interleaf" of comment on, and appreciation of, the poems that follow. These pages you may read or not as you are minded; they are only friendly or informal letters from an old traveller to a pilgrim who has just taken his staff in hand.