« PreviousContinue »
It may perhaps be recollected that, nine years ago, the present writer published a Bibliographical Account of Early English Literature, being the earliest experiment of the kind made on anything approaching to a large and systematic scale. Few persons, and probably no one of practical experience, were surprised to find that this work was both incomplete and inaccurate; and that it was so was due to causes over which the author had only partial control. Where a book to be described was not accessible to him personally, it became necessary to resort to secondary authorities, all more or less treacherous—(1) transcribers, (2) earlier bibliographical publications, (3) catalogues.
Even professional copyists are naturally not infallible, and the mistakes arising from the necessity for employing them were both numerous and grave; but it was not in every case practicable to secure the services of such persons, and the help of amateurs was thankfully accepted.
Of my predecessors in the same field of work it becomes me at the same time to speak both respectfully and indulgently, and I shall confine myself to the general remark that Sir Egerton Brydges, Joseph Haslewood, the editor of the Bibliotheca Anglo-Poetica, and other men of that period, as well as some of their followers, do not seem to have regarded it as urgent or imperative to transfer to their own pages the particulars of the books which they describe with that literal exactitude which belongs to my plan. The consequence is,
that where I was led (from no choice of my own) to adopt the titles and collations ready-done (as it seemed) to my hand elsewhere, it has proved no economy of labour in the long run, as the whole ground has had to be traversed again, and the articles to be rewritten with the volumes themselves before me.
Since 1867 no undescribed, or misdescribed, book of my class has come within my reach—I might almost say, has come into the market-without being examined and catalogued, and in this way thousands of books and tracts have passed under my personal scrutiny. In the course of these years much has been added to our knowledge, as well of works, as of editions of works, not previously traced or recognised. My individual researches, which have been almost incessant, have resulted in the verification of many points which were in doubt, and in the discovery of much that was supposed to have perished. Ex pede Herculem—even a damaged leaf will establish the existence at one time of an impression, perhaps a large one, of the entire work.
The present is emphatically an intermediate undertaking. There is no pretence or attempt to furnish, in every case, either the complete works of an author, or all the editions of his works, or every early English volume not included in the Handbook. The following pages represent the result of nine years' laborious and steady gatherings from a variety of quarters, and, as such, are submitted diffidently to the favour and judgment of the public. These Collectanea, which may be considered as having substantially much of the value aud interest attached to a descriptive catalogue of a particular library, have a moral of their own, illustrating the extraordinary changes which have occurred in literary tastes and opinions, and showing the prominence which was once given, and the value once attached, to many hundreds of now forgotten and neglected authors or subjects.
i Considerable mischief has been done by persons who, under pretence of furnishing exact copies of old titles in reprints of books and tracts, have departed from their originals, not only linearly and literally, but verbally. Such is the case with nine-tenths of the reproductions of the last and present century, and it is well that it should be generally known.
For years to come (if he is spared) the author has no intention of venturing on so gigantic an enterprise as a new edition of the Handbook of Early English Literature, and assuredly now such an attempt would have been altogether premature. It is his wish and design to avail himself of every addition which may be made from time to time to our bibliographical stores, and ultimately to produce an entirely new and remodelled book, which may serve as a companion to an enlarged Biographia Britannica, the latter a scheme which was entertained by the late Sir Frederic Madden.
The volume now offered to the public is composed partly of rewritten matter, but chiefly of new. So far as the rewritten matter is concerned, it cannot be too distinctly stated or understood that, though it may often appear to repeat what has been already given with sufficient copiousness of detail, the information has been drawn from entirely independent sources, or, in other words, from the books described, instead of being taken unavoidably at secondhand. Not a single line of the Handbook has been reprinted totidem verbis, as such a proceeding would have been an unwarranted encroachment on the rights of the proprietor of that work.
It is understood, I presume, that a bibliographer does not treat it as part of his duty to draw the line of distinction too nicely between productions of intrinsic importance and productions whose principal value lies in their curious character and accidental scarcity. But I have occasionally pointed out cases where it seemed that too great a stress was laid on mere rarity as a recommendation, and I think that English collectors have still a good deal to learn in this direction; nor would a Manual, not to be like Dibdin's Library Companion, but to be formed somewhat on the same plan, be ill-timed. A Key to the choice of Early English Literature, which should give sound and independent advice, and assist in dissipating the costly illusion that everything in the similitude of an old book is valuable, might prove indeed what the Library Companion purported to be, “the young man's guide, and the old man's comfort.”
My own taste as to the choice of books is widely different from
that of the major part of our present race of collectors; and I like to look forward to the time when buyers or fanciers of such things will cultivate what is old, not because it is old and uncommon,
but in spite of its antiquity and uncommonness. The aggregation of miscellaneous assemblages of literary gewgaws or emptinesses by undiscerning persons is surely a very unsatisfactory spectacle. Buy books if you love books; buy them if you are a student—if you are a reader; but, in the name of reason, do not buy them simply because your neighbour does. That is one of the least wise forms which flattery can take. The foundation and possession of a good, or even a fine library, rank among the most delightful incidents of cultivated life, and even some scholars (take Heinsius, Selden, Burton, formerly, or in our own day, Buckle) have condescended to become book-hunters. But above every one we have to place the all-accomplished Heber, to whose enormous attainments Dibdin has borne some testimony in a well-known passage of the Literary Reminiscences. He was indeed
"velut inter ignes luna minores." Perhaps Brunet goes a little too far in underrating the importance of articles, but it is the better and safer extreme; and it may be taken as a very good basis of operations by intending collectors or budding bibliomaniacs, that the majority of old books, like the majority of old pictures, and (in short) old everything, are comparatively worthless in a pecuniary point of view, while those which maintain their rank in the market have frequently nothing to justify the prices which they realise but the single circumstance that very few persons formerly thought them worthy of preservation. In fact, there are thousands of old English books which bear a disagreeable resemblance, in the writer's estimation, to waste-paper, and among these are the most costly and the most highly-prized treasures of collections in our day.
That there are exceptions, it is true. Some of the works of Spenser, Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Bacon, exist for us in one or two copies, of which the worth is not capable of measurement