The essays which follow are summer recreations. The author is well aware that he does business on small capital, and that most of the capital is borrowed. He only hopes to repay what has been lent him, with the addition of some moderate interest.
It is not maintained that the poets are conscious theologians. In their vocation as seers, however, they have glimpses of truth in theology, as well as in philosophy and physics. From their higher point of view, indeed, they sometimes descry truths which are yet below the horizon of other thinkers. Poetical expressions of these truths are all the more valuable, because they are clothed in the language of feeling, and appeal to our sense of beauty.
The author is inclined to believe that the great poets, taken together, give united and harmonious testimony to the fundamental conceptions of natural religion, if not to those of the specifically Christian scheme. This testimony is cumulative, and it follows the law of evolution, by advancing from vague to clear. Even poets like Goethe, who proclaim another gospel, witness in spite of themselves to the truth as it is in Jesus.
There may be question what names deserve to be counted among those of the great poets. The author at first intended to include in the list only Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. Further study has convinced him that Wordsworth, Goethe, Browning, and Tennyson must be admitted to the company of the immortals.
Whatever judgment may be passed upon this point, he anticipates no dissent from the opinion that the study of all these poets is of the greatest advantage to theologians and preachers, as well as to the general seeker after truth. With the hope that old truths may gain new interest and brightness from an unfamiliar setting, the author submits to the public the fruits of his vacation work for the past thirteen years.
It remains only to be said that the first part of the paper on Browning was printed in "The Examiner," of New York, in December, 1887; that on Milton, in "The Watchman," of Boston, in March, 1897; those on Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, have appeared in "The Standard," of Chicago, at various dates from 1887 to 1897; those on Goethe and Tennyson, together with the latter part of that on Browning, appear now for the first time.
A. H. S.
Rochester, August 1, 1897.