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JOHN AIKIN, M. D.
L LTTER I.
Clare Ilall, June 19, 1810.
In the year 1803, when I circulated Proposals for publishing a Collection of Songs purified (to the best of my judgment) from the alloy of profaneness and immorality, a friend, for whom I entertain the highest respect, said to me, Of course you have seen “ that judicious Selection by the Aikins:” meaning EssAYS ON SONG-WRITING: with a Collection of such English Songs as are most eminent for poetical merit. To which are added some original pieces. Published in 1772. A second Edition, with additions and corrections, was published in 1774. This Collection I had not
seen; but, knowing well the names of Dr. Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld, together with the correctness of their poetical taste, and the morality of their writings in general, I was particularly anxious to see the Collection. It was not till after various applications to booksellers that I was able to procure a copy. At length I obtained one; but must confess, that, notwithstanding the taste displayed in the Essays, I felt great disappointment, in reading the Songs, at finding so many which I considered as objectionable, and
few that appeared to have any farther view than that of a transient amusement. But, as the work was scarce, and out of respect to the friend who had recommended it, and to the authors, I forbore to animadvert upon it in the Introduction to my Volume of Songs with music, published in 1805, though I quoted a passage on the subject of the undue preference given to music above poetry, from the first Essay.
In one of the London newspapers early in May last I saw an advertisement of VOCAL POETRY; or a Select Collection of English Songs. To which is prefixed a new Essay on Song Writing. -By John Aikin, M. D. “Dr. Aikin understanding that a new edition of Essays on Song Writing, with a Collection of Songs, &c.
has just been published with his name annexed, by Mr. Evans, of Pall Mall, finds it necessary to declare that he has never been consulted on this re-publication, and has no concern whatever in it.”
It was with much satisfaction that I read this advertisement, and contemplated what I apprehended would be the nature of your Essay and Collection of Vocal Poetry, from your sentiments expressed and the taste displayed in some of your works, which I have read since my first seeing your Essays on Song-writing; and I hoped that a period of nearly forty years had so altered your opinion on the subject of such works, that I expected a Collection of Songs, which I should rejoice to see submitted to the public with the sanction of so great a name.
Having obtained the work, I immediately sat down to the perusal of it, and was pleased to think, from the general tenor of the Essay prefixed, that I should find my expectations realized. The advertisement speaks of the Essays in the former publication as being “ the juvenile attempts of one whose taste was by no means matured,” &c. and that, “the Editor was unwilling that his book should again be given to the public with all its imperfections on its head. He was obliged, therefore, to declare, that if
it were reprinted at all, it should be with many and material alterations, corresponding to his own change of taste and opinion in various points during so long an interval.
Under these almost compulsory circumstances, although he perhaps should not now have chosen for the first time to appear as the collector of productions, the general strain of which is more suitable to an earlier period of life, yet he thought he might without impropriety avail himself of the opportunity of making a new and much more extensive selection of compositions which will not cease to be favourites with the lovers of elegant poetry, whatever be the vicissitudes of general taste.
The Editor, therefore, in this volume, which is rather a new work than the re-publication of an old one, has made it his leading object to collect, from all the sources within his reach, those pieces of the song kind which seemed to him most deserving of a place in the mass of approved English poetry. And having with some care revised his notions respecting the character and distinctions of these compositions," &c.
You, afterwards, in the Essay, (p. xx.) mention the "i violations of decorum" in many songs;
and that the 66 licentiousness"
of “ – the wits of either Charles's days," "imparted a taint to most of their productions; and even sometimes appeared in a coarseness of language little corresponding with what might be expected in the style of men of fashion.” (p. xlii.) You praise a pastoral by Shenstone for expressing “ the delicacies of the soft passion in its purest form.” (p. xxviii.) And you say, that the common theme, taken from the epicurean system of ethics, making the shortness of life, and the like, an incentive to present pleasure, though “ in a certain temperate degree it coalesces” with “ rational philosophy,” yet “carried further, it may justly excite the censure of the moralist, whatever indulgence be pleaded for it on the grounds of precedent and poetical fitness.” (p. xxxi.) You censure the taste of Burns for having been at times “ contaminated by his habits of vulgar excess”; (p. xlv.) and say that you “ feel no ambition to be regarded as a priest of Bacchus." (p. xlviii.)
After enumerating the sources whence you have derived your songs, you say that from those " a number of these pleasing compositions may be selected, which will do honour to English genius, and are well entitled to preservation as a portion of the mass of national poetry, even independently of their