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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Erskine (1879–1951)

By George Edward Woodberry (1855–1930)

THE REPUTATION of Professor Woodberry began with the appearance of ‘The North Shore Watch, and Other Poems,’ in 1883. Though he later won fame as a scholar and critic, and as a singularly gifted teacher of literature, he is essentially a poet, and all his work carries the atmosphere of poetic ideals and of song. His first book of poems might be used to illustrate most of the points of view and many of the moods which appeared more fully developed in his later verse, in his criticism, and in his teaching—the love of the Greek tradition, for example, the note of tragedy, and, curiously blended, the notes of optimism and sometimes of disillusion. Few Americans have written of life with more thoughtfulness or with keener criticism; yet the effect of his writing, as of his teaching, has been to encourage the noblest ideals in his many devoted readers, especially in young men. It is hard to appraise his poetry without speaking chiefly of this influence of his, one of the most extraordinary in our literary history, exerted always toward idealistic ends, inspiring not so much a philosophy as an elevation of life.

This emotional appeal of his verse counts with his readers for rather more than his technique, yet he is probably the most gifted and the most skillful lyric poet now living in the United States. Whether the illustrations be sought in the beautiful elegy which gave the name to his first book, or in the still finer ‘Agathon,’ in the same volume—perhaps his best poem, or in ‘Wild Eden,’ 1899, or in his latest book, the remarkable sonnet sequence called ‘Ideal Passion’ (1917)—he is always a singer, a master of language for musical rather than for epigrammatic purposes. Some of the songs in ‘Wild Eden’ excel for pure charm anything else that American literature has produced in this kind.

Professor Woodberry’s repute as a scholar rests chiefly on the masterly life of Poe, 1897, revised and enlarged to two volumes in 1909; on the life of Hawthorne, 1902, a less famous but more sympathetic work; and on the life of Emerson, 1907. Though the soundness of his scholarship is most easily recognized in his biographies, it is felt in all his criticism—in his ‘Heart of Man,’ 1899, in ‘The Torch,’ 1903, and in ‘Great Writers,’ 1907; and through his most scholarly passages the glamour of his poetic prose is undiminished. His readers usually differ, according to their temperaments, as to whether ‘Taormina’ or ‘The Defense of Poetry,’ in ‘The Heart of Man,’ or the essay on Virgil, in ‘Great Writers,’ is his finest writing in prose, but it is safe to say that the quality of these pieces—their magnificent sweep of thought, their loftiness of mood, and their loveliness of phrase—can be matched in no other American writer. The essay on Virgil, or the little handbook on ‘The Appreciation of Literature,’ gives some idea of his remarkable insight into poetry. But there can be no written record of the spell which he cast during his teaching years over hundreds of young men, who testify in innumerable ways to his inspiration for good.

George Edward Woodberry was born at Beverly, Massachusetts, May 12th, 1855; and was educated at Phillips Exeter, and at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1877. After several years teaching in the Nebraska State University, he was from 1891 to 1903 professor first of English, then of Comparative Literature in Columbia. Since 1903 most of his time has been devoted to writing, chiefly at his birthplace or in Italy.