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It is a Calvinistic poet making game of an antiCalvinistic creed, and is an excellent specimen of pious bantering and evangelical raillery. But Religion, which disdains the hostility of ridicule, ought also to be above its alliance. Against this practice of compounding mirth and godliness, we may quote the poet's own remark upon St. Paul:
"So did not Paul. Direct me to a quip, Or merry turn, in all he ever wrote; And I consent you take it for your text."
And the Christian poet, by the solemnity of his subject, certainly identifies himself with the Christian preacher; who, as Cowper elsewhere remarks, should be sparing of his smile. The noble effect of one of his religious pieces, in which he has scarcely in any instance descended to the ludicrous, proves the justice of his own advice. His "Expostulation" is a poetical sermon-an eloquent and sublime one. But there is no Hogarth-painting in this brilliant Scripture piece. Lastly, the objects of his satire are sometimes so unskilfully selected, as to attract either a scanty portion of our indignation, or none at all. When he exposes real vice and enormity, it is with a power that makes the heart triumph in their exposure. But we are very little interested by his declamations on such topics as the effeminacy of modern soldiers; the prodigality of poor gentlemen giving cast clothes to their valets; or the finery of a country girl, whose head-dress is "indebted to some smart wig-weaver's hand." There is also much of the querulous laudator temporis acti in reproaching the English youths of his own day, who beat the French in trials of horsemanship, for not being like their forefathers, who beat the same people in contests for crowns; as if there were anything more laudable in men butchering their fellow-creatures, for the purposes of unprincipled ambition, than employing themselves in the rivalship of manly exercise. One would have thought too, that the gentle recluse of Olney, who had so often employed himself in making boxes and bird-cages, might have had a little more indulgence for such as amuse themselves with chess and billiards, than to inveigh so bitterly against those pastimes*.
In the mean time, while the tone of his satire becomes rigid, that of his poetry is apt to grow relaxed. The saintly and austere artist seems to be so much afraid of making song a mere fascination to the ear, that he casts, now and then, a little roughness into his versification, particularly his rhymes; not from a vicious ear, but merely to show that he despises being smooth; forgetting that our language has no superfluous harmony to throw away, and that the roughness of verse is not its strength, but its weakness-the stagnation of the stream, and not its forcible current. Apparently, also, from the fear of osten
[* See "The Task," B. vi. 1. 265 to 1. 277.]
tation in language, he occasionally sinks his expression into flatness. Even in his high-toned poem of "Expostulation," he tells Britain of the time when she was a "puling starveling chit+.”
Considering the tenor and circumstances of his life, it is not much to be wondered at, that some asperities and peculiarities should have adhered to the strong stem of his genius, like the moss and fungus that cling to some noble oak of the forest, amidst the damps of its unsunned retirement. It is more surprising that he preserved, in such seclusion, so much genuine power of comic observation. Though he himself acknowledged having written "many things with bile" i in his first volume ‡, yet his satire has many legitimate objects: and it is not abstracted and declamatory satire ; but it places human manners before us in the liveliest attitudes and clearest colours. There is much of the full distinctness of Theophrastus, and of the nervous and concise spirit of La Bruyère, in his piece entitled "Conversation," with a cast of humour superadded, which is peculiarly English, and not to be found out of England. Nowhere have the sophist-the dubious man, whose evidence,
"Beneath well-sounding Greek
I slur a name a poet must not speak."-Hope] I know not to whom he alludes in these lines, "Nor he who, for the bane of thousands born,
Built God a church, and laugh'd His word to scoru." ["The Calvinist meant Voltaire, and the church of Ferney, with its inscription, Deo erexit Voltaire.”—BYRON, Works vol. xvi. p. 124. See also Southey's Cowper, vol. viii. p. 305.]
Task," took its rise, namely, from his having one day complained to Lady Austen that he knew not what subject of poetry to choose, and her having told him to take her sofa for his theme. The mock-heroic commencement of "The Task" has been censured as a blemish. The general taste, I believe, does not find it so. Mr. Hayley's commendation of his art of transition may, in this instance, be fairly admitted, for he quits his ludicrous history of the sofa, and glides into a description of other objects, by an easy and natural association of thoughts. His whimsical outset in a work where he promises so little and performs so much, may even be advantageously contrasted with those magnificent commencements of poems which pledge both the reader and the writer, in good earnest, to a task. Cowper's poem, on the contrary, is like a river, which rises from a playful little fountain, and which gathers beauty and magnitude as it proceeds.
"velut tenui nascens de fomite rivus Per tacitas, primum nullo cum murmure, valles Serpit; et ut patrii se sensim e margine fontis Largius effudit; pluvios modo colligit inibres, Et postquam spatio vires aceepit et undas," &c. BUCHANAN.
He leads us abroad into his daily walks; he exhibits the landscapes which he was accustomed to comtemplate, and the trains of thought in which he habitually indulged. No attempt is made to interest us in legendary fictions, or historical recollections connected with the ground over which he expatiates; all is plainness and reality; but we instantly recognise the true poet, in the clearness, sweetness, and fidelity of his scenic draughts; in his power of giving novelty to what is common; and in the high relish, the exquisite enjoyment of rural sights and sounds which he communicates to the spirit. "His eyes drink the rivers with delight +." He excites an idea, that almost amounts to sensation, of the freshness and delight of a rural walk, even when he leads us to the wasteful common, which,
he looked to her as a whole more than Cowper. His genius was more excursive and philosophical. The poet of Olney, on the contrary, regarded human philosophy with something of theological contempt. To his eye, the great and little things of this world were levelled into an equality, by his recollection of the power and purposes of Him who made them. They are, in his view, only as toys spread on the lap and carpet of nature, for the childhood of our immortal being. This religious indifference to the world, is far, indeed, from blunting his sensibility to the genuine and simple beauties of creation; but it gives his taste a contentment and fellowship with humble things. It makes him careless of selecting and refining his views of nature, beyond their casual appearHe contemplated the face of plain rural English life, in moments of leisure and sensibility, till its minutest features were impressed upon his fancy; and he sought not to embellish what he loved. Hence his landscapes have less of the ideally beautiful than Thomson's ; but they have an unrivalled charm of truth and reality.
The flat country where he resided certainly exhibited none of those wilder graces of nature which he had sufficient genius to have delineated; and yet there are perhaps few romantic descriptions of rocks, precipices, and torrents, which we should prefer to the calm English character and familiar repose of the following landscape. It is in the finest manner of Cowper, and unites all his accustomed fidelity and distinctness with a softness and delicacy which are not always to be found in his specimens of the picturesque.
"How oft upon yon eminence our pace
"Yon tall anchoring bark Diminish'd to her cock, her cock a buoy Almost too small for sight."-King Lear.
The original of Cowper's line,
"God made the country and man made the town," The Task. is not in Hawkins Browne, as Cowper's friend Rose imagined, but in Cowley:
"God the first garden made, and the first city Cain "— Essays. The Garden.
a more vigorous though a quainter line. This is not among the parallel passages produced by Mr. Peace, and printed in Mr. Southey's edition of Cowper. (See vol. vi. p. 227, and vol. ix. p. 92.) Is this a resemblance or a theft? Cowley's thought could take no other shape in Cowper's mind.]
The Task, B. i. The whole scene is so defined, that one longs to see it transferred to painting.
He is one of the few poets who have indulged neither in descriptions nor acknowledgments of the passion of love; but there is no poet who has given us a finer conception of the amenity of female influence. Of all the verses that have been ever devoted to the subject of domestic happiness, those in his Winter Evening, at the opening of the fourth book of "The Task," are perhaps the most beautiful. In perusing that scene of "intimate delights," "fireside enjoyments," and "home-born happiness," we seem to recover a part of the forgotten value of existence, when we recognise the means of its blessedness so widely dispensed and so cheaply attainable, and find them susceptible of description at once so enchanting and so faithful.
Though the scenes of "The Task are laid in retirement, the poem affords an amusing perspective of human affairs*. Remote as the poet was from the stir of the great Babel-from the "confusa sonus urbis et illætabile murmur," he glances at most of the subjects of public interest which engaged the attention of his contemporaries. On those subjects, it is but faint praise to say, that he espoused the side of justice and humanity. Abundance of mediocrity of
FROM "THE TASK."
Colonnades commended-Alcove, and the view from itThe Wilderness-The Grove-The Thresher-The necessity and benefits of Exercise.
Nor distant far, a length of colonnade
talent is to be found on the same side, rather injuring than promoting the cause, by its officious declamation. But nothing can be farther from the stale common-place and cuckooism of sentiment, than the philanthropic eloquence of Cowper -he speaks" like one having authority." Society is his debtor. Poetical expositions of the horrors of slavery may, indeed, seem very unlikely agents in contributing to destroy it; and it is possible that the most refined planter in the West Indies may look, with neither shame nor compunction on his own image in the pages of Cowper, exposed as a being degraded by giving stripes and tasks to his fellow-creature. But such appeals to the heart of the community are not lost. They fix themselves silently in the popular memory, and they become, at last, a part of that public opinion which must, sooner or later, wrench the lash from the hand of the oppressor.
I should have ventured to offer a few remarks on the shorter poems of Cowper, as well as on his translation of Homer, if I had not been fearful, not only of trespassing on the reader's patience, but on the boundaries which I have been obliged to prescribe to myself, in the length of these notices. There are many zealous admirers of the poet, who will possibly refuse all quarter to the observations on his defects, which I have freely made; but there are few, who have read him, I conceive, who have been so slightly delighted as to think I have over-rated his descriptions of external nature, his transcripts of human manners, or his powers, as a moral poet, of inculcating those truths and affections which make the heart feel itself better and more happyt.
[* Is not "The Task "a glorious poem? The religion of "The Task," bating a few scraps of Calvinistic divinity, is the religion of God and Nature; the religion that exalts and ennobles man.-BURNS, to Mrs. Dunlop, 25th December, 1795.]
Descending now (but cautious, lest too fast) A sudden steep upon a rustic bridge,
[t Cowper is, as he deserves to be, the most popular poet of his age. His translation of Homer is the best English version; nor is it likely that a better can ever be produced, because it represents the original faithfully and fully, except in that magnificent measure for which nothing either like or equivalent in this case can be sad stituted in our language. The letters have a charm which is never attained in those that are written with the remotest view to publication: they come from the heart, and therefore they find the way to it.—SOUTHKY, Prospectus to Cowper's Works.
Lord Byron speaks of Cowper as a writer, but no poet; and talks of his Dutch delineation of a wood, drawn up like a seedsman's catalogue. Still stranger than this, he asks if any human reader ever succeeded in reading his Homer. Many, we would answer, have succeeded in reading the Homer of this maniacal Calvinist a coddled poet, as he is called in another place by Lord Byron. It is to be regretted that Mr. Campbell has bet given his opinion of Pope's Homer in comparison with Cowper and with the original. In his Memoir of Mickis. he has, however, casually remarked that Pope has departed widely from the majestic simplicity of the Greek, and has given us the shakes and flourishings of the flute for the deep sounds of the trumpet.]
We pass a gulf, in which the willows dip
The summit gain'd, behold the proud alcove
And ash far-stretching his umbrageous arm;
Now green, now tawny, and, ere autumn yet
Hence the declivity is sharp and short, And such the re-ascent; between them weeps A little naiad her impov'rish'd urn All summer long, which winter fills again.
The folded gates would bar my progress now,
And dark'ning and enlight'ning, as the leaves
And now with nerves new-braced and spirits
We tread the wilderness, whose well-roll'd walks,
To narrow bounds. The grove receives us next;
By ceaseless action all that is subsists.
An instant's pause, and lives but while she moves.
Winds from all quarters agitate the air,
Else noxious; oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams,
For none they need; the languid eye, the cheek
OPENING OF THE SECOND BOOK OF “THE TASK,"
O FOR a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Might never reach me more. My ear is pain'd,
Not colour'd like his own; and having power
Receive our air, that moment they are free;
Of all your empire; that, where Britain's power
FROM BOOK IV.
Arrival of the Post in a Winter Evening-The Newspaper | -The World contemplated at a distance-Address to Winter-The rural Amusements of a Winter Evening compared with fashionable ones.
HARK! 'tis the twanging horn o'er yonder bridge,
Or charged with am'rous sighs of absent swains,
His horse and him, unconscious of them all.
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,