« AnteriorContinuar »
weak and pre
a situation couraged him
Mr. Cowper was born at Berkhamstead, in Bucking. hamshire, his father being the incuinbent of the living of that place. Our poet is descended from the first Earl Cowper, Lord Chancellor of England, his grandfather being one of the children of that nobleman.
Mr. Cowper received his education at Westminster school; and a place of considerable profit, that of the clerkship to the House of Lords, a patent office, and which had been a considerable time in the family, was reserved for him. But upon his quitting school, and entering into the Temple, he found himself. reluctant ta undertake a function of activity and business. His native love of retirement, a constitutional timidity of mind, and the languor of a very weak and precarious state of health, discouraged him from undertaking the duties of a situation, which required the most unremitting attention and diligence.
About this time he lived in habits of close and familiar communication with Dr. Cotton, the elegant and ingenious author of the Fire-Side. His intimacy with this gentleman must have contributed to his inclination for poetry, by the instructions and example of his friend. But the first foundation of his poetic excellence was laid by his fainiliarity with the best authors of antiquity.
At Huntingdon, a place in which he resided for a few years, he contracted a strong friendship with the Rev. Mr. Unwin, and, on the death of that gentleman, accompanied his widow to Olney. It was in this village, and about this period of his life, that Mr. Cowper produced the earliest compositions that are traced to his pen. The poems he wrote upon this occasion were hymns, published in a collection called the Olney Hymns, and distinguished by the latter C. They bear internal evidence of a cultivated underftanding, and an original genius. His time was now wholly dedicated to that literary leisure, in which the mind, left to its own operations, pursues that line of pursuit which is the most congenial to its taste, and the most adapted to its powers. In his garden, in his library, and in his daily walks, he seems to have disciplined his muse to the picturesque and vivid habits of defcription, which will always distinguish Cowper among our national poets. No writer, except Thomfon, seems to have studied nature with more diligence, and to have copied her with more fidelity. An advantage which he has gained over other men, by his disdain ing to study her " through the spectacles of books," as Dryden calls it, and by his pursuing her through her haunts, and watching her in all her attitudes, with the eye of a philosopher as well as of a poet.
Mr. Cowper had no propensity for publiclife; it was not, therefore, singular that he should have neglected the study of the law, on which he had entered. That knowledge of active life, which is so requisite for the legal profeffion, would scarcely be acquired in lonely wanderings on the banks of the Ouse, and in silent contemplations of the beauties of nature. In this retreat, he exchanged, for the society and converse of the inuses, the ainbition and tumult of a forensic life; dedicating his mind to the cultivation of poetry, and storing it with those images, which he derived from the inexhaustible treasury of a rich and varied scenery in a most beautiful and romantic country. .
The first volume of poems which he published con- ' fifts of various pieces, on various subjects. It seems that he had been affiduous in cultivating a turn for grave and argumentative versification, on moral and ethical to-, pics. Of this kind is the Table Talk, and several other pieces in the collection. He who objects to these poems, as containing too great a neglect of harmony in the arrangement of his words, and the use of expreffions too prosaic, will condemn him on the principles of criticisin, which are by no means juft, if the object and style of the fubject be considered. Horace apologized for the carelefsness of his own satires, which are, ftri&tly speaking, only ethical and moral discourses, by observing that those topics required the pedestrian and familiar diction, and a form of expression, not elevated to the heights of poetry. But, if the reader will forego the delight of
It wou that were ir. Cowpero may still offected mor
smooth versification, and recollect that poetry does not altogether confift in even and polished metre, he will ree mark, in these productions, no ordinary depth of judg. ment, upon the most important objects; and he will be occasionally struck with lines, not unworthy of Dryden for their strength and dignity.
The lighter poems are well known. Of these, the verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk, on the island of Juan Fernandez, are in the most popular estimation. There is a great originality in the following stanza :
I am out of humanity's reach;
I must finish my journey alone;
I start at the sound of my own. It would be absurd to give one general character of the pieces that were published in this volume; yet this is true concerning Mr. Cowper's productions; that in all the varieties of his style, there may still be discerned the likeness of the same mind; the same unaffected modefty which always rejects unseasonable ambitions and ornaments of language; the same easy vigour; the same serene and cheerful hope, derived from a steady faith in christianity.
I am not prepared to affirm, that Mr. Cowper derives any praise from the choice and elegance of his works, but he has the higher praise of having chosen them without affectation. He appears to have used them as he found them; neither introducing fastidious refinements, nor adhering to obsolete barbarisms. He understands the whole science of numbers, and he has practised their different kinds with considerable happiness; and if his verses do not flow so swiftly as the delicacy of a modern ear requires, that roughness which is objected to his poetry, is his choice, not his defect. But this sort of critics, who admire only what is exquisitely polished, these lovers of “gentleness without finews,'* ought to take
# Dr. Sprat's Life of Cowley,
into their estimate that vast effusion of thoughit which is so abundantly poured over the writings of Mr. Cowper, without which human discourse is only an idle combination of sounds and syllables. · Let me hasten, however, to that work which has more peculiarly given to Cowper the character of a poet. After an interval of a few years, his. Talk was ushered into the world. The occasion that gave birth to it was a trivial one. A lady had requested him to write a piece in blank verse, and gave him the sofa for his subject.
This he expanded into one of the finest moral poems of which the English language has been productive. · • It is written in, blank verse, of which the construction, though in some respects resembling Milton's, is truly original and characteristic. It is not too stately for familiar description, nor too depressed for sublime and elevated imagery. If it has any fault, it is that of being too much laden with idiomatic expression, a fault which the author, in the rapidity with which his ideas and his utterance seem to have flowed, very naturally incurred.
In this poem his fancy ran with the most excursive freedom. The poet enlarges upon his topics, and confirms his argument by every variety of illustration. He never, however, dwells upon them too long, and leaves off in such a manner, that it seems it was in his power to have said more.
The arguments of the poem are various. The works of nature, the associations with which they exhibit themselves, the designs of Providence, and the passions of men. Of one advantage the writer has amply availed himself. The work not being rigidly confined to any precise subject, he has indulged himself in all the freedom of a miscellaneous poem. Yet he has still adhered so faithfully to the general laws of congruity, that whether he inspires the softer affections into his reader, or delights him with keen and playful raillery, or discourses on ordinary manners, or holds up the bright pictures of religious confolation to his mind, he adopts, at pleasure, a diction just and appropriate, equal in elevation to the
Vol. II. No. 4.
sacred effufions of Christian rapture, and sufficiently easy --- and familiar for descriptions of doinestic life; skilful
alike in soaring withiout effort, and defcending without • meanness.
He who desires to put into the hands of youth a. poem which, not destitute of poetic embellishinent, is free from all licentious tendency, will find in the Talk a book adapted to his purpose. It would be absurd austerity to condemn those productions in which the pas, fion of love constitutes the primary feature. In every age, that paffion has been the concernment of life, the theme of the poet, the plot of the stage. Yet there is a sort of amorous sensibility, bordering almost on morbid enthusiasm, which the youthful mind too frequently imbibes from the glowing sentiments of the poets. Their genius describes, in the most splendid colours, the ope. rations of a passion which requires rebuke instead of in. centive, and lends to the most grovelling sensuality the enchantments of a rich and creative imagination. But in the Talk of Cowper there is no licentiousness of defcription. All is grave, and majestic, and moral. A vein of religious thinking pervades every page, and he discourses, in a strain of the most finished poetry, on the insufficiency and vanity of human pursuits.
Nor is he always severe. He is perpetually enlivening the mind of his reader by sportive descriptions, and by representing, in elevated ineasures, ludicrous objects and circumstances, a fpecies of the mock-heroic, of which Philips* was the first author. In this latier sort of style Mr. Cowper has displayed great powers of versification, and great talents for humour. Of this, the historical account he has given of chairs, in the first book of the Task, is a striking specimen.
The attention, however, is the most detained by thofe pallages, in which the charins of rural life, and the endearments of domestic retirement, are pourtrayed. It is in vain to search in any poet of ancient or modern times, for more pathetic touches." The Talk abounds
* The Splendid Shilling,