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Lo! a sailing swan, with a little fleet
Of cygnets by her side,
In wrath from its surface springs,
Gracefully, gracefully glides our bark,
And the curling current stems,
And the ripples gleam like gems;
The following powerful lines are better known, and serve to show the variety of Mr. Noel's talent.
THE PAUPER'S DRIVE.
There's a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot;
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns. Oh, where are the mourners 1 Alas! there are none;
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns. What a jolting and creaking and splashing and din!
How the dirt right and left o'er the hedges is hurled!
Battle his bones over the stones;
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns. Poor pauper defunct! he has made some approach
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns.
The author tells me that this incident was taken from the life. He witnessed such a funeral:—a coffin in a cart driven at full
But a truce to this strain! for my soul it is sad
As in the case of Ben Jonson, posterity values his writings for very different qualities from those which obtained his high reputation among his cotemporaries, so it has happened to Cowley.
Praised in his day as a great poet, the head of the school of poets called metaphysical, he is now chiefly known by those prose essays, all too short and all too few, which, whether for thought or for expression, have rarely been excelled by any writer in any language. They are eminently distinguished for the grace, the finish, and the clearness which his verse too often wants. That there is one cry which pervades them—vanity of vanities! all is vanity!—that there is an almost ostentatious longing for obscurity and retirement, may be accounted for by the fact that at an early age Cowley was thrown among the cavaliers of the civil wars, sharing the exile and the return of the Stuarts, and doubtless disgusted, as so pure a writer was pretty sure to be, by a dissolute Court, with whom he would find it easier to sympathize in its misery than in its triumph. Buckingham, with the fellowfeeling of talent for talent, appears to have been kind to him; and when he fled from the world (not very far, he found his beloved solitude at Chertsey), it is satisfactory to know that he so far escaped the proverbial ingratitude of the Restoration as to carry with him an income sufficient for his moderate wants. He did not long survive a retirement which, Sprat says, in a curious life prefixed to the edition of his works in 1719, "agreed better with his mind than his body."
It is difficult to select from a volume so abundant in riches; but I will begin by his opinion of theatrical audiences contained in "The Preface to the Cutter of Coleman Street:"
"There is no writer but may fail sometimes in point of wit; and it is no less frequent for the auditors to fail in point of judgment. I perceive plainly by daily experience that Fortune is mistress of the theater, as Tully says it is of all popular assemblies. No man can tell sometimes from whence the invisible winds rise that move them. There are a multitude of people who are truly and only spectators of a play without any use of their understanding; and these carry it sometimes by the strength of their numbers. There are others who use their understandings too much; who think it a sign of weakness and stupidity to let anything pass by them unattacked, and that the honor of their judgment (as some mortals imagine of their courage) consists in quarreling with everything. We are, therefore, wonderful wise men, and have a fine business of it, we who spend our time in poetry. I do sometimes laugh, and am often angry with myself when I think on it; and if I had a son inclined by nature to the same folly, I believe I should bind him from it by the strictest conjurations of a paternal blessing. For what can be more ridiculous than to labor to give men delight, while they labor on their part more earnestly to take offense? to expose oneself voluntarily and frankly to all the dangers of that narrow passage to unprofitable fame, which is defended by rude multitudes of the ignorant, and by armed troops of the malicious? If we do ill, many discover it, and all despise us. If we do well, but few men find it out, and fewer entertain it kindly. If we commit errors, there is no pardon; if we could do wonders, there would be but little thanks, and that too extorted from unwilling givers."
Of course his play had been coldly received. Here is another bit of autobiography, singularly interesting, as coming from one who, although he never could retain the rules of grammar, was an eminent scholar, and the most precocious of all poets. It forms part of the essay, headed " Of Myself.""It is a hard and a nice subject for a man to write of himself. It pains his own heart to say anything of disparagement, and the reader's ears to hear anything of praise from him. There is no danger from me of my offending him in that kind; neither my mind, nor my body, nor my fortune, allow me any materials for that vanity.
"As far as my memory can return back into my past life before I knew, or was capable of guessing, what the world, or the glories or business of it were, the natural affections of my soul gave me a secret bent of aversion from them, as some plants are said to turn away from others by an antipathy, imperceptible to themselves and inscrutable to man's understanding. Even when I was a very young boy at school, instead of roaming about on holydays, and playing with my fellows, I was wont to steal from them, and walk into the fields, either alone with a book, or with some one companion if I could find him of the same temper. I was then, too, so much an enemy to all constraint, that my masters could never prevail on me by any persuasions or encouragements to learn without book the common rules of grammar; in which they dispensed with me alone, because they found I made a shift to do the same exercise out of my own reading and observation. That I was then of the same mind that I am now (which, I confess, I wonder at myself) may appear by the latter end of an ode, which I made when I was but thirteen years old, and which was then printed with many other verses. The beginning of it is boyish, but of this part which I have set down (if a very little were corrected) I should hardly now be much ashamed: *
"This only grant me, that my means may lie,
Some honor I would have,
Rumor can ope the grave.
"Books should, as business, entertain the light,
My house, a cottage more
My garden painted o'er
"Thus would I double my life's fading space,