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writers who represent the average poetical level of the time, the level out of which Cowper suddenly emerged to charm Dr. Franklin. Mr. Cawthorne, Mr. Emily, Mr. Cunningham, Miss Carter, Mrs. Greville, and a hundred others, are the channels into which the river of eighteenth-century verse diffused itself before it was finally lost in the sand. It is harmless enough, this verse ; it is not ‘noise and nonsense,' like the Della Cruscan productions of twenty years later ; but it is incurably banal, it wholly lacks distinction. When the excellent Miss Carter, the translator of Epictetus, has to write an Ode to Melancholy (and odes to Melancholy, to Concord, to Ambition, are the staple of the volumes) she begins :
Come, melancholy, silent pow'r,
To sober thought confin'd;
Indulge my pensive mind !' When Mr. Henley writes an Ode to Evening, he can choose no more individual metre than that in which Collins had written his Ode a few years before. The publishers of the Collection speak of it with pride, as representing an age in which literary merit so much abounds'; but the candid modern reader finds the merit to be but the merit of a more than Chinese uniformity. Poor Robert Lloyd, Cowper's and Colman's friend, was nearer the mark when he said, just at this time,
• Write what we will, our works bespeak us
Nil dictum quod non dictum prius.' In what precisely does this 'something so new in the manner' of Cowper's work consist ? There is much debate among modern critics as to the answer to this question, which really is the question of Cowper's place in our literary history : some claiming for him a kinship with Rousseau, a spirit like that of Byron and Shelley-a revolutionary spirit that he certainly would not have claimed for himself; others—and this is the common viewagreeing with Mr. Arnold that he is the precursor of Words
'Taine, Stopford Brooke, Pattison.
worth.' It would be truer to say that in his own curious and limited way Cowper contains both these elements, the Byronic and the Wordsworthian element; and that in so doing he embodies all the intellectual influences that were silently working around him towards the evolution of modern England. An interesting writer has characterised the tendencies of poetry in the latter half of the eighteenth century as 'love of natural description and attempts at a more vivid and wider delineation of human character and incident'; two tendencies which, we may add, are but different forms of one-of the revolt against convention both in art and society. The joy in natural objects, of which we have found traces in many writers since Thomson, begins to be linked with a sense of the brotherhood of mankind; to the religious mind (and the wide reach of the religious revival must be remembered) this sense of brotherhood and this sense of natural beauty being sharpened and strengthened by the belief in the near presence of the Creator and the Father of all. Cowper is the artist who has expressed in a new and permanent form this complex sentiment. He is the poet of the return to nature, and he is the poet of the simple human affections ; both nature and humanity being of interest to him because of their divine source, and because of that alone. We are placed in the world,' he seems to say, 'by an omnipotent and irresponsible Being, on whose will our life and death, our health and sickness, our prosperity and adversity at every moment depend, and who decides at his pleasure the fate of empires and the issues of political events. The world as he made it is good, but the corruption of man has done much to spoil it. “God made the country and man made the town”; and though man cannot live without society, his vices are such that his towns soon become centres of corruption. Hence true beauty is to be found only in unadulterate Nature ; true pleasures only in the fields and woods, and in the simple offices of rural and domestic life. To watch Nature at her work; to meditate ; to cultivate sympathy with those creatures that are, so to speak, most fresh from Nature's hand—with animals and the poor and the friends of your home—this is the only rational way to happiness ; and to advocate this life is the poet's work. On the other hand, he may emphasise his teaching by contrast; by denouncing vice, by satire genial or severe ; by drawing in outlines that all may recognise the harm of departure from Nature.
Quarterly Review, July 1862.
The poet is a teacher and an advocate ; his business is to wean the world from worldliness to God.'
At fifty years of age, then, and under the influence of his friend of fifteen years, Mrs. Unwin, Cowper began to realise his own powers as a poet, and systematically to carry into practice this theory of the poet's duty. Already in 1776 the gloom of his second period of insanity had begun to roll away; he renewed his broken correspondence ; he took to busying himself about the garden and the house at Olney. His brightest and most active years are those that follow—the fifteen years that begin with the renewal of his correspondence and end with the publication of his Homer. It was about 1780 that he began to find his glazing and his carpentering, and even his landscape-drawing not enough; to find it unsatisfying
'To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd,' and to look for a more solid occupation than
Weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit,
Or twining silken threads on ivory reels.' He asked for some employment more permanently exciting, and he found it in versifying on the themes set by Mrs. Unwin. What pleasure he gained from his new occupation is told in part in the poems themselves, and is reiterated in those volumes of narrative, humour, chat, argument, criticism, which are the daily record of Cowper's mind, and which so completely justify the title that Southey claimed for him of 'the best letter-writer in the English language.' In his poems, indeed, Cowper has revealed himself with a winning naïveté that is almost without example ; and when we add to the autobiographical passages in Retirement and The Task the friendly confidences of the letters, we find that there remains nothing for the critic to interpret. Cowper explains himself with a simple frankness that makes half his charm.
For example, the letters abound with passages which show on the one hand the pleasure that he derived from his newly-found gift of writing, and on the other the moral and religious aim that he believed himself to be fulfilling in his poetry. “The necessity of amusement makes me sometimes write verses,' he says to William Unwin?; 'it made me a carpenter, a bird-cage maker, a gardener, and has lately taught me to draw. Again, in a latter to Newton 2 : April 6, 1780.
Dec, 21, 1780.
At this season of the year, and in this gloomy uncomfortable climate, it is no easy matter for the owner of a mind like mine to divest it from sad subjects and to fix it upon such as may administer to its amusement. Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect. While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagree. able recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again.'
In a later letter to the same friend', which refers still more painfully to his mental distress, he says :
"God knows that my mind having been occupied more than twelve years in the contemplation of the most distressing subjects, the world, and its opinion of what I write, is become as unimportant to me as the whistling of a bird in a bush. Despair made amusement necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement. Had I not endeavoured to perform my best, it would not have amused me at all. The mere blotting of so much paper would have been but indifferent sport. God give me grace also to wish that I might not write in vain.' And again, as a reason for publishing,
'If I did not publish what I write, I could not interest myself sufficiently in my own success to make an amusement of it.'
Of course, however, as the second of these extracts shows, he has a deeper reason for writing than this ; the preacher's and the moralist's reason, that appears so clearly in every page of his poems. “My sole drift is to be useful,' he writes to his cousin Mrs. Cowper ? ; 'a point however which I know I should in vain aim at, unless I could be likewise entertaining.' To Lady Austen, in his well-known letter in verse, he appears as
'I, who scribble rhyme
Which, couched in prose, they will not hear.'
• A page
That would reclaim a vicious age.' Table Talk, the opening poem, is, it will be remembered, an argument to prove that the true field of poetry is the beauty of religion, till then an unexplored land ; and that the poet's true function is to 1 Aug. 6, 1785.
Oct. 19, 1781
"Spread the rich discovery, and invite
Mankind to share in the divine delight.' And in the beautiful lines which close Retirement, he claims the position of a teacher of mankind :
Me poetry (or rather notes that aim
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.' From the Letters too we can learn much of Cowper's method of composition ; enough at least to correct the first impression which we might derive from his poetry, that it was the work of a rapid and even careless writer. 'If there lives a man who stands clear of the charge of careless writing, I am that man,' he says to Lady Hesketh, in answer to some criticisms of his Homer made by General Cowper. His facility is unquestionable ; but it is a fact that he composed slowly. He took Nulla dies sine linea for a motto, and when once he had taken up the profession of a poet he persevered in it, contenting himself, when Minerva was unwilling, with three lines of The Task as a day's production, and thinking three lines better than nothing. When the translation of Homer was in hand the work went on with the utmost regularity. 'I have, as you well know,' he tells Unwin,' a daily occupation-forty lines to translate, a task which I never excuse myself when it is possible to perform it. Equally sedulous am I in the matter of transcribing, so that between both my morning and evening are for the most part completely engaged.' Transcribing however he thought slavish work, and of all occupations that which I dislike the most'; and accordingly he was glad when friends relieved him by copying some of the Homer. He deferred to the criticism of those about him, and was glad when his publisher, Johnson, suggested an alteration in a phrase. When Newton, of whom to the last he seems to have stoo somewhat in awe, condemned a passage, Cowper consented with the best grace to remove it :'I am glad you have condemned it ; and though I do not feel as if I could presently supply its place, shall be willing to attempt the task, whatever labour it may cost me!' In effect we may say that
1 Nov. 27, 1781.