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during the five years which ended with the publication of The Task, and to a certain extent during the years when Cowper was employed on this Homer, the writing and recasting of his poetry filled all his mind. The 'pleasure in poetic pains which only poets know'was known to him conspicuously among poets ; the critical spirit within him, that independent and fastidious taste for which he is so remarkable, found full exercise ; and in the excitement of doing his true work in the most perfect way he seems to have almost forgotten the cloud which had overshadowed him and was soon to return.

The Letters, again, tell us much of Cowper's opinions of other poets. We have already quoted the passage in which he speaks of his scanty reading of them— not more than one English poet for twenty years.' As Southey remarks, this probably means that he had not read more than one with minute care; with such care as he afterwards spent on Glover's Athenaid, when by way of preparing to review it he made an analysis of the first twelve books.' In his youth he had evidently been a reader of poetry, and he had an excellent memory. When Johnson's collection was sent to him in 1779 he found that the best poets were 'so fresh in his memory' that the collection taught him nothing. He is fond of mentioning Churchill, the admiration of his early manhood, with something more than respect ; here and there he has an acute remark about Pope, as when he says 'never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united!! He often falls foul of Johnson, 'a great bear, in spite of all his learning and penetration.' He dissents from his view of Prior, and argues with great skill for a proper recognition of Prior's real poetical merits?, while he is so enraged by the Doctor's attack on Milton that he breaks into the cry, 'O, I could thrash his old jacket till his pension jingled in his pocket!' All this shows that Cowper had a clear taste of his own in poetry, a goît vif et franc, as Sainte-Beuve calls it in his excellent criticism of him, but it does not show that he was a student of English poetry, any more than his quotations from Swift and Rabelais show that he read much and often in their books, or than the Horatian turn of his didactic pieces shows that he was always reading Horace. The truth is, as we have all along implied, that Cowper is original if the word means anything. 'My descriptions,' he writes of The Task, “are all from nature ;-not one


Jan. 5, 1782.

Jan. 17, 1782.

of them second-handed. My delineations of the heart are from my own experience ;-not one of them borrowed from books, or in the least degree conjectural. In my numbers, which I varied as much as I could (for blank verse without variety of numbers is no better than bladder and string), I have imitated nobody, though sometimes perhaps there may be an apparent resemblance ; because at the same time that I would not imitate, I have not affectedly differed.'

It is this originality, this veracity, this exact correspondence of the phrase with the feeling, and of both with the object, that marks out Cowper. We sometimes hear it said that he owed much, especially in versification, to Churchill; if he owed anything, it was so much “bettered in the borrowing' that it is hard to discover the debt. The very foundation of his poetry is his close observation of men and things : the same close observation that fills his letters with happily touched incidents of village life, with characters sketched in a sentence, furnishes the groundwork of The Task and the satires. The snow-covered fields, the waggon toiling through the drifts, 'the distant plough slow moving,' the garden, the fireside ; the gipsies, the village thief, the clerical coxcomb, Dubius, Sir Smugof all these he gives us not only finished pictures, but pictures finished in the presence of the object and not in the studio. "The Flemish masters have met their match !' says Sainte-Beuve, as he quotes with delight one of these descriptions of Cowper's; might we not say with even greater truth, “The English landscape painters have found their pattern'?

Yet it is undoubtedly true that Cowper is little read by the very class which is most given to the reading of poetry, and most competent to judge it. He is a favourite with the middle classes ; he is not a favourite with the cultivated classes. What are the limitations of his genius which prevent his acceptance with them ? Mr. Arnold, who long ago called Cowper (that most interesting man and excellent poet, perhaps sums them up when he speaks of Cowper's 'morbid religion and lumbering movement.' If we are to look to poetry for the successful 'application of ideas to life,' we shall look in vain to The Task ; for the ideas are those of an inelastic puritanism, that would maim and mutilate life in the name of religion. “Were I to write as many poems as Lope de Vega or Voltaire,' says Cowper, 'not one of them would be without this tincture,'—this puritanic tincture. He began with the resolve to make religion poetical, and he succeeded in making poetry religious, but religious after a manner which his excellent editor, Mr. Benham, himself a clergyman, calls 'hard and revolting.' And the same temper which led him to measure the Unseen with the foot-rule of Calvinistic orthodoxy, led him to visit the science, the politics, even the characters which he did not understand, with a censure like that of the Syl is. 'It would be hard,' says Mr. Benhamn, 'to find a more foolish and mischievous piece of rant than that contained in The Garden'-in the lines where Cowper reviles the geologist and the historian ; and we might extend the same sentence to his promiscuous denunciations of London life, of the amusements of ordinary people, even of the game of chess. When the Commemoration of Handel takes place, he joins with Newton in crying Idolatry! When he writes his Review of Schools, it never occurs to him that boys may get good as well as harm from each other's society, and that there may be desirable elements of character that cannot be acquired in 'some pious pastor's humble cot.' When he turns, as he often does, to politics, his amiable Whiggism is sorely tried by current events, by the lack of great men, and by the miscarriage of the American war. He believes that 'the loss of America will be the ruin of England,' but consoles himself with the thought that the surrender of Cornwallis was ‘fore-ordained,' and that the end of the world is approaching. 'My feelings are all of the intense kind,' he says in one of his letters ; and the Nemesis of intensity is narrowness.

Again, in curious contrast to the neatness and ease of his rhymed couplets, there is unquestionably a 'lumbering movement' in Cowper's blank verse ; heaviness, difficulty, coming sometimes from the necessity that he was under of adorning trivialities, sometimes from a want of mastery over the language.

• Warmed, while it lasts, by labour, all day long
They brave the season, and yet find at eve,

Ill clad and fed but sparely, time to cool.' - There are too many commas, the reader cannot help crying. Sometimes, again, we find a worse than Wordsworthian nudity of phrase

• The violet, the pink, the jessamine,

I pricked them into paper with a pin'; sometimes an intolerable instance of the quasi-heroic

“The stable yields a stercoraceous heap';

or a positive barbarism, as here, in Tirocinium

• Have ye, ye sage intendants of the whole,

A ubiquarian presence and control ?' We find frequent descents into prose, and rarely indeed a compensating ascent into the higher music of the great poets. How should we find such ascents, indeed, in Cowper? They demand some moving force of passion, or some inspiring activity of ideas, and for neither of these can we look to him. The only passion that really moved him was the morbid passion of despair, when the cloud that obscured his brain pressed heavy upon him; and it was only when he wrote under this influence that he produced masterpieces, such as that noble and terrible poem, The Castaway, and the lines of self-description in The Task. His ideas, too, have not the inspiring activity necessary to produce great poetry ; they are not vital ideas ; they are seen to be less and less in harmony with the facts of the world as the years go on. We read Cowper, indeed, not for his passion or for his ideas, but for his love of nature and his faithful rendering of her beauty ; for his truth of portraiture, for his humour, for his pathos; for the refined honesty of his style, for the melancholy interest of his life, and for the simplicity and the loveliness of his character.


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(From Table Talk.)

In Eden, ere yet innocence of heart Had faded, poetry was not an art ; Language above all teaching, or if taught, Only by gratitude and glowing thought,Elegant as simplicity, and warm As ecstasy, unmanacled by form,Not prompted, as in our degenerate days, By low ambition and the thirst of praise, Was natural as is the flowing stream, And yet magnificent, a God the theme. That theme on earth exhausted, though above 'Tis found as everlasting as His love, Man lavished all his thoughts on human things, 'The feats of heroes and the wrath of kings, But still while virtue kindled his delight, The song was moral, and so far was right. 'Twas thus till luxury seduced the mind To joys less innocent, as less refined, Then genius danced a bacchanal, he crowned The brimming goblet, seized the thyrsus, bound His brows with ivy, rushed into the field Of wild imagination, and there reeled, The victim of his own lascivious fires, And, dizzy with delight, profaned the sacred wires, Anacreon, Horace, played in Greece and Rome This Bedlam part ; and, others nearer home. When Cromwell fought for power, and while he reigned The proud Protector of the power he gained, Religion harsh, intolerant, austere, Parent of manners like herself severe, Drew a rough copy of the Christian face

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