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particularly the Exercises of his Mind in regard to Religion. Written by Himself, and never before published. To which are appended, an Original and Singular Poem, and a Fragment.
1816. W E consider the present volume of Cowper's Poems, as de
cidedly inferior to its predecessors. Two-thirds of it are composed of translations; and of the original pieces, some were written in the decline of his genius, and others are on unpoetical or unpleasing subjects. Still there is much remaining, in which his characteristic playfulness of humour, bis devotion, philanthropy and domestic tenderness, and the justice and manliness of his sentiments, are sufficiently conspicuous; nor, indeed, is there any piece in which his peculiar hand may not be discovered. The biography is not written in a very shining style, but it is an accurate chronicle, and the reflections are just and good.
Much cannot be said for Cowper's Latin poetry. It wants ease and harmony, and classical perfection; nor is the absence of these qualities compensated by any extraordinary force of style or beauty of idea. Indeed, there is a certain degree of artifice requisite in writing modern Latin poetry; and artifice of a kind alien to Cowper's genius. The merit of this sort of composition consists more in choice of expression, embellishment of common thoughts, and well-wrought imitation of three or four standard writers, and less in vivid description or the sublimities of action and passion, than that of English poetry.
The versions of Milton are executed with tolerable success: but, to speak the truth, we do not think very highly of the originals themselves. The Ode to Rouse, which cost the translator most trouble, has perhaps repaid it least: there is much mythologic stuff' in the Latin verses of the great bard, which could by no artifice be rendered palatable. The following lines are from one of the epistles to Diodati. The reader will remember Johnson's citation of the first part of the passage,
«Me tenet urbs reflua.' After an allusion to the sentence of rustication passed upon him, the poet proceeds thus:
'I would, that, exiled to the Pontic shore,
Or some coif'd brooder o'er a ten-years' cause
Thunder the Norman gibb'rish of the laws, &c.'-p. 116. In the epistle to his tutor, Thomas Young, at Hamburgh, there occurs a beautiful little sketch of a christian pastor's family life : and the following lines, from the same piece, contain sentiments such as Cowper delighted to express.
* But thou take courage! strive against despair!
Thou, therefore, (as the most afflicted may)
And to enjoy, once more, thy native home!-pp. 128, 129. The first verses in the volumę, ou finding the heel of a Shoe at Bath, are in the manner of the Splendid Shilling, and display at the age of seventeen that exuberant humour which attended our author in after-life. : The Epistle to Lloyd is full of liveliness, and that to Lady Austen unites innocent gaiety with just and dignified reflection. The dialogue between the Pipe and the Snuff-box is a counterpart to the 'Report of an Adjudged Case, not to be found in any of the Books:' the Colubriad is of the same stamp. The following tribute of praise to the memory of Ashley Cowper, Esq. has great merit.
Farewell! endued with all that could engage
Marble may flatter; and lest this should seem
Love shall be satisfied, and veil the rest. ---p. 80. The fragment on the Four Ages might have been the introducțion to a second . Task:' that on the Yardley Oak is, perhaps, the most characteristic specimen of Cowper ; with his usual alloy of
homeliness, and want of selection, it exhibits a copiousness of thought and expression, worthy of Dryden or Cowley. We close our extracts with the following beautiful sonnet
"To Mrs. UNWIN. Mary! I want a lyre with other strings,
Such aid from heav'n as some have feignd they drew,
An eloquence scarce giv’n to mortals, new
may record thy worth with honour due,
In verse as musical as thou art true,
By seraphs writ with beams of heav'nly light,
A chronicle of actions just and bright;
And, since thou own'st that praise, I spare thee mine.'--p. 222. At the time when our poetry began to emerge from the bondago of formality and pomp, Cowper appeared to advance the cause of nature and true taste. With an opinion sufficiently high of Popo and bis contemporaries, modest and unenterprizing, alive to censure, and seemingly scarcely conscious that he was an innovator, he yet helped essentially to restore the elder vigour and simplicity, by presenting to us the primitive Muse of England in her own undisguised features, her flexibility of deportment, her smiles and tears, her general animation and frequent rusticity. From the effects which this exhibition produced on the public, satiated with classical imitation and antithesis, he may be reckoned among the patriarchy of the present school of poetry.
Cowper's qualities are, copiousness of idea, often without sufficient choice; keenness of observation, descending occasionally to wearisomeness or disgust; an addiction to elevated thought and generous feeling; and a pliable manner, passing easily from the tender to the sublime, and again to the humorous. In the very throng and press of his observations on the most serious subjects, it is not unusual to encounter an effusion of wit, or a familiar remark. This may seem a strange anomaly in a writer of Cowper's turn; yet it is to be accounted for. The subjects in question were the constant themes of his meditation, the fountains of his actions, his hopes, his duties; they were inwoven with his mind, and he spoke of them with that familiarity, perfectly distinct from lightness, with which men naturally speak of what is habitual to then, though connected with their happiness, and involving many hopes and fears. It must be confessed, however, that he sometimes uses expressions, which, in a person of different principles, would be interpreted as the language of levity.
His great work, the Task, was welcomed on its appearance with general acclamation. It has ever since continued to rank with the inost popular poenis. This performance, so singular in its nature and original, has a sufficient admixture of faults : some passages are tedious, others uninteresting, and others even revolting. The language is often tinged with meanness, and pathos and beauty are sometimes interrupted by witticism. The charm of the work consists in its tender, generous and pious sentiments; in the frankness and warmth of its manner, its sketches of nature, eulogies of country retirement, and interesting allusions to himself and those he loves; the refreshing transitions from subject to subject, and the elasticity with which he varies his tone, though the change is not always without offence; and the glow, which when a poet feels, he is sure to impart to others. We share his walks, or his fire-side, and hear him comment on the newspaper or the last new book of travels ; converse with him as a kind familiar friend, or hearken to the counsels of an affectionate monitor. We attend hiin among the beauties and repose of nature, or the mild dignity of private life; sympathize with his elevations, smile with him at folly, and share his indignation at oppression and vice—and if he sometimes detains us too long in the hot-house, or tires us with political discussion, we love him too well to wish ourselves rid of him on that account. He is most at home on nature and country retirement friendship-domestic life—the rights and duties of men—and, above all, the comforts and excellencies of religion: his physical dejection never overcasts his doctrines; and his devout passages are, to us, the finest of his poem. There is not in Milton or Akenside such a continuation of sublime thoughts as in the latter parts of the fifth and sixth books. The peroration is remarkably graceful and solemn.
Cowper appears, at least at one time, to have preferred his first published didactic poems to the Task. There is something in priority of composition; and the Task was to him an Odyssey, a second work on lighter subjects, taken up more as a relaxation, written less with a view of his most favourite subject and less with the awful, yet elevating, sense of performing a momentous duty. Whatever may be attributed to these considerations, we think that a poet's opinion of bis own performance is seldom without some foundation--and that many of these pieces are more uninterruptedly pleasing, and contain fewer intervals of insipidity, than the longer poem. Table Talk is a distinct production, a kind of Task in Miniature; as Young's Resignation is another Night-Thought. abonnds with passages of wit, energy and beauty, and is replete with good sense. There is something in it which reminds us of Churchill. The seven succeeding poems are mostly sets of precepts and remarks, characters and descriptions, delivered in a poetical nianner. Here, as elsewhere, liis wit, always powerful, is often
clumsy, and sometimes, from being more intent on the sentiment than the expression, his language deviates into prose. There is, besides, a want of system in the subjects of each piece, which in some injures the continuity of interest. Still there is so much unsophisticated description, and sentiment, and humour—the richness of the poet's heart and mind are so diffused over the whole, that they will always be read with delight. He who would behold the full beauty of Christianity, might be referred to these poems-especially the last four.
Cowper's light pieces are characterized by vigour, playfulness, and invention ; debased sometimes by inelegance, and even by conceits. His Tales are excellent. The verses for the Bills of Mortality are poetical and impressive; and the Epistle to Hill is quite Horatian. His lines on his mother's picture display remarkably his powers of pathos. Such a strain of mellowed and manly sorrow, such affectionate reminiscences of childhood unmixed with trifling, such an union of regret with piety, is seldom to be found in any language.
His translation of Homer retains much of the old poet's simplicity, without enough of his fire. Cowper has removed the gilded cloud which Pope had cast over him; and his version, though very imperfect, is the more faithful portrait of the two.
In the Task, the author has introduced a new species of blank verse; a medium between the majestic sweep and continuous variety of Milton and Akenside, and the monotony of Young and Thomson. It is suited to his subject, smooth and easy, yet sufficiently varied in its structure to give the ear its proper entertainment. Sometimes, as in the description of the Sicilian earthquake, and the Millennium, he seems to aspire higher. He affects much the pause on the third and seventh syllables, the latter of which combines dignity with animation more than any other. It must be confessed, however, that he has not avoided flatness and uniformity. His rhyme has the freedom and energy of Dryden's, without its variety. His diction resembles his versification; forcible, but often uncouth. It is the language of conversation, elevated by metaphors, Miltonic constructions, and antiquated expressions, above the level of prose.
His letters are full of the man-of his mildness, philanthropy, and domestic temper; his pensiveness and devotion, bis overstrained timidity, and his liveliness of imagination. They form the prin cipal charm of Hayley's Life--for of all biographers, Mr. Hayley is happily the least loquacious; the letters, like the anecdotes in Boswell's Johnson, compensate for the scantiness or ordinary quality of the narrative with which they are interwoven. We think them equal to any that we have met with. There is a delightful