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domestic life “Of a'the airts the wind can blaw", and “John Anderson my jo”; songs of love and money like “O for ane and twenty, Tam”, and “What can a young lassie do wi' an auld man”, and humorous songs like " Last May a braw wooer”, Willie Wastle, “Whistle owre the lave o't”, and “ The Deil's awa wi' the Exciseman”; nature songs like “Hark the mavis' evenin’ sang ”, My Nannie's awa, and The Birks of Aberfeldy, and songs of incidents in his life like Highland Mary, To Mary in heaven, “There was a lad was born in Kyle”, and “ The gloomy night is gathering
Most of them have indeed a close connection with his life, and hence their vital quality. He seldom or never chose an artificial topic or occasion. Perhaps none are so near the perfection of simplicity as To Mary in Heaven, Mary Morison, and “ Ae fond kiss and then we sever” ; Byron and Scott agreed that nothing could surpass the pathos and intensity of the last, especially of this half stanza ;
“ Had we never lov'd sae kindly,
Had we never lov'd sae blindly,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted". It is in lines like these that we realise how much the age of the Revolution resembled in character and in lyrical power the age of Elizabeth. Burns brings out better than any poet of last century the depth of the revolutionary current, in Britain.
Section 23. I. But there is another poet of contrasted character and genius who reveals it almost as well. It is William Cowper. Born in 1731, twenty-eight years before Burns, he did not begin to write poetry till the Scotch poet was writing his first lyrics. Their work is wholly contemporary and, though strongly contrasted in tone and expression, subject to the same influences. By the circumstances of their lives they came into close contact with nature as seen in the country and were moulded by it. They were driven back on the primitive sources of poetry and drank so deeply of them that the poetical conventions of the immediate past would not fit their emotions and ideas; they were children of
nature unfit for the intricate and artificial life of modern society and certain to lose themselves if they entered its labyrinth; they were satirists only by recoil from it, keenly sensitive as they were to its temptations, its vices, its inherent selfishness and cruelty, and its criticism and mockery. They loved their poetry as the only unfailing consolation of their lives ; they wrote primarily, as the birds sing, to please themselves, to satisfy a strong instinct; thus they came nearer to the primitive attitude of poetry, to inspiration, to the mood of the balladists, than any English poet had come for a century or more. They could not long keep to their models; they had to speak as their emotions prompted them; and all artificiality of attempt or inspiration or theme led to immediate failure. They were thus the truest representatives of the new audience that had been secluded from public life and highly organised society for so many generations. They led poetry back to mother earth, to its primitive elements, to its essential soil, and they gave it a language nearer to the simplicity of nature. Their hearts were open to the larger influences of the coming age, as no cultured or city poets could have been. In the turbid atmosphere of political or social life it is only the immediate issues that can be seen, and the tendencies that are about to dominate seem to have no more importance than ephemeral cries, or movements that are about to vanish; out in the open of a time the passionate spirit feels what is elemental and what is local and evanescent. These two poets were, therefore, each in his own way, the singers of the new time, the preachers of revolutionism ; they taught naturally and unconsciously what Rousseau made a dogmatic creed ; without in the least knowing that they had any resemblance to the French forerunner of the Revolution, they were ever appealing to nature as nearer the ideal standard and inspiring recoil from the artificiality of human conventions. They were keenly conscious of the hypocrisies and corruptions of society and felt at least comparatively solaced in the woeful struggles of life by sympathy with the oppressed and lowly, by intercourse with the simplicity of nature and by giving utterance to its melody or sorrow in verse. They were ever lauding freedom though Burns coquetted with Jacobitism and Cowper was opposed to the American struggle for independence. They had both a deep belief in the sublimities of the puritan faith their audience held, though they differed widely in their expression of it. They both satirised the church for the hypocrisies and mistaken missions that took refuge in it, though Burns flippantly sympathised with the heterodox and progressive preachers and Cowper earnestly followed the new evangelical movement. Burns was a puritan in spite of his epicurean and rebellious tendencies, Cowper a lover of nature and revolutionist, in spite of his predestinarian stoicism and Calvinistic faith. It was to keep off the deep gloom of their inner thoughts of the world and man that they often trifled with lighter themes; they sang to keep up their spirits like children in the dark. They were true products of a revolutionary time, poets bewildered by its cross-currents and by the lightning-flashes across its gloom, and glad to take refuge in the melodious expression of their doubt and sadness.
2. But Cowper was a preacher either by nature or circumstances. Burns was a lyrist both born and made; he addressed a section of the new audience that was essentially lyrical by tradition and tastes. Cowper discovered his poetic gift through religious lyricism; he had written a few love-lyrics in youth; but his first real effort in verse was his share of the Olney Hymns published in 1779, when he was nearly fifty years of age. He had to address, a section of the new audience that was essentially didactic; it was the puritan part of the middle class, roused to new enthusiasm by Wesley and Whitefield and other preachers, that he had to write for. He began his true career as poet in December 1780 when he was fifty years of age; although in one of the attacks of his mental malady he had been under the care of a writer of light society verses, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, he had never thought of poetry as a relief from the despondency that ever threatened renewed attacks, till he had come under the influence of his evangelical friends at Olney—the Rev. John Newton and the Unwins. Mrs. Unwin suggested the occupation and its themes; and in 1782 was published his first volume, containing amongst other poems his Table Talk, Progress
of Error, Conversation, Retirement, and Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk. The book was anything but successful, one critic in The Critical Review calling it “flat and tedious", "coarse, vulgar, and unpoetical”. But
” one or two favourable comments, especially one by Benjamin Franklin encouraged him, and, at the suggestion of Lady Austen, another Olney friend, he started The Task in blank verse and published it with three other poems in 1785. The ballad John Gilpin was one of the three pieces, and, having before been recited by an actor Henderson all over the country with great success, called attention to the other poems. They became at once popular and raised him to the foremost position amongst the poets of his day. He then entered on his period of translation and issued his Homer in 1791. Before his death in 1800, in the midst of threatening madness, ill health, and sorrow over the death of old friends, he translated the Latin and Italian poems of Milton, the Latin poems of Vincent Bourne, and various pieces from the Latin and Greek classics.
3. He had been trained at Westminster School under Vincent Bourne the Latinist and in a scribbling set that had literary ambitions, Robert Lloyd who afterwards wrote a satire in octosyllabic couplets called The Actor, George Colman the actor, dramatist, and translator, Warren Hastings, and Churchill the satirist. He joined a number of them in 1754 in the Nonsense Club and wrote some papers, moralising, and humorous, to the essay-periodical The Connoisseur, started by Colman in 1754-56 ; some of these in their theme and manner (for example On Conversation) anticipate his first poetic satires. He also contributed one or two articles to The St. James's Chronicle, another of Colman's ventures, and published a translation of two books of Voltaire's Henriade in a magazine in 1759. In his posthumous poems too we find that he had been dabbling in verse from boyhood; and his youthful attempts show that he had been experimenting in the directions which he afterwards adopted. In 1748 when seventeen years of age, he uses blank verse in the mock-heroic style “On finding the heel of a shoe”; though feeble it is quite in the manner of The Task; after the mock invocation and the satiric
picture of the shoe and its original wearer it draws the moral for statesmen. He imitates Waller and Prior and society-verse writers and ode writers of his day. Many of them are humorous and trifling, as for example On Himself, A Song to Celia advising her to give up girlish airs now she is old, Upon a venerable Rival, An Epistle to Robert Lloyd in octosyllabics apologising for his not letting poetry alone since he has neither genius nor will and making pathetic reference to the threatening madness “fierce banditti” of the brain, (1754), and a burlesque Ode “Secundum artem after the style of Gray and Collins. A large number are amorous addressed to Delia, and a pathetic light is thrown on them by the story of his youthful passion for his cousin Theodora and its fate in her father's refusal to allow their marriage. They are as graceful and musical as some of Burns's average songs and suggest that a happier life might have made him the lyrist that his time demanded. He has one or two translations of the satires of Horace, one or two in the stanza of Gray's Elegy, and one or two in the heroic couplet. Thus he anticipates both the verse and the manner of his mature poems. The only experiment he did not repeat again was a pathetic poem in unrhymed Sapphics called “Lines written under the influence of Delirium”.
"Damned below Judas, more abhorred than he was,
Deems the profanest”. He also produced several “half-penny ballads” which have been lost.
4. His fear of having to appear in the House of Lords to claim a post that a relative had given him developed the often-threatened madness in 1763. When he recovered he retired first to Huntingdon and then to Olney where he endeavoured by simple pursuits and the help of his friends to keep off other attacks. His Olney Hymns, though some of them have simple fervour like “Oh for a closer walk with God!” and “God moves in a mysterious way,” exhibit none of the poetic power that he revealed a year or two after their publication ; the same may be said of a poem called Anti-thelyphthora, attacking his cousin Madan's book, Thelyphthora, on the polygamous doctrines