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His great work, the Task, was welcomed on its appearance with general acclamation. It has ever since continued to rank with the most popular poems. 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 aflectionate monitor. We attend him among the beauties and repose of nature, or the mild dignity of private lise ; sympathize with his elevations, smile with him at folly, and share his indignation at oppression and vice--and if he sometimes de. tains 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 seco 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 his 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. It abounds 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 manner. Here, as elsewhere, his 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 much unsophisticated description, and sentiment, and humour-the richness of the poet's heart and mindare 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 fatness 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, his overstrained timidity, and his liveliness of imagination. They form the principal 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 qua. lity of the narrative with which they are interwoven. We think them equal to any that we have met with. There is a delightful
playfulness pervading them, which is perhaps the most attractive quality of an epistle.
Cowper was versed in the irony which criminales without pro. voking;
the chiding which affection loves,
Dallying with terms of wrongthe well-wrought affectation of pomp or gravity, and the thousand other articles, by which an agreeable sunshine is thrown over poverty or dulness of matter. Sometimes, too, in the midst of sportiveness an effusion of tenderness occurs, extremely affecting. It is a most interesting spectacle, to survey the group of excellent persons assembled round our poet-their heroic exertions for his comfort, and his warm returns of gratitude: such scenes are among the greenest spots' of this world, and are almost enough to make us forget its miseries. His opinions on various subjects, expressed in these letters, flow less from any expansion of intellect or depth of penetration, than from plain sense, a cultivated understanding, and that clear-headedness which attends on virtue, and which enables it to discern many things which superior faculties, blinded by a bad heart or vicious habits, fail of discerning.
In the morality of his poems, Cowper is honourably distinguished from most of his brethren. Our poets have too often deviated into an incorrect system of morals, coldly delivered; a smooth, polished filed-down Christianity; a medium system, between the religion of the Gospel and the heathen philosophy, and intended apparently to accommodate the two. There is nothing to comfort or guide us, no satisfying centre on which to fix our desires ; no line is drawn between good and evil; we wander on amid a waste of feelings sublimated to effeminacy, desires raised beyond a possibility of gratification, and passions indulged till their indulgence seems almost a necessary of life. We rise with heated minds, and feel that something still is wanting. In Cowper, on the contrary, all is reality; there is no doubt, no vagueness of opinion; the only satisfactory object on which our affections can be fixed, is distinctly and fully pointed out; the afflicted are consoled, the ignorant enlightened. A perfect line is drawn between truth and error. The heart is enlisted on the side of religion; every precept is just, every motive efficacious. Sensible that every vice is connected with the rest; that the voluptuous will become hard-hearted, and the unthinking licentious; he aims his shafts at all: and as Gospel trath is the base of morality, it is the groundwork of his precepts.
In the remarks we have hazarded on poetical morality, far be it from us to aim at introducing a cheerless monastic air into works of fancy, or diminishing the quantum of poetic pleasure: Sour system would have the very contrary effect. It would relieve us
from revolting pictures of crime, touched, retouched, and dwelt upon even to weariness; from long depressing complaints of the miseries of life ; from the persevering malignity which pains us in reading the works of some of our most approved satirists; from the tinge of impurity, which makes us dread the pleasure we receive from some exquisitely wrought descriptions; from the want which we feel in many a favourite character of fiction,-Poetry would be as cheerful as the spring sun, and as vivifying. All the sources of delight would remain, only heightened and rectified; our pleasure would be more full, and it would be without fear.
We come now to Cowper's own Memoirs. We are not sure that the publication of them is proper in itself, or can be otherwise than unacceptable to his family and friends. Doubtless, it is always consoling to know, that crime has been followed by repentance; and it is the greatest triumph which can be desired for virtue, when the offender is reclaimed from profligacy and brought to a joyful acknowledgment of the obligations of religion.
But there is a propriety of manner which belongs to such representations. While we hail the sanctity which shines forth in the later days of the sinner reformed, we do not like to be carried back to all the particulars of his early offences. It is quite sufficient that we know their general truth. When they are pressed once more upon our notice, with all their minuteness, they have a tendency, in spite of our feelings, to detract somewhat from our respect. This proceeding joins, as it were, a living body with a dead one, and we shrink from the forced and unnatural connexion. If it be said, that the Memoirs are the confessions of Cowper concerning himself
, we answer, that what it might be proper and beneficial for Cowper to write for his own private admonition, it may not be equally proper to publish to the world. It is evident, indeed, with what feelings Cowper drew up these Memoirs. He meant to punish himself for his late offences. With the spirit of a true penitent, he placed them before his eyes as a memorial and a terror to his own heart,-as a guard against all future relapses. If he contemplated the perusal of them by any other eye, it was that of the friendly and affectionate family under whose roof he was now placed, and where his good principles received, if not their beginning, yet their principal strength and growth. We will not enlarge, however, on this subject, but pass on to the Memoirs’ themselves. They contain a short history of his religious life during the first thir. ty-four years, including the great change which was known to have taken place in his mind on these points. The publisher of the larger edition (we call it the larger for the sake of distinction, though both are small) gives no account of his copy; but from the preface of the other, and from the work itself, we learn that it was ori
ginally written for the author and some of his friends, without any purpose of publication ; and that after his death manuscript copies of it were possessed by many persons, from one of whom the editor received it: to which we may add, of our own information, that it has been in the hands of several gentlemen in one of the universities.
Cowper describes himself as having had few religious thoughts till his thirty-second year. For the consolation which he received under the pressure of juvenile tyranny, by the recollection of a passage in the Psalms, and for all that relates to his early life, previously to his settlement in the Temple, we refer to the work. Not long after this event, he was seized with a depression of spirits, utterly insurmountable by amusement or literary pursuits; lying down in horror, and rising up in despair. At length he found Herbert's Devotional Poems, the reading of which much alleviated his melancholy; he was, however, persuaded to put them by, as being calculated to exasperate his wound. His miserythen returned.
• In this state of mind I continued nearly a twelvemonth ; wben, having esperienced the inefficiency of all human means, I at length betook myself to God in prayer. Weak as my faith was, the Almighty, wbo will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, was graciously pleased to hear me.
• I embraced an opportunity of going with some friends to Southampton, where I spent several months. Soon after our arrival, we walked about two miles from the town. The morning was mild and serene, the sun shone brightly upon the sea, and the country upon the borders of it was the most beautiful I had ever seen. We sat down upon an eminence at the end of that arm of the sea which is between Southampton and the New Forest. Here it was that on a sudden, as if another sun had been kindled that instant in the beavens, on purpose to dispel sorrow and vexation of spirit, I felt the weight of all my misery taken off, my heart became light and joyful in a moment. I could have wept with transport, had I been alone. I must needs believe that nothing less than the Almighty could have filled me with such an inexpressible delight ; not by a gradual dawning of peace, but, as it were, with a flash of his life-giving countenance. I think I remember something like a glow of gratitude to the Father of Mercies for this unexpected blessing ; and that I ascribed it to His gracious acceptance of my prayers.'-pp. 18, 19, 20.
This circumstance, however, making no impression, he passes twelve years of dissipation in the Temple, and having nearly consumed his patrimony, and being hopeless of repairing it by his own exertions, by a train of circumstances which we shall omit he is appointed Clerk of the Journals. Being ordered to prove his susliciency for the place before the bar of the House, he attends daily at the Office to examine the Journals, in total despair of ever qualifying himself for the station.