« FöregåendeFortsätt »
was so conspicuous before him, that not a step deviated from the direction, and every moment and every day was an approximation. As his method referred every thing he did and thought to the end, and as his execution did not relax for a moment, he made the trial, so seldom made, what is the utmost effect which may be granted to the last possible efforts of a human agent; and therefore what he did not accomplish, he might conclude to be placed beyond the sphere of mortal activity, and calmly leave to the immediate disposal of Omnipotence.
The nature of Cowper's works makes us peculiarly identify the poet and the man, in perusing them. As an individual, he was retired and weaned from the vanities of the world; and, as an original writer, he left the ambitious and luxuriant subjects of fiction and passion, for those of real life and simple nature, and for the development of his own earnest feelings, in behalf of moral and religious truth. His language has such a masculine idiomatic strength, and his manner, whether he rises into grace or falls into negligence, has so much plain and familiar freedom, that we read no poetry with a deeper conviction of its sentiments having come from the author's heart; and of the enthusiasm, in whatever he describes, having been unfeigned and unexaggerated. He impresses us with the idea of a being, whose fine spirit had been long enough in the mixed society of the world to be polished by its intercourse, and yet withdrawn so soon as to retain an unworldly degree of purity and simplicity. He was advanced in years before he became an author; but his compositions display a tenderness of feeling so youthfully preserved, that even in a vein of humor, so far from being extinguished by his ascetic habits, that we can scarcely regret his not having written them at an earlier
period of life. For he blends the determination of age with an exquisite and ingenuous sensibility; and though he sports very much with his subjects, yet when he is in earnest, there is a gravity of long-felt conviction in his sentiments, which gives an uncommon ripeness of character to his poetry.
It is due to Cowper to fix our regard on this unaffectedness and authenticity of his works, considered as representations of himself, because he forms a striking instance of genius writing the history of its own secluded feelings, reflections, and enjoyments, in a shape so interesting as to engage the imagination like a work of fiction. He has invented no character in fable, nor in the drama; but he has left a record of his own character, which forms not only an object of deep sympathy, but a subject for the study of human nature. His verse, it is true, considered as such a record, abounds with opposite traits of severity and gentleness, of playfulness and superstition, of solemnity and mirth, which appear almost anomalous; and there is, undoubtedly, sometimes an air of moody versatility in the extreme contrasts of his feelings. But looking to his poetry as an entire structure, it has a massive air of sincerity. It is founded in steadfast principles of belief; and, if we may prolong the architectural metaphor, though its arch may be sometimes gloomy, its tracery sportive, and its lights and shadows grotesquely crossed, yet altogether it still forms a vast, various, and interesting monument of the builder's mind. Young's works are as devout, as satirical, sometimes as merry as those of Cowper ; and, undoubtedly, more witty. But the melancholy and wit of Young do not make up to us the idea of a conceivable or natural being. He has sketched in his pages the ingenious, but incongruous form of a fictitious mind :-Cowper's soul speaks from his volumes.
Considering the tenor and circumstances of his life, it is not much to be wondered at, that some asperities and peculiarities should have adhered to the strong stem
of his genius, like the moss and fungus that cling to some noble oak of the forest, amidst the damps of its unsunned retirement. It is more surprising that he preserved, in such seclusion, so much genuine power of comic observation. Though he himself acknowledged having written “ many things with bile” in his first volume, yet his satire has many legitimate objects : and it is not abstracted and declamatory satire ; but it places human manners before us in the liveliest attitudes and clearest colors. There is much of the full distinctness of Theophrastus, and of the nervous and concise spirit of La Bruyere, in his piece entitled “ Conversation, with a cast of humor superadded, which is peculiarly English, and not to be found out of England. His whimsical outset in the Task, where he promises so little and performs so much, may even be advantageously contrasted with those magnificent commencements of poems, which pledge both the reader and the writer in good earnest to a task. Cowper's poem, on the contrary, is like a river, which rises from a playful little fountain, and which gathers beauty and magnitude as it proceeds. He leads us abroad into his daily walks; he exbibits the landscapes which he was accustomed to contemplate, and the trains of thought in which he habitually indulged. No attempt is made to interest us in legendary fictions, or historical recollections connected with theóground over which he expatiates; all is plainness and reality : but we instantly recognize the true poet, in the clearness, sweetness, and fidelity of his scenic draughts; in his power of giving novelty to what is common; and in the high relish, the exquisite enjoyment of rural sights and sounds, which he communicates to the spirit. His eyes drink the rivers with delight.” He excites an idea, that almost armounts to sensation, of the freshness and delight of a rural walk, even when he leads us to the wasteful common, which
- overgrown with fern, and rough
Yields no unpleasing ramble; there the turf
With luxuries of unexpected sweets." His rural prospects have far less variety and compass than those of Thomson ; but his graphic touches are more close and minute : not that Thomson was either deficient or undelightful in circumstantial traits of the beauty of nature, but he looked to her as a whole more than Cowper. His genius was more excursive and philosophical. The poet of Olney, on the contrary, regarded human philosophy with something of theological contempt. To his eye, the great and little things of this world were leveled into an equality, by his recollection of the power and purposes of Him who made them. They are, in his view, only as toys spread on the lap and carpet of nature, for the childhood of our immortal being. This religious indifference to the world, is far, indeed, from blunting his sensibility to the genuine and simple beauties of creation ; but it gives his taste a contentment and fellowship with humble things. It makes him careless of selecting and refining his views of nature beyond their casual appearance. He contemplated the face of plain rural English life, in moments of leisure and sensibility, till its minutest features were impressed upon his fancy; and he sought not to embelish what he loved. Hence his landscapes have less of the ideally beautiful than Thomson's; but they have an unrivaled charm of truth and reality.
He is one of the few poets, who have indulged neither in descriptions nor acknowledgments of the passion of love; but there is no poet who has given us a finer conception of the amenity of female influence. Of all the verses that have been ever devoted to the subject of domestic happiness, those in his Winter Evening, at the opening of the fourth book of the Task, are perhaps the most beautiful. In perusing that scene of “intimate delights," "fireside enjoyments," and "home-born happiness,” we seem to recover a part of the forgotten value of existence, when we recognise the means of its blessedness so widely dispensed, and so cheaply attainable, and find them susceptible of description at once so enchanting and so faithful. Though the scenes of " the Task” are laid in retirement, the poem affords an amusing perspective of human affairs. Remote as the poet was from the stir of the great Babel, from the confuse sonus Urbis et illætabile murmur,” he glances at most of the subjects of public interest which engaged the attention of his contemporaries. On those subjects, it is but faint praise to say, that he espoused the side of justice and humanity. Abundance of mediocrity of talent is to be found on the same side, rather injuring than promoting the cause, by its officious declamation. But nothing can be further from the stale common-place and cuckooism of sentiment, than the philanthropic eloquence of Cowper,—he speaks 6 like one having authority.” Society is his debtor. Poetical expositions of the horrors of slavery may, indeed, seem very unlikely agents in contributing to destroy it; and it is possible that the most refined planter in the West Indies may look with neither shame nor compunction on his own image in the pages of Cowper, exposed as a being degraded by giving stripes and tasks to his fellow-creatures. But such appeals to the heart of the community are not lost. They fix themselves silently in the popular memory; and they become, at last, a part of that public opinion, which must, sooner or later, wrench the lash from the hand of the oppressor.