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34 CAMPBELL — H IS CHARACTER OF COWIPER.
he left the ambitious and luxuriant subjects of fiction and passion, for those of real life and simple mature, and for the devolopment 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whose fine spirit had been long enough in the mixed society of the world to be polished by its intercourse, and yet withdrawn so soon as to retain an unworldly degree of purity and simplicity.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, and even a vein of humour 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 arches 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 na. tural 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 fun. gus that cling to some noble oak of the forest, amidst the damps of its unsunned retirement. It is more surprising that he preserved, in
HIS TASK–AND RELIGIOUS POETRY. 3.5
such seclusion, so much genuine power of comic observation. There is much of the full distinctness of Theophrastus, and of the nervous and concise spirit of La Bruyère, in his piece entitled “Conversation, with a cast of humour superadded, which is peculiarly English, and not to be found out of England.”—vol. vii. p. 357, 358.
Of his greatest work, The Task, he afterwards observes,
“His whimsical outset in a work, where he promises so little and performs so much, may 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 gathers beauty and magnitude as it proceeds. He leads us abroad into his daily walks; he exhibits 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 the ground over which he expatiates; all his plainness and reality: But we instantly recognise 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 amounts 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
“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 levelled 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 this 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 actual appearances.
36 CAMP BELL–WISH FOR SUCH SPECIMIENS
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 embellish what he loved. Hence his landscapes have less of the ideally beautiful than Thomson's; but they have an unrivalled 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. Itemote as the poet was from the stir of the great Babel, from the confusee sonus Urbis, et illaetabile 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 commonplace and cuckooism of sentiment, than the philanthropic eloquence of Cowper — he speaks “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. 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 t.e lash from the hand of the oppressor.”—p. 359 — 364. But we must now break away at once from this delightful occupation; and take our final farewell of a work, in which, what is original, is scarcely less valuable than what is republished, and in which the genius of a living Poet has shed a fresh grace over the fading glories of so many of his departed brothers. We wish somebody would continue the work, by furnishing us with Specimens of our Living Poets. It would be more difficult, to be sure, and more dangerous; but, in some respects, it would also be more useful. The beauties of
the unequal and voluminous writers would be more
of LIVING PoETs' :37
conspicuous in a selection; and the different styles and schools of poetry would be brought into fairer and nearer terms of comparison, by the mere juxta-position of their best productions; while a better and clearer view would be obtained, both of the general progress and apparent tendencies of the art, than can easily be gathered from the seperate study of each important production. The /
mind of the critic, too, would be at once enlightened and
tranquillized by the very greatness of the horizon thus subjected to this survey; and he would probably regard, both with less enthusiasm and less offence, those contrasted and compensating beauties and defects, when presented together, and as it were in combination, than he can ever do when they come upon him in distinct masses, and without the relief and softening of so varied an assemblage. On the other hand, it cannot be dissembled, that such a work would be very trying to the unhappy editor's prophetic reputation, as well as to his impartiality and temper; and would, at all events, subject him to the most serious imputations of unfairness
and malignity. In point of courage and candour, we do
not know anybody who would do it much better than ourselves' And if Mr. Campbell could only impart to us a fair share of his elegance, his fine perceptions, and his conciseness, we should like nothing better than to suspend, for a while, these periodical lucubrations, and furnish out a gallery of Living Bards, to match this exhibition of the Departed.
The Dramatic Works of John Ford ; with an Introduction and Earplanatory Notes. By HENRY WEBER, Esq. 2 vols. 8vo. pp. 950. Edinburgh and London: 1811.
ALL true lovers of English poetry have been long in love with the dramatists of the time of Elizabeth and James; and must have been sensibly comforted by their late restoration to some degree of favour and notoriety. If there was any good reason, indeed, to believe that the notice which they have recently attracted proceeded from any thing but that indiscriminate rage for editing and annotating by which the present times are so happily distinguished, we should be disposed to hail it as the most unequivocal symptom of improvement in public taste that has yet occurred to reward and animate our | labours. At all events, however, it gives us a chance for such an improvement; by placing in the hands of many, who would not otherwise have heard of them, some of those beautiful performances which we have always regarded as among the most pleasing and characteristic productions of our native genius. Ford certainly is not the best of those neglected writers, nor Mr. Weber by any means the best of their recent editors: But we cannot resist the opportunity which this publication seems to afford, of saying a word or two of a class of writers, whom we have long worshipped in secret with a sort of idolatrous veneration, and now find once more brought forward as candidates for public applause. The aera to which they belong, indeed, has always appeared to us by far the brightest in the history of English literature-or indeed of human intellect and capacity. There never was, any' where, any thing like the sixty or seventy years that elapsed from the middle of Elizabeth's reign to the