JOHN GILBERT COOPER, who has been styled "the English Anacreon," was born in 1733, of an opulent and genteel family, seated at Thurgarton Priory in Nottinghamshire, which estate he inherited.
After receiving a classical education at Westminster school, in 1743 he became a member of Trinity college, Cambridge, and on quitting the university, married the grand-daughter of lord-keeper Wright.
In 1745, he published, without a name, The Power of Harmony, a poem in two books; and in the following years produced several essays and poems under the signature of Philalethes. In 1749 he published the Life of Socrates, a work by which he is chiefly known, and which attests his learning and industry, though it is not exempt from the faults incident to a young and enthusiastic writer. This performance exposed him to the severity of Warburton, and he gave the retort courteous to that great master in the art of abuse.
The Letters on Taste appeared in 1754, and considerably increased his reputation. In 1758 he published his Epistles to the Great, written in imitation of some French authors; and next year he translated Gresset's Ver Vert, which was much read at the time, but has long been consigned to oblivion, except by a few.
Having served the office of high sheriff for his native county, and distinguished himself as an active magistrate, in 1764 he committed to the press Poems on several Subjects, of which the Hymn to Health, A Father's Advice, the Tomb of Shakspeare, and some others, possess considerable merit, and entitle him to rank with the British poets of the second class at least.
A long and excruciating illness, arising from the stone, terminated in death, April 14, 1769, when he was only in the 46th year of his age, and might have been expected to produce many other valuable fruits of genius.
Cooper was a man of agreeable appearance, and accomplished manners. He was assiduous in all his undertakings; and whether acting in the capacity of a country justice, or as a writer, he was anxious to display useful talents. In his philosophical sentiments, he adhered too much to Shaftesbury, and he adopted the sentimental, but noble, reveries of Akenside, for whose writings he evinced the strongest predilection. His Letters on Taste have gone through several editions, and may still be read with advantage by the lovers of polite literature.
As a poet, his compositions are characterised by ease, elegance, and sprightliness. He is not destitute of enthusiasm and of fancy; but his fancy is not always under proper regulation; and he sometimes fails in the precision of his ideas. His sentiments, though seldom new, are generally liberal and just; his diction, with some exceptions, proper and easy; and his versification sweetly modulated and harmonious.
His Vision of Shakspeare is perhaps his performance of most excellence; the scene of the vision is supposed on the banks of the Avon where Shakspeare is interred. Fancy, who is employed in decking his grave with flowers, while she laments his death, raises up the imaginary beings introduced by Shakspeare in his dramas; as Ariel, Prospero, Caliban, the fairies, witches, and ghosts: after which, the sun banishing Morpheus and his dreams, he concludes the poem with an address, apparently Improper, to the "Dear Enchantress of the brain," to give wealth, honour, and renown, to others, but to give him content, with such innocence as is attainable by man, and to teach him self-knowledge.
It is written in alternate rhyme, like the Elegy in a Country Church-yard, which probably excited his emulation, and tinged his fancy a little, though the particular quality of the subject has prevented any remarkable imitation of it. The introductory stanzas are beautifully descriptive, the expression is apt and elegant, and the versification throughout flows with an agreeable lulling melody.