1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Gilbert Cooper

Alexander Chalmers, in Works of the English Poets (1810) 15:503-06.



Mr. COOPER was born in 1723. He descended, according to the account of his life in the Biographia Britannica, from an ancient family in Nottinghamshire, impoverished on account of its loyalty during the rebellion in Charles 1st's time. Thurgaton Priory, in that county, was granted to one of his ancestors by Henry VIII, and after some interruption became the residence of our poet's father, and still continues in the family. I know not, however, how to reconcile this pedigree with a memorandum now before me, which states that the family name was Gilbert, and that in 1736 John Gilbert, esq. obtained leave to use the surname and arms of Cooper, pursuant to the will of John Cooper of Thurgaton, esq.

He was educated at Westminster-school under Dr. John Nichols, and in 1743 became a fellow-commoner of Trinity college, Cambridge, where he resided two or three years, without taking a degree, but not without a due attention to his studies. With some tincture of foppery, he was a young man of very lively parts, and attached to classical learning, which it is only to be regretted he did not pursue with judgment. He quitted the university on his marriage with Susanna, the grand-daughter of sir Nathan Wright, lord keeper, a man whom party raised to that situation, and whose inferiority of talents might have escaped observation, if he had not been preceded by Somers, and followed by Cowper.

In 1745, our author published The Power of Harmony, in two books, in which he endeavoured to recommend a constant attention to what is perfect and beautiful in nature, as the means of harmonizing the soul to a responsive regularity and sympathetic order. This imitation of the language of the Shaftesbury school was not affectation. He had studied the works of that nobleman with enthusiasm, and seems entirely to have regulated his conduct by the maxims of the ancient and modern academics. The poem brought him into notice with the public, but he appears not at this time to have courted the fame of authorship. When Dodsley began to publish his Museum, he invited the aid of Mr. Cooper among others who were friendly to him, and received a greater portion of assistance from our author's pen than from that of any other individual. His contributions, with only one or two exceptions, were prose essays on subjects of common life and manners, in which he discovers a very happy talent for chaste humour and sprightly observation. His papers were signed, not Philalethes, as mentioned in the Biographia Britannica, but Philaretes.

In 1749, he exhibited a curious specimen of sentimental grief in a long Latin epitaph on his first son, who died the day after his birth. It is now added to his works, with a translation which appeared some years ago in the Gentleman's Magazine, and is precisely such a translation as so ridiculous an original deserves. He afterwards, although it does not appear at what period, gave another instance of that romantic feeling which is apart from truth and nature, and which yet is far more frequent than is generally supposed among the sons of imagination, who seldom remember that

Grief unaffected suits but ill with art,
Or flowing numbers with a bleeding heart.

Mr. Fitzherbert, the father of the late lord St. Helens, found Cooper one morning apparently in such violent agitation, on account of the indisposition of his second son, as to seem beyond the power of comfort. At length however, he exclaimed, "I'll write an elegy." Mr. Fitzherbert, being satisfied by this of the sincerity of his emotions, slyly said, "Had you not better take a post-chaise, and go and see him?"

In 1749, he published with his name The Life of Socrates, collected from all the ancient authorities; in this work he received many learned notes from the sturdy antagonist of Warburton, the reverend John Jackson of Leicester, a controversial divine of considerable fame in his day. These notes were principally levelled at Warburton, and in language not very respectful. Warburton, who knew Jackson, but probably little of Cooper, retorted by a note, in his edition of Pope's works, on the Essay on Criticism, in which he accused the author of the Life of Socrates of impudent abuse and slander, the offspring of ignorance joined with vanity. Cooper's vanity, it must be confessed, is amply displayed in this work, and it is impossible to justify his affected contempt for writers of established reputation. Warburton's rebuke, however, was very coarse, and appears to have alarmed him; for he was not naturally of an abusive turn, but on the contrary rather prided himself on a mind superior to personal animosities. In his defence, therefore, he published Remarks on Warburton's Edition of Pope, in which he professes that he had attacked him as an author and not as a man, and did not, as a fair antagonist, deserve to be called all impudent slanderer. He next examines a few of Warburton's notes on Pope, and endeavours to prove his incapacity as a commentator. He betrays, however, that the real cause of his introducing Warburton's name into the Life of Socrates was his want of veneration for Mr. Cooper's favourite philosophers, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, &c. The whole is written with much acrimony, but with a very considerable display of learning. In the former, at least, there is reason to think, he was assisted by Jackson: but the Life of Socrates brought very little reputation to its author; and after some years, Warburton's angry note was omitted from the editions of Pope.

In 1754, he appeared to more advantage as the author of Letters on Taste, a small volume, which soon passed through three or four editions. Taste had not at this time been treated in a philosophical manner; and as the author set out with liberal professions, his readers were induced to take for granted that he had thrown much new light on the subject. He is, however, original only in the manner in which he has contrived to throw a charm over a few acknowledged truths and common-place opinions. Instead of beginning by definition, and proceeding gradually to analyze the pleasure resulting from what are generally considered as the objects of true taste, he lets loose his imagination, invites his reader into fairy-land, and delights him by excursive remarks and allegorical details, but in a style which even Johnson, who had no great opinion of Cooper, allowed to be splendid and spirited.

In 1755, he published the Tomb of Shakspeare, a vision; and when The World was set up by Dodsley and Moore, he contributed two papers, which, with those he published in the Museum afford a proof that in this species of writing he might have attained considerable fame, if he had avowed his productions. In 1756, he appears to have caught the alarm very general at that time among the enemies of administration, lest the Hessian troops, brought into the country to defend the kingdom from invasion, should be instrumental in subverting its liberties. Mr. Cooper was no politician, but he was a poet, and he determined to contribute his share of warning, in a poem entitled, The Genius of Britain, addressed to Mr. Pitt.

In 1758, he published Epistles to the Great, from Aristippus in Retirement, and soon after The Call of Aristippus, addressed to Dr. Akenside, in a style of adulation pardonable only to the warmest feelings of friendship. Between him and Dr. Akenside all this might subsist: there was at least a perfect cordiality of sentiment in philosophy and politics. Both hated the ruling government as much as they admired the school of Shaftesbury. But their fate was different. Akenside had to make his way to practice through all the obstacles of party and prejudice. Cooper was a gentleman of easy fortune, enamoured of retirement, and who appears to have had no inducement to conceal what he thought, or retract what he had said.

Some other of his lesser pieces were published about this time; and in his translation of Gresset's Ver Vert, a mock heroic poem, in four cantos. In 1764, all these, with the exception of the Ver Vert and The Estimate of Life, which are now added, were published in one volume by Dodsley, whom he allowed to take that liberty, and who informs us, that they were originally written for the author's amusement, and afterwards published for the bookseller's profit.

If this has the appearance of vanity, it may at least he pardoned for its liberality. It does not appear that he ever sold any of his works, and during the publication of the Museum he was an indefatigable contributor. At this time, he had probably taken leave of the Muses, and was applying himself to the active and useful duties of a magistrate. He resided, however, occasionally in London, and was a constant attendant and frequent speaker at the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Of this he had unsuccessfully endeavoured to become a Vice-president, and felt his disappointment so keenly as to retire in disgust. He died at his house in May-Fair, after a long and excruciating illness, occasioned by the stone, April 14, 1769, in the forty-sixth year of his age.

Dr. Kippis, who knew him personally, informs us that he was a gentleman of polite address and accomplishments; and, if the general tenour of his works may be credited, he possessed all amiable and affectionate heart. His chief foible was vanity; but this is more discoverable in his writings than it probably was in his life. Vanity, however, in an author is a foible to which the world cannot be easily reconciled; and the slighting opinion that has been sometimes passed on his poems may, I think, be as much attributed to the disgust of the critic, as to the demerit of the author. There are few of the minor poets who have higher claims to originality. The Epistles to Aristippus, his Songs, and the Father's Advice to his Son, although of unequal merit, contain many passages that are truly poetical. His veneration for some of the French poets, particularly Gresset, induced him to attempt a mode of versification in the Epistles, to which the English ear cannot easily become familiar, and which is not to be justified from any defect in the manliness or copiousness of the English language. Yet this study of the French writers, of no use in other respects, has rendered his translation of the Ver Vert almost a perfect copy of the original, and far superior to the coarse version since published by the late Dr. Geddes. Of his other pieces, the Theagenes to Sylvia is a faint imitation, although servilely intended, of Pope's Eloisa; The Power of Harmony, designed as a philosophical illustration of the principles of Shaftesbury, will probably obtain few readers. The prevailing fault in all his pieces, and which he learned from adopting the careless versification borrowed from the French, is a licentious use of the elision, as in the words "om'nous," "foll'wing," and many others: his rhymes also are frequently defective. Why the Estimate of Life was omitted from Dodsley's edition of his works, I know not. It contains more true poetry than half the volume. It was originally published in the Museum, and afterwards in Dodsley's Collection of Miscellaneous Poems.