The subject of this memoir was descended from an ancient and respectable family, which, since the reign of henry the Eighth, has possessed the priory and estate of Thurgarton, in Nottinghamshire; and which, though, in consequence of its attachment to the cause of Charles the First, it suffered considerable losses, still retains its rank in the county. If a memorandum, to which Mr. Chalmers alludes, may be relied on, the father of the poet must have been of a collateral branch, as it is there said that his surname was Gilbert, and that he was permitted "to use the surname and arms of Cooper, pursuant to the will of John Cooper, Esq. of Thurgarton."
John Gilbert Cooper was born in 1723, and received his education, under Dr. Nicholls, at Westminster school. In 1743, he removed to Cambridge, where he became a fellow commoner of Trinity College. At the university he resided for two or three years, and, though he took no degree, his works make it evident that he pursued his classical studies with activity and success.
He quitted the university, in what year I cannot ascertain, but probably in 1746, to enter into the married state. The lady to whom he was united was Susanna, a grandaughter of Sir Nathan Wright, keeper of the great seal, who succeeded Somers, and of whom the Duchess of Marlborough severely says, that "he was a man despised by all parties, of no use to the crown, and whose weak and wretched conduct in the court of chancery had almost brought his very office into contempt." This character partakes, perhaps, too much of its author's bitterness, but it is certain that Sir Nathan Wright was deficient in talent, and it is to be feared that he was more eager for the fees of office than was decorous in a person of so elevated a station.
The first fruit of Cooper's marriage was a son, born in July 1749, who lived but a single day. This child was buried in St. Margaret's church, Leicester, and the father inscribed its tomb with a Latin epitaph, expressive of his fondness and affliction. An anonymous writer, possessed of more wit than feeling, has burlesqued this epitaph, in a doggerel translation; and a biographer, seemingly little gifted with either the one or the other, has sneeringly described it as "a curious specimen of sentimental grief," which is deservedly ridiculed. Yet, in spite of these great authorities, it may be doubted whether there is any thing unnatural or ludicrous in the sorrow of a father, who had, perhaps, for months anticipated with delight the birth of his first-born child, and who saw the sudden destruction of all his hopes, even at the moment when he was exulting in their being fully realized.
That, however, nothing may be omitted, to fix on Cooper the stigma of being a mere pretender to fine feelings, the biographer has copied an anecdote from Boswell. "Mr. Fitzherbert, the father of the late Lord St. Helens (says Boswell), 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 postchaise, and go and see him?'"
This story, circumstantially as it is told, I believe to be a fabrication. It is not probable that any man of even common sense would expose himself to derision by such conduct as that which Boswell describes; and, on the other hand, the parental affection of Cooper was known to be so strong that he was declared, in print, to be "one of the tenderest fathers in England." The fact, on which the tale is built, was thus related by Dr. Johnson: "A gentleman was making an affected rant, as many people do, of great feelings about 'his dear son,' who was at school near London, how anxious he was lest he might be ill, and what he would give to see him. 'Can't you (said Fitzherbert) take a post chaise and go to him.'" This story affords one more proof on how slender a basis the monstrous superstructure of calumny may be raised.
The progress of Cooper as an author must now be traced. In 1745, while, perhaps, he was still at Cambridge, he published The Power of Harmony, a poem, in two books, and in blank verse. Cooper was an enthusiastic admirer of Shaftesbury and the writers of that nobleman's school of philosophy, and his work is deeply tinctured with their peculiar doctrines. The design of it, he tells us, "is to show that a constant attention to what is perfect and beautiful in nature will by degrees harmonize the soul to a responsive regularity and sympathetic order." The subject, abstruse in itself, is such as can please only the initiated few, and the author at times darkens it still more by obscurity of expression; yet his poem, though it falls short of excellence, is redeemed from contempt by frequent touches of genuine poetry, by elegance of language, and by a style of versification which is not wanting in spirit, and bears some resemblance to that of Akenside. One assailant, and that one not to be despised, he, on this occasion, brought upon himself by his disrespectful mention of the priesthood. This was William Thompson, who retaliated, by satirically characterizing him as the "sweet Farinelli of enervate song."
Dodsley having established a periodical work, called The Museum, Cooper, in 1746 and 1747, was a liberal contributor to it, both in verse and prose, under the signature of Philaretes. In this magazine were first published the Epistle from Theagenes to Sylvia, and the Estimate of Human Life. The Epistle is not devoid of tenderness and animation; but it provokes a disadvantageous comparison with the Eloisa of Pope, and the heroic couplet of Cooper wants variety, and is less pleasing than any of his other metres. Of the Estimate, which is written in eight syllable couplets, the plan is ingenious, and the execution is poetical.
Hitherto Cooper had concealed his name, and exercised his genius only in short literary excursions. But, in 1749, he came forward undisguised, and with a work of considerable magnitude and pretension. This was his Life of Socrates, collected from the Memorabilia of Xenophon and the Dialogues of Plato, and illustrated farther by Aristotle, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero, Proclus, Apuleius, Maximus Tyrius, Boethius, Diogenes Laertius, Aulus Gellius, and others. In the composition of the notes he was aided by his friend, the Rev. John Jackson, of Leicester, who had long been at hostility with Warburton, and, as Cooper himself had a dislike of that extraordinary man, they did not forget to aim their shafts at him whenever an opportunity was afforded to them by time subject.
In this volume he gave incontrovertible proofs of talent and erudition. It cannot be denied, however, that, with regard to his own abilities, he displayed an overweening confidence, which at least bordered on vanity; and that he treated with little ceremony many of those authors from whom he differed in opinion. For this latter mode of proceeding he thought it necessary to offer a defence. "Some expressions (said he) may appear too harsh, and others too lusory; but all weapons are not to be used alike against all adversaries; for, as the ancient warlike Scythians found, in the servile war, that whips more intimidated the army of slaves, that marched against them, than the sword, which had so often corrected the pride of nations; so contumely and ridicule will avail against those who are lost to good manners, candour, and good sense, when the nobler methods of humanity, reason, and learning, would prove ineffectual."
Warburton was not a man to be attacked with impunity. He, nevertheless, suspended his vengeance till the publication of his edition of Pope's works, in 1751, and he then, in a note to the Essay on Criticism, assailed with his usual contemptuous asperity the work of Cooper, and at the same time charged the writer with combining a degree of ignorance and vanity which had "given birth to every iniquity of impudent abuse and slander." Roused by this language, Cooper remonstrated privately, and declared his intention of appealing to the public; to which Warburton replied, that he had himself been treated with a scurrility worse than Billingsgate, and had taken no other revenge than a casual mention of the author of the Life of Socrates, with a slight joke, without mentioning his name. To such a joke Cooper could not be reconciled, and he accordingly published Cursory Remarks on Mr. Warburton's new edition of Pope's Works, in which remarks his antagonist was not spared. Here the controversy ended, and into the subsequent editions of Pope the obnoxious note was not admitted.
The Life of Socrates did not become a popular work, but, in 1754, Cooper gave to the world Letters on Taste, which met with a flattering reception. They went through four editions, to the last two of which he added nine essays; on education, the power of habit, good and beauty, self-love, true and false religion, friendship, conjugal love, solitude, and contentment. In the letters he appears rather as a man of genius and fancy than as a philosopher. He delineates better than he analyzes. The manner in which he defines taste is vague and obscure, and to much of his reasoning the same objection may be made. "The effect of a good taste (says he) is that instantaneous glow of pleasure which thrills through our whole frame, and seizes upon the applause of the heart, before the intellectual power, reason, can descend from the throne of the mind to ratify its approbation, either when we receive into the soul beautiful images through the organs of bodily senses, or the decorum of an amiable character through the faculties of moral perception; or when we recall, by the imitative arts, both of them through the intermediate power of the imagination. Nor is this delightful and immediate sensation to be excited in an undistempered soul, but by a chain of truths, dependent upon one another, till they terminate in the hand of (lie divine Composer of the whole." It is manifest that from this source the reader can derive but little knowledge, with respect to the cause and principles of taste. But he who is satisfied by being amused will not be disappointed by the Letters of Cooper. They deserve the praise which was given to them by Dr. Johnson; a praise the origin of which cannot be suspected, since he who gave it was rather prejudiced against Cooper, and once satirically denominated him "the Punchinello of literature." It was his opinion that Cooper's genius seemed to shine more in definition than in description; that he had more of imagery than of speculation; that his imagination was the strongest talent of his mind; and that, if he had not attempted to offer any thing new on the subject of taste, he was always so entertaining, spirited, and splendid in his diction, that the reader who is not instructed by him, cannot fail of being pleased and diverted."
In the following year, 1755, he published The Tomb of Shakespeare, a Vision; which has the merit of elegant language, musical versification, and appropriate imagery. He also contributed two papers to The World, which, on the suggestion of Lord Lyttelton, had recently been established by Dodsley and Moore.
The year 1756 presented to the view of Englishmen a disgusting spectacle; that of six thousand Hessians brought over to defend Britain against a threatened invasion from France. It was impossible that this unusual and humiliating sight could be beheld without sorrow, shame, and anger, by any man who possessed courage, and a proper regard for the honour of his country. Cooper was one of those who deeply felt the disgrace of freemen relying upon enslaved mercenaries for the defence of their independence and laws; and his patriotic indignation drew from him a spirited Iambic ode, entitled The Genius of Britain, which, in a strain of dignified compliment, he inscribed to Mr. Pitt.
In 1758 he published three Epistles to the Great, from Aristippus in retirement, and these were soon after followed by a Fourth epistle, with the title of The Call of Aristippus. The latter was addressed to his friend Dr. Akenside, whose poetical genius it lavishly extolled. That the praise was too highly coloured may be admitted, and will easily be forgiven; for it is the amiable fault of affection to magnify the virtues and talents of a beloved object. But to assert, as one writer has done, that the poem is written "in a style of adulation pardonable only to the warmest feelings of friendship," is surely to go beyond the bounds of liberality, and even of truth, whether we take into consideration the merit of Akenside or the language of Cooper. Nor is there any ground to affirm that Cooper "hated the ruling government." That he hated despotism, and despised the servile herd of court flatterers, is certain, but there is no reason to believe that be was hostile to a limited monarchy. To the minister who then guided the state he was not an enemy; for that minister was Pitt, to whose patriotism and transcendent abilities he had himself recently borne deliberate and animated testimony.
The last production which Cooper gave to the world was his translation of Gresset's lively poem of Ver Vert, or the Nunnery Parrot, which came from the press in 1759. The poems of Cooper, with the exception of this translation, and the Estimate of Life, were collected into a volume, in 1764, by Dodsley, who published them for his own benefit. "When (said Dodsley, in his prefatory notice) I requested him to give me a preface, he replied, 'that to those to whom such trifles afforded pleasure, a formal introduction would be unnecessary; that he wrote most of them when he was very young, for his own amusement, and published them afterwards for my profit; and, as they had once answered both those ends, was very little solicitous what would he the fate of them for the future.'" In this edition, however, numerous corrections were made in the four Epistles of Aristippus, and much to their improvement. It appears, therefore, that the author was not quite so indifferent, as he affected to be, with respect to his poetical character.
The rest of Cooper's life was passed in elegant retirement, sometimes in the metropolis, but usually in the country, where he is said to have been an active and useful magistrate. By Dr. Kippis, who was acquainted with him, he is described as having been "a gentleman of agreeable appearance, of polite address, and accomplished manners." To the bustle of the great world he had a thorough aversion, and the only instance which he ever displayed of ambition, if ambition it may be called, was an attempt to become a vice president of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. This was a situation for which there can be no doubt that he was well qualified. He, nevertheless, failed in his attempt, and was in consequence so much disgusted that he ceased to attend the society. After a tedious and torturing illness, occasioned by the stone, he died, in his forty-sixth year, at his house in May Fair, on the 14th of April, 1769.
Though Cooper does not belong to that class of poets, of which the characteristic is a masculine vigour of thought, he merits to be placed among the foremost of that class, the individuals of which are distinguished by a lively fancy, and a sprightly elegance of expression. He does not soar heavenward with the pinion of the eagle, but, like the hummingbird, dressed in brilliant plumage, sports in the sunbeam from flower to flower. He himself makes no claims to distinction, but describes his productions as
Trifles of philosophic pleasure,
Composed in literary leisure.
It is in one of the Epistles of Aristippus that this modest description of his strain occurs. Lightly, however, as bespeaks of them, those epistles display a felicity of diction, a graceful gaiety, and a playfulness and fertility of imagination, in which he has seldom been equaled, and in which, at the period when he wrote, he had certainly no rival. On this occasion he adopted a style of versification often used in light compositions by our Gallic neighbours, but which, I believe, had never before been tried by an English writer, and has since been employed only by Wodhull and one or two others. The peculiarity of it consists principally in the irregular recurrence of the rhymes. It has been objected to this alien metre, that the irregularity of the rhyme is unpleasing to the ear, which expects the return of the sound at stated intervals. I am, however, of opinion, that there is more of cavil than of justice in this objection. When the versification is skilfully managed it has a pleasing effect, and it must be owned that Cooper manages it with infinite dexterity.
The translation of Ver Vert is in the same kind of metre; and the verse is not less easy and musical than that of the Epistles of Aristippus. But this is only a small part of the merit of the English Ver Vert. It is not too much to say that, in spirit, and wit, and archness and sportiveness of allusion, it is fully equal to the original poem. More than one attempt has subsequently been made to transfuse into our language the graces of Gresset; but no one has yet been able to approach to an equality with the first translator.