1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah Cowley

Anonymous, "Mrs. Cowley" La Belle Assemblee 6 (May 1809) 156-58.



One of its brightest ornaments has been lost to the sex by the death of this lady, who contributed so much to establish the claim of woman to high mental rank; in departments too, in which it has been supposed most difficult to attain it — the drama and poetry.

She was born in 1743, at Tiverton, Devon, where her father, Mr. Parkhouse, who partook of the enthusiasm which existed in his youth, in favour of the wits and poets, and of literature in general, cultivated her rising mind; his education and mental powers well qualified him for the task. In her dedication to him of The Maid of Arragon, she says:—

You gave my youthful fancy wings to soar,
From your indulgence flows my wild-note song.

It was his favourite boast that her letters would have obtained insertion in the Spectator.

Mrs. Cowley was married in January 1771. Her husband, Captain Cowley, of the Hon. East India Company's service, died about ten years ago. Her mind reverting to her native place, having always wished to close her days amidst its rural beauties, and amongst her early friends, she lately retired thither, and died there on the 11th of last March, aged sixty six.

Neither before or after her first composing for the drama, was Mrs. Cowley attached to theatrical entertainment. The sums gained about the time she commenced, large enough to induce almost any one to make attempts, allured her, who was conscious of her powers; yet so little anxious was she for entering on her career, of even profitable fame (though then the celebrity of successful dramatic composition was thought almost superior to any other), that it was not until twelve months after she had sent, anonymously, to Garrick her first play, that she caused inquiry to be made, whether it had been accepted. It was the last play Garrick produced before he resigned the management.

The Belle's Stratagem alone, eventually produced twelve hundred guineas. It was dedicated, by permission, to the Queen, before whom it was performed once in every season as long as the Royal Family continued to frequent the Theatres.

Her high success tempted forward her facile pen, and, in the course of a few years, The Runaway, The Belle's Stratagem, Which is the Man! The Fate of Sparta, &c. &c. tragedy, comedy, and in one instance, a farce, Who's the Dupe? were added to the public stock of entertainment and literature. Her favourite idea of female character in her plays, is a combination of the greatest vivacity of manners, with the purest innocence of conduct.

A peculiarity strikes the reader after some acquaintance with her style. It is the extreme precision with which she uses her words, in only their mere direct meaning; she seems unable to wander from the root of word. This becomes even a fault; she has no circumspective view of the bye, figurative, indirect, or perverted sense in which the ward has come to be used. Sometimes her language, therefore, has the character of not conveying her meaning. This springs from a fondness she had in early life for etymology, as she could discover it in dictionaries, &c. which attachment will frequently be mischievous, except there has been an education more generally classical than is bestowed on a lady.

May not this error be frequently discovered in the works of female authors? Where it is not so, it has probably been because their works have been submitted to the correction of a man of the world.

Latterly, tired of the drama, and of continuing any longer to pourtray the manners of the various scenes of life, sometimes for the sake of variety, necessarily low-bred and vulgar, and having taken a distaste to framing the language necessarily appropriate to such characters, Mrs. Cowley transferred her pen to poetry. Genius is not confined to a single region, like a mere knack of writing the result of continued labour in a particular direction. Her larger poems were, The Maid Arragon, The Scottish Village, and Siege of Acre. There is a beautiful poem of hers, called Editha, given to the Editor of, and buried in a County History. From it we extract the following eulogy on marriage, written instantly on reading the French decree, in an early period of the Revolution, making marriage no longer an ecclesiastical rite, but a mere legal engagement before a Justice of the Peace, and enabling either party to obtain a divorce arbitrarily, without the consent of the other:—

O marriage! powerful charm, gift all divine,
Sent from the skies, o'er life's sad waste to shine;
What splendours from the bright tiara spring,
What graces to thy sober footsteps cling!
Vengeance will surely crush the idiot land,
Which drags the sceptre from thy hallow'd hand,
Which dares to trample on thy hallow'd rites,
And nuptial perfidy, unaw'd invites.

The weeping world to thee its solace owes;
From thee derives its truest, best repose;
Not the cold compact subtle interest twines,
Not that which pale submission trembling signs,
Is marriage! — No! — 'tis when its polish'd chain
Binds those who in each other's bosom reign;
'Tis where two minds form one ecstatic whole,
One sweetly blended wish, one sense, one soul:

This was the gift the exil'd Seraph curst,
When from Hell's blazing continent he burst;
—Eden's fair charms he saw without a groan,
Tho' Nature there had fix'd her gorgeous throne;
Its rich annnas, and its aloes high,
Whose forms pyramidal approach the sky;
Its tow'ring pines with luscious clusters crown'd,
Its skies whose perfume fill'd the region round,
Its streams pellucid, and its bowers of shade,
Its fiow'rs that knew to bloom, but not to fade;
Its orb which nurs'd the new-created day,
Its bow which joy'd the night with tender ray;
Its fields of wavy gold, its slopes of green,
By the fell Fiend, without spring, were seen:
—'Twas then, fierce rancour seiz'd the Demon's breast,
When, in the married pair, he felt mankind were blest.

In the poems which twenty years ago she threw into the newspapers, a peculiar feature still remained, from her former habit of dramatic composition, which is, that they are also dramatic; that is, they are written in some other person's character, never in her own; it is no more descriptive of her own feeling, than is the language of the characters in her plays. She would amuse herself by assuming the signature of a man, and write as a lover; or expecting never to be discovered, even by the editors, under a fictitious name as a woman, write answers to one to whom she was unknown, whom she knew not, or ever expected to hear the name of. When collections were published, in which some of her poems were, she used to amuse herself with laughing at the critical gravity with which the structure of mere "newspaper poetry" was reviewed. Poems by which their date frequently shewed that they were written within twenty-four hours after the event which gave rise to them.

Her style in poetry was certainly unequal; amongst the richest and most musical flow, and rapid energy of new created thought, there are found indeed of necessity, insterstitial lines, lame and prosaic, at though the over exerted faculties had sunk into repose; such portions of her works are the Settings, to the sparkling beauties they contain. The mechanism of literature she was little given to, the file therefore was seldom used for polish, more tedious to a writer than of substantial use to the reader; her lines retain nearly the form its which they were at once cast.

A thorough proof of the flow of mind in which Mrs. Cowley composed is, that more than once, with the change of subject in the course of a poem, her measure changed, and returned not until the close of the new subject, neither the change or return being discovered by herself until afterwards. Was this a fault or poetic inspiration?

A great many years have elapsed since any thing has been published by her; several of her works are out of print. Literary fame was never in her estimation an essential ingredient of happiness; her heart was in domestic life, where as daughter, wife, and mother, she was indeed perceived to shine.

That Mrs. Cowley looked from the path of fame to the domestic circle, is proved by list dedications of her works; having previously shewn, by a dedication, her gratitude for the patronage of the Queen, and by another, her sense of the honour bestowed upon her by the friendship of Lord Harrowby, a third work is dedicated to her father, a fourth to her husband, and the dedication of the fifth is a tribute to the regard shewn her by his brother the merchant.

Though Mrs. Cowley had all the brilliant imagination, sensibility of mind, and liveliness of manners, which belong to genius, yet there was no assumption in her behaviour. Pride accompanies learning, the growth of a sense of some sort of merit, which feeling is in the mind, from a consciousness of the arduous labour by which the man of learning made his acquisitions; he thinks he grants, in his conversation, a portion of acquired riches. The powers of genius, being natural, appear not surprising or meritorious to the possessor, who, conscious of no effort, is not always conscious of superiority, and therefore in behaviour insists not on it. Who in Mrs. Cowley's company, ever fancied themselves with one who piqued herself on literary genius, and amongst the ladies who have felt some little mental tremor, perhaps in the commencement of epistolary correspondence with her, with whom did it continue? Yet perhaps the familiar ease and simplicity of her letters, whilst they soothed the sense of inferiority in a correspondent, rendered them not the least perfect of her compositions.

She disliked mere literary correspondence; if she found herself accidentally entangled in it, she soon tired. The constant reference to, and examination of, what had been done, was to her a disagreeable retrograde mental operation. Those in particular who employed themselves in framing common-place books, seemed to her capable only of collecting mental food for themselves, not of creating any for others. Native thought always pressed upon her; invention was the natural habit of her mind, it was almost inexhaustible; her memory was slight.

In declining literary connections, Mrs. Cowley was left without any share in that fund of mutual praise, and literary protection in periodical works, in which many authors think it prudent to be concerned.

She has shewn herself however cheerfully ready to do justice to literary merit. Thus, in the Scottish Village, a due compliment is paid to Miss Seward, of whom we gave a biographical sketch in our last:—

A Scottish Seward shall demand the prize;
She from whose pensive and mellifluous throat;
Where'er misfortune scowls her cheerless eyes,
Is pour'd the pitying melancholy note.

Thus the sad nightingale, throughout the night,
Her food complaint rings through the leafy grove,
And so endears the scene, we dread the light,
Detest the sprightlier note, and sorrow love.

In the poem at large, the destruction of rural felicity, by the introduction of manufactures, and a trading population, in a village in Scotland, is opposed by an enumeration of the advantages of busy literary and cultivated life, ensuing from the acquisition of riches.

What a combination of justice, discrimination, and taste, is her criticism on Miss Burney, in the same poem:—

What pen but Burney's then can soothe the breast?
Who draw from Nature with a skill so true?
In every varying mode it stands confest,
When brought by her before the inquirer's view.

For powers peculiar all her portraits fill,
When lines are bold and strong, a vulgar pen
May take the sketch; it asks no mighty skill
Misers to paint, or mad, or wayward men.

But human nature in its faintest dye
Burney detects, drags it to open day;
Makes evident what slip'd th' unmarking eye,
And bids it glare with truth's pervading ray.

The huddled beings of the common mass,
Who to themselves appear of equal sort,
Must not in unawaken'd error pass,
And sure 'tis this, is keen-eyed Burney's forte!

Touch'd by her spear, they sudden spring to sight,
But not new form'd — she shews them as they are;
She moulds no character; but gives the light,
Which, makes them clear as Herschel sees a star.

Mrs. Cowley penned, in the last seven years, two or three slight poems, in friendship with the families of Lady Carew, Lady Duntre, Mrs. Wood, and other ladies in her neighbourhood. She has left but two MS. Poems; the one, of some length, professes to pass by The Death of Nelson &c &c or any topic in adopting which a poet would follow, instead of leading public opinion, and she directs it to the Braganza family, then on its voyage to the Brazils, and gives a picture of the probable future progress there of the sciences of Europe, and of Christian knowledge. The other procured a subscription for the relief of a poor family in distress.

Of late years she declined all evening parties, nor did she see any company except ladies, and that only at her own house. One morning in the week, Mrs. Cowley was it home to her female friends, and was visited by a crowd; it was a morning rout, if that term be applicable to an assemblage without card playing.

Her life was closed with the utmost degree of religious cheerfulness.

A perfect edition of her works has never yet been published, but will now appear; and by the public will be well received. Where, in a publication of the same extent, will a reader find more entertainment?