1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

William Goodhugh, in The English Gentleman's Library Manual (1827) 296-98.



Johnson, the bookseller, of St. Paul's Church-yard, first obtained the copyright of Cowper's Poems, which proved a source of great profit to him, in the following manner: — A relation of Cowper's called one evening, in the dusk, on Johnson, with a bundle of these poems, which he offered him for publication, provided he would publish them at his own risk, and allow the author to have a few copies to give to his friends. Johnson having on perusal approved of them, to undertake the risk of publishing. Soon after they appeared there was not a Review that did not load them with the most scurrilous abuse, and condemn them to the butter shops. In consequence of the public mind thus terrified or misled, these charming effusions lay in a corner of the bookseller's shop as an unsaleable pile for a long time. Sometime afterwards the same person appeared with another bundle of manuscripts from the same author, which were offered and accepted on similar terms. In this fresh collection was the admirable poem of the Task. Not alarmed at the fate of the former publication, and thoroughly assured as he was of their great merit, he resolved upon publishing them. Soon after they had appeared the tone of the reviewers became changed, and Cowper was hailed as the first poet of his age. The success of this second publication set the first in motion, and Johnson immediately reaped the fruits of his undaunted judgment.

In 1812 the copyright was put up to sale, among the members of the trade, in thirty-two shares. Twenty of these shares were sold at two hundred and twelve pounds per share, including printed copies in quires, to the amount of eighty-two pounds, which each purchaser was to take at a stipulated price; and twelve shares were retained in the hands of the proprietor. The work was satisfactorily proved, at the sale, to net eight hundred and thirty-four pounds per annum. It had only two years of copyright, and yet this same copyright, with printed copies, produced, estimating the twelve shares which were retained, at the same price as those which were sold, the sum of six thousand seven hundred and sixty-four pounds.

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 conic 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.