1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Anna Seward to Thomas Park, 25 September 1800; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 5:318-26.



Lichfield, Sept. 25, 1800.

I have an immense deal to say to you, and therefore will not waste my time in apologies for the length of my involuntary silence.

Mrs. Park's complaints are unquestionably nervous. Proteus-like, they assume, in turn, the form of various diseases; yet, with all their teasing versatility, and harrassing obstinacy, they are not esteemed dangerous.

To have seen you both beneath my roof this tropical summer, and in tolerable health and spirits, would have given me lively pleasure. From the different aspect of my apartments, and the luxuriant umbrage of my lawns and terrace, the over-fervid sun could not have smote us with his beams. I shall be glad to learn that no accumulation of malady resulted to either of you from the long duration of the skiey ardours.

It is nine years since I passed the three summer months at home. Imperious malady has always expelled me my little Eden, and driven me to the coast in the month of July. I felt very cross and Eveish to leave my scene in the season of light and bloom; and thus compelled, as I was, to seek the Buxton fountain early in the spring, I ventured to omit my coast-expedition this year.

The decided pre-eminence you challenge for Cowper, over all his contemporary bards, stimulates me considerably. Highly as I deem of his genius, I by no means think it unequalled in his day. The superior popularity of the Task over any verse-composition of its period, must be acknowledged; but it is accountable from other causes than poetic pre-eminence; viz. its possessing sufficient merit to render it very dear to far the greater part of the discerning few, while it is intelligible and interesting to the undiscerning many. That is not so with some of our noblest poetry, which must be confessed very superior to the Task — as Paradise Lost, Comus, Lycidas, and Gray's two matchless odes, and his Descent of Odin. Yet not any of those compositions, had they been coeval with the Task, would have had the least chance with it as to attaining speedy popularity. Therefore is it, that speedy popularity, however genuine and independent of review, magazine, and newspaper puffing, is no test of preeminence; though, when thus genuine, it remains a proof of considerable merit. The superior works I have mentioned, are all of much too coy grace, and abstracted sublimity, to be really felt, and sincerely admired by the common reader, who may yet be truly susceptible of the beauties of such a poem as the Task. Those readers will, however, be clamorous in applauding works, though above the reach of their conceptions, which have, by the slowly accumulating suffrages of the enlightened few, obtained high and established reputation.

Then Cowper's Task, with no inconsiderable portion of true genius and estimable sentiments, is not only level with their capacities, but gratifies the two most general and nurtured feelings of the human mind; its enthusiasm concerning the Deity, and its malice to its fellow-creatures. The sombre piety of that poem gratifies the first, and its severe moral satire, and, on some occasions, most ungenerous and unjust satire, pampers the second; while the winter's walk, the winter evening, the post-boy, the newspaper, the tea-table, — all sweetly touched and described, will delight thousands, who would feel no thrill of impressive feeling in the augustly horrible Pandemonium of Milton, — who would be ennuied in his Eden, and puzzled and bewildered in the wild-wood of his enchanter, and by the wizard streams of his Deva.

Let it be remembered, that Cowper's compositions in rhyme, whatever strength of thought may be found in them, have no poetic witchery, either of imagery, landscape, or numbers; that Crowe's Lewesdon Hill, though its subject is less amusingly desultory than that of the Task, may yet, as a work of genius, challenge the finest parts of Cowper's poem.

Let it be remembered how variously, and how beautifully Hayley has written; though I confess his genius seems rapidly to have declined from its meridian, since that noble poem, the Essay on Epic Poetry, appeared. Of this decline I am afraid you will think, and that it will be generally thought, his late work, Epistles on Sculpture, is another proof; though it has many beauties, and though much learned information on the subject is contained in the notes. He was so good to send it me. You will there see, or have already seen, how passionately he deplores his lost protege; and that he there gives him his own name, confirming the public surmise that he was his son; but, if it really was so, he either chose to deceive me on the subject, or I strangely misunderstood him, when I was his guest at Eartham, in the summer 1782, when this youth was an infant, not two years old, and whose real father I understood to be the gallant young Howel, a former adoption of Mr. Hayley's, who was lost on his return from the West Indies.

But to resume our subject. Recollect the flood of picturesque imagination, which, in richly harmonious verse, Darwin has poured over the discoveries and systems of philosophic science; how original, how true to nature, and how vivid his pictures of the animal and vegetable world! — how appropriate, how varied, how exquisite his landscapes! — what entertaining and poetic use he has made of the most remarkable occurrences of the late century! I deeply feel that of the first poetic excellence, invention, there is an immensely transcending portion in Darwin's Botanic Garden to what can be found in the Task.

Cowper is the poetic son of Dr. Young. More equal, more consistent, more judicious, far less uniformly sombre than his parent, — but also much less frequently sublime. Darwin has no parent amongst the English poets; he sprung, in his declining years, with all the strength and fancy of juvenile life, from the temples of an immortal muse, like Pallas from the head of Jove.

Nor should it be forgotten, that Coleridge's Ode to the Departing Year is sublimer throughout than any part of Cowper's Task; that the stripling, Southey, has written an epic poem, full of strength as to idea, and grandeur as to imagery; that both those writers, in their rhyme-productions, far outshine Cowper's prosaic couplets.

When these claims are made, without mentioning the various and charming Mason, since his poetic sun was setting when Cowper's rose — when they are poized in the scale, surely you can resign your Colossal claim for the muse of Cowper, destined as she is to immortal remembrance. That destiny I asserted for her to Dr. Darwin, and Sir Brooke Boothby, ten years ago, when I heard them decide that the Task was too prosaic to survive its century, and that they could not read it through.

And now, what shall I say to you on the subject of Miss Bannerman's volume? Long as my letter already is, I feel that I have much to add on the subject, to justify my utter dissent from you on that theme. Dr A.'s lavish praise of powers, which appear to me of such strutting feebleness, surprises me much less than yours, since he pronounced the prosaic and long defunct Leonidas a fine epic poem.

In the first place, you style Miss B. pre-eminent as a Scotish poetess. Ah! have you forgotten Helen Williams and her Peru, published when she was under twenty? I confess an epic poem was too arduous an attempt for years so blossoming, an unclassic education, and inexperience in criticism. Peru, consequently, wants strength, and a sufficient portion of characteristic variety, and its metaphors and epithets are sometimes incongruous; but the numbers are richly harmonious, the landscapes vivid, and the fancy wildly and luxuriantly elegant.

Have you forgotten, also, that Miss Baillie, just emerged as the acknowledged author of the Plays on the Passions, is a Scotish woman; and, in my estimation, if indeed they are her's, as nobody now seems to doubt, a very great poet. Whatever may be the faults of her two tragedies, poetic strength and beauty are to be found in them, which place her in the first rank of those who, in this period, have struck the Deiphic lyre. No plays, except Jephson's, approach Shakespeare's so nearly.

Surely that obscurity, which Burke pronounces a source of the sublime, is totally different in its nature to the strained and abortive conceptions of Miss Bannerman's pen! The obscurity he means, is where sentiment is rather hinted than expressed; and, to an intelligent mind, conveys a different meaning to that which the words simply bear.

Certainly an author is not obliged to find his reader brains; but that obscurity which puzzles a reader, who has poetic sensibility and taste, to guess what the author means, is a great inexpiable fault; and if it occurs frequently, is as sure a proof of weakness in the powers of composition, as the former species is of strength.

There are other things, as you well know, which may render poetry obscure to the prosers, without fault in the composer; — as inversions, using epithets as verbs-active, or as noun-substantives, together with the bold and graceful omission of the conjunctives.

But the palpable obscure in which Miss B's ideas are perpetually struggling, is not the result of the poetic licenses, any more than of that mode of expression, which purposely leaves something to be supplied by the imagination of the reader. Unquestionably she has a good ear for the construction of numbers; her lines flow tunefully. Flowing numbers are, however, but the drapery of poetry, valuable when they clothe clear and vigorous thoughts and striking imagery; but worth little when they enrobe such blown and empty conceptions as I find on the pages of Miss B.

You speak of the wildness of her fancy, — it seems to me elaborate, yet incomprehensible, inflated, yet trite; and, if I know what invention is, that prime essential in poetry, she has absolutely none. Therefore is it, that no time, no instruction, no experience, will make her a poet, though her command of numbers tolerably qualifies her for a translator; not of that class, however, which rise upon their originals.

I will take an early opportunity of shewing you the ground of these my convictions. Meantime, I remain, &c.