1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

John Wilson, in Review of Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries; Blackwood's Magazine 23 (March 1828) 364).



The biography of Great Poets seems to be demanded by nature — especially of those who have steeped their poetry, not only in the light of inspiration, but in the heat of their own hearts. We cannot dissever them from the glories by which they are made immortal. Yet, we know that they could not have lived always in that excited and exalted state of soul in which they emanated their poems. We desire to know them in the ebb of their thoughts and feelings, when they are but as mere men. We do not doubt that we shall love and esteem them when the lyre is laid aside, the inspired fit passed away — and that even then, with the prose of life, they will be seen mingling poetry. Such a man was Cowper — and of all we have been let know of the "Bard of Olney," from himself or others, we would not willingly let the most mournful or afflicting anecdote die; for while "we hold each strange tale devoutly true," we feel towards the object of our esteem, our love, and our pity, "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." That another hand should have suddenly lifted up or rent away the veil that hid the agonies of a mind still beautiful in all its most rueful afflictions, we might not have been able to endure, and might have turned away from the spectacle, as from one that we felt our eyes were not privileged to behold; but the veil was withdrawn at times by the sufferer himself, who, while he implored mercy from his Creator, was not loath to receive the pity of his fellow-creatures — feeling, except indeed in the deepest, and most disastrous, and most despairing darkness of his spirit, that all their best sympathies were with him, and that he needed not to fear too rude or too close a gaze into his mysterious miseries, from eyes which he had often filled with the best of tears, and when mirth visited his melancholy, with the best of smiles too, although the hour and the day had come at last, when smiles were not for him, nor, as he thought, for any creature framed of the clay. Yet is his entire character, disturbed and distracted as it is seen to be, in beautiful and perfect consistency with all his poetry. But the sweet bells were out of tune, and jangled; the strings of the heart were broken or the keys reversed, and the instrument that once discoursed such excellent music, at last jarred terribly its discord, and it was well when it was heard to sound no more.