1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Edmund Cartwright, in Review of Cowper, Poems; The Monthly Review 67 (October 1782) 262-63.



What Pope has remarked of women, may, by a very applicable parody, be said of the general run of modern poets, "Most poets have no character at all;" being, for the chief part, only echoes of those who have sung before them. For while not only their sentiments and diction are borrowed, but their very modes of thinking, as well as versification, are copied from the said models, discrimination of character must of course be scarcely perceptible. Confining themselves, like pack-horses, to the same beaten track and uniformity of pace, and, like them too, having their bells from the same shop, they go jingling along in uninterrupted unison with each other. This, however, is not the case with Mr. Cowper; he is a poet sui generis, for as his notes are peculiar to himself, as he classes not with any known species of bards that have preceded him: his style of composition, as well as his modes of thinking, are entirely his own. The ideas, with which his mind seems to have been either endowed by nature, or to have been enriched by learning and reflection, as they lie in no regular order, so are they promiscuously brought forth as they accidentally present themselves. Mr. Cowper's predominant turn of mind, though serious and devotional, is at the same time dryly humorous and sarcastic. Hence his very religion has a smile that is arch, and his sallies of humour an air that is religious; and yet motley as is the mixture, it is so contrived as to be neither ridiculous nor disgusting. His versification is almost as singular as the materials upon which it is employed. Anxious only to give each image its due prominence and relief, he has wasted no unnecessary attention on grace or embellishment: his language, therefore, though neither strikingly harmonious nor elegant, is plain, forcible, and expressive.