1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

George Barrell Cheever, in Studies in Poetry ... A copious Collection of Elegant Extracts (1830) 180-82.



Cowper's biography is remarkable amidst that of all other poets, and indeed of all other men, for being almost exclusively the history of his feelings. It is a record, not so much of the changes in his external or even intellectual circumstances, as of those in the affections and emotions of heart. Hence it is intensely interesting, without deriving that interest either from variety of incident or even from the progress and publication of his literary works. The events in his life are few, and those few such as cannot be under stood, but in connexion with a full developement of the state of mind and, feeling, which preceded, accompanied, and were occasioned by them. From his letters, which are the fiest specimens of epistolary writing in the language, and from the affectionate and instructive biography of Hayley, the pupil may gain some adequate knowledge of that singular and sensitive being.

The personal character of Cowper, to those who could appreciate its merits, must have been in the highest degree attractive and interesting. His friends loved him, indeed, with a strength of attachment, and watched over him with a vigilance and an affectionate delicacy of attention, which it is rare to witness. His keen sensibilities, — so keen, the they shrunk instinctively from the slightest exposure, — did no prevent the stronger features of his mind from growing into full richness and maturity, but rather blended and harmonizes with them into a beautifully original combination. His character wore all the softness and delicacy or a flower that has grown in the shade, without exhibiting its pallid sickliness of hue.

With a warm-hearted benevolence towards all mankind, and a peculiar tenderness of feeling even for the inferior orders of being, he united a rich humour, a delightful fund of pleasantry and wit. At the same time a fervent piety diffused its influence alike throughout his character and writings, shedding its sweet radiance over his cheerful hours, and even in the deepest gloom of his despondency, supporting with its consolations and its precepts, a mind, which, but for that support, would have sunk into hopeless insanity.

"The nature of Cowper's works makes us peculiarly identify the poet and the man in perusing them. As an individual, he was retired and weaned from the vanities of the world; as an original writer, he left the ambitious and luxuriant subjects of fiction and passion, for those of real life and simple nature, and for the developement of his own earnest feelings, in behalf of moral and religious truth. His language has such a masculine, idiomatic strength, and his manner, whether tie 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 having come 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 has 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 an scarcely regret his not having written them at an earlier period of life. For he blends the determination of age with an exquisite and ingenuous sensibility; and though he sports very much with his subject, yet when he is in earnest, there is a gravity of long-felt conviction in his sentiments, which gives an uncommon ripeness of character to his poetry."

At the same time he has exhibited in it, a greater variety of power than almost any other English poet. He has furnished "examples of the sublime, the pathetic, the descriptive, the moral, the satirical, so numerous that nothing seemed beyond his grasp, and so original, that nothing reminds us of any former poet." His pathos frequently communicates a pensive tenderness to his whole train of thought, and sometimes deepens into the most affecting sketches. His satires are strong, natural, and characteristic. As a descriptive poet, he is in most respects unrivalled, and stands with Thomson at the head of this class of poetry; the latter being more comprehensive in his views, and the former more minute, graphic, and picturesque in his delineations.

"To his eye, the great and little things of this world were levelled into an equality, by his recollection of the power and purposes of Him who made them. They are, in his view, only as toys spread on the lap and carpet of nature, for the childhood of our immortal being. This religious indifference to the world is far, indeed, from blunting his sensibility to the genuine and simple beauties of creation; but it gives his taste a contentment and fellowship with humble things. It makes him careless of selecting and refining his views of nature beyond their casual appearance. He contemplated the face of plain English rural life, in moments of leisure and sensibility, till its minutest features were impressed upon his fancy; a he sought not to embellish what he loved. Hence his landscapes have less of the ideally beautiful than Thomson's; but they have an unrivalled charm of truth and reality."

"There is no poet who has given us a finer conception of the amenity of female influence. Of all the verses that have been ever devoted to the subject of domestic happiness, those in his Winter Evening at the opening of the fourth book of the Task are perhaps the most beautiful. In perusing that scene of 'intimate delights,' 'fireside enjoyments,' and 'home-born happiness,' we seem to recover a part of the forgotten value of existence, when we recognize the means of its blessedness so widely dispensed, and so cheaply attainable, and find then susceptible of description at once so enchanting and so faithful."

The elevated devotional tendency of his poetry, is what constitutes its most ennobling feature. Connected with this his patriotism is indeed sublime. Expostulation, is written in a strain of solemn severity and truth, which makes it seem, a dressed as it is to the nation, like the prophetic warnings of Isaiah: and the Task, has passages of moral sublimity which are scarce to be equalled in the language.

The influence which an intimacy with his writings is calculated to exert upon the soul, is truly delightful. The most religious mind may give itself away to the enjoyment of his fine poetry, and feel safe in the assurance that it is at the same time breathing the pure atmosphere of piety and truth, and that its thoughts will never be led where the remembrance of God and of heaven would not follow with delight. For the manner in which he has blended together devotional fervour and poetic genius, he stands perfectly alone, and is well entitled t be named by way of eminence the Christian Poet. The spirit, besides, which animates his pages, is one of quiet gentleness and benevolence amidst his fellow men, mingled often with touches of original familiar humour that are extremely fascinating.