1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. William Cowper" The Champion (23 October 1814) 342.



COWPER is one of the very few good poets, who are popular: and his popularity reflects credit on the people who favour him. He has gained his height of public estimation by means equally honourable to himself, and to his admirers. He has not, like one poet, exited an eager, but short-lived notice, by marvellous stories, and gorgeous descriptions: he has not, like another, condescended to win the patronage of the corrupt, by being a pandar to the most unmixed sensuality; nor has he, like a third, bought the suffrages of the malignant, by administering fuel to the hateful passions. He does not do, what might be done almost without harm: he does not flatter the love of country nor the love of self. Instead of being the idolater, he is the satirist of human nature: but he criticizes man in general, and not in the individual, thus assaulting the vanity of the whole race, instead of soothing one class at the expense of the disgrace of another. Some ascribe the general regard with which he is considered as the result of that peculiar religious complexion which he has cast over his poems: but those who so determine, do not seem to remember, that the class of religionists who are supposed to be chiefly interested with this feature, are not to any extent readers of poetry, and can scarcely endure any verses except a tabernacle-hymn. It should also be recollected, that those poems of Cowper which seem to be exclusively intended for such persons, were by them, as by most others, shamefully neglected, though they are replete with noble sentiments, and the most graceful and forcible diction. One of them in particular, called "The Expostulation," is as dignified and pathetic an effusion of burning eloquence, as ever burst from the soul of a patriot, at once sorrowing and indignant over the vices and misfortunes of his countrymen. This, however, met with no more notice than the rest, and for no reason at which I can guess, except that it is deeply marked with that devotional feeling to which the popularity of this poet is so falsely attributed. It was not till he published the Task, that he was at all known out of the shop of his bookseller, though from that time his writings have been diffused through every degree of society. It is, therefore, in that poem, that we must look for the causes of his fame.

Nor need our search be long: we soon see a mind so amiably refined, such purity, and yet such playfulness of thinking, such benevolent feelings, such sincere-wrought pictures of rural and domestic bliss, such ease and yet such force of language, together with such a variety of topics, as fully account for all the praise bestowed upon him. Thanks to heaven, which will not suffer its image in man to be totally effaced, there is in every heart a chord, which, if properly touched, will resound to the notes of virtue. It will disdain the rude clash of the dogmatist, and the careless finger of the languid divine: but let the skilful hand of delicate intelligence once play among its strings, and in spite of long disuse, it will, though warped, pour forth an echo sweet and sublime at its holy origin. Such delicacy of handling belonged to Cowper: he knew how to make vice frightful, but he preferred to make virtue alluring. He can, when he pleases, find his way to furious indignation: but he chuses rather the gentle, yet prevailing ardour of persuasion, before which, even obstinacy flings away the thick integument with which it loves to shelter itself against obtrusive appeals. For instance, where is the debauchee so brutalized by appetite, that he does not pant to leave the tavern and the stews, to join the poet in his walks of various and refreshing beauty? Who is there so wedded to the crowded theatre, or the more crowded rout, that he would not gladly spend one evening at least, with Cowper, by his tasteful fire-side? Is there a huntsman (I do not say a courser, for the tame cruelty of coursing precludes all possibility of feeling) who can read the story of the sheltered hare, and not blush with shame, and almost vow never again to torment so poor an animal?

Cowper is not so much a poet as an eloquent declaimer and describer: he has little or none of that creative fancy which revels in ideal worlds, or gives new combinations to old forms; he is content with nature and with man as he finds them: he deduces from the contemplation of them, what indeed few can do, for he deduces a moral lesson: but he sees little else than what is obvious to every man of cultivated taste. His views are elevated because they are pious, nor is unmixed with worldly speculations: but Cowper wants what the poet of the lakes possesses, that comprehensive grasp of intellect which is a more certain pledge of the correctness of religious confidence, than the least-authenticated external evidences, or the most unctuous treatises of free grace. But though the mind of Cowper was not enlarged, his heart comprehended the whole circle of human existence: there was no bigotry in his feelings: no exclusive code of affection. Thus his creed led him to despise infidelity, but for Dr. Darwin, an infidel, he could feel sincere kindness: he affects to hold natural philosophy in contempt, but for Sir Isaac Newton, he has no language except of veneration and love.

The versification of Cowper is inartificially easy, but its pauses are rather the pauses of melodious prose than of poetry; his page is verse only to the eye: to the ear it is a copious stream of sound consisting of energetic language, disposed in well-marshalled and sonorous periods. His minor pieces are not so much known as they deserve: they are full of elegant terms and sprightly observations. It has been said of them, and with justice, that since the days of Horace, nothing has appeared so perfectly Horatian. The same shrewdness, mixed with good humour, the same amenity of style, the same playful ease, the same calm good sense which distinguish the Augustan satyrist, are to be found also in the English poet. He tells a story with equal grace, and delineates a character with equal spirit. That same gentlemanly carelessness is still more remarkable in the modern than in the ancient. Cowper, indeed, was both by birth and taste, a genuine gentleman, and when he was not oppressed by the clouds of his fatal melancholy, he shewed also a sportiveness of fancy and an elasticity of manner which are as animating as they are entertaining. It has been said of him, that whatever he attempted, whether trivial or important, was the best of its kind. This is very high praise, but is not inapplicable, except in the instance of his Latin verse, and his translation of Homer. His latinity is very bad, and shews, that he was by no means an accomplished scholar in the diction of the Roman poets. His Homer is nearly as complete a failure as Trapp's Virgil, and, in a short time, will have the same fate, namely, to be merely the refuge of dull school-boys when they cannot construe their lesson. Pope is allowed to have made a sad mistake, when he adorned the fine old Grecian with the fantastic verbiage of a modern bel-espirt: Cowper has made a greater mistake, for he has stripped the bard as bare as a mere savage. Pope left him much of his vigour, but Cowper has shorn him not only of the beams of his beauty, but of the nerves of his strength. If there is any one thing which more than the rest distinguishes Homer from other poets, it is his noble and dashing manner, at once shewing a mastery over his subject, and the deepest fondness for it.

This animated style is by Cowper tamed down into an insipid quietude, which, it is a mere farce, to call simplicity, for surely that manner scarcely deserves to be praised as simple, which is neither characteristic, nor vigorous, nor pleasing. Such a version could never have come from a man with any pretensions to learning, had he not deferred his own better judgment to the taste of ignorants, who presumed to advise him, and from whom he seems to have learned nothing, or what is worse than nothing, the absurd proposition, that the main and grand business of the translator of Homer was to compound epithets by English words of equal length.