1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Emily Taylor?, "Poets of Rural Life. — Cowper" New Monthly Magazine NS 2 (August 1821) 153-57.



There is scarcely a poet of any note in the annals of literature who has not expressed his enthusiastic admiration for the rural life. Yet a very small proportion of our bards have resided in the country, and, with few exceptions, we can scarcely name a set of men less apparently satisfied with seclusion, or whose practice has appeared more decidedly at variance with profession. We do not find fault with them for their conformity to their real notions of enjoyment; on the contrary, we think the world has gained much by it. But there is no occasion for any deception in the matter, and accordingly we find it is daily becoming a more simple and natural thing, if we may so speak, to be a poet. With all our admiration for departed genius, and, in individual instances, for its vast attainments, we cannot be insensible to this great charm of our modern poetry. We have done with poetical priestcraft. We see in our bards a race of men, not set apart, like Druids, for holy and solemn purposes, but mingling in our avocations, giving and collecting sweets from the social as well as from the solitary scene; men who feel keenly, and imagine promptly; men whom we are little inclined to take for our guides, "spiritual or temporal," but who nevertheless do sometimes quicken both body and soul: and while we think ourselves indebted to them for much that makes the rugged prospect of life look beautiful, we hold that the advantages of our communion are strictly mutual. Now and then a poetical Pope, or, if it pleases our readers better, a literary arch-druid, will start up, and plead for the almost-forgotten supremacy of the bard; but we, meanwhile, like not such extorted homage, and are better pleased with those wholesome, sweet, and life-cheering strains, which are evidently the product of minds kept in exercise by constant communion with their fellows, than with the lonely and mystical musings of the solitary dreamer. The retired poet is not, generally speaking, an agreeable character. We have no sympathy with a being who, while pretending to a more than ordinary relish for natural, seems to have little perception of social, beauty. Give us the bard who can bring to our fire-sides the light and warmth of his genius; who can place in new and beautiful colours the circumstances of our daily lives; whose heart seems to be touched with human kindness. With all this, reason and experience tell us, may be joined a most exuberant imagination, and a refined taste. Indeed, it is remarkable, that poetical genius has generally thriven much better in society than in solitude. Even our best descriptive poets have seldom been secluded men. Nothing, it will readily be acknowledged, can be more exquisite than some of Shakspeare's descriptions: yet he did not spend his days and years in musing on the world of natural beauty. In accordance with this, we may observe that all his sweet and refreshing descriptions come in, in the way of digression: he pauses amid the hurry and business of action, to rest us with Lorenzo and Jessica in "the sweet moonlight;" and even while leading us along in the rapid career of ambition, he brings before our eyes in lovely contrast, a view of the peaceful beauties of nature. None but a quick observer could have done this: but a habit of ready observation is chiefly to be acquired in active life; and hence it is, we think, that social habits are favourable to the improvement of the poetical character. It has been said, however, that retirement is desirable, not only or chiefly as it acquaints the poet with nature, but as it acquaints him with himself. This is very true; and we perfectly agree with Mr. Wordsworth;—

Whose mind is but the mind of his own eyes,

He is a slave, the meanest we can meet.

However, the poet who trusts to meditation upon his own mind alone for improvement, will, we fear, find himself in the predicament. of the religionist, who relies, for his spiritual progress, on solitariness and self-watching. Both disdain the aliment upon which mind and heart are fed, and both are in imminent danger of starvation. Both also are liable to fall into that great error, the darling child of solitude, an overweening sense of self-importance, and a contempt of their brethren of mankind. In the little poem from which we have above quoted, we find much to censure. The man who can thus deliberately set at nought the advantages of communion with his fellows, who can remark upon the scandalous, trifling, and unprofitable discourse of some, leaving us to infer that such, and no better, is to be met with in the world, may find hearers to whom he can descant,

Of personal themes, and such as he loves best,
Matters wherein right voluble he is;
[Wordsworth's Poems, vol. ii, "I am not one," &c.]

but can hardly expect to find listening ears, admiring eyes, and applauding tongues in every circle. We are apt to reckon the religious bigotry of Cowper the worst blemish of the Task. That bigotry, however, had in it nothing personal; and we can far better tolerate the timid Christian, when we see him shrinking from a world, whose practices he has learnt to conceive as evil, than we can bear with the man whose assumed superiority 'a that of intellect, not of principle. But of all people, the poet, perhaps, has the least excuse for being a dogmatist. "To him all that is interesting or amiable in human character, all that excites or engages our benevolent affections: all the truths which make the heart feel better and more happy — all these supply materials out of which he forms and peoples a world of his own, where no inconveniencies damp our enjoyments, where no shades darken our prospects" [Author's note: Dugald Steward]. His object is, to catch the fleeting ideas of grandeur and of beauty, from whatever sources derived, by whatever objects suggested; to fix them, and embody them for himself, for us, and for ages to come. Perish the criticism that would damp the ardour of his research! and perish the odious spirit of sectarianism, that would throw a shade over the glories of poetical liberty!

We have thus prefaced the few remarks we intend to make upon the poems of Cowper, in order to preclude the idea that our partialities are, generally, in favour of retirement as the nurse of poetical talent, — an idea to which our fervent admiration for the Bard of Weston might possibly lead. We think the case of Cowper, however, a peculiar one. From the constitution of his mind it appears that his life must either have been that which it really was, or a scene of excessive misery. All speculations, therefore, upon what he might have been under different circumstances, are cruelly misplaced. We regard him as one whose lot was cast for him without revoke; and we think of him as a poet who had nothing to do with systems, whose peculiarities were those of his own mind, and who wrote simply as he felt or imagined. Every one must allow that in spirit he was far from a dogmatist. His gentle and affectionate heart taught him the value of those social pleasures from which he felt himself for ever excluded: — hence there is not the smallest particle of the leaven of selfishness in his censures of the vices of society; not one word from whence we can reasonably infer that the poet was retaliating upon the world the wrongs which he had received. The character of Cowper's mind, though acute and penetrating, was not, doubtless, very enlarged. He was too timid a Christian to be a good metaphysician, and has written nothing which .it requires any stretch of the faculties fully to comprehend. In this respect, indeed, he differs widely from Mr. Wordsworth, who, though often too mystical for the common run of poetical readers, is far better acquainted with the human mind. Mr. Wordsworth, however, when he stoops from his highest and most successful flights, is sure to affront common readers by being over trite and obvious. Not so Cowper. Natural and easy as he is, he is never babyish. The man, the scholar, and the poet, never are forgotten. We should be at a loss to point out any author throughout whose volumes we could discern the presence of such perfect and entire simplicity — yet only in one or two instances does it seem to have led him into details inconsistent with the dignity of poetry.

A great deal has been said upon a question which we would fain avoid, if remarks upon Cowper could be written without touching upon it. It has been thought improper to blend devotional addresses to the Supreme Being with appeals to the imagination, and poets who have done this are considered by many as having infringed on the province of fancy, and sinned against good taste. We perfectly agree with those who only mean to protest against our implicitly adopting the poet's creed; but, loving and respecting religion ourselves, we cannot see any thing objectionable in giving her cause all the advantage which good taste and good scholarship can bring to it. A great many people, doubtless, will admire such a poet as Cowper for his piety, who know little about poetry — but where is the harm of this? Such people, if they are not gifted by nature or education with an understanding capable of appreciating the highest kinds of poetical merit, are alive to the perception of beauty of some sort, and seeing religious and moral truths presented before them in an amiable and striking point of view, they catch a degree of refinement to which they would otherwise have been strangers. It is no slight merit to have raised and purified the devotional feelings of numbers, as Cowper has done.

But the Poems of Cowper have often been accounted melancholy, and melancholy they are to us, who read them with the lively recollection of the poet's life before us. Yet it is not the fashion of our day to complain of our bards for indulging in depressing contemplations — many are allowed to mourn like Cowper, who know but little of the hope that, in his darkest hours, kept its station near him, ready to comfort and cheer every moment which the black fiend of melancholy deigned to spare to her victim. It has cheered us, many a time, to think that over so dark a life such gleams of comfort came; that such awful visitations of evil should be interspersed with such exquisite perceptions of good; that the miseries of this life should be so often relieved by clear and decisive anticipations of that which is to come. Religion and nature are infinitely endeared to us while we observe their beneficial influence on the poet's mind.

In conclusion — to wish Cowper other than he was, except with regard to his indescribable sufferings, is almost impossible. But we do not wish for other Cowpers. That depression which unfitted him for the world, kept him from the desire of literary dictation. He stood alone — but his loneliness was not the effect of pride. For most poets a very different lot is desirable.