1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Anonymous, in Obituary, The Monthly Magazine 9 (June 1800) 500



He who desires to put into the hands of youth a poem, which not destitute of poetic embellishment, is free from all matter of a licentious tendency, will find in the Task a book adapted to his purpose. It would be absurd and extravagant austerity to condemn those poetical productions in which love constitutes the leading feature. That passion has in every age been the concernment of life, the theme of the poet, the plot of the stage. Yet there is a kind of amorous sensibility, bordering on morbid enthusiasm, which the youthful mind too often imbibes from the glowing sentiments of the poets. Their genius describes, in the most splendid colours, the operations of a passion which requires rebuke rather than incentive, and lends to the most grovelling sensuality, the enchantments of a rich and creative imagination. But in the Task of Cowper, there is no licentiousness of description. All is grave, majestic, and moral. A vein of sober thinking pervades every page, and, in finished poetry, describes the insufficiency and vanity of human pursuits. Not that he is always severe. He frequently enlivens the mind of his reader by sportive descriptions, and by representing in elevated measures, ludicrous objects and circumstances, a species of the mock heroic, so admired in Philips's Splendid Shilling. The historical account he has given of chairs, in the first book of the Task, is a striking specimen of his powers of versification, and of his talent for humour in this latter style. The attention is however the most detained by those passages, in which the charms of rural life, and the endearments of domestic retirement are described. The Task abounds with incidents, introduced as episodes, and interposing an agreeable relief to the grave and serious part of the poetry. His crazy Kate is a description of the calamity of a disordered reason, admirably exact and afflicting. "She begs an idle pin of all she meets." What poet would have introduced so minute a circumstance into his representation! and yet the minuteness constitutes its happy effect. It would be an endless task in the biographer to point out all its beauties. Its reputation is established by universal consent, and has given its author a very eminent station among our national poets.