1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

A. B., "Particulars of Mr. Cowper, and his Poems" Gentleman's Magazine 56 (January 1786) 2-3.



January 16.

Mr. URBAN,

In looking over your Review of New Publications for December last, I was exceedingly pleased with the judicious praises you have given to a work intitled "Poems by Wm. Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq." — The passages you have quoted are so poetical, and so striking, that your readers, like yourself, must feel an interest in knowing the character of an author who joins such fluency of language with so much strength of thought and such exquisite sensibility of feeling.

Your candour, I am sure, will forgive me, if (though a perfect stranger both to yourself and Mr. Cowper) I should endeavour to correct you in some part of your annotations, especially as I allude to a passage which touches upon Mr. Cowper's character, and where he speaks in a strain the most plaintive and beyond measure interesting. I ought not, however, to accuse either your of wanting perspicacity, nor him of failing in perspicuity, since the veil of obscurity, which is thrown over this passage, may serve perhaps in some respect to enhance its beauty; and yet it is fit that the reader should well understand the allusion, though it may not entirely become the writer, when he is touching upon his own case, to go into all the circumstances necessary to make us comprehend it.

Having myself a distant knowledge of Mr. Cowper's history, of his present situation, and peculiar turn of mind, I am by these means qualified to explain his meaning, and to point out perhaps, in some measure, the beauty of the passage I am speaking of.

I understand that Mr. Cowper was once a man immersed in all the gaieties of the town. If respect for his present character did not restrain me, perhaps I might have said, that he was not free from vices. He was the companion and the delight of a convivial and jolly circle, whose society he has long renounced, and whose system of life he has been convinced, perhaps somewhat suddenly convinced, he could neither safely nor happily persist in. It is to these piercing reflections that he alludes in one of the passages you have quoted, and which I will therefore quote again:

I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deed infix'd
My panting side was charg'd when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades;
There was I found by one who had himself
Been hurt by th' archers. In his side he bore
And in his hands and feet the cruel scars:
With gentle force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and heal'd, and bade me live.
Since then, with few associates, in remote
And silent woods I wander, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene,
Here much I ruminate, as much I may,
With other views of men and manners now
Than once, and others of a life to come;
I see that all are wand'rers gone astray
Each in his own delusions; they are lost
In chace of fancied happiness; still woo'd
And never won, &c.

The allusion here to the stricken and solitary deer, that forsakes the herd with its side transfixed with arrows, is an exquisite description of his own situation at the time when he left his flock of former companions under all the piercing reflections of his own danger and unhappiness.

The allusion that follows is the most serious possible. It can mean nothing but the mercy and deliverance of our Saviour. The wounds in his side, in his hands and feet, seem to denote and mark this:

There was I found by one who had himself
Been hurt by th' archers. In his side he bore
And in his hands and feet the cruel scars:
With gentle force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and heal'd, and bade me live.

Although nothing can be more serious than Mr. Cowper's style in this part, he is however extremely various, and changes continually "from grave to gay, from lively to severe." There is a passage in that beautiful apostrophe to London which you quoted, that very much marks the whole character of the man:

O thou resort and mart of all the earth,
Chequer'd with all the complexions of mankind,
And spotted with all crimes; in whom I see
Much that I love, and much that I admire,
And all that I abhor; thou freckled fair,
That pleases and yet shocks me, I can laugh
And I can weep, can hope and yet despond,
Feel wrath and pity, when I think on thee.

In short, Mr. Cowper seems to unite the characters of those two philosophers, the one of whom was for ever laughing, the other weeping, at the vices and follies of mankind. He is now attempting, as I have heard, a very arduous work, which is nothing less than a translation of the Iliad. — What his success will be, it is in vain to premise; but I cannot help wishing, that the originality of his genius may not be confined, at least entirely, to translations.

Impartial criticism obliges me to take notice of a grammatical error in one of the lines I last quoted,

Thou freckled fair,
That "pleases" and yet "shocks" me—

It should be — "pleasest" and yet "shockest" me. — I grant this would sound too harsh; yet harshness of sound is no sufficient excuse for a deviation from the rules of grammar.

A. B.