At the head of that illustrious band of poets, who restored natural emotion and the language of life to British song, stands William Cowper. He was of noble extraction, and counted kin with Lord Chancellors and Earls; he was studious in youth, fond of verse, and was bred to the law — a more congenial employment for a follower of the muse than many seem willing to admit: Scott may be cited as an example of a not unsuccessful union of the two. Cowper, however, inherited from his mother a natural timidity, which rendered him too sensitive to be successful in a line which requires a hardihood of mind, and a certain assurance, to which in vain he tried to harden his faculties: this constitutional infirmity, by preventing him from being installed as a clerk in the House of Lords, ruined his fortune and secured his fame. The pain of his failure threw him on religion; the study of the Scriptures threw him upon poetry; and as his works began to be talked of in the world, and bring fame to their author, the gloom which had settled down like a cloud on his soul passed off, and the man and the poet shone out like the sun at noonday. There is nothing finer in all the range of biography than the history of Cowper, when the voice of fame and the inquiry of noble relatives after the lost and secluded man, brought him forth from his solitude. His letters, which before were filled with fears for the present and doubts for the future, became cheerful and gay; his muse indulged in a bolder and more original strain; and he came out in the sunshine to enjoy the melody of birds and brooks, and the society of the young and the lovely.
In the year 1782, Cowper made his appearance in the world as a poet. He published — 1. Table Talk; 2. Progress of Error; 3. Truth; 4. Expostulation; 5. Hope; 6. Charity; 7. Conversation; and 8. Retirement. Their names indicate their characters; and it may be further said, that his aim in all is, to communicate to the world his own perceptions of the beauty, and truth, and consolation of religion. This is a common task, and belongs to the pulpit; but it was not executed in a common way: the language is terse, vigorous, and happy — there are snatches of stern satire, and pictures of moral loveliness scattered as thick and as beautiful as flowers on an unmown meadow. The world wondered who this new monitor might be, and critics were not wanting, who, judging poetry by the music of its bells, hesitated to admit that his verse belonged to inspiration. Towards the close of the year 1784 — about the time that Johnson died — appeared Cowper's noblest poem, The Task. In accounting for the odd name, he says in his preface, "A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed, and, having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair — a volume." The Task was received with an all but universal welcome: it contained so many moving pictures of men and manners — such fine landscapes of all seasons, filled with the breathing inhabitants of the land, and gave the beauties and the deformities of all, with a fidelity at once brilliant and delicate. It is impossible to describe this fine poem better than by saying that it treats, in a masterly way, or all that affects us here, or influences us hereafter; that it pleads the cause of the poor and the desolate in the presence of the rich; admonishes the rich of their duty to their country, their costars, and their God; takes the senate to task; shakes the scourge of undying verse over the pulpit; holds a mirror before the profligacy of cities till they shudder at their own shadow, and exhibit to the hills and dales of the country, an image of the follies of their sons and daughters. The satire was lively, discerning, and keen; the pathos without puling, and the tenderness had strength. The poet wandered, it is true, from topic to topic; yet he bound the remotest things together in the bands of sympathy and wit. The verse is free, unrestrained, and vigorous; and though some acute critics averred that it sounded like that of the Night Thoughts, it is original in structure, language, and sentiment. Is this voice of the epigrammatic Young?
How in the name of soldiership and sense
Should England prosper, when such things as smooth
And tender as a girl, all essence o'er
With odours, and as profligate as sweet,
Who sell their laurel for a myrtle wreath,
And love when they should fight, — when such as these
Presume to lay their hand upon the ark
Of her magnificent and aweful cause!
Cowper's next great work was the Translation of Homer: the fidelity and graphic vigour of his versions of the Iliad and Odyssey, are not so warmly welcomed by the world as they will yet be. The smooth and flowing melody of Pope charms the public ear; yet Cowper is more than his match in the gentler passages: take, for instance, the description of the Cestus of Venus;
It was an ambush of sweet snares, replete
With love, desire, soft intercourse of hearts,
And music of resistless whispered sounds,
Which from the wisest win their best resolves.
In the loftier parts, too he was alike masterly. The descent of Apollo, in the first book, reveals the god in all his terror and beauty:
Down from Olympus, with his radiant bow,
And his full quiver o'er his shoulder slung,
Marched in his anger shaken as he moved,
His rattling arrows told of his approach.
The arming of Achilles contains a sterner picture:—
Amidst them all Achilles arm'd:
He gnashed his teeth, fire glimmered in his eyes,
Anguish intolerable wrung his heart,
And fury against Troy, whilst he put on
Those glorious arms, the labour of a god.
The latter years of this great poet's life were clouded and mournful. He lived long bereft of reason; and though now and then favoured with glimpses of returning consciousness, his understanding was never wholly restored. He was mild, gentle, and upright, and so retiring and timid, that he regarded strangers with apprehension: his friends loved him with no ordinary tenderness; yet among those associates there were some who molested him with fears that innocent gaiety was in itself sinful, riding in a coach vanity, and keeping company with the titled ones of the earth, unacceptable on high. He was born in 1731, and died in 1800, leaving a reputation not destined soon to fade.