1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Cowper" Literary Speculum 1 (March 1822) 308-10.



COWPER, who, to the end of his existence, suffered from a morbid state of mind, and was the victim of a melancholy which darkened all his prospects, and embittered all his enjoyments, were we to judge by his writings, would appear to have been a being as happy as virtuosi. But the intellectual treasures which he has left to posterity, were the products of those tranquil moments, "like angel's visits few, and far between," mingled by a beneficent Providence with the distressful years of a life, every hour of which, when free from the torments of physical or mental pain, was dedicated to the service of his fellow-creatures, and the worship of his Maker! Almost every page of Cowper's Works is irradiated by the rays of genius, enriched with the most exalted morality, and animated by the inspiring glow of the purest piety. In the productions of other poets, we occasionally meet with passages calculated for the improvement of the heart as well as the amusement of the fancy. But Cowper, without ceasing to amuse, is always moral and instructive. He wrote in the full persuasion that the legitimate end of poetry was to convey useful knowledge in a pleasing form. He could not consider a poem perfect, however beautiful in thought and harmonious in expression, if it failed to eulogize virtue and condemn vice; at the same time he was aware that to make goodness attractive, its excellence and felicity, though described by the pen of truth, must be beheld through the sun-beams of imagination, and that vice must be stripped of its fascinations and exposed in its native deformity, ere it will be despised and forsaken. He thought it his duty to recommend to the world the practice of benevolence and piety; but while he sung of Virtue and her reward, he crowned his celestial fair one with flowers culled in Fancy's Eden, and descanted on the bliss of her votaries in such language as we may suppose they use in the bowers of an immortal Paradise. If Cowper had been called on to bestow the laurel — Sternhold or Hopkins would have received it in preference to Rochester. He despised ribaldry, but be venerated genius, and considered the praise of the Creator and the instruction of the creature, such sublime objects as to open in ample field for the exertion of the noblest powers of the human mind. Hence in his works, the Song of the Muse is the Song of Wisdom, but so harmonious, so engaging, so interesting, that all who pretend to taste or feeling, have acknowledged Cowper to be one of the most original and pleasing of the English Poets. It would therefore, perhaps, be loss of time to indulge in a detail of his merits, but a few general observations maybe pardoned. The "Task" for beauty of description, imagery and sentiment, deserves the highest commendation: in particular, the Winter Evening is above all praise; being as natural, elegant, and Watching a picture of rural scenes as can be imagined. "Conversation" is a fine example of useful satire; it is scarcely possible to peruse it without receiving instruction. Truth, Charity, and their sister poems, are uniformly beautiful; and he who can read them without feeling the excellence of the virtues they depict has a dull head or a cold heart. Strange! that the author of such rapturous effusions, breathing in every line divine hope and peace, should so often have been tortured with agonizing doubts, should even have been the victim of despair! His minor pieces, with only one or two exceptions, are extremely happy. The Negro's Complaint is a truly noble production; and let it be remembered that Cowper was among the first of those disinterested philanthropists, who, in the haunts of avarice and cruelty, declared, with virtuous indignation, that the sufferings of barbarous Africa disgraced civilized Europe, and called on the British people, so jealous of their own freedom, to restore liberty to their enslaved brethren. A good-natured man, while laughing over the eccentricities of Johnny Gilpin, will be pleased with the reflection, that the benevolent author of that humorous poem was blessed with some moments of ease and enjoyment, and felt at intervals the gladness of spirit which a life of usefulness ensures. The tale of John Gilpin will ever be a favorite both in the study and the nursery. It will equally delight the child, the scholar, and the sage. We cannot be always wise — "in time and place 'tis good to play the fool."

To open a volume of Cowper is sufficient to discover his beauties, but were we required to point out the triumph of his genius, and at the same time the triumph of nature and feeling, we might refer, without hesitation, to the lines written on the receipt of his mother's picture. The description of his parents' tenderness; her death; his watching the funeral from the nursery window; his belief that she would return, and consequent disappointment: his question to himself, whether, if a wish could restore her to this world, he would breathe it. His extasy in the hope that his parents are gone to the blissful region where all tears are dried, and his passionate longings to follow them, form a whole, which, if all his other productions were lost, would immortalize the name of Cowper.