1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah Cowley

Leigh Hunt, in Review of Dyce, Specimens of British Poetesses; The Companion (9 July 1828) 385-88.



In our last number, we omitted a panegyric on Marriage, which we had intended to notice. It was written by Mrs. Cowley, the dramatist, authoress of the Belle's Stratagem. Mr. Dyce reports of her, that "she had very little pleasure in theatrical representations." It is to be hoped that she was too happy at home. The origin of her tests for dramatic writing is thus related by the biographers. "While sitting at one of the theatres with her husband, she told him that she thought she could write quite as good a comedy as the one that was then performing, and on his laughing at her, the next morning sketched the first act of the 'Runaway,' which met with so much success, that she was encouraged to proceed, and next produced 'The Belle's Stratagem,' which established her fame completely, and was soon ranked among the best stock pieces."

Mrs. Cowley's poem, above-mentioned, is as follows:—

O Marriage! pow'rful charm, gift all divine,
Sent from the skies, o'er life's drear waste to shine;
What splendours from thy bright time spring,
What graces round thy chasten'd footsteps cling!
Vengeance will surely crush the ideot land,
That drags the sceptre from thy hallow'd hand;
That dares to trample on thy holy rites,
And nuptial perfidy, unaw'd, invites.

Let us pause here. The "ideot land" was "France during the Revolution." But vengeance did not crush it. On the contrary, France was notoriously bettered by the Revolution; and is at this minute one of the freest and happiest countries in the world. On the other hand, "nuptial perfidy" was never in such flourishing condition as under the old system. The difference in that respect was that, under the old system, marriage was at once indissoluble and despised; whereas, under the new, it was made dissoluble, because philosophy had taught the union of the sexes to be more respected.

The weeping world to thee its solace owes,
From thee derives its truest, best repose;
Not the cold compact subtle interest twines,
Not that which pale Submission trembling signs,
Is Marriage! No! 'tis when its polish'd chain
Binds those who in each other's bosom reign;
'Tis when two minds form one ecstatic whole,
One sweetly blended wish, one sense, one soul.

Very pretty: and this, we dare say, was Mrs. Cowley's marriage when she wrote. Perhaps it lasted during her life. Her husband was a Captain in the East India service: his visits may have been "few and far between;" and as Mrs. Cowley was amiable and sensible, she may have justly preferred the raptures of those renewals of their intercourse, with hope, and honour, and sweet thoughts in the interval, to those grosser and dull demands of habit, neither necessary nor flattering, which are the weakest and most ridiculous of all debaucheries, and waste away life in a bluster of insipidity.

But if such marriages as Mrs. Cowley here describes are the only ones, what are we to call the rest? And how does she differ in her notion of marriage, or the spirit of it, from those who were ideots and to be punished! France never meant to say, that two persons who were suited to each other, might not remain so all their life. It was old France that laughed at such a notion. New France said, love one another as long as you please, but if you find that the mistakes of youth, or any other cause, have brought together two unsuitable persons, and that you are really and lastingly so, what good can it be to you or to society to continue miserable yourselves, and propagating dulness, error, and bye-words on marriage and human misery to all eternity? France said this and twenty other things which the common sense of mankind had long been feeling; and the consequence was, that she rose again from the ashes of old customs, doubts the thing she was, in "mind, body, and estate."

According to Mrs. Cowley, not above one pair in a thousand are married, and even that is a romantic calculation. May the rest then consider themselves as unmarried, and act accordingly? If not, what does her denouncement, or her panegyric, amount to?

This was the gift the exil'd seraph curst,
When from hell's biasing continent he burst;
Eden's full charms be saw, without a groan.
Tho' Nature there had fixed her gorgeous throne;
Its rich ananas, and its aloes high,
Whose forms pyramidal approached the sky,
Its towering palms with luscious clusters crown'd,
Its shrubs, whose perfumes fill'd the regions round;
Its streams pellucid, and its bowers of shade,
Its flowers, that know to bloom, but not to fade;
Its orb, that gave the new created day,
Night's lunar bow, that soothed with tender ray,
Its fields of wavy gold, its slopes of green,
By the fell bend without a pang were seen—
'Twas then fierce rancour seized the demon's breast.
When in the married pair he felt mankind were blest!

Good: — but suppose he had seen, not merely this first married pair in all the beauty of their youth, newness, and innocence, with no wish to be unfaithful, and nobody to be unfaithful with if they had it, but all the married pairs that were to issue from that union? What would he have said then? What did he say, according to Machiavel? Or, if this authority be suspected, what did Milton say on these two very points? There is a beautiful passage, the famous one beginning, "Hall, wedded love," which is often quoted from Paradise Lost, and adduced as shewing the author's opinion of marriage. It is an opinion however, like Mrs. Cowley's, that supposes an "if"; nor can a proper conclusion be got at respecting the sentiments of the writer, without comparing it with his Treatise on Divorce, his own conduct, and a subsequent passage in the same poem; which passage, as it is very remarkable, and always kept in the back-ground when the other is quoted, we shall here repeat. It is further remarkable, that the panegyric on Wedded Love is an imitation from Tasso, who was never married; while the subsequent account of wedlock is entirely Milton's, and evidently made up of all that he had felt and observed.

—O! what are these,
Death's ministers, not men who thus deal death
Inhumanly to men, and multiply
Ten thousandfold the sin of him who slew
His brother: for of whom such massacre
Make they, but of their brethren; men of men?

—These are the product
Of those ill-mated marriages thou sawest;
Where good with hail were matched, who of themselves
Abhor to join; and by imprudence mix'd
Produce prodigious births of body or of mind.
Paradise Lost, Book Eleventh.