1796
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

To the Poet Cowper on his Recovery from an Indisposition. Written some time back.

Monthly Magazine 2 (December 1796) 889.

Charles Lamb


Charles Lamb encourages William Cowper to emulate Milton, Spenser ("a gentler name"), and Sidney; perhaps the concluding alexandrine in this unrhymed poem is intended to suggest Spenser? "To the Poet Cowper" was originally sent in a letter to Coleridge, 6 July 1796. The published poem is signed "C. Lamb. Dec. 1, 1796." Lamb, Coleridge, Charles Lloyd, and Southey were all publishing in the Monthly Magazine at this period.

Charles Lamb wrote to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in December 1796: "I have been reading The Task with fresh delight. I am glad you love Cowper: I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton, but I would not all that man my friend who should be offended with the 'divine chit-chat of Cowper.' Write to me"; and again the follwing month: "Some lines of mine to Cowper were in last Monthly Magazine; they have not body of thought enough to plead for the retaining of them" 16 January 1797; in Charles Talfourd, Literary Sketches and Letters ... of Charles Lamb (1849) 50, 60.

Robert Southey: "Coleridge introduced him to Godwin, shortly after the first number of the Anti-Jacobin Magazine and Review was published, with a caricature of Gillray's, in which Coleridge and I were introduced with asses' heads, and Lloyd and Lamb as toad and frog. Lamb got warmed with whatever was on the table, became disputatious, and said things to Godwin which made him quietly say, 'Pray, Mr. Lamb, are you toad or frog?' Mrs. Coleridge will remember the scene, which was to her sufficiently uncomfortable. But the next morning S. T. C. called on Lamb, and found Godwin breakfasting with him, from which time their intimacy began" to Edward Moxon, 2 February 1836; in Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 6:288.

George Gilfillan: "His poetry is the least poetical thing he has written. He wants the highest form of the 'vision and the faculty divine.' And that very veering between the serious and the comic, which renders it difficult for you to tell whether he be in jest or earnest, though it be the life of his prose, is perdition to his poetry. A poet must either be manifestly in earnest, or manifestly in sport. Lamb is neither bard nor jester; or rather, the jingle of the cap and bells mingles with and mars the melody of the lyre. Yet there is much that is genuinely poetical in his verse, and more that is richly and uproariously comic" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 341.

George Daniel: "Of Cowper he was an enthusiastic admirer. 'I would forgive a man,' he says, 'for not enjoying Milton, but I would not call that man my friend who should be offended with the divine chitchat of Cowper.' And he adds, 'I do so love him!'" Love's Last Labour not Lost (1863) 25.

Thomas Arnold: "the full importance of Lamb's works can only be gauged by those who realise the general indifference to his subject eighty years ago, and the impulse it communicated to the nascent reaction against the classical literature of the eighteenth century" Manual of English Literature (1862; 1885) 446.

Leigh Hunt credited Charles Lamb with bestowing on Spenser the epithet "the Poet's Poet," though the phrase is not found in any of the published writings: "Take him [Spenser] in short for what he is, whether greater or less than his fellows, the poetical faculty is so abundantly and beautifully predominant in him above every other, though he had passion, and thought, and plenty of ethics, and was as learned a man as Ben Jonson, perhaps as Milton himself, that he has always been felt by his countrymen to be what Charles Lamb called him, the 'Poet's Poet.' He has had more idolatry and imitation from his brethren than all the rest put together" Imagination and Fancy (1844).

In a letter to Coleridge, 10 January 1797, Charles Lamb speaks of "the dainty sweet and soothing phantasies of honey-tongued Spenser" in Letters, ed. Thomas Noon Talfourd (1837) 1:63.



Cowper, I thank my God, that thou art heal'd.
Thine was the sorest malady of all;
And I am sad to think that it should light
Upon the worthy head: but thou art heal'd,
And thou art yet, we trust, the destin'd man,
Born to reanimate the lyre, whose chords
Have slumber'd, and have idle lain so long;
To th' immortal sounding of whose strings
Did Milton frame the stately-paced verse;
Among whose wires with lighter finger playing
Our elder bard, Spencer, a gentler name,
The lady Muses' dearest darling child,
Enticed forth the deftest tunes yet heard
In hall or bower; taking the delicate ear
Of the brave Sidney, and the Maiden Queen.
Thou, then, take up the mighty epic strain,
Cowper, of England's bards the wisest and the best!

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