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gidity. The compositions are such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex; for they turn the mind only on the writer, whom, without thinking on a woman but as the subject for his task, we sometimes esteem as learned, and sometimes despise as trifling, always admire as ingenious, and always condemn as unnatural.
The Pindarique Odes are now to be considered; a species of composition, which Cowley thinks Pancirolus might have counted in his list of the lost inventions of antiquity, and which he has made a bold and vigorous attempt to recover. The purpose with which he has paraphrased an Olympic and Nemæan Ode is by himself sufficiently explained. His endeavour was, not to show precisely what Pindar spoke, but his manner of speaking. He was therefore not at all restrained to his expressions, nor much to his sentiments; nothing was required of him, but not to write as Pindar would not have written.
Of the Olympic Ode, the beginning is, I think, above the original in elegance, and the conclusion below it in strength. The connection is supplied with great perspicuity; and the thoughts, which to a reader of less skill seem thrown together by chance, are concatenated without any abruption. Though the English ode cannot be called a translation, it may be very properly consulted as a commentary.
The spirit of Pindar is indeed not every where equally preserved. The following pretty lines are not such as his deep mouth was used to pour;
Great Rhea's son,
If in Olympus top, where thou
If in Alpheus' silver flight,
If in my verse thou take delight,
My verse, great Rhea's son, which is,
Lofty as that, and smooth as this.
In the Nemean Ode, the reader must, in mere justice to Pindar, observe, that whatever is said of the original New-Moon, her tender forehead and her horns, is su peradded by his paraphrast, who has many other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original, as,
The table, free for ev'ry guest,
No doubt will thee admit,
And feast more upon thee, than thou on it.
He sometimes extends his author's thoughts without improving them. Olympionic an oath is mentioned in a single word, and Cowley spends three lines in swearing by the Castalian Stream. We are told of Theron's bounty, with a hint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prose:
But in this thankless world the giver
Is envied even by the receiver;
Nay, 'tis much worse than so;
Wrongs and injuries to do,
It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
In the following odes, where Cowley chooses his own subjects, he sometimes rises to dignity truly Pindaric; and, if some deficiencies of language be forgiven, his strains are such as those of the Theban bard were to his contemporaries :
Begin the song, and strike the living lyre:
Lo how the Years to come, a numerous and well-fitted quire,
All hand in hand do decently advance,
And to my song with smooth and equal measure dance;
While the dance lasts, how long soe'er it be,
My music's voice shall bear it company;
'Till all gentle notes be drown'd
In the last trumpet's dreadful sound.
After such enthusiasm, who will not lament to find the poet conclude with lines
But stop, my Muse
Hold thy Pindaric Pegasus closely in,
-Tis an unruly and a hard-mouth'd horse-
But flings writer and reader too that sits not sure.
The fault of Cowley, and perhaps of all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to the last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality; for of the greatest things the parts are little; what is little can be but pretty, and by claiming dignity becomes ridiculous. Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind by the mention of particulars is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that from which the illustration is drawn, than that to which it is applied.
Of this we have a very eminent example in the ode entituled The Muse, who goes to take the air in an intellectual chariot, to which he harnesses Fancy and Judgment, Wit and Eloquence, Memory and Invention. How he distinguished Wit from Fancy, or how Memory could properly contribute to Motion, he has not explained: we are however content to suppose that he could have justified his own fiction, and wish to see the Muse begin her career; but there is yet more to be done.
Let the postillion Nature mount, and let
The coachman Art be set;
And let the airy footmen, running all beside,
Make a long row of goodly pride;
Figures, conceits, raptures, and sentences,
In a well-worded dress,
And innocent loves, and pleasant truths, and useful lies,
In all their gaudy liveries.
Every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence; yet I cannot refuse myself the four next lines:
Mount, glorious queen, thy travelling throne,
And bid it to put on;
For long though chearful is the way,
And life, alas! allows but one ill winter's day.
In the same ode, celebrating the power of the Muse, he gives her prescience, or, in poetical language, the foresight of events hatching in futurity; but, having once an egg in his mind, he cannot forbear to show us, that he knows what an egg contains.
Thou into the close nests of Time dost peep,
And there with piercing eye
Through the firm shell and the thick white dost spy
Years to come a-forming lie,
Close in their sacred fecundine asleep.
The same thought is more generally, and therefore more poetically expressed by Casimir, a writer who has many of the beauties and faults of Cowley:
Omnibus Mundi Dominator horis
Pars adhuc nido latet, & futuros
Cowley, whatever was his subject, seems to have been carried, by a kind of destiny, to the light and the familiar, or to conceits which require still more ignoble epithets. A slaughter in the Red Sea new dies the water's name; and England, during the civil war, was Albion no more, nor to be named from white. It surely by some fascination not easily surmounted, that a writer, professing to revive the noblest and highest writing in verse, makes this address to the new year: Nay, if thou lov'st me, gentle Year,
Let not so much as love be there,
Vain, fruitless love I mean; for, gentle Year,
Although I fear
There's of this caution little need,
Yet, gentle Year, take heed
How thou dost make
Such a mistake;
Such love I mean alone
As by thy cruel predecessors has been shown:
For, though I have too much cause to doubt it,
I fain would try, for once, if life can live without it.
The reader of this will be inclined to cry out with Prior
Even those, who cannot perhaps find in the Isthmian or Nemaan songs what Antiquity has disposed them to expect, will at least see, that they are ill-represented by
such puny poetry; and all will determine, that if this be the old Theban strain, it is
not worthy of revival.
To the disproportion and incongruity of Cowley's sentiments must be added the uncertainty and looseness of his measures. He takes the liberty of using in any place a verse of any length, from two syllables to twelve. The verses of Pindar have, as he observes, very little harmony to a modern ear; yet, by examining the sylla bles, we perceive them to be regular, and have reason enough for supposing, that the ancient audiences were delighted with the sound. The imitator ought therefore to have adopted what he found, and to have added what was wanting; to have preserved a constant return of the same numbers, and to have supplied smoothness of transition and continuity of thought.
It is urged by Dr. Sprat, that the irregularity of numbers is the very thing which makes that kind of poesy fit for all manner of subjects. But he should have remembered, that what is fit for every thing can fit nothing well. The great pleasure of verse arises from the known measure of the lines, and uniform structure of the stanzas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
If the Pindaric style be, what Cowley thinks it, the highest and noblest kind of writing in verse, it can be adapted only to high and noble subjects; and it will not be easy to reconcile the poet with the critic, or to conceive how that can be the highest kind of writing in verse, which, according to Sprat, is chiefly to be preferred for its near affinity to prose.
This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren, and flattered the laziness of the idle, that it immediately overspread our books of poetry; all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion, and they that could do nothing else could write like Pindar. The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin: a poem on the Sheldonian Theatre 3, in which all kinds of verse are shaken together, is unhappily inserted in the Muse Anglicana. Pindarism prevailed about half a century; but at last died gradually away, and other imitations supply its place.
The Pindaric Odes have so long enjoyed the highest degree of poetical reputation, that I am not willing to dismiss them with unabated censure; and surely, though the mode of their composition be erroneous, yet many parts deserve at least that admiration, which is due to great comprehension of knowledge, and great fertility of fancy. The thoughts are often new, and often striking; but the greatness of one part is disgraced by the littleness of another; and total negligence of language gives the noblest conceptions the appearance of a fabric, august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise; of which it may be said with truth, that no man but Cowley could have written them.
The Davideis now remains to be considered: a poem which the author designed to have extended to twelve books, merely, as he makes no scruple of declaring, because the Æneid had that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epic poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser,
3 First published in quarto, 1669, under the title of Carmen Pindaricum in Theatrum Sheldonianum in solennibus magnifici Operis Encæniis. Recitatum Julii die 9, Anno 1669, a Corbetto Owen, A. B. Ed. Chr. Alumno Authore. R.
and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for in this undertaking Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscarried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author generally read, and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden, in Mack Flecknoe, it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice from its publication till now, in the whole succession of English literature. Of this silence and neglect, if the reason be inquired, it will be found partly in the choice of the subject, and partly in the performance of the work.
Sacred history has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overawed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of Divine Power are above the power of human genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language: He spake the word, and they were made.
We are told that Saul was troubled with an evil spirit; from this Cowley takes an opportunity of describing Hell, and telling the history of Lucifer, who was, he says, Once general of a gilded host of sprites,
Like Hesper leading forth the spangled nights;
But down like lightning, which him struck, he came,
And roar'd at his first plunge into the flame.
Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is something of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and, to give efficacy to his words, concludes by lashing his breast with his long tail. Envy, after a pause, steps out, and among other declarations of her zeal, utters these lines:
Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply,
And thunder echo to the trembling sky;
Whilst raging seas swell to so bold an height,
As shall the fire's proud element affright.
Th' old drudging Sun, from his long beaten way,
Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being. It is not only when the events are confessedly miraculous, that fancy and fiction lose their effect: the whole system of life, while the theocracy was yet visible, has an appearance so different from all other scenes of human action, that the reader of