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Is it the fault of our age, or of Cowley's, of himself, or nobody's, that the ordinary reader has no longer eyes for the merits of a writer accounted in his own time 'incomparable ', 'most incomparable ', ' Prince of Poets'? When first I really studied him in early middle life, I came to the conclusion that he had greatness in him. On an independent review now of my past judgement, I find little or nothing to recall, though something perhaps to add.
Sweetness stands high among the qualities of genuine poetry; and Cowley can be sweet. Sweetness in him is not of springtide, as Chaucer's, of whom ', Dryden reports, ' he had no taste ’. It is autumnal, measured, and lingering; a fragrance, as from stately, ancient gardens. That is my feeling as I read the lovely fifth and sixth stanzas of the elegy on William Hervey :
Say, for you saw us, ye immortal lights,
Wonder'd at us from above !
But search of deep Philosophy,
Wit, Eloquence, and Poetry,
The love betwixt us two ?
Henceforth, ye gentle trees, for ever fade ;
Or you sad branches thicker join,
And into darksome shades combine,
Dark as the grave wherein my friend is laid ! 1 The lines can compare in tenderness with Lycidas, or with The Scholar Gipsy. But thoughtfulness, rising, deepening, to sublimity, was his forte; as in his rebuke of the scoffers at the infant Royal Society ;
The things which these proud men despise, and call
Impertinent, and vain, and small,
Into the throne usurp'd from it,
And the sharp points of envious Wit.
In many thousand years
A star, so long unknown, appears,
Does to the wise a star, to fools a meteor, show. The same qualities mark his congratulations to Hobbes on his Leviathan :
I little thought before
Could have afforded half enough
Of bright, of new, and lasting stuff
To cloathe the mighty limbs of thy gigantic sense ; 3 his elegy on Crashaw, Poet and Saint, whom he had saved from something like starvation to be wafted by Angels to Loretto, like its black Virgin :
'Tis surer much they brought thee there ; and they
And thou, their charge, went singing all the way ; and the eulogium, in the Ode to the Royal Society, of Bacon, chosen by his King, and by Nature,
Lord Chancellor of both their laws ; who, in Science,
Like Moses, led us forth at last ;
Of the blest, promis'd land;
Saw it himself, and shew'd us it.5 Grand conceptions these, yet hardly so overflowing, teeming, as that of the noble Hymn to Light :
Thou, Scythian-like, dost round thy lands above
The sun's gilt tents for ever move,
And still, as thou in pomp dost go,
The humble glow-worms to adorn,
And with those living spangles gild—
Out of the morning's purple bed,
Thy quire of birds about thee play,
Is but thy several liveries.
Thou the rich dye on them bestow'st,
A crown of studded gold thou bear'st ;
The virgin lilies in their white
Girt in thy purple swaddling bands;
On the fair tulip thou dost doat; Thou cloath'st it in a gay and party-colour'd coat.6 Again, to measure the force, the compass of his fancy, savour his scorn of the abuse of the term Life :
Life's a name
We call our dwelling-place !
And mighty journeys seem to make,
Because we fight and battles gain,
That really we Live ;
Are but the empty Dreams which in Death's sleep we make.? Yet again-how we feel the breeze tossing his proud fancy round the globe, as he sits and drinks in the Chair constructed of timber from Drake's ship !
Cheer up, my mates, the wind does fairly blow;
Clap on more sail, and never spare ;
In the wide sea of drink, and merrily we go.
And we shall cut the burning Line :
We round the world are sailing now.
And gain such experience, and spy too
Such countries and wonders, as I do!
And fail not to touch at Peru !
He wakes from his dream, to find the last timber of the gallant ship a dry motionless log, but consoles himself and it nobly :
Great relick! thou too, in this port of ease,
The great trade-wind which ne'er does fail,
As long around it as the sun.
Take for thy sail this verse, and for thy pilot, me ! 8
splendid wit Entangled in the cobwebs of the schools. But, much as he was addicted to high, bewildering speculation, curiosity as to his own powers impelled him to play with them all. He tried them upon every sort of subject. His fancy he held as if in a leash. He could let it slip upon any theme, with a fair certainty that it would run it down. Being a Cavalier, and a Courtier, as well as by profession a Poet, he esteemed it a duty to sing of Love. He discoursed of it under many aspects, and with an extraordinary ingenuity. Few prettier sketches have been drawn of natural womanly fascinations than in the opening stanza of The Change :
Love in her sunny eyes does basking play ;
And sows and reaps a thousand kisses there. 9