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WILLIAM COWPER

1731–1800

THE general impression of Cowper as a serious and secular poet is, I should say, that of an early autumn afternoon; soft, hazy, tempered sunshine, hinted tints, half-lights, sombre stillness ; nothing of stormy passionateness, or the summer solstice.

Read, and a very different being presents himself. At the thought of ambitious potentates desolating eighteenthcentury Europe a torrent of anger, red-hot lava, rushes forth. He sees in subject nations a scattered flock, and in a martial King

Some royal mastiff panting at their heels,

With all the savage thirst a tiger feels.1
He has none of Carlyle's admiration for the War-Lord,

self-proclaim'd'in a gazette Chief monster that has plagued the nations yet.? His wrath burns as fiercely against civil tyranny. He hopes against hope, not forecasting a near future, to hear of the fall of the Bastille :

Ye horrid towers, the abode of broken hearts,
Ye dungeons, and ye cages of despair,
That monarchs have supplied from age to age

With music, such as suits their sovereign ears.3 If other States have earned reprobation, much more has his own 'far guiltier England' with her exceptional opportunities. He condemns the sinful luxury of the rich, the intolerance to a Saint like Whitefield, the toleration of a priesthood like Baal's, and a Petronius-Chesterfield :

Gray beard corrupter of our listening youth;

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the deafness of parochial officials to suppliants, who

ask with painful shyness, and refused Because deserving, silently retire ; and their indulgence to the lazy sot who drinks away his children's food :

O for a law to noose the villain's neck !? Wilberforce never rose to his passion of self-sacrifice against negro bondage :

I had much rather be myself the slave,

And wear the bonds than fasten them on him ! 8 Not permitted thus to sacrifice himself—unable by act or word to redress the cruel, inhuman wrongs suffered by man at the hands of man, he would fain bury himself in a hermitage :

Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,

Might never reach me more ! 9 Seldom has there been a more vehement, even a more vindictive, satirist. Only, the anger never had aught in it of selfishness, aught of a personal element. That he reserved for the stabbing of his own innocent heart.

He was incapable of malignity ; not of malice. A spice of that is inseparable from wit and humour; and he possessed both. Tithing time, Nose v. Eyes, the dilemma of casuistical Tom, the Colubriad, not to speak of immortal John Gilpin, are proof demonstrative. To wing his pleasant arrows he had an unfailing neatness of diction. He was not at his best in dealing with the dignity of Milton's Latin, or Madame Guyon's French ; and he failed to represent either the liquid sweetness, or the rush, of Homer ; but, in general, his gift for thinking into English an ancient

author, or making his author by anticipation think him, must be acknowledged to be wonderful. He was especially happy in his versions of Vincent Bourne, who might almost have envied the Classical crispness, though in English, of his disciple's complaint by the poor goldfinch against its barbarous jailer, that

Caught and caged, and starved to death,
In dying sighs my little breath

Soon pass’d the wiry grate.10 Greek epigrams in particular attracted him, from recollections, in a mellowing afterglow, of old Westminster days. He rendered many into admirable English. Apart from the accident of acquaintance with the fact, it would be difficult, for instance, to decide whether the Cricket and Grasshopper lyrics were originals or not. The grasshopper's joyous carol, in which Cowper vied with Cowley's delightful paraphrase, is like a bird's singing :

Earth-born, bloodless, undecaying,
Ever singing, sporting, playing,
What has nature else to show

Godlike in its kind as thou ? 11 He had, indeed, in such things the ease and facility of Matthew Prior to a degree which actually involves his literary rank; for Prior's claim to be a poet, as resting on them, has been questioned ; can Cowper's be? There have been times when I doubted, when I have felt that he was not inspired, but heard the wind of inspiration rushing by him. There are times, on the other hand, when I have been unwilling to assign him a place below the highest. He could be desperately prosaic; and often, when in earnest, most of all. His half-dozen sets of verses on the Northampton yearly bills of mortality might have been penned by the parish clerk, who, I hope, signed them. The sixty-six

Hymns are as sterile as even hymns are licensed to be, with the exception of the famous eighteenth, the work of a poet :

Can a woman's tender care
Cease towards the child she bare ?
Yes, she may forgetful be,

Yet will I remember thee.12 Not rarely he is distressingly pointless in his orthodoxy, as in the tale of Misagathus. Sometimes his fanaticism, to the verge of sheer stolidity, in tilting against scientific progress, is such as, had he foreseen the grandson, might have cost the author of The Botanic Garden his panegyric.

Then suddenly the clouds break, and the Heavens open !

At his mild call everyday scenes and circumstances discover an intimate charm. Never poet before himThomson not excepted-had watched skies, woods, fields, and streams, and the life in them, so sympathetically. In company with Spenser, and more consistently, he was aware of the sex of the songster nightingale. From his pen the Ouse flows before our eyes through a variegated landscape of meads, groves, heaths, spires, and villages, to the music of mighty winds. What a lulling requiem he can sing over trees he loved :

The poplars are fell’d, farewell to the shade,

And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade ! 13 He approaches sublimity, a sublime simplicity, in the Loss of the Royal George.

Toll for the brave !

The bráve that are no more !
All sunk beneath the wave,

Fast by their native shore !

Her timbers yet are sound,

And she may float again
Full charged with England's thunder,

And plough the distant main.

But Kempenfelt is gone;

His victories are o'er;
And he and his eight hundred

Shall plough the wave no more.14 Never has ship-not even the Revenge-had a longerechoing knell rung for her. In his Mother's Picture he pierces to a spring of tender regret deeper than tears. His farewell to dying Mary Unwin is an agony of affection -almost, remorse :

The twentieth year is well nigh past
Since first our sky was overcast;
Ah would that this might be the last !

My Mary!
Thy spirits have a fainter flow,
I see thee daily weaker grow-
'Twas my distress that brought thee low,

My Mary! !
Thy indistinct expressions seem
Like language utter'd in a dream ;
Yet me they charm, whate'er the theme,

My Mary!
Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden beams of orient light,

My Mary!
Such feebleness of limbs thou provest,
That now at every step thou movest
Upheld by two; yet still thou lovest,

My Mary!
And still to love, though press’d with ill,
In wintry age to feel no chill,
With me is to be lovely still,

My Mary!
But ah ! by constant heed I know,
How oft the sadness that I show
Transforms thy smiles to looks of woe,

My Mary!

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