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FROM 1780 TILL THE PRESENT TIME.
strong colourings of nature and passion, and in the POETS.
free and flexible movements of the native genius of HE great va our poetry. Since then, every department of literiety and abun- rature has been cultivated with success. In fiction, dance of the li- the name of Scott is inferior only to that of Shakterature of this speare; in criticism, a new era may be dated from period might, in the establishment of the Edinburgh Review; and in some measure, historical composition, if we have no Hume or Gibhave been pre- bon, we have the results of far more valuable and dicted from the diligent research. Truth and nature have been progress made more truly and devoutly worshipped, and real excelduring the pre. lence more highly prized. It has been feared by vious thirty or some that the principle of utility, which is recog
forty years, in nised as one of the features of the present age, and which, as Johnson said, almost the progress of mechanical knowledge, would be fatal every man had come to write to the higher efforts of imagination, and diminish and to express himself correctly, the territories of the poet. This seems a groundless and the number of readers had fear. It did not damp the ardour of Scott or Byron, been multiplied a thousand- and it has not prevented the poetry of Wordsworth fold. The increase in national from gradually working its way into public favour. wealth and population natu- If we have not the chivalry and romance of the rally led, in a country like Great Elizabethan age, we have the ever-living passions of
Britain, to the improvement of human nature, and the wide theatre of the world, literature and the arts, and accordingly we find that now accurately known and discriminated, as a field a more popular and general style of composition be- for the exercise of genius. We have the benefit of gan to supplant the conventional stiffness and classic all past knowledge and literature to exalt our stanrestraint imposed upon former authors. The human dard of imitation and taste, and a more sure reward intellect and imagination were sent abroad on wider in the encouragement and applause of a populous surveys, and with more ambitious views. To excite and enlightened nation. “The literature of England,' a great mass of hearers, the public orator finds it says Shelley, ‘has arisen, as it were, from a new birth. necessary to appeal to the stronger passions and In spite of the low-thoughted envy which would universal sympathies of his audience; and in writ- undervalue contemporary merit, our own will be a ing for a large number of readers, an author must memorable age in intellectual achievements, and we adopt similar means, or fail of success. Hence it live among such philosophers and poets as surpass, seems natural that as society advanced, the character beyond comparison, any who have appeared since of our literature should become assimilated to it, the last national struggle for civil and religious and partake of the onward movement, the popular liberty. The most unfailing herald, companion, and feeling, and rising energy of the nation. There were, follower of the awakening of a great people to work however, some great public events and accidental a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. circumstances which assisted in bringing about a At such periods there is an accumulation of the change. The American war, by exciting the elo- power of communicating and receiving intense and quence of Chatham and Burke, awakened the spirit impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. of the nation. The enthusiasm was continued by The persons in whom this power resides, may often, the poet Cowper, who sympathised keenly with his as far as regards many portions of their nature, have fellow-men, and had a warm love of his native coun- little apparent correspondence with that spirit of try. Cowper wrote from no system; he had not good of which they are the ministers. But even read a poet for seventeen years; but he drew the whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled distinguishing features of English life and scenery to serve the power which is seated on the throne of with such graphic power and beauty, that the mere their own soul. It is impossible to read the compoetry of art and fashion, and the stock images of positions of the most celebrated writers of the predescriptive verse, could not but appear mean, affected, sent day, without being startled with the electric and commonplace. Warton's ‘History of Poetry,' and life which burns within their words. They measure Percy’s ‘Reliques,' threw back the imagination to the the circumference and sound the depths of human bolder and freer era of our national literature, and nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating the German drama, with all its horrors and extra- spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most vagance, was something better than mere delinea- sincerely astonished at its manifestations, for it is tions of manners or incidental satire. The French less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are Revolution came next, and seemed to break down all the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; artificial distinctions. Talent and virtue only were the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity to be regarded, and the spirit of man was to enter casts upon the present; the words which express on a new course of free and glorious action. This what they understand not; the trumpets which sing dream passed away; but it had sunk deep into some to battle, and feel not what they inspire ; the in. ardent minds, and its fruits were seen in bold specu- fluence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are lations on the hopes and destiny of man, in the the unacknowledged legislators of the world.'
appearing at the bar of the House of Lords, plunged
him in the deepest misery and distress. The seeds WILLIAM COWPER, the most popular poet of his of insanity were then in his frame; and after broodgeneration, and the best of English letter-writers,' ing over his fancied ills till reason had fled, he atas Mr Southey has designated him, belonged empha- tempted to commit suicide. Happily this desperate
effort failed; the appointment was given up, and Cowper was removed to a private madhouse at St Albans, kept by Dr Cotton. The cloud of horror gradually passed away, and on his recovery, he resolved to withdraw entirely from the society and business of the world. He had still a small portion of his funds left, and his friends subscribed a further sum, to enable him to live frugally in retirement. The bright hopes of Cowper's youth seemed thus to have all vanished: his prospects of advancement in the world were gone; and in the new-born zeal of his religious fervour, his friends might well doubt whether his reason had been completely restored. He retired to the town of Huntingdon, near Cambridge, where his brother resided, and there formed an intimacy with the family of the Rev. Morley Unwin, a clergyman resident in the place. He was adopted as one of the family; and when Mr Unwin himself was suddenly removed, the same connexion was continued with his widow. Death only could sever a tie so strongly knit-cemented by mutual faith and friendship, and by sorrows of which the world knew nothing. To the latest generation the
name of Mary Unwin will be united with that of William Cowper.
Cowper, partaker of his fame as of his sad declinetically to the aristocracy of England. His father, the Rev. Dr Cowper, chaplain to George II., was the
By seraphs writ with beams of heavenly light. son of Spencer Cowper, one of the judges of the After the death of Mr Unwin in 1767, the family court of common pleas, and a younger brother of were advised by the Rev. John Newton-a remark. the first Earl Cowper, lord chancellor. His mother able man in many respects—to fix their abode at was allied to some of the noblest families in England, Olney, in the northern division of Buckinghamshire, descended by four different lines from King Henry III. where Mr Newton himself officiated as curate. This This lofty lineage cannot add to the lustre of the poet's fame, but it sheds additional grace on his piety and humility. Dr Cowper, besides his royal chaplaincy, held the rectory of Great Berkhamstead, in the county of Hertford, and there the poet was born, November 15, 1731. In his sixth year he lost his mother (whom he tenderly and affectionately remembered through all his life), and was placed at a boarding-school, where he continued two years. The tyranny of one of his school-fellows, who held in complete subjection and abject fear the timid and home-sick boy, led to his removal from this seminary, and undoubtedly prejudiced him against the whole system of public education. He was next placed at Westminster school, where, as he says, he served a seven years' apprenticeship to the classics ; and at the age of eighteen was removed, in order to be articled to an attorney. Having passed through this training (with the future Lord Chancellor Thurlow for his fellow-clerk), Cowper, in 1754, was called to the bar. He never, however, made the law a study: in the solicitor's office he and Thurlow were
constantly employed from morning to night in giggling and making giggle,' and in his chambers in the Temple he wrote gay verses, and associated with Bonnel Thornton, Colman, Lloyd, and other wits. He contributed a few papers to the Connoisseur and to the St James's Chronicle, both conducted by his friends. Darker days were at hand. Cowper's
Olney Church. father was now dead, his patrimony was small, and he was in his thirty-second year, almost unprovided was accordingly done, and Cowper removed with with an aim,' for the law was with him a mere nomi- them to a spot which he has consecrated by his nal profession. In this crisis of his fortunes his genius. He had still the river Ouse with him, as kinsman, Major Cowper, presented him to the office at Huntingdon, but the scenery is more varied and of clerk of the journals to the House of Lords-a attractive, and abounds in fine retired walks. His desirable and lucrative appointment. Cowper ac- life was that of a religious recluse ; he ceased corcepted it; but the labour of studying the forms of responding with his friends, and associated only procedure, and the dread of qualifying himself by with Mrs Unwin and Newton. The latter engaged
his assistance in writing a volume of hymns, but his was granted to him from the crown. He was induced, morbid melancholy gained ground, and in 1773 it in 1795, to remove with Mrs Unwin to Norfolk, on became a case of decided insanity. About two years a visit to some relations, and there Mrs Unwin died were passed in this unhappy state. On his recovery, on the 17th December 1796. The unhappy poet Cowper took to gardening, rearing hares, drawing would not believe that his long tried friend was landscapes, and composing poetry. The latter was actually dead; he went to see the body, and on witfortunately the most permanent enjoyment; and its nessing the unaltered placidity of death, flung himfruits appeared in a volume of poems published in self to the other side of the room with a passionate 1782. The sale of the work was slow; but his friends expression of feeling, and from that time he never were eager in its praise, and it received the approba- mentioned her name nor spoke of her again. He tion of Johnson and Franklin. His correspondence lingered on for more than three years, still under was resumed, and cheerfulness again became an in- the same dark shadow of religious despondency and mate of his retreat at Olney. This happy change terror, but occasionally writing, and listening attenwas augmented by the presence of a third party, tively to works read to him by his friends. His Lady Austen, a widow, who came to reside in the last poem was the Castaway, a strain of touching immediate neighbourhood of Olney, and whose con- and beautiful verse, which showed no decay of his versation for a time charmed away the melancholy poetical powers: at length death came to his release spirit of Cowper. She told him the story of John on the 25th of April 1800. So sad and strange a Gilpin, and the famous horseman and his feats were an inexhaustible source of merriment.' Lady Austen also prevailed upon the poet to try his powers in blank verse, and from her suggestion sprung the noble poem of The Task. This memorable friendship was at length dissolved. The lady exacted too much of the time and attention of the poet-perhaps a shade of jealousy on the part of Mrs Unwin, with respect to the superior charms and attractions of her rival, intervened to increase the alienation—and before the Task was finished, its fair inspirer had left Olney without any intention of returning to it. In 1785 the new volume was published. Its success was instant and decided. The public were glad to hear the true voice of poetry and of nature, and in the rural descriptions and fireside scenes of the Task, they saw the features of English scenery and domestic life faithfully delineated. “The Task,' says Southey, ' was at once descriptive, moral, and satirical. The descriptive parts everywhere bore evidence of a thoughtful mind and a gentle spirit, as well as of an observant eye; and the moral sentiment which pervaded them gave a charm in which descriptive poetry is often found wanting. The best didactic poems, when compared with the Task, are like formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery.' As soon as he had completed his labours for the publication of his second volume, Cowper entered upon an undertaking of a still more arduous nature-a translation of Homer.
He had gone
Cowper's Monument. through the great Grecian at Westminster school, and afterwards read him critically in the Temple, destiny has never before or since been that of a man and he was impressed with but a poor opinion of the of genius. With wit and humour at will, he was translation of Pope. Setting himself to a daily task nearly all his life plunged in the darkest melancholy. of forty lines, he at length accomplished the forty Innocent, pious, and confiding, he lived in perthousand verses. He published by subscription, in petual dread of everlasting punishment: he could which his friends were generously active. The work only see between him and heaven a high wall which appeared in 1791, in two volumes quarto. In the he despaired of ever being able to scale; yet his ininterval the poet and Mrs Unwin had removed to tellectual vigour was not subdued by affliction. What Weston, a beautiful village about a mile from Olney. he wrote for amusement or relief in the midst of His cousin, Lady Hesketh, a woman of refined and supreme distress,' surpasses the elaborate efforts of fascinating manners, had visited him; he had also others made under the most favourable circumformed a friendly intimacy with the family of the stances; and in the very winter of his days, his Throckmortons, to whom Weston belonged, and his fancy was as fresh and blooming as in the spring circumstances were comparatively easy. His malady, and morning of existence. That he was constituhowever, returned upon him with full force, and tionally prone to melancholy and insanity, seems Mrs Unwin being rendered helpless by palsy, the undoubted; but the predisposing causes were as task of nursing her fell upon the sensitive and de- surely aggravated by his strict and secluded mode jected poet. Å careful revision of his Homer, and of life. Lady Hesketh was a better guide and coman engagement to edit a new edition of Milton, panion than John Newton; and no one can read were the last literary undertakings of Cowper. The his letters without observing that cheerfulness was former he completed, but without improving the inspired by the one, and terror by the other. The first edition : his second task was never finished. iron frame of Newton could stand unmoved amidst A deepening gloom settled on his mind, with occa- shocks that destroyed the shrinking and apprehensionally bright intervals. A visit to his friend sive mind of Cowper. All, however, have now gone Hayley, at Eartham, produced a short cessation of to their account--the stern yet kind minister, the his' mental suffering, and in 1794 a pension of £300 faithful Mary Unwin, the gentle high-born relations
who forsook ease, and luxury, and society to soothe The highest flight in the whole, and the one most the misery of one wretched being, and that immortal characteristic of Cowper, is his sketch of being himself has passed away, scarce conscious that he had bequeathed an imperishable treasure to man
[The Greenland Missionaries.] kind. We have greater and loftier poets than Cowper, but none so entirely incorporated, as it
That sound bespeaks salvation on her way, were, with our daily existence-none so completely
The trumpet of a life-restoring day; a friend-our companion in woodland wanderings,
'Tis heard where England's eastern glory shines, and in moments of serious thought-ever gentle and
And in the gulfs of her Cornubian mines. affectionate, even in his transient fits of ascetic
And still it spreads. See Germany send forth gloom-a pure mirror of affections, regrets, feelings,
Her sons to pour it on the farthest north ; and desires which we have all felt or would wish to
Fired with a zeal peculiar, they defy cherish. Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton, are spirits
The rage and rigour of a polar sky, of ethereal kind : Cowper is a steady and valuable
And plant successfully sweet Sharon's rose friend, whose society we may sometimes neglect for
On icy plains and in eternal snows. that of more splendid and attractive associates, but
Oh blessed within the enclosure of your rocks, whose unwavering principle and purity
Nor herds have ye to boast, nor bleating flocks; joined to rich intellectual powers, overflow upon us
No fertilising streams your fields divide, in secret, and bind us to him for ever.
That show reversed the villas on their side ; It is scarcely to be wondered at that Cowper's
No groves have ye; no cheerful sound of bird, first volume was coldly received. The subjects of
Or voice of turtle in your land is heard ;
Nor grateful eglantine regales the smell his poems (Table Talk, the Progress of Error, Truth,
Of those that walk at evening where ye dwell; Expostulation, Hope, Charity, &c.) did not promise
But Winter, armed with terrors here unknown, much, and his manner of handling them was not calculated to conciliate a fastidious public. He
Sits absolute on his unshaken throne,
Piles up his stores amidst the frozen waste, was both too harsh and too spiritual for general
And bids the mountains he has built stand fast; readers. Johnson had written moral poems in the
Beckons the legions of his storms away, same form of verse, but they possessed a rich declama
From happier scenes to make your lands a prey ; tory grandeur and brilliancy of illustration which
Proclaims the soil a conquest he has won, Cowper did not attempt, and probably would, from
And scorns to share it with the distant sun. principle, have rejected. There are passages, how
Yet Truth is yours, remote unenvied isle ! ever, in these evangelical works of Cowper of
And Peace, the genuine offspring of her smile; masterly execution and lively fancy. His character
The pride of lettered ignorance, that binds of Chatham has rarely been surpassed, even by Pope In chains of error our accomplished minds, or Dryden :
That decks with all the splendour of the true,
A false religion, is unknown to you. A. Patriots, alas! the few that have been found
Nature indeed vouchsafes for our delight Where most they flourish, upon English ground, The sweet vicissitudes of day and night; The country's need have scantily supplied ;
Soft airs and genial moisture feed and cheer And the last left the scene when Chatham died.
Field, fruit, and flower, and every creature here; B. Not so; the virtue still adorns our age,
But brighter beams than his who fires the skies Though the chief actor died upon the stage.
Have risen at length on your admiring eyes, In him Demosthenes was heard again ;
That shoot into your darkest caves the day Liberty taught him her Athenian strain;
From which our nicer optics turn away. She clothed him with authority and awe, Spoke from his lips, and in his looks gave law. In this mixture of argument and piety, poetry and His speech, his form, his action full of grace, plain sense, we have the distinctive traits of Cowper's And all his country beaming in his face,
genius. The freedom acquired by composition, and He stood as some inimitable hand
especially the presence of Lady Austen, led to more Would strive to make a Paul or Tully stand. valuable results; and when he entered upon the Task, No sycophant or slave that dared oppose
he was far more disposed to look at the sunny side Her sacred cause, but trembled when he rose; of things, and to launch into general description. And every venal stickler for the yoke,
His versification underwent a similar improvement. Felt himself crushed at the first word he spoke. His former poems were often rugged in style and Neither has the fine simile with which the follow the polished uniformity of Pope and his imitators.
expression, and were made so on purpose, to avoid ing retrospect closes :
He was now sensible that he had erred on the oppoAges elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
site side, and accordingly the Task was made to And ages ere the Mantuan swan was heard; unite strength and freedom with elegance and harTo carry nature lengths unknown before,
mony. No poet has introduced so much idiomatic To give a Milton birth asked ages more.
expression into a grave poem of blank verse; but the Thus genius rose and set at ordered times,
higher passages are all carefully finished, and rise And shot a day-spring into distant climes,
or fall, according to the nature of the subject, with Ennobling every region that he chose.
inimitable grace and melody. In this respect CowHe sunk in Greece, in Italy he rose ;
per, as already mentioned, has greatly the advantage And, tedious years of Gothic darkness past, of Thomson, whose stately march is never relaxed, Emerged all splendour in our isle at last.
however trivial be the theme. The variety of the Thus lovely halcyons dive into the main,
Task in style and manner, no less than in subject, Then show far off their shining plumes again. is one of its greatest charms. The mock-heroic
opening is a fine specimen of his humour, and from The poem of Conversation in this volume is rich this he slides into rural description and moral reflecin Addisonian humour and satire, and formed no tion so naturally and easily, that the reader is carried unworthy prelude to the Task. In Hope and Retire along apparently without an effort. The scenery of ment, we see traces of the descriptive powers and the Ouse-its level plains and spacious meads—is natural pleasantry afterwards so finely developed. described with the vividness of painting, and the
poet then elevates the character of his picture by a the vale of years ;' his playful satire and tender rapid sketch of still nobler features:
admonition, his denunciation of slavery, his noble
patriotism, his devotional earnestness and subli[Rural Sounds.]
mity, his warm sympathy with his fellow-men, and Nor rural sights alone, but rural sounds,
his exquisite paintings of domestic peace and hapExhilarate the spirit, and restore
piness, are all so much self-portraiture, drawn with The tone of languid nature. Mighty winds
the ripe skill and taste of the master, yet with a
modesty that shrinks from the least obtrusiveness That sweep the skirt of some far-spreading wood Of ancient growth, make music not unlike
and display. The very rapidity of his transitions, The dash of ocean on his winding shore,
where things light and sportive are drawn up with
the most solemn truths, and satire, pathos, and reAnd lull the spirit while they fill the mind, Unnumbered branches waving in the blast,
proof alternately mingle or repel each other, are And all their leaves fast fluttering all at once.
characteristic of his mind and temperament in ordiNor less composure waits upon the roar
nary life. His inimitable ease and colloquial free. Of distant floods, or on the softer voice
dom, which lends such a charm to his letters, is Of neighbouring fountain, or of rills that slip
never long absent from his poetry; and his peculiar Through the cleft rock, and chiming as they fall
tastes, as seen in that somewhat grandiloquent line, Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too, In matted grass, that with a livelier green Betrays the secret of their silent course.
are all pictured in the pure and lucid pages of the Nature inanimate displays sweet sounds,
Task. It cannot be said that Cowper ever abanBut animated nature sweeter still,
doned his sectarian religious tenets, yet they are To soothe and satisfy the human ear.
little seen in his great work. His piety is that Ten thousand warblers cheer the day, and one which all should feel and venerate; and if his sad The livelong night; nor these alone whose notes experience of the world had tinged the prospect of Nice-fingered art must emulate in vain,
life, its fluctuations and its vast concerns,' with a But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime
deeper shade than seems consonant with the general In still-repeated circles, screaming loud,
welfare and happiness, it also imparted a higher The jay, the pie, and even the boding owl
authority and more impressive wisdom to his earnest That hails the rising moon, have charms for me. and solemn appeals. He was a stricken deer that Sounds inharmonious in themselves and harsh, left the herd,' conscious of the follies and wants of Yet heard in scenes where peace for ever reigns, those he left behind, and inspired with power to
And only there, please highly for their sake. minister to the delight and instruction of the whole The freedom of this versification, and the admirable human race. variety of pause and cadence, must strike the most uncritical reader. With the same playful strength
[From "Conversation.'] * and equal power of landscape painting, he describes
The emphatic speaker dearly loves to oppose, [The Diversified Character of Creation.] In contact inconvenient, nose to nose, The earth was made so various, that the mind
As if the gnomon on his neighbour's phiz, Of desultory man, studious of change
Touched with a magnet, had attracted his. And pleased with novelty, might be indulged.
His whispered theme, dilated and at large,
Proves after all a wind-gun's airy charge-
An extract of his diary—no more--
A tasteless journal of the day before.
He walked abroad, o'ertaken in the rain,
Called on a friend, drank tea, stept home again ; Where frequent hedges intercept the eye,
Resumed his purpose, had a world of talk Delight us, happy to renounce a while,
With one he stumbled on, and lost his walk; Not senseless of its charms, what still we love,
I interrupt him with a sudden bow, That such short absence may endear it more.
Adieu, dear sir, lest you should lose it now. Then forests, or the savage rock may please
A graver coxcomb we may sometimes see, That hides the sea-mew in his hollow clefts
Quite as absurd, though not so light as he: Above the reach of man; his hoary head
A shallow brain behind a serious mask,
An oracle within an empty cask,
The solemn fop, significant and budge;
A fool with judges, amongst fools a judge;
He A girdle of half-withered shrubs he shows,
but little, and that little said, And at his feet the baffled billows die.
Owes all its weight, like loaded dice, to lead. The common overgrown with fern, and rough
His wit invites you by his looks to come, With prickly goss, that, shapeless and deform,
But when you knock, it never is at home: And dangerous to the touch, has yet its bloom,
'Tis like a parcel sent you by the stage, And decks itself with ornaments of gold,
Some handsome present, as your hopes presage ; Yields no unpleasing ramble ; there the turf
'Tis heavy, bulky, and bids fair to prove Smells fresh, and rich in odoriferous herbs
An absent friend's fidelity of love; And fungous fruits of earth, regales the sense
But when unpacked, your disappointment groans With luxury of unexpected sweets.
To find it stuffed with brickbats, earth, and stones.
Some men employ their health-an ugly trickFrom the beginning to the end of the Task we in making known how oft they have been sick, never lose sight of the author. His love of country And give us in recitals of disease rambles, when a boy,
A doctor's trouble, but without the fees; O’er hills, through valleys, and by river's brink;
Relate how many weeks they kept their bed,
How an emetic or cathartic sped ; his walks with Mrs Unwin, when he had exchanged Nothing is slightly touched, much less forgot; the Thames for the Ouse, and had 'grown sober in Nose, cars, and eyes seem present on the spot.