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melancholy and wit of Young do not make up to us the idea of a conceivable or natural being. He has sketched in his pages the ingenious, but incongruous form of a fictitious mind —Cowper's soul speaks from his volumes.”
“ To Cowper belongs pre-eminently," says Willmott, “above any writer in our language, the title of the "Poet of the Affections.' Campbell compares the
Task' to a playful little fountain, which gathers magnitude and beauty as it proceeds. Cowpar found the fountain in his heart. He has brought the muse, in her most attractive form, to sit down by our hearths ; and has breathed a sanctity over the daily economy of our existence. He builds up no magic castles ; he conduets us into no enchanted gardens ; no silver lutes sigh through his verse; no wings of faëry glisten over his page. Instead of wandering over the shores of old romance, he teaches us out of the Book of Life, and invests with a delightful charm the commonest offices of humanity. He pauses with no delight upon the variegated fancy of Davenant, the serious sweetness of Spenser, or the resplendent visions of Milton; and he joyfully exchanges the beautiful pomp of the Attic mythology for the dearer recollections of his native village; for the garden gate over which he has often hung; the humming of the bees; and the piping of the robin in his own apple-tree.”
The most interesting lives of Cowper are those by Hayley, Southey, Grimshawe, and the accoinplished author from whose work the preceding beautiful passage has been taken. His criticism on the various works of the author of the “Task" are written with great elegance, and with a true appreciation of Cowper's peculiar merits. The concluding passage of the memoir, comparing his religious poetry with that of Milton and Young, is eloquent and impressive :-" In becoming the poet of Christianity, Cowper addressed himself especially to the common business of life. He preached to us in our amusements and occupations. Milton, whose imagination was irradiated with all the splendours of prophecy, and all the beauty of the elder literature,
often describes the rites of the true worship with a Grecian ceremonial glittering in the distance. Young frequently dazzles our eyes with the blaze of fashion, or the allurements of ambition; but the poetry of Cowper is uniformly reflective, sober, and harmonious. The inspiration which Milton found in the Old Testament he finds in the New; and instead of the terrible threatenings of Isaiah, or the dark sayings of Ezekiel, be warns and consoles us from the lips of our Saviour, and builds up our lives from the teaching of his apostles.”
Cowper's superiority as a prose writer, particularly in the department of epistolary composition, has called forth many laudatory criticisms. An able contributor to “The Quarterly Review” for 1835 (probably Southey), thus speaks on this point :—“His letters are inexpressibly delightful. They possess excellence so opposite, a naivè simplicity, arising from perfect goodness of heart, and singleness of purpose, contrasted with a deep acquaintance with the follies and vices of human nature, and a keen sense of humour and ridicule. They unite the playfulness of a child, the affectionateness of a woman, and the strong sense of a man. They give us glimpses of pleasure, so innocent and pure, as almost to realize the Eden of our great poet, contrasted with horrors so deep, as even to exceed his powers of imagery to express. His pathos is no bright, cold gleam of the imagination, but bursts warm from a heart in which every right and true feeling had its home. In a word, he either writes because he has something to say—not because he would say something—or he fairly tells you that he is going to trifle ; and then his badinage is the lightest and most graceful in the world.” Lord Jeffrey, one of the founders, and for many years the principal editor, of “ The Edinburgh Review," and who is pre-eminently distinguished far the beauty, and, with a few exceptions, for the justice of his critical dissertations, has written in the same strain of animated panegyric. In reference to Cowper's inimitable letters, he observes :—“We have rarely met with any similar collection of superior interest and beauty. Though the incidents to which they relate be of no
public magnitude or moment, and the remarks which they contain be not uniformly profound or original, yet there is something in the sweetness and facility of the diction, and more, perhaps, in the glimpses they afford of a benevolent mind, that diffuses a charm over the whole collection, and communicates an interest that cannot always be commanded by performances of greater dignity and pretensions. These letters will continue to be read, long after the curiosity is gratified, to which, perhaps, they owed their first celebrity; for the character with which they make us acquainted will always attract by its rarity, and engage by its ele
The private correspondence of Cowper, published in 1823, by Dr. John Johnson, a distant connexion of the poet, is a work of great interest, and a valuable addition to a department of our literature, which presents a variety of attractions to the general reader. The editor quotes the subjoined testimony to the merits of Cowper's epistolary style from the pen of the late Rev. Robert Hall, whose accuracy of judgment, in all that relates to English prose composition, no one will doubt who has perused his own eloquent sermons and essays. In writing to Johnson, that eminent divine observes :“It is quite unnecessary to say that I perused the letters with great admiration and delight. I have always considered the letters of Cowper as the finest specimen of the epistolary style in our language ; and these appear to me of a superior description to the former, possessing as much beanty, with more piety and pathos. To an air of inimitable ease and carelessness, they unite a high degree of correctness, such as could result only from the clearest intellect, combined with the most finished taste. I have scarcely found a single word which is capable of being exchanged for a better,
"Literary errors I can discern none. The selection of words and the structure of the periods are inimitable; they present as striking a contrast, as can well be conceived, to the turgid verbosity which påsses at present for fine writing, and which bears a great resemblance to
the degeneracy which marks the style of Ainmianus Marcellinus, as compared to that of Cicero or of Livy. A perpetual effort and struggle is made to supply the place of vigour, garish and dazzling colours are substituted for chaste ornament, and the hideous distortions of weakness for native strength. In my humble opinion, the study of Cowper's prose may, on this account, be as ' useful in forming the taste of young people as his poetry.”
The excellences of Cowper, as a poet of the first class, are ably and impartially summed up by Lord Jeffrey in his review of Hayley:"The great merit of this writer appears to us to consist in the boldness and originality of his composition, and in the fortunate audacity with which he has carried the dominion of poetry into regions that had been considered as inaccessible to her ambition. The gradual refinement of taste had, for nearly a century, been weakening the figure of original genius. Our poets had become timid and fastidious, and circumscribed themselves both in the choice and the management of their subjects, by the observance of a limited number of models, who were thought to have exhausted all the legitimate resources of the art. Cowper was one of the first who crossed this enchanted circle, who regained the natural liberty of invention, and walked abroad in the open field of observation as freely as those by whom it was originally trodden; he passed from the imitation of poets to the imitation of nature, and ventured boldly upon the representation of objects that had not been sanctified by the description of any of his predecessors. In the ordinary occupations and duties of domestic life, and the consequences of modern manners, in the common scenery of a rustic situation, and the obvious contemplation of our public institutions, he has found a multitude of subjects for ridicule and reflection, for pathetic and picturesque description, for moral declamation, and devotional rapture, that would have been looked upon with disdain, or with despair, by most of our poetical adventurers. He took as wide a range in language, too, as in matter; and, shaking off the tawdry encumbrance
of that poetical diction which had nearly reduced the art to the skilful collocation of a set of appropriated phrases, he made no scruple to set down in verse every expression that would have been admitted in prose, and to take advantage of all the varieties with which our language could supply him."
Shaw's “Outlines of English Literature” may be referred to for an excellent analysis of Cowper's works.
BORN, 1735; DIED, 1803.
From Beattie's Poem of Retirement.
Tots pleasing poet and eminent moralist was born on October 25, 1735, at Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, in Scotland. He was descended froin a family of good character and cultivated intellect, but of an humble rank in life. His father kept a small shop in the town of which his son James was a native, and rented a little farm contiguous to it. lle was a man of superior acquirements for his station, and had received the advantage of a good, plain education in one of the Scotch parochial schools. James lost his father when he was only seven years of age, and his mother placed him at an elementary seminary in the village. His progress appears to have been rapid for his years, for he exhibited a decided taste for poctical composition at a very early period; and before he was ten years old, took great delight in reading translations of Homer and Virgil. He became a student at Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1749, at the age of fourteen, where he was placed partly by the assistance of his elder bro