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" "Twere new, indeed, to see a bard all fire,
THESE lines occur in the first of Cowper's published poems, and, from their connection with a review of the themes of his predecessors, as well as from their correspondence with the character of his following works, it may be assumed, that in them the Poet intimated the course which he himself intended to take, while, with the prophetic consciousness of genius, he anticipated his future triumph. Though it cannot be allowed that our Author was so “ baptized with the Spirit and with fire,” as to accomplish his purpose with the energy, splendour, and effect, implied in this rapturous presage, yet that he did accomplish it, in a manner peculiarly honourable to himself, will be acknowledged by all who are at once judges of true poetry and true piety. The number of these may be small; but with the multitude of those who are judges of only the one or the other, Cowper has had the enviable lot to become a favourite, because of his excellence in that which either class can singly appreciate and admire. The close of his greatest work is in harmony with this presentiment in his first. Having finished his “ Task,” he says, alluding to the same subject, and the same inspiration
“ But all is in his hand, whose praise I seek,
Whose frown can disappoint the proudest strain,
The Task, Book vi. No formal essay on the genius and writings of Cowper is proposed in the following pages, which, from the limitations under which they have been prepared, must consist of desultory remarks on his principal works, in reference to his intellectual character, his deplorable malady, and the strikingly contrasted eras of his early and his later life. Yet, to do justice to the subject, the critic of Cowper ought to be his biographer; and the productions of his mind ought to be examined chronologically, in connection with the events of his history, there being a beautiful and affecting relationship between his most interesting poems, and his personal circumstances, of the same date. It is this that inexpressibly endears Cowper to his readers, as a man of like passions with themselves, while, by the simplicity of his manner, he quietly raises them above their own level, and makes them feel as though they were of kindred endowments with him. With as little egotism, in the invidious sense of that word, as a human being can betray, he often alludes to incidents in former years, and to present scenes, which render us familiarly and delightfully acquainted with what he was, what he is, and what he aims to be. In fact, he has delineated himself more truly, more vividly, than Romney or Law. rence can have done in their touching memorials of his meek, intelligent, but pensive countenance; though the latter, particularly, has given us the very soul of the Poet's features, in lines so few, yet perfect, that we cannot look upon them, without thinking that he must have been just such a man as these represent him; for such he has been, to our imagination, ever since we
knew him in his works, and formed an idea from them of his personal appearance. Cowper, indeed, is one whom we seem to have known and loved from our youth. We read his thoughts as the thoughts of a friend, in whom every thing is dearer and more engaging to us, than the same in a stranger could be. Yet Cowper must be known well, to be loved heartily. He appears dry, and cold, and even repulsive at first, in his greater poems; nor even in his more exquisite sketches, will the grace, the delicacy, the tenderness, of his humour or his pathos, come out at once. Familiarity, however, with him, instead of breeding contempt, attaches us more and more to his company, while it more and more elevates his peculiar talents in O!r esteem. There are few compositions, either in prose or rhyme, that will mend so much, on repeated perusal, as Cowper's, and none that will wear better in the memory, or take stronger hold upon the affections.
A brief outline of our Author's story may be useful for reference in the subsequent strictures on the character of his mind and his writings.
WILLIAM COWPER was the son of a clergyman, allied to a noble family. He lost his mother at an early age, and soon after her death was removed from his father's house, and placed at Westminster School. Here he continued till he had reached his eighteenth year. The honours and fortunes of several of the most illustrious of his ancestors, having been derived from their connection with the administration of jus. tice, he also was doomed to study the law, as a profession, with the prospect of preferment through his family interests. Accordingly, he was articled for three years to an attorney, and actually served out his term ; though, from a letter of his own to Lady Hesketh, we learn that he and the future Lord Chancellor, (Thurlow,) who was his companion, mispent their time as pleasantly as two youths of such promise could desire. The talents of each, in the sequel, raised him to preeminence in the path of distinction which he chose; but the contrast of their fortunes was no less singular than the coincidence. Thurlow rose to wealth, power, and glory, unrivalled in their combination, during his life-time; but when death had shorn him of those of his honours that were mortal, it extinguished threefourths, at least, of the splendour attached to his name. Cowper emerged, in the middle stage of life, from obscurity and inaction, and, though the season of enterprise and hope might be imagined past, succeeded in gaining a poet's reputation, even at a time when poetry was little regarded. This he achieved by one victorious effort of mind, * in a lucid interval of comparative peace, amidst a life of despondency. Without this golden occasion, all the other fruits of his genius might have fallen to the ground, ungathered by the public; because, like his first miscellaneous volume, it is probable that they would have failed to attract that attention, which, once obtained, has insured their acceptance with all who can enjoy unsophisticated verse, in alliance with pure and undefiled religion. But the felicity was transient; no after exertion advanced his fame; he continued in retirement, and though the kindness of many friends added comforts to his declining days—he languished in circumstances barely above poverty, and at length died--for “ wealth,” by the royal bounty, came literally to him “ a day too late,”-under the darkest cloud that could cover the brightness of an immortal spirit, before its departure froin the body. Death, which reduced Thurlow to the standard of his intellect alone, among the illustrious of his age, exalted poor Cowper to the standard of his, and made him as much greater in the eye of posterity than the Chancellor now appears, as the latter was greater than he in the sight of their contemporaries. But this is digression.