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feels for the minor elements, a vital and necessary part of existence, there is assistance in maintaining this balance. 'When he is great,' says Mr Palgrave, 'it is with that elementary greatness which rests on the most universal human feelings.' When you come to think of it, this is true of all the best poets. When they are great, it is with that elementary greatness which rests on the most universal human feelings. Not by searching for unique experiences, by delineating an unusual mood of mind, by the invention of startling paradoxes, can a poet become the favourite of a nation; but only when his words spring from the experience he shares with the whole human race, when he speaks the language of the heart which no man fails to understand.
'Mortals speak many tongues, the immortals one.'
The whole effort of the poets of this transition period was towards naturalness; naturalness in thought and expression, in the room of ingenuity and artificiality. This conversion to naturalness in poetry was accompanied by its old passion for humanity, which had been lost in the conventionalism of the so-called Augustan age. But the new delight in humanity is more reflective than that of the school of Marlowe; there is less of passionate joy in it, but the place of passion is taken by a graver, we may even say a more spiritual mood. Its sign is a certain tenderness, a sympathy for the meaner aspects of man, his weaknesses and failures, which is lacking in Elizabeth's men. Marlowe and Ben Jonson would have been impatient of the feeble-minded or uncourageous person, their eyes were bent in admiration on the strong and the heroic and the successful. The sympathy with failure, so strongly marked in our developed moral sense, has small place, if we exclude Shakespere, with any poet
before Cowper. The individual 'fashioned in all noble and gentle discipline' is not to be any longer the poet's ideal, his dream is of a perfected humanity. Mankind, toiling painfully up towards the light, the sin and error as well as the intellectual and spiritual achievement of the race, he takes all into one wide, comprehensive view. The man who will rejoice most truly over the victory is the man who has felt most keenly with the victor during the struggle, and while the issue was still a doubtful one. The attitude of the great poet is finely described by the late Dean Church in speaking of Dante :—
'Fresh from the thought of man's condition as a whole, fresh from the thought of his goodness, his greatness, his power, as well as of his evil, his mind is equally in tune when rejoicing over his restoration, as when contemplating the ruins of his fall. He never lets go the recollection that human life, if it grovels at one end in corruption and sin, and has to pass through the sweat and dust and disfigurement of earthly toil, has throughout compensations, remedies, functions, spheres innumerable of profitable activity, sources inexhaustible of delight and consolation, and at the other end a perfection that cannot be named.'
Like Wordsworth, Cowper was not a student of books, nor was he an eager reader of poetry other than his own, but Milton he knew well, and learned his blank verse from that great master of metrical harmonies. 'Why not try blank verse?' said Lady Austen to him; and in 'The Task' the fetters of the heroic couplet were thrown off, and an essential step taken towards the music and liberty of nineteenth century poetry. Poetry, as he himself tells us, was his amusement. Despair made amusement necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement but it
was amusement to which he devoted his full mental strength, and the apparent ease, spontaneity and naturalness of his verse were the outcome of conscientious labour; it is nowhere marred by carelessness. Cowper and Crabbe are the English counterparts in poetry of the Dutch school of painters. Real as was Cowper's feeling for nature, faithful as are his transcripts of her varying moods or phases, he never dreamt of the consecration,' or 'the light that never was on sea or land'; that revelation, the apocalyptic vision, are Wordsworth's, and Wordsworth's alone.
Smooth lawns, the trim parterre of an ordered garden, Nature improved upon by man, are all that Pope gives us. Cowper is the poet of virgin woods, the hill and valleyland of English landscape, observantly accurate in his delineation of externals. But in Wordsworth, 'the sense of something far more deeply interfused' animates, transforms and transfigures, and we exchange the details of the phenomena presented to the eye and the mind for the vision that awakens and dilates the soul. Far more effectively was the revolt against conventionalism carried on by the calm persistence of Wordsworth and the fiery energies of Burns and Byron; but that revolt was initiated by Cowper—he was a good soldier in the van of the army of freedom. Wishing, above all things, to be a guide to a better life, he set himself to reclaim the age. He did not indeed reclaim the age, but he represents the beginnings of the forces that were destined to work for the renewal of Society that came later. He marks the epoch which, ceasing to pay exclusive regard to the political aspects of things, began to look towards the social reforms which are the paramount concern of to-day His letters best tell his life. Southey thought him the greatest master in English of that lost art, letter-writing.
Taken in conjunction with 'The Task,' they give a full-length portrait of the artist painted by himself. To 'The Task' every reader must go whose feeling for Cowper is ever to become an affection. In it a gentleness and a naïveté, a sweetness and a melancholy, a tender grace and a subtle pathos, a quiet humour and a pure religion combine to produce a charm unmatched elsewhere. 'Our highest master in simple pathos,' Cowper's vein of humour, delicate, pointed, and yet utterly guileless, adds to its peculiar power. Humour like that of Cowper or of Lamb, emanating from a life of almost unbroken sadness, intensifies the pathos of the life itself. Perhaps, of all the forms of mental disease, the most appalling is religious insanity, and there is no sadder life among the poets on record than that of this gentle victim of a disordered imagination. In his poem of 'The Castaway,' describing the sailor who, falling from his vessel, perishes in mid-ocean, for a moment or two a lonely speck amid the foaming yeast of its waves, he passes from him to speak of his own fate as more terrible
'No voice divine the storm allayed,
When snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.'
To Edmund Burke is due the rescue of a poet from oblivion, perhaps from death by want, whose name is associated with Cowper's as standing midway between the school of Pope and the school of Wordsworth. Crabbe, the poet laureate of East Anglia, cannot be passed over in any sketch, however slight, of the period to which he belongs. 'Nature's sternest painter, yet the best,' was Byron's opinion
of him, and, although fate will be against his acceptance by any large body of readers, those who can read him will always read with the respect due to strong and original genius. As portrait or as landscape painter he impresses equally; he never fails to leave an impression of power in the gloomy realism of his village tales. Poetry is here, for the first time, the vehicle of social reform.
The poets just mentioned were the forerunners of the revolution in its meridian splendour. If we take up Mr Palgrave's Golden Treasury, turn to the third book, and read there the first poem by the Scotch peasant, Robert Burns, we shall realise far more vividly the change which came over the spirit of English poetry than by reading a hundred critical histories. Or if we read the same untaught poet's 'Vision' of his own native land in its sad estate, we cannot but feel that here again, after a silence of more than a hundred years, the note of high poetic passion rings clear and true.
'As I stood by yon roofless tower,
Where the wa'-flower scents the dewy air,
And tells the midnight moon her care; .
By heedless chance I turned mine eyes,
Attired as minstrels wont to be.
Had I a statue been o' stane,
His darin' look had daunted me;
And frae his harp sic strains did flow,
Might roused the slumb'ring dead to hear;
But, oh! it was a tale of woe
As ever met a Briton's ear.'