Изображения страниц

The liberty of Cowper was not, however, that lawless restraint whjch, under the sacred name of liberty, would burst asunder all those bands that hold society together, and introduce confusion infinitely more to be dreaded than the most absolute despotism. It was not the wild and unrestrained liberty of the ferocious mob; it was the liberty that is compatible with wholesome restraint, and with the due administration of law. It was the liberty not of disorder but of discipline, as will be seen by the following beautiful lines—

"Let Discipline employ her wholesome arts;
Let magistrates alert perform their parts,
Not skulk, or put on a prudential mask,
As if their duty was a desperate task.
Let active laws apply the needful curb,
To guard the peace that riot would disturb ^
And liberty, preserved from wild excess,
Shall raise no feuds for armies to suppress.
When Tumult lately burst his prison door,
And set plebeian thousands in a roar,
When he usurped Authority's just place,
And dared to look his master in the face;
When the rude rabble's watch-word was—' Destroy!'
And blazing London seemed a second Troy!
Liberty blushed, and hung her drooping head—
Beheld their progress with the deepest dread;
Blushed that effects like these she could produce,
Worse than the deeds of galley-slaves let loose;
She loses in such storms her very name,
And fierce Licentiousness should bear the blame!"

Powerful as. were the charms of subjects like these to Cowper, there were others of a different character which he held as more dear, and ever regarded as more important. Like his great predecessor, Milton, he had made the sacred scriptures his constant study; not so much because he admired the sublime imagery of the holy penmen, (alive as he was to their beauties in this respect,) as because he felt the full force of divine truth upon his heart; which, notwithstanding the severe pressure of his malady, would sometimes yield him an interval of pleasure. It was undoubtedly on one of these happy occasions that he penned the following lines, so strikingly descriptive of the refined pleasure with which the Christian can view the works of nature.

"He looks abroad into the varied field
Of nature; and though poor, perhaps, compared

With those whose mansions glitter in his sight,

Calls the delighful scenery all his own:

His are the mountains, and the valleys his,

And the resplendent rivers: his to enjoy

With a propriety that none can feel,

But who, with filial confidence inspired,

Can lift to heaven an unpresumptuous eye,

And smiling say—My Father made them all!

Are they not his by a peculiar right?

And by an emphasis of interest his

Whose eyes they fill with tears of holy joy;

Whose heart with praise, and whose exalted mind

With worthy thoughts of that unwearied love

That planned, and built, and still upholds a world

So clothed with beauty for rebellious man?

Yes! Ye may fill your garners, ye that reap

The loaded soil; and ye may waste much good

In senseless riot; but ye will not find

In feast, or in the chase, in song or dance,

A liberty like his, who, unimpeached

Of usurpation, and to no man's wrong

Appropriates nature as his Father's work,

And has a richer use of yours than you."

Although Cowper, towards the close of his life, before he received his Majesty's pension, owing to the heavy expenses occasioned by his own and Mrs. Unwin's illness, was scarcely able to keep his expenditure within the limits of his income, yet he was never once heard to complain, nor even to indulge the slightest disposition to be otherwise than contented in the station where Providence had placed him. Writing to his intimate friend, Mr. Hill, on one occasion, whom he appears to have made his treasurer, he remarks:—" Your tidings respecting the slender pittance yet to come, are, as you observe, of a melancholy cast. Not being gifted, however, by nature with the means of acquiring much, it is well that she has given me a disposition to be contented with little. I have now been so many years habituated to small matters, that I should probably find myself incommoded by greater, and, may I but be enabled to shift, as I have been hitherto, unsatisfied wishes will not trouble me much."

On another occasion, to the same individual he writes:— "I suppose you are sometimes troubled on my account, but you need not. I have no doubt that it will be seen, when my days are closed, that I served a Master who would not suffer me to want anything that was good for me. He said to Jacob,' I will surely do thee good;' and this he said not for his sake only, but for ours also, if we trust in him.' This thought relieves me from the greatest part of the distress I should else suffer in my present circumstances, and enables me to sit down peacefully upon the wreck of my fortune." The same sentiment is still more forcibly expressed in the following lines:—

"Fair is the lot that's cast for me;
I have an Advocate with Thee:
They whom the world caresses most
Have no such privilege to boast.
Poor though I am, despised, forgot,
Yet God, my God, forgets me not;
And he is safe, and must succeed,
For whom the Lord vouchsafes to plead."

Perhaps no individual ever felt more fully the power of religion in his heart, or embodied it more completely in his life, than Cowper. The apprehensions, for his ultimate safety, by which he was so continually harassed, depressive as was their influence on his mind, never relaxed, in any degree, that severe watchfulness which religion had taught him to exercise over his thoughts and conduct. On the contrary, they seem rather to have operated as a continual check upon those corrupt inclinations which are common to our fallen nature; and to which, even Cowper, was not a stranger. It would be ridiculous to say he had no imperfections; he felt them; he often mourned over them, and the vivid perception he had of them, associated, as it invariably was, with a powerful constitutional tendency to melancholy, often filled him with the greatest anxiety and-dread. His conceptions of the purity of that sublime religion taught us in the gospel, and of the paramount importance of a holy life in its professors, were such as led htm to regard the least deviation from the strict line of christian duty, in his own case at least, as an entire disqualification for the reception of spiritual comfort. No individual's conscience was ever more tremblingly alive to the importance of habitual watchfulness and uniform consistency of conduct. He could make ample allowances for the imperfections of others, but nothing could prevail upon him to make any for his own.

The notice we have already taken of Cowper's productions, renders it unnecessary that wo should view them any further in detail. We cannot, however, suppress the following admirable observations of an anonymous critic, subjoined to Mr. Hayley's life of Cowper. "The noblest benefits and delights of poetry can be but rarely produced, because all the requisites for producing them so seldom meet. A vivid mind and happy imitative power, may enable a poet to form glowing pictures of virtue, and almost produce in himself a shortlived enthusiasm of goodness. But although even these transient and factitious movements of mind may serve to produce grand and delightful effusions of poetry, yet when the best of these are compared with the poetic productions of a genuine lover of virtue, a discerning judgment will scarcely fail to mark the difference. A simplicity of conception and expression; a conscious and therefore unaffected dignity; an instinctive adherence to sober reason, even amid the highest flights; an uniform justness and consistency of thought; a glowing, yet temperate ardour of feeling; a peculiar felicity, both in the choice and combination of terms, by which even the plainest words acquire the truest character of eloquence, and which is rarely to be found except where a subject is not only intimately known, but cordially loved; these, I conceive, are the features peculiar to the real votary of virtue, and which must of course give to his strains a perfection of effect never to be attained by the poet of inferior moral endowments. I believe it will be granted that all these qualities were never more perfectly combined than in the poetry of Milton. And I think, too, there will be little doubt that the next to him, in every one of these instances, beyond all comparison, is Cowper. The genius of the latter did certainly not lead him to emulate the songs of the Seraphim. But though he pursues a lower walk of poetry than his great master, he appears no less the enraptured votary of pure unmixed goodness. Nay, perhaps he may in this one respect possess some peculiar excellences which may make him seem more the bard of Christianity. That divine religion infinitely exalts, but it also deeply humbles the mind it inspires. It gives majesty to the thoughts, but it impresses meekness on the manners, and diffuses tenderness through the feelings. It combines sensibility and fortitude, the lowliness of the child, and the magnanimity of the hero."

"The grandest features of the Christian character were never more gloriously exemplified than in that spirit which animates the whole of Milton's poetry. His own Michael does not impress us with the idea of a purer, or more awful virtue than that which we feel in every portion of his majestic verse; and he no less happily indicates the source from which his excellence was derived, by the bright beams which he ever and anon reflects upon us from the sacred Scriptures. But the milder graces of the gospel are certainly less apparent. What we behold is so awful, it might almost have inspired a wish, that a spirit, equally pure and heavenly, might be raised to illustrate, with like felicity, the more attractive and gentler influences of our divine religion. In Cowper, above any poet that ever lived, would such a wish seem to be fulfilled. In his charming effusions we have the same spotless purity, the same elevated devotion, the same vital exercise of every noble and exalted quality of the mind, the same devotedness to the sacred Scriptures, and to the peculiar doctrines of the gospel. The difference is, that instead of an almost reprehensive dignity, we have the sweetest familiarity; instead of the majestic grandeur of the Old Testament, we have the winning graces of the New; instead of those thunders by which angels were discomfited, we have, as it were, the still small voice of Him who was meek and lowly of heart. May we not then venture to assert, that from that spirit of devoted piety, which has rendered both these great men liable to the charge of religious enthusiasm, but which, in truth, raised the minds of both to a kind of happy residence *

'In regions mild, of calm and serene air,

Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot,

Which men call earth—'

a peculiar character has been derived to the poetry of them both, which distinguishes their compositions from those of almost all the world besides. I have already enumerated some of the superior advantages of a truly virtuous poet, and presumed to state, that these are realized, in an unexampled degree, in Milton and Cowper. That they both owed this eminence to their vivid sense of religion, will, I conceive, need no demonstration, except what will arise to every reader of taste and feeling on examining their works. It will here, I think, be seen at once, that that sublimity of conception, that delicacy of virtuous feeling, that majestic independence of mind, that quick relish for all the beauties of nature, at once so pure and so exquisite, which we find ever occurring in them both, could not have existed in the same unrivalled degree, if their devotion had been less intense, and of course, their minds more dissipated amongst low and distracting objects."

To the above remarks on the poet's character, we cannot forbear subjoining the two following exquisite pictures of

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »