Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

cellencies of every other religions community; on the contrary, it was the attachment of the firm and steady friend of religions liberty, in the most liberal sense of the term. Of a sectarian spirit he was ever the open and avowed opponent. He sincerely and very highly respected the conscientious of all parties. In one of his letters to Mr. Newton, adverting t6 a passage in his writings that was likely to expose him to Ihe charge of illiberality, he thus writes. "When I wrote the passage in question, I was not at all aware of any impropriety in it. I am, however, glad you have condemned it; and though I do not feel as if I could presently supply its place, shall be willing to attempt the task, whatever labour it may cost me; and rejoice that it will not be in the power of the critics, whatever else they may charge me with, to accuse me of bigotry, or a design to make a certain denomination odious at the hazard of the public peace. I had rather my book should be burnt, than a single line guilty of such a tendency should escape me."

Cowper's attainments as a scholar were highly respectable; he was master of four languages, besides his own: Greek, Latin, Italian, and French; and though his reading was by no means so extensive as that of some, it was turned to better account, as he was a most thoughtful and attentive reader, and it was undoubtedly amply sufficient for every purpose, with a genius so brilliant and a mind so original as his.

The productions of Cowper were eminently and entirely his own; he had neither borrowed from nor imitated any one. Ho copied from none either as to his subjects, or the manner of treating them. All was the creation of his own inventive

fonius. Adverting to this circumstance, in one of his letters, e thus writes:—"I reckon it among my principal advantages as a composer of verses that I have not read an English poet these thirteen years, and but one these twenty years. Imitation even of the best models is my aversion; it is a servile and mechanical trick, that has enabled many to usurp the name of author, who could not have written at all if they had not written upon the pattern of some original. But when the ear, and the taste have been much accustomed to the style and manner of others, it is almost impossible to avoid it, and we imitate, in spite of ourselves, just in the same proportion as we admire." Cowper's mode of expressing his thoughts was entirely original. His blank-verse is not the blank-verse of Milton, or of any other poet. His numbers, his pauses, his diction, are all of his own growth, without transcription, and without imitation. If he thinks in a peculiar train, it is always as a man of genius, and, what is better still, as a man of ardent and unaffected piety. His predecessors had circumscribed themselves, both in the choice and 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. "But Cowper," says a great modern critic, "at once ventured to cross this enchanted circle, and thus 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 none before him had imagined could be employed in poetic imagery. In the ordinary occupations, occurrences, and duties of domestic life, he 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 despair by all his predecessors. He took as wide a range in language too, as in matter; and shaking off the tawdry incumbrance of that poetical diction which had nearly reduced poetry to a skilful collection 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 and changes of which our language is susceptible."

It has been justly remarked, "that between the poetry of Cowper and that ofDryden and Pope, and some of their successors, there is an immense difference. It would be easy to show how little he owed to his immediate forerunners, and how much his immediate followers have been indebted to him. All the cant phrases, all the technicalities of the former school, he utterly threw away; and by his rejection of them, they became obsolete. He boldly adopted cadences of verse unattempted before, which, though frequently uncouth, and sometimes scarcely reducible to rhyme, were not seldom ingeniously significant and signally energetic. He feared not to employ colloquial, philosophical, judicial idioms, and forms of argument and illustration, which enlarged the vocabulary of poetical terms, less by recurring to obsolete ones,than by hazardous, and generally happy innovations of his own invention, which have since become dignified by usage; but which Pope and his imitators durst not have touched. The eminent adventurous revivers of English poetry, about thirty years ago, Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, in their blankverse, trode directly in the steps of Cowper; and, in their early productions at least, were each in a measure what he

[graphic]

had made them. Cowper may be legitimately styled the father of this triumvirate, who are, in truth, the living fathers of an innumerable company of modern poets, whom no ingenuity can well classify and arrange."

The poetry of Cowper is in the highest degree deserving the honourable appellation of Christian Poetry. He consecrated his muse to the service of that pure and self-denying religion, taught by Christ and his apostles. In this respect his poems differed from the productions of any writers that had then appeared, with the exception of Milton and Young. Both these individuals, though they wrote on religious subjects, yet in all probability wrote principally for fame; with Cowper, however, the desire of doing good predominated over every other feeling; and the hope of emolument, nay, even the love of fame itself, was looked upon as subordinate to this great object, the last to which poets generally pay any consideration. To Young, Cowper was evidently superior, in everything that constitutes real poetic excellence; and equal to Milton in the ease and elegance of his compositions, and in the vivacity and beauty of his imagery, though seldom, and perhaps never, rising to that majestic sublimity to which the author of Paradise Lost sometimes soared, and in which he stands unrivalled among modern, if not among ancient poets. Milton's matchless poem is a most sublime description of the great facts of the Christian system; every line of it nils the reader with surprise. Hurried on through a profusion of imagery splendid and grand, and never inelegant, tawdry or ungraceful, the mind becomes astonished, and is much more powerfully affected than the heart. We look in vain for those touching appeals to the affections with which Cowper's poetry abounds, which come home to the bosoms and hearts of all.

"Poet and Saint, to him is justly given,

The two most sacred names of earth and heaven."

In the productions of Milton and Young, there is not much of practical, and still less of experimental, piety. They confined themselves chiefly to the theory of religion. Cowper, on the contrary, whose views of the great leading truths of Christianity were equally, if not more comprehensive, describes, with unequalled simplicity and beauty, those less splendid, but not less useful, parts of religion, which his predecessors had left almost untouched: hence the superiority of his muse to theirs in these respects. No uninspired orator ever so happily and so strikingly described the operations of Divine grace upon the human soul. The gospel had come home to him, not in word only, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and in power. He not only possessed a comprehensive knowledge of the Christian system, which enabled him, whenever he had occasion for it, to describe and illustrate, with all the force and beauty of poetic enchantment, that solid foundation on which the Christian builds his hopes, but he had himself felt the astonishing efficacy of these truths on the heart, when truly and cordially received. This accounts for the unrivalled felicity with which he describes the happy influence of Christianity in all cases where it is rightly embraced, unless, as in his own case, its influence be prevented by some unaccountable bodily distemper. Treating the great peculiarities of the Christian system—the depravity of man —the necessity of regeneration—the efficacy of the atonement—access to God, through the Divine Spirit—justification by faith, with others of a like kind, not merely as subjects of inquiry, but as things which had been to him matters of actual experience, it is no wonder that his muse sometimes carried him to a depth of Christian feeling, unsung, and even unattempted before. As he himself, in his poem on Charity, beautifully sings—

"When one that holds communion with the skies
Has fill "d bis urn, where these pure waters rise,
And once more mingles with us meaner things,
'Tis e'n as if an angel shook his wings;
Immortal fragrance fills the circuit wide,
That tells us whence his treasures are supplied."

"Cowper," as Mr. Hayleyjustly observes, " accomplished, as a poet, the sublimest object of poetic ambition,—he has dissipated the general prejudice that held it hardly possible for a modern author to succeed in sacred poetry. He has proved that verse and devotion are natural allies. He has shown that true poetical genius cannot be more honourably or more delightfully employed than in diffusing through the heart and mind of man a filial affection for his Maker, with a firm and cheerful trust in his word. He has sung in a strain, in some degree at least equal to the great subject, the blessed advent of the Messiah; and perhaps it will not be saying too much, to assert that his poetry will have no inconsiderable influence in preparing the world for the cordial reception of all the rich blessings which this event was intended to introduce."

Up to the period when Cowper's productions were given to the world, it was foolishly imagined impossible successfully to employ the graces and beauties of poetry on the side of virtue. A great modern critic had inconsiderately declared that " contemplative piety cannot be poetical." Had he asserted only, that it had very rarely been so, the assertion would not have been unjust. It would, indeed, have coincided with the views entertained by Cowper himself; for, of his predecessors' productions, with few exceptions, no one could have formed a more correct opinion, as will appear by the following lines:

"Pity religion has so seldom found
A skilful guide into poetic ground!
The flowers would spring where'er she deigned to stray,
And every muse attend her in her way.
'Virtue indeed meets many a rhyming friend,
And many a compliment politely penned;
But unattired in that becoming vest
Religion weaves for her, and half undressed,
Stands in the desert, shivering and forlorn,
A wintry figure, like a withered thorn."

This censure, severely as it may fall on most of Cowper's predecessors, is not unjust. His muse, however, was the first to show that poetry, may be made the handmaid to religion. When he gave to the world the productions of his unrivalled pen, they saw, indeed,

'a bard all fire,

Touched with a coal from heaven, assume the lyre,
And tell the world, still kindling as he sung,
With more than mortal music on his tongue,
That he who died below, and reigns above,
Inspires the song, and that his name was love."

Cowper's religious sentiments were undoubtedly Calvinistic, and though his views of divine truth were generally unexceptionable, they were sometimes rather strongly tinged with the peculiarities of that system. On no occasion, how ever, that comes within our recollection, do we find him speaking of the character of God in such terms as would lead any, who were sincerely desirous of approaching Him in the way of his own appointment, to doubt of gracious reception at his hands. His own case, indeed, must be excepted, as his melancholy depression ever led him to regard himself as a solitary instance of the rejection of God and of the reversal of his decree. It could seldom, if ever, be inferred from any

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »