Page images

his office. It was resigned; and with it his flattering prospects vanished, and his connections with the world dissolved.

At this awful crisis, appears to have commenced Mr. Cowper's serious attention to the ways of God. Having been educated in the knowledge of the holy scriptures, and estranged from the fool-hardy arrogance which urges unhappy youths to infidelity, he had constantly retained a reverence for true piety. His manners were in general decent and amiable ; and the course of pleasures in which he had indulged himself, being customary with persons in similar circumstances, he remained insensible of his real state, till he was brought to reflect upon the guilt of that action, by which he had nearly plunged himself into eternity. He now sunk under the horrors of perdition; and that distraction which he had sought as a refuge from the fear of man, now seized him amidst his terrors of eternal judgment....A vein of self-loathing ran through the whole of his insanity; and his faculties were so completely deranged, that the attempt, which he had lately deplored as an unpardonable transgression, now appeared to him an indispensible work of piety. He therefore repeated his assaults upon his own life, under the dreadful delusion, that it was right to rid the earth of such a sinner. His purpose being again mercifully frustrated, he became at length familiar with despair, and suffered it to be alleviated by conversation. And after having endured the severest distress, he very beautifully describes the consolation which he derived from his faith in the Son of God, in the following affecting allegory.

“ I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt,
My panting side was charg'd, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by one who had himself
Been hurt by th' archers. In his side he bore,
And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentie force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and heal'd, and bade me live.”

During the last year or two of Mr. Cowper's life, his health, and his state of mind, appeared to be as much restored as for any time during his long afflictions.... He was, however, attacked by a disorder,. which brought on a rapid decay. Early on the 25th of April, 1800, he sunk into a state of apparent in-sensibility, which might have been taken for a tranquil slumber, but that his eyes remained half open. His breath was regular, though feeble; and his countenance perfectly serene.

In this state he continued for twelve hours: and then expired, without: heaving his breath.

The first volume of poems, which he published, consists of various pieces, on various subjects. It seems that he had been assiduous in cultivating a turn for grave and argumentative versification, on inoral and ethical topics. Of this kind is the Table Talk, and several other pieces in the collection.

It would be absurd to give one general character of the pieces that were published in this volume : yet

this is true concerning Mr. Cowper's productions; that in all the varieties of his style there may still be discerned the likeness and impression of the same mind; the same unaffected modesty which always rejects unseasonable ambitions and ornaments of language; the same easy vigor; the same serene and cheerful hope derived from a steady and unshaken faith in the principles of christianity.

I am not prepared to affirm that Mr. Cowper detives any praise from the choice and elegance of his Words; but he has the higher praise of having chosen them without affectation. He appears to have used them as he found them; neither introducing fastidious refinements, nor adhering to obsolet barisms. He understands the whole science of num. bers, and he has practised their different kinds with considerable happiness; and if his verses do not flow so softly as the delicacy of a modern ear requires, that roughness, which is objected to his poetry, is his choice, not his defect. But this sort of critics, who admire only what is exquisitely polished, these lovers of “gentleness without sinews,"'* ought to take into their estimate the vast effusion of thought which is so abundantly poured over the writings of Mr.Cowper, without which human discourse is only an idle combination of sounds and syllables.

After an interval of a few years, his Task was ushered into the world. The occasion that gave birth to it was a trivial one. A lady had requested him to write a piece of blank verse, and gave him the Sofa for a subject. This he expanded into one of the finest moral poems of which the English language has been productive.

* Dr. Sprat's Life of Cowley.

It is written in blank verse, of which the construction, though in some respects resembling Milton's, is truly original and characteristic. It is not too stately for familiar description, nor too depressed for sublime and elevated imagery. If it has any fault, it is that of being too much laden with idiomatic expressions, a fault which the author, in the rapidity with which his ideas and his utterance seem to have flowed, very naturally incurred.

in this poem his fancy ran with the most excursive freedom. The poet enlarges upon his topics, and confirms his argument by every variety of illustration. He never, however, dwells upon them too long, and leaves off in such a manner, that it seems, it was in his power to have said more.


arguments of the poem are various. The works of nature, the associations with which they exhibit themselves, the designs of Providence and the passions of men. Of one advantage the writer has amply availed himself. The work not being rigidly confined to any precise subject, he has indulged himself in all the laxity and freedom of a miscellaneous poem. Yet he has still adhered so faithfully to the general laws of congruity, that whether he inspires the softer affections into his reader, or de

lights him with keen and playful raillery, or discourses on the ordinary manners of human nature, or holds up the bright pictures of religious consolation to his mind, he adopts, at pleasure, a diction just and appropriate, equal in elevation to the sacred effusions of Christian rapture, and sufficiently easy and familiar for descriptions of domestic life; skilful alike in soaring without effort and descending without meanness.

pose. It

He who desires to put into the hands of youth a poem, which, not destitute of poetic embellishment, is free from all matter of licentious tendency, will find in the Task a book adapted to his would be the part of an absurd and extravagant austerity, to condemn those poetical productions in which the passion of love constitutes the primary feature.... In every age that passion has been the concernment of life, the theme of the poet, the plot of the stage. Yet there is a sort of amorous sensibility, bordering almost on morbid enthusiasm, which the youthful mind too frequently imbibes from the glowing sentiments of the poets. Their genius describes, in the most splendid colours, the operations of a passion which requires rebuke instead of incentive, and leads to the most grovelling sensuality the enchantments of a rich and creative imagination. But in the Task of Cowper, there is no licentiousness of description. All is grave, and majestic, and moral. A vein of religious thinking pervades every page, and he discourses, in a strain of the most finished poetry, on the insufficiency and vanity of human pursuits.

« PreviousContinue »