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loudly been reechoed in their favour from every point of a very wide circumference. By the host of their partizans they have been exalted much beyond the warranty of sound criticism, and their author has been stationed, where it is impossible that he should stand, in the first class and by the side of the foremost of our poets. But let us inquire dispassionately into the fact; and, with the poems of Cowper in our hand, let us determine from their genuine merits, which we admit to be considerable, where among the poetry of Britain they are to be placed, and where, of course, among her poets they can justly claim a seat for their writer.
If we examine the longer rhymed poems of our author (and bis shorter pieces cannot be brought into the question), where shall we find in them the rich barmony of Dryden? the tuneful and compressed vigor of Pope? the sweet and ornamented nature, the simplicitas munditiis of Goldsmith? Through all these productions of Cowper we can distinguish a flow of original thought, and we are occasionally entertained with the play of fancy, and with a few flashes of eruptive poetry. But their general character is that of prosaic humility. They may sometimes rise for a moment on the wing, but their proper abode is on the earth. They may disclose the fancy that paints; but never the imagination that creates. They are simple in their dress and language: but it is the simplicity of a country maiden, and not that of an Aönian divinity. They suggest not the idea of sterility: but their abundant growth is not the fine vegetation of Helicon. In the preface, if we recollect rightly, to his translation of Homer, Cowper prefers as a charge agaiust rhyme, that it will cover the poverty of prosaic expression. Acknowledging the truth of the charge, we feel confident that of all
our more eminent poets Cowper has availed bimself the most liberally of this virtuous efficiency of rhyme. In his rhymed compositions we may incidentally, from a few happier passages, discover him to be a poet: but in these productions he generally and on the whole appears to us to be nothing more than a Christian moralist and divine.
As a writer of blank verse, Cowper rises in our estimation with respect to bis poetic power; whilst we behold him taking loftier flights, we less frequently see him on the ground. It would seem that, when removed from the safeguard of rhyme, he struggled with the more effect to defend himself against prose. Certain it is that “The Task' is the most poetic of his works, and that from wbich alone he can properly demand the immortality of his name. Unquestionably it is the offspring of superior power, and may justly plant a wreath of durable green upon the head of its parent. But · The Task,' as we must recollect, is one of those planless and random poems in which some of the higher and more uncommon energies of the human mind, those we mean of comprehension and combination, are not called into act. It is one of those anomalous productions, unknown to the accuracy and the pride of classic taste, in which the poet, unsbackled by any law, may indulge his fancy without controll: in which he may pursue the topic of his choice till it be hunted down, or till another be started in his path to become in its turn a new subject of his chase. The epic and the dramatic poet are subjected to heavy and severe restraint by their exacted attention to arrangement, proportion, and subordination. In their works every part must have reference to the whole; and none must be enlarged and none even embellished beyond the demand of the place, which it is
intended to supply, in the unity of the entire composition. But in such lawless and vagrant productions as 'The Task, which may begin with tar-water and end with the Trinity, the poet is liberated from all regard to symmetry and order; he may seize the thought of first occurrence; may dismiss or retain, may amplify or curtail, may ornament or throw it naked from his hand as his inclination may prompt or his convenience may require. His work, in short, is not a piece of regular architecture in which the column, the pilaster, the arch, and the dome, each in its precise station, are blended in one great design; but a heap of uncemented marble blocks, to be admired, possibly, for their individual beauty, but incapable of lending or of borrowing effect in consequence of their accidental contiguity. It must be obvious, therefore, to all who will reflect upon the subject, that the production of “The Task, however fine may be many of its descriptions, or however excellent may be the sentiments which are scattered over its pages, or however happy may be certain portions of its diction, cannot elevate its author to any very high rank among the mighty sons of the poetic mind. Unless, indeed, the making of a chaos can be regarded as an effort of equal intellect with that required for the forming of a world, Cowper must necessarily see the great masters of song on an elevation very high above bim; and, stationed at the foot of the Parnassian hill, must do homage to Homer, Virgil, Milton, Tasso, and Spenser enthroned in majestic superiority on its summit. 'The Task, however, will be read with instruction and entertainment by successive generations; and will for ever maintain a respectable, though subordinate, rank among the greater works of the British Muse.
of the minor poems of Cowper it is scarcely ne
cessary to speak. Many of them are unworthy of publication: some of them are elegant: a few of them are happy; and two of them are exquisitely pathetic. His great translation of Homer is now generally admitted to be a failure; and of his smaller translations of Milton's Latin and Italian poetry, not more than two or three can be contemplated as rising above mediocrity.
Through all his original compositions, as we may add, there prevails an actuating spirit of devotion towards God, and of benevolence towards man, that seizes irresistibly upon our hearts and makes them captive to the bard. We may frequently disapprove of the writer, but we must always reverence and love the man,
Si te fortè meæ gravis uret sarcina chartæ,
Hor. Lib. 1. Epist. 13.
A. You told me, I remember, glory, built On selfish principles, is shame and guilt; The deeds that men admire as half divine, Stark naught, because corrupt in their design. Strange doctrine this! that without scruple tears The laurel, that the very lightning spares; Brings down the warrior's trophy to the dust, And eats into his bloody sword like rust.
B. I grant that, men continuing what they are, Fierce, avaricious, proud, there must be war; And never meant the rule should be applied To him that fights with justice on his side.
Let laurels, drench'd in pure Parnassian dews, Reward his memory, dear to every Muse,