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WILLIAM COW PER.
WITH A BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL INTRODUCTION,
BY THE REV. THOMAS DALE:
SEVENTY-FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS, ENGRAVED BY J. ORRIN SMITH,
FROM DRAWINGS BY JOHN GILBERT.
TILT AND BOGUE, FLEET STREET.
LIFE AND WRITINGS
AMONG the alterations and improvements (for they are not always convertible terms) which the last century has introduced into our literature, one of the most decided alterations, and one of the greatest improvements also, has been made in the department of biography. That which was formerly little more than a barren chronological narrative of facts, has now become a development and a history of mind. The subject of the memoir is permitted to tell his own tale; and where the documents from which he tells it are the effusions of genuine, spontaneous, unpremeditated feeling, without the adulteration either of affectation or of artifice, it is sure to be truly, and almost sure to be pleasingly, told. This remark does not apply, indeed, to the correspondence of Pope, and, perhaps, of Swift; because it is quite clear that the idea of publication was always present to the mind of the former; and that he was continually labouring to enlighten posterity as to that which now constitutes the least of his titles to our regard—his intimacy with the great. Swift, with equal, though, perhaps, more cusable vanity, desired to leave a permanent record of that
strange mixture of superciliousness and servility, with which he demeaned himself towards the men in office, who were at once his patrons and his tools. But it does apply, and with peculiar force, to the correspondence of Cowper, who did not make his first appearance as an author till he was nearly fifty years of age, and met with no excess of encouragement or approval even then ;—who did not anticipate, therefore, and, alas ! scarcely lived to apprehend, even the qualified measure of popular applause which he received during his life ;—whose state of mind was such as to make him almost, if not altogether, indifferent to posthumous reputation;—and whose style and manner of writing preserved their consistency even to the last ; thus proving that the change in his position towards the world, had wrought none in his modes of thinking and feeling towards his friends. But for the reputation of his Poems, we should never have known the value of his Letters, which exhibit at least equal powers of mind, and are specimens of at least equal excellency in their line;—which, for ease, elegance, liveliness, and that sweet and touching simplicity which is, “when unadorned, adorned the most,” are almost unrivalled, and certainly unexcelled, by any similar collection in the English language, though this department of writing has been cultivated in our own times with signal ability and success.
Now, in what we term the history of mind, the biography of the inward man, it must be evident that not only whatever is told incidentally, derives, from that very circumstance, a double charm, but that the interest of the narrative will be enhanced by the fluctuations of the mind itself. The more diversified are the states of feeling through which it passes, the more powerful and extensive will be its influence upon the sympathies of those who study its inward workings through the medium of its external developments. Calmness and equanimity, however desirable