Sidebilder
PDF

with his dejection on Mrs. Unwin's account. In the same year, his services to poetical and religious literature were recognized by a pension of ,£300 per annum. He was now living with Lady Hesketh, and a young relative named Johnson paid much attention to the sufferer. He was removed, for change of scene, to North Tuddenham in Norfolk; then to Mundsley; then to East Dereham, in the same county. Absolute darkness did not as yet close in upon him: there were intervals of lumour, in which he composed some small pieces, and attended to the revision of his Homer. The end was gloomy: religious despair was busy in tormenting his mind, and dropsy his body. He died on the 25th of April 1800.

The eager, sudden-looking, large-eyed, shaven face of Cowper is familiar to us in his portraits—a face sharp-cut and sufficiently well-moulded, without being handsome, nor particularly sympathetic. It is a high-strung, excitable face; as of a man too susceptible and touchy to put himself forward willingly among his fellows, but who, feeling a "vocation" upon him, would be more than merely earnest— self-asserting, aggressive, and unyielding. This is in fact very much the character of his writings. He was an enthusiastic lover of nature, and full of gentle kindliness, and of quiet pleasant good-humour,—and all these loveable qualities appear in ample proportion and measure in passages of his writings: but at the same time his narrow, exclusive, severe, and arbitrary religious creed—a creed which made him as sure that other people were wicked and marked out for damnation as that himself was elected and saved (and even as regards himself this confidence gave way sometimes to utter desperation)—this creed speaks out in his poems in unmistakeable tones of harsh judgment and unqualified denunciation. Few writers are more steadily unsparing of the lash than the shrinkingly sensitive Cowper. It may be that he does not lay it on with the sense of personal power, and indignant paying-off of old scores, which one finds in a Juvenal or a Pope; but the conviction that he is the mouthpiece of Providence, and that, when William Cowper has pronounced a man reprobate, the smoke of his burning is certain to ascend up for ever and ever, stands in stead of much, and lends unction to the hallowed strain. In conformity with this inspiration, his writing is nervous and terse, well stored with vigorous stinging single lines; and his power of expressive characterization, whether in moral declaiming or in descriptive work, is very considerable —and was at any rate in the latter class of passages) even more noticeable in his own day than it is in ours. Apart from his religion, Cowper (as has just been said) was eminently humane and gentle-hearted; the interest which he took in his tame hares will perhaps be remembered when much of his wielding of the divine thunderbolts against the profane shall have been forgotten. It was in 1774, during one of his periods of great mental depression, that the first of his leverets was presented to him, in the hope of diverting his mind from more moody thoughts: two others followed afterwards; and the diverse characters and manners of the three formed an engaging study to him for years. Puss, the latest to survive, expired in March 1785.

In point of literary or poetic style, Cowper was mainly independent, and the pioneer of a simpler and more natural method than he found prevailing: his didactic or censorial poems may be regarded as formed on the writings of Churchill rather than of anyother predecessor. Besides his merits as a poet, his excellences as a letter-writer have deserved and received very high praise. His correspondence is unaffected, facile, and often playful. Religion of course forms a substantial part of this, as it so conspicuously did of the author's mind : but it has been noticed, and has been made matter of some reproach from certain quarters, that the religious tone of the letters diminishes very observably after 1785, when Cowper had become an eminent man in literature, and more open consequently to the entanglements of "the world."

W. M. ROSSETTI.

[graphic][merged small][merged small]

Si te forte mex gravis uret sarcina chartx

Abjicito. Hoi;, lib. i. epis. 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 teais
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, drenched in pure Parnassian dews,
Reward his memory, dear to every muse,
Who, with a courage of unshaken root,
In honour's field, advancing his firm foot,
Plants it upon the line that justice draws,
And will prevail or perish in her cause.
'Tis to the virtues of such men, man owes
His portion in the good that heaven bestows;
And when recording history displays
Feats of renown, though wrought in ancient days,
Tells of a few stout hearts that fought and died
Where duty placed them, at their country's side,
The man that is not moved with what he reads,
That takes not fire at their heroic deeds,
Unworthy of the blessings of the brave,
Is base in kind, and born to be a slave.

But let eternal infamy pursue
The wretch to nought but his ambition true,

Who, for the sake of filling with one blast

The post-horns of all Europe, lays her waste.

Think yourself stationed on a towering rock,

To see a people scattered like a flock,

Some royal mastiff panting at their heels,

With all the savage thirst a tiger feels,

Then view him self-proclaimed in a gazette,

Chief monster that has plagued the nations yet!

The globe and sceptre in such hands misplaced,

Those ensigns of dominion, how disgraced!

The glass that bids man mark the fleeting hour,

And death's own scythe would better speak his power.

Then grace the bony phantom in their stead

With the king's shoulder knot and gay cockade,

Clothe the twin brethren in each other's dress,

The same their occupation and success.

A. 'Tis your belief the world was made for man; Kings do but reason on the selfsame plan: Maintaining yours, you cannot theirs condemn, Who think, or seem to think, man made for them.

B. Seldom, alas! the power of logic reigns
With much sufficiency in royal brains.

Such reasoning falls like an inverted cone,
Wanting its proper base to stand upon.
Man made for kings! those optics are but dim
That tell you so ;—say, rather, they for him.
That were indeed a king-ennobling thought,
Could they, or would they, reason as they ought.
The diadem with mighty projects lined,
To catch renown by ruining mankind,
Is worth, with all its gold and glittering store,
Just what the toy will sell for, and no more.
Oh! bright occasions of dispensing good,
How seldom used, how little understood!
To pour in virtue's lap her just reward,
Keep vice restrained behind a double guard,
To cmell the faction that affronts the throne,
By silent magnanimity alone;
To nurse with tender care the thriving arts,
Watch every beam philosophy imparts;
To give religion her unbridled scope,
Nor judge by statute a believer's hope;
With close fidelity and love unfeigned,
To keep the matrimonial bond unstained;
Covetous only of a virtuous praise,
His life a lesson to the land he sways;
To touch the sword with conscientious awe,
Nor draw it but when duty bids him draw .
To sheath it in the peace-restoring close,
With joy, beyond what victory bestows,—
Blest country! where these kingly glories shine,
Blest England! if this happiness be thine.

[ocr errors]

A. Guard what you say; the patriotic tribe
Will sneer and charge you with a bribe.—B. A bribe?
The worth of his three kingdoms I defy,
To lure me to the baseness of a lie.
And of all lies, (be that one poet's boast,)
The lie that flatters I abhor the most.
Those arts be theirs that hate his gentle reign;
But he that loves him has no need to feign.

A. Your smooth eulogium to one crown addressed,
Seems to imply a censure on the rest.

B. Quevedo, as he tells his sober tale,
Asked, when in hell, to see the royal jail,
Approved their method in all other things,

"But where, good sir, do you confine your kings?"
"There," said his guide, "the groupe is full in view."
"Indeed!" replied the Don—" there are but few."
His black interpreter the charge disdained;—
"Few, fellow? There are all that ever reigned."

Wit undistinguishing is apt to strike
The guilty and not guilty, both alike.
I grant the sarcasm is too severe,
And we can readily refute it here,
While Alfred's name, the father of his age,
And the Sixth Edward's grace the historic page.

A. Kings then at last have but the lot of all;
By their own conduct they must stand or fall.
. B. True. While they live, the courtly laureate pays
His quit-rent ode, his pepper-corn of praise,
And many a dunce whose fingers itch to write,
Adds, as he can, his tributary mite;
A subject's faults a subject may proclaim,
A monarch's errors are forbidden game.
Thus free from censure (overawed by fear,)
And praised for virtues that they scorn to wear,
The fleeting forms of majesty engage
Respect, while stalking o'er life's narrow stage,
Then leave their crimes for history to scan,
And ask with busy scorn, Was this the man?

I pity kings whom worship waits upon
Obsequious, from the cradle to the throne,
Before whose infant eyes the flatterer bows,
And binds a wreath about their baby brows;
Whom education stiffens into state,
And death awakens from that dream too late.
Oh! if servility, with supple knees,
Whose trade it is to smile, to crouch, to please;
If smooth dissimulation, skilled to grace
A devil's purpose with an angel's face;
If smiling peeresses and simpering peers,
Encompassing his throne a few short years;
If the gilt carriage and the pampered steed,
That wants no driving and disdains the lead;

« ForrigeFortsett »