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Skilful alike to seem devout and just,
Such friends prevent what else would soon succeed,
* The author here refers in a note to La Bruyere. The remark occurs also in Rousseau, but the former claims the priority in time.
Hear the sweet accents of his tuneful voice,
Religion does not censure or exclude
Me poetry (or rather notes that aim Feebly and vainly at poetic fame) Employs, shut out from more important views, Fast by the banks of the slow winding Ouse; Content if thus sequester'd I may raise A monitor's though not a poet's praise, And while I teach an art too little known, To close life wisely, may not waste my own.
: « ADVERTISEMENT. - The history of the following production is briefly this:-A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed, and having much leisure, connected another subject with it ; and preserving the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair-a volume.”
Such is the modest account of its name and origin with which Cowper introduced this noble poem to the world. It may be necessary to remind the reader, that the allusion is to Lady Austen ; and that the undertaking thus gently imposed, occupied in its completion nearly fourteen months, from June or July, 1783, to October, 1784, when the manuscripts were sent to press, though the work did not appear till the succeeding summer.
During almost a century previous to the publication of the Task, a poetical school had dominated, which may be termed the Classical, inasmuch as its principles of composition and maxims of taste were derived more from the usage of the ancients, than framed in obedience to the peculiarities and genius of the native idiom, or adapted to seek and to find its materials in the national manners and modes of thinking. The system hung a dead weight upon the fancy taste was exercised rather than genius displayed - and merit consisted more in the absence of what offended in others, than in the presence of that which charmed from its own native freshness.
Hence, though some of the most splendid names in the annals of letters adorned our poetry, England could scarcely be said to possess a single poem descriptive of national manners and home scenes, till the publication of Cowper's great work. Nay, even in language hardly had we a poet truly British, who yielded himself up to the unrestrained flow of the national numbers, or who would not hesitate to adopt a word if it expressed his meaning, though it might not have received the stamp of poetical, that is conventional usage. We do not intend in this to magnify his powers, or overrate the debt which living poetry owes to our present subject : on the contrary, English genius had long previously been but as a Goliah in fetters, playing constrained feats, and unequal to a far inferior strength in one who should first dare to cast from him the intellectual chains imposed by the practice of his predecessors. Cowper had the courage, or the good fortune, to vindicate for himself the full privileges of language and nature. At first, indeed, the classic system still enchained his admiration-- his juvenile pieces are composed in that style—and in manner, at least, even his earlier volume belongs more to the preceding school than to his own ; but in its best compositions we discover also successful innovation upon monotony and false refinement. We find a vigour, a freshness, an originality of thought and description, with a natural, an unstudied force of idiomatic expression, and even a colloquial familiarity of verse, which had long been banished, or never previously received into the service of the muses. The praise, then, of having knowingly and boldly struck into a path traced by his own genius through the untrodden scenery of nature, may hardly be denied to Cowper; for we can note his systematic deviations from the beaten track, and placing ourselves in his position, can descry the distant landmarks which conducted him onwards to the high places of poesy. Doubtless such was the taste of his own age, and in some respects such is still the taste of ours, that these his earlier exertions would have failed to make an impression,unsupported by the Task they would have sunk, though possessing some of the finest requisites of buoyance in them, selves ; and through the latter alone may his admirers fully claim for him the highest meed of genius, - the praise of invention, and the honour of being the most conspicuous founder of a new and influential school of national poetry.
This distinction is now shared with others, whose claims are