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allowed. But to Cowper belongs the merit of having made the first impression on the public mind. And if to extend the power of reality over fiction, yet enlarge the empire of fancy, by opening fresh sources of natural imagery and sentiment --if to add novelty to that which is common, and interest to what is ordinary — if to discard conventional language, and animate verse with the variety, the strength, and even the familiarity of prose, constitute a literary reformation, then does the publication of the Task mark an important and brilliant era in the later annals of English literature.
Like almost all who have laboured to bring back taste from a state of high artificial refinement to simplicity and truth, Cowper has been accused of irregularity and of coarseness. That in seeking to avoid one extreme, he may have occasionally fallen into the opposite, may be the case; but it is not true, as has been alleged, that his great work is throughout defective in methodical construction. The merely incidental origin of the Task may at first have occasioned some looseness of idea in the writer's conceptions as to its divisions and final object. The know. ledge of this fact, confessed by himself on the appearance of the poem, was certainly calculated to countenance, and probably it suggested, this main objection. Now it is not easy either to apprehend the justice of the criticism on special grounds, or to admit generally the necessity of a decided plan in a poem avowedly descriptive, and consequently discursive. The very subject proposed allowed to the poet unrestricted freedom in the choice, and every variety in the mode of treating his themes. Seated in imagination beside him on the Sofa, we enter fully into all the allusions, changes, breaks, and connections of the discourse. We readily feel that the very quiet of home around us renders, by contrast, the transitions to the bustle of the world without, both natural and pleasing. Where, again, could “ rural sights and rural sounds” be more appropriately the subjects of remark than amid the smiling scenes and cheerful animation of country life? Or, what more consistent than that one, fond of innocent recreation and healthful exercise, should entertain us with gardening, or carry us with him to his walks, his views, and his trees? How closely, too, and how sweetly, is the original theme connected with the “ intimate delights” of domestic retirement ? and we appeal to every soul of sensibility to attest the power, the charm, and the veracity of this portion of the Task. Thus even externally the regular succession of subject is beautiful. We look, indeed, from the loop-holes of personal retreat upon the turmoil or the vices which are abroad ; and it is confessed, also, that we walk forth into the scenery of local nature : but our conductor is embued with the omnipotency of genius his touch is truth; and whatever is true to nature and to human feeling, in any one situation, has interest in all. Hence it is, that, surrounded as we are by individuality, the heart is never more intensely alive to the universal loveliness of nature - to all that is most affecting in the moral world, than when we are reading the pages of Cowper.
It is this very individuality, in fact, that imparts its impressiveness and fascination to the verse. Whatever is individual to the poet, we love, because we admire his character: if the individuality be that of English life, it affects us with the proud consciousness that the same is true of ten thousand hearths, encircled by sanctity and happiness -- a consciousness which makes their country the heart's home of Britons, and renders that country unparalleled in all the world. Away, then, as applied to such a work, with the prescriptions of a cold and artificial criticism. Plan! it is Nature's, ---the association of great principles, uniting diversity of particular details, blended and wrought into one harmonious and touching whole. These leading principles, too, are of the noblest interest, ~-- the love of God - the love of nature-and the love of man. These glorious themes pervade and animate the entire poem, while they consolidate its richness of diversified illustration. They are the circlets of precious ore which gently blend into one brilliant diadem the varied splendour of separate gems.
Again, the beauty of individual transition is one of Cowper's happiest merits. He neither paralyzes the fancy by too logical or marked distinctions, nor does he crowd his various topics upon the attention, without any connecting link by which they may arrange themselves in the memory. The intellectual gradations by which one train of thought melts into a new succession of ideas, are often, indeed, faint in their original differences, and blend so imperceptibly, as to bear us into a fresh topic before we are aware of having passed from the old one. At the same time, the judgment, on deliberation, is rarely, if ever, left unsatisfied, or incapable of tracing the progress of transition; frequently, on the contrary, a gentle and pleasing surprise is the effect of such retrospective inquiries. Description, we perceive, introduces reflection, while reflection in turn leads to description ; and it gratifies us to find art so perfect in contrivance yet so unobtrusive in effect.
The language and versification of the Task are happily adapted to the nature of the subjects. They are sustained, yet varied ; simple and even familiar, but throughout sufficiently dignified ; and on proper occasions sublime. In these respects, Cowper's manner was not less a novelty in the national literature than his general conceptions. From the period of the Restoration, no poet had exhibited a purity of style so genuine ; and few successors have approached his idiomatic turn — his lofty, almost stern, rejection of all innovations on the masculine tone of the language. If from his great work any passage be selected, it will be found to contain a larger proportion of Saxon primitives than any equal portion of verse since the days of Paradise Lost. It is this chiefly which renders the writings of Cowper so remarkable for the union of brevity with high poetical expression. These, the true originals of the language, not only constitute its strength, but they represent also its sweetest associations, comprise its terms of tenderest import, and are most nobly descriptive of the characteristics of nature; they are besides less encumbered with the abstractions of science, or contaminated by peculiar applications, than Latin and French derivatives. By the exquisite selection of the words which he thus employs, Cowper has preserved the antique simplicity, and the sweet artlessness of an early dialect, amid the refinements of an advanced age. But it is not merely his choice that is admirable ; his combinations have a certain delightful charm, more readily felt than explained, by which expressions, apparently the least striking, acquire an effect of the truest eloquence. In no subject of taste, however, do the extremes of beauty and defect, of dignity and vulgarity, more readily coincide than in poetical language. From not adverting to this, Cowper has overstepped the limits of his own excellent system. In his anxiety to express every sentiment simply, naturally, and in pure English words in common use, he has sometimes adopted vulgar, quaint, and obsolete expressions, altogether unworthy of his numbers. Occasionally some of his most beautiful passages are disfigured by a colloquial phrase; and in the very height of our admiration, in our deepest intensity of feeling, a single word often mars the full effect, and recals our sympathy by a painful revulsion of sentiment.
Cowper possessed from nature an ear finely attuned to the melody of language. The blank verse of the Task is accordingly harmonious, but it is not uniformly harmonious. He entertained a not uncommon idea, that an occasional unmusical cadence, or negligent arrangement, in a passage was desirable, in order to break the monotony. The theory is a false one. Imperfection can never be desirable, least of all in poetry, whose variety vught to be the alternations of varied excellence. He conceived also that the greatness of his themes, in some instances, rejected the external ornaments of exquisitely attuned language, while in others, contempt of the objects of his satire has induced a disregard of expression. In the Task, however, there still remains a magnificent system of versification, embracing all that is closest, most vigorous, and descriptive in the strength, and much of what is most harmonious in the melody of the English tongue. In the structure of his verse, Cowper has followed no master : he is an inventor here also. If he be less uniformly majestic than the Miltonic school, he has escaped the monotony of Thomson and the abruptness of Young. The pauses of his lines, if not disposed with much nice art—a quality foreign alike to the subjects and to his own genius-are yet sufficiently varied for the effects which he aimed at producing. Generally speaking, the reader will perceive that the rest falls upon the third foot, ime parting lightness and familiarity of flow; and on the seventh, which gives dignity to the march of the verse.
All this, however, is but the dead letter; the living spirit of Cowper's poetry dwells in the inspiration of religion. To this it owes the charm by which it attracts the serious mind ; and from this, like a source which, though unperceived in itself, is traced by its verdure, and its flowers, and its freshness, spring up also those beauties which delight the man of mere refinement and literary taste. Of all men of genius, Cowper perhaps united the largest share of the sentiment of personal holiness with his studies. His poetry was a religious exercise ; thence, as perfume from a concealed bank of sweets, a purity breathes over his page, calming and refreshing the mind, while it delights the sense. Religion was to him the business of his poetical existence; and he, of all our writers, goes nearest to render it the great object for which his readers wish to live,
ARGUMENT OF THE FIRST BOOK.
Historical deduction of seats, from the stool to the sofa. - A Schoolboy's
ramble. - A walk in the country. - The scene described. - Rural sounds as well as sights delightful. - Another walk. - Mistake concerning the charms of solitude corrected. - Colonnades commended. - Alcove, and the view from it. The wilderness. The grove. --The thresher. The necessity and the benefits of exercise. - The works of nature superior to, and in some instances inimitable by, art. - The wearisomeness of what is com. monly called a life of pleasure. - Change of scene sometimes expedient. A common described, and the character of crazy Kate introduced.Gipsies. - The blessings of a civilized life. — The state most favourable to virtue. - The South Sea islanders compassionated, but chiefly Omai. - His present state of mind supposed. - Civilized life friendly to virtue, but not great cities.- Great cities, and London in particular, allowed their due praises, but censured. - Fete champetre. - The book concludes with a reflection on the fatal effects of dissipation and effeminacy upon our public measures.
I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sang
Time was, when clothing sumptuous or for use,