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And, as the sun in rising beauty dress’d,
Looks to the westward from the dappled east,
And marks, whatever clouds may interpose,
Ere yet his race begins, its glorious close ;
An eye like his to catch the distant goal ;
Or, ere the wheels of verse begin to roll,
Like his to shed illuminating rays
On every scene and subject it surveys :
Thus graced, the man asserts a poet's name,
And the world cheerfully admits the claim.
Pity Religion has so seldom found
A skilful guide into poetic ground !
The flowers would spring where'er she deign'd to stray,
And every muse attend her in her way.
Virtue indeed meets many a rhyming friend,
And many a compliment politely penn'd;
But, unattired in that becoming vest
Religion weaves for her, and half undress’d,
Stands in the desert, shiv'ring and forlorn,
A wintry figure, like a wither'd thorn.
The shelves are full, all other themes are sped ;
Hackney'd and worn to the last Aimsy thread,
Satire has long since done his best, and curst
And loathsome ribaldry has done his worst ;
Fancy has sported all her powers away
In tales, in trifles, and in children's play ;
And 'tis the sad complaint, and almost true,
Whate'er we write, we bring forth nothing new.
'Twere new indeed to see a bard, all fire,
Touch'd with a coal from Heaven, assume the lyre,
And tell the world, still kindling as he sung,
With more than mortal music on his tongue,
That He, who died below, and reigns above,
Inspires the song, and that his name is Love.
For, after all, if merely to beguile,
By flowing numbers and a flowery style,
The tedium that the lazy rich endure,
Which now and then sweet poetry may cure ;
Or, if to see the name of idol self,
Stamp'd on the well bound quarto, grace the shelf,
To float a bubble on the breath of fame,
Prompt his endeavour and engage his aim,
Debased to servile purposes of pride,
How are the powers of genius misapplied !
The gift, whose office is the Giver's praise,
To trace him in his word, his works, his ways ;
Then spread the rich discovery, and invite
Mankind to share in the divine delight;
Distorted from its use and just design,
To make the pitiful possessor shine ;
To purchase, at the fool frequented fair
Of vanity, a wreath for self to wear,
Is profanation of the basest kind -
Proof of a trifling and a worthless mind.
A. Hail Sternhold, then ; and Hopkins, hail !
If flattery, folly, lust, employ the pen ;
If acrimony, slander, and abuse,
Give it a charge to blacken and traduce ;
Though Butler's wit, Pope's numbers, Prior's ease,
With all that fancy can invent to please,
Adorn the polish'd periods as they fall,
One madrigal of theirs is worth them all.
A. 'Twould thin the ranks of the poetic tribe,
To dash the pen through all that you proscribe.
B. No matter -- we could shift when they were not, And should, no doubt, if they were all forgot.
Of the pieces composing Cowper's first volume, the Progress of Error was first written, being the earliest original poem of considerable length which he produced. Both the title and the subject were suggested by Mrs Unwin, at whose urgent entreaty the work was commenced, in the beginning of December, 1780. The poet, even in this initiatory attempt, must have advanced with rapidity, since we find him writing to a clerical friend on the 21st of the same month :-“ It will not be long, perhaps, before you will receive a poem called the Progress of Error, that will be succeeded by another in due time. Don't be alarmed. I ride Pegasus with a curb. He will never run away with me again." Early in January following, the poem appears to have been forwarded in terms of this promise ; for, a month afterwards, he again addresses Mr Newton:-“ I am glad that the Progress of Error did not err in its progress, as I feared it had, and that it reached you safe ; and still more pleased that it has met with your approbation ; for, if it had not, I should have wished it had miscarried.” The poem was, however, afterwards revised, and some alterations and additions made, before being finally committed to the press in March, 1781.
This poem is the least pleasing of Cowper's productions : still it exhibits passages of great power, and a general honesty
and earnestness of purpose that, with the eloquence of truth, win their way to the affections. As a specimen of versification merely, it is harsh and unfinished, displaying little of that consummate mastery over language which he afterwards attained : while, as a didactic work, it shews a deficiency in definite, or at least obvious, aim. It abounds, however, in those pointed remarks, and striking sentences, peculiarly characteristic of the author's manner, and which render his writings a rich repository of sayings that fix themselves deeply on the memory, as useful rules of conduct, or salutary precepts for the secret and silent improvement of the heart.
Si quid loquar audiendum.—Hor. Lib. iv. Od. 2.
SING, Muse, (if such a theme, so dark, so long,
May find a Muse to grace it with a song)
By what unseen and unsuspected arts
The serpent Error twines round human hearts ;
Tell where she lurks, beneath what flowery shades,
That not a glimpse of genuine light pervades,
The pois'nous, black, insinuating worm'
Successfully conceals her loathsome form.
Take, if ye can, ye careless and supine,
Counsel and caution from a voice like mine!
Truths, that the theorist could never reach,
And observation taught me, I would teach.
Not all whose eloquence the fancy fills,
Musical as the chime of tinkling rills,
Weak to perform, though mighty to pretend,
Can trace her mazy windings to their end ;
Discern the fraud beneath the specious lure,
Prevent the danger, or prescribe the cure.
The clear harangue, and cold as it is clear,
Falls soporific on the listless ear ;
Like quicksilver, the rhet'ric they display
Shines as it runs, but grasp'd at slips away.
Placed for his trial on this bustling stage,
From thoughtless youth to ruminating age,
Free in his will to choose or to refuse,
Man may improve the crisis or abuse ;
Else, on the fatalist's unrighteous plan,
Say to what bar amenable were man?
With nought in charge, he could betray no trust ;
And, if he fell, would fall because he must ;