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Whether Wordsworth had the “ Task” in his mind when he called his poem the “Excursion,” I do not know. But, however that may be, it is inevitable that the two poems should suggest each other. Both are occupied with the praise of nature, of retirement, of meditation, of simplicity of life. And many passages in the older poet might well have been written by his greater successor. What, for instance, could be more exactly in Wordsworth's vein than the passage in this last book of the “ Task,” in which Cowper prefers the wisdom of nature to the knowledge furnished by books?
“ But trees, and rivulets whose rapid course
Defies the check of winter, haunts of deer,
The two poems have also the same defect. Cowper, like Wordsworth, too rarely arrests and surprises as poetry should. Both are too frequently, in matter and style, on the common level of ordinary good and thoughtful people. And Wordsworth's heights are quite out of Cowper's reach. Indeed, their love of nature is as unlike as it is like: with the contrast between Derwentwater and the Ouse ; and that between a large spiritual imagination always brooding over nature's mystery and beauty, and a gentle delight in trees and rivers and clouds which feels no mystery and asks no questions. Wordsworth has, of course, this latter temper too, but the other is almost always felt behind it. And though Wordsworth, like Cowper, preaches too much, he has the instinct of the poet to keep him from controversy which sometimes brings Cowper almost to the level of the religious newspapers. He is always serene where Cowper is so often angry; always large and human where Cowper is narrow with the narrowness of a sect; always positive and persuasive where Cowper is negative and disputatious. Perhaps it is just this greater philosophic strength which makes his stories and his bits of special description more abstract, less vivid, less simply sincere than Cowper’s. Part of the charm of Cowper lies in our being able to trace him literally step by step at Weston, and yet he has made it all poetry; and so it is with his touches about himself and his friends. Wordsworth, on the other hand, much as Ellen's tale resembles Kate's for instance, is apt to make his characters-Simon Lee, or Michael, or the Leech Gatherer-embodiments as it were of humanity: he probably never felt the sympathy and affection
for individuals which Cowper everywhere shows. It is Man and Nature, on the whole, that interest Wordsworth ; with Cowper, on the whole, it is men and Olney and Weston Underwood.
With the “Task” were published the already famous “ John Gilpin," the one piece of verse in which Cowper gave rein to the sort of humour, peculiarly his own, which overflows everywhere in his letters. It is perhaps the single performance of his on which the seal of universal popularity has been set. To discuss it would be an absurdity; its immortality, like that of Alice in Wonderland, is secured for it by the adventure which wins the heart of the nursery, and the unobtruded but unforgettable sketch of John's personality, which holds the admiration of the parlour and the study. We know John Gilpin before the end, as we know Alice, almost as we know a greater John at the end of Shakespeare's “ Henry IV.”
The volume was completed by Cowper's attack on public schools, which he called “Tirocinium,” and of which the chief interest now, outside its one passage of pure poetry,–
“We love the play-place of our early days,” lies in the curious picture it gives of the extraordinary liberty allowed to Westminster boys in Cowper's day, which is rendered still more extraordinary by the fact that they were much younger than public school boys now are, as is shown by Cowper's account of their amusements. The poem is written in rhymed couplets, and the opening passage shows Cowper's increased mastery of his art, almost recalling the weighty and splendid manner of Dryden. In later editions, Cowper added a few other pieces, such as the “Death of Mrs. Throckmorton's Bullfinch,” an admirable trifle, which would have been perfect if it had had just that touch of pity for the bird's fate which one would have thought Cowper the last poet to omit; the “Rose,” so warmly praised by Sainte-Beuve; the “Poplar Field,” of which Tennyson said, “ People nowadays hold this style and metre light; I wish there were any who could put words together with such exquisite flow and evenness ;” and the beautiful lines on his mother's picture, which; the same great poet told Palgrave he scarcely dared to read for fear of breaking down. Of these last one can only ask whether the rhymed couplet has ever been handled so softly and warmly, ever put to such tender use? There is nothing left in it, as Cowper manages it here, of the hardness and coldness which are the inevitable drawback of Pope's icy brilliancy. It is really impossible to overpraise the lines. They are perfect in a vein which is Cowper's own, that of the quiet home affections, where he leaves Wordsworth far behind, though Wordsworth was brother, husband, and father, and Cowper hardly the first, and the two last not at all. Of the other pieces, there is little that need be said ; but the “ Poplar Field” has one line that ought
never to be forgotten, in which all the delightfulness of all the poplared river-banks of the world seems to have concentrated itself,
“ The poplars are felled; farewell to the shade,
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade.”
“ Conticuere susurri omnisque evanuit umbra"
The remaining pieces were not printed among the works of Cowper till after his death. The most important of them are the “ Loss of the Royal George,” “Valediction,” “ Yardley Oak,” the lines “ To Mary” (Mrs. Unwin), the noble sonnet also addressed to her, and, last of all, the terrible “ Castaway," written at the very end of his life. There are also some charming trifles and compliments, very gracefully and easily thrown off; such as the lines to his friend Mr. Bull, those called " Gratitude” sent to Lady Hesketh, “Catharina,” “ The Retired Cat," and the epitaphs on “ Neptune” and “ Fop.”
None of these have contributed so much to Cowper's general popularity as the “ Royal George,” which so many of us have learnt by heart in our first schoolroom. It is one of the most famous
- perhaps the most widely known of all of the pieces consecrated by English poets to the glory of our Navy. Tennyson's “ Revenge” is a greater thing certainly; Campbell's best Odes as great, perhaps, with a very different greatness; and Sir Francis Doyle's “ Loss of the Birkenhead” is an impressive rendering of an heroic story. And the living author of “ Admirals All” has shown that our naval glories are an undying source of fine poetry. But that is where the difference lies. In the tale Cowper had to tell there is no heroism, and no glory. He had nothing to help him to move us but the awful suddenness of the fate of four hundred men. There is no action; the whole position is one purely passive. And he has not the resource of the imagined personality of the ship, dying in such inglorious silence after braving the roar of a hundred battles ; for the ship does not die, but is weighed up to float and fight again. Yet what an effect the poet has produced! He has pressed into his service all that seemed most in his way, indeed, all that appeared most ineffective; the calm, the security of home waters, the admiral at his desk, is just what is made to produce the effect. But it is more than that. The secret of the success lies in no detail, but in the whole treatment. Few poems in any language illustrate better the power of great verse. It would be nothing in
a paraphrase; it is very little in Cowper's Latin translation. But no sooner have we heard that rich and sonorous opening “ Toll for the brave," like the great bell of some cathedral, than we are carried away and up above ourselves into no ordinary mood. And there the poet keeps us all through by his noble and serious simplicity, in no state of rhetorical excitement, but rather in that quiet gravity of thought which befits the presence of Death in Life.
“Valediction” is a piece of personal history. No one can put more meaning into the word “ friendship” than Cowper. His affectionate inconsistency made his friends exceptions to the rules by which he judged the rest of the world; and nearly all of them have a place of honour in his verse. But these lines give the other side of the picture. When he published his first volume he sent it to a few of his friends, among them to Thurlow, whom he had already congratulated on becoming Lord Chancellor, and to Colman, who was then manager of the Haymarket Theatre. Neither took any notice of his gift, and Colman made matters worse by not sending him a copy of a translation of the Ars Poetica, which he published soon afterwards. Cowper's indignation was in proportion to the warmth with which he himself remembered old friendships, and he expressed it in this poem, the counterpart to the “ Epistle to Joseph Hill," published with his next volume, which was not sent either to Thurlow or to Colman. He says in a letter to Newton (July 9, 1785), “ I have allowed myself to be a little pleased with an opportunity to show them that I resent their treatment of me. ... They, indeed, are the former friends to whom I particularly allude in my epistle to Mr. Hill, and it is possible they may take to themselves a censure they so well deserve. If not, it matters not, for I shall never have any communication with them hereafter.”
In this last point, however, he proved mistaken. Thurlow did not, indeed, provide for him, as he had jestingly promised in their early days as fellow clerks, but he renewed acquaintance, had some correspondence with Cowper about Homer, after he published his translation, and showed some friendly interest in him in other ways; and I have before me two most affectionate letters from Colman to Cowper, which are preserved among the Cowper MSS. at Welborne Rectory. They were written from Bath, in January, 1785, and May, 1786; and though they give no explanation of his neglect to acknowledge the first volume, they must have been pleasant reading to the poet, as indeed they are to us. Somebody had evidently hinted Cowper's annoyance to Colman, and he now sends his “ Horace,” asks for and receives the “Task," invites Cowper to write a “ Domicilium" as the answer to his “ Tirocinium," makes free and friendly criticism on his poems, and busies himself about getting subscribers for his “Homer.” The opening sentences of the first letter will be enough to show that the friendly allusions to him in the letters of Cowper's last years were not undeserved.
Bath, January 22, 1785 “ Be assured, my dear old friend and acquaintance, my dear Cowper, that I never lost the remembrance of the sweet counsel we took together. I have often thought of you with a most affectionate regret, and often mentioned you in terms that went not only from the mouth, but the heart. Your volume of poems gave me particular pleasure; for I had some time before been told you were no more. And could you suppose for a moment that for three dirty halfcrowns, at which my translation was rated, I would affront a dear friend? Recall old times, and late hours, and all hours, and I am sure you would scorn the imputation on me. I am just what I was, just what you left me, the same feeling, fretful, fond, and I will say faithful, creature you once knew me.”
“Valediction ” was, of course, not published. It was sent to Unwin on November 10, 1783. In sending it Cowper merely remarks that the lines are not for the press, adding, “ I lay you under no other injunction.” Hayley printed the latter part of the piece; the whole first appeared in Johnson's edition, 1815.
“ Yardley Oak” is a fragment; but Cowper has left nothing in which his imagination rises higher. It would be curious to know if he had been reading Shakespeare at the time he wrote it. Certainly it stands alone among his works in being rather akin to Shakespeare than to Milton, both in the particular vein of reflection and in the movement of the blank verse.
“ Thou wast a bauble once ; a cup and ball,
Which babes might play with.” And again,
“ Time made thee what thou wast, king of the woods,
And Time hath made thee what thou art, a cave
For owls to roost in.” And that fine line
“ Slow into such magnificent decay.” Do they not all belong to the wide-ranging Shakespearian order of imagination ? and have they not their measure of the soaring freedom of Shakespeare's verse ?
Of the two poems, which are the immortal record of Cowper's devotion to Mrs. Unwin, the stanzas, to which one is here added from the original MS., are a crowning instance of his rare gift of transforming the common earth of daily life into purest poetic gold. It must be confessed, however, that the ear is fatigued before the end by the repeated refrain, “ My Mary.” The other is one of the finest sonnets in the English language. Believers in the orthodox