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their composition be erroneous, yet many parts deserve at least that admiration which is due to great comprehension of knowledge, and great fertility of fancy. The thoughts are often new, and often striking; but the greatness of one part is disgraced by the littleness of another; and total negligence of language gives the noblest conceptions the appearance of a fabric august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise; of which it may be said with truth, that no man but Cowley could have written them.
The Davideis now remains to be considered; a poem which the author designed to have extended to twelve books, merely, as he makes no scruple of declaring, because the Æneid had that number: but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epic poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser, and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for in this undertaking, Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscarried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author generally read, and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis, no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor energes in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden, in “Mack Flecknoe,” it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice from its publication till now in the whole succession of English literature.
Of this silence and neglect, if the reason be inquired, it will be found partly in the choice of the subject, and partly in the performance of the work.
Sacred History has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overawed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain: all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion, seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of Divine power are above the power of human genius to
be more disgusting than a narrative spangled with conceits; and conceits are all that the Davideis supplies.
One of the great sources of poetical delight is description, or the power of presenting pictures to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of images, and shews not what may be supposed to have been seen, but what thoughts the sight might have suggested. When Virgil describes the stone which Turnus lifted against Æneas, he fixes the attention on its bulk and weight:
Saxum circumspicit ingens,
Limes agro positus, litem ut discerneret arvis.
I saw him Aling the stone, as if he meant
At once his murther and his monument. Of the sword taken from Goliah, he says
A sword so great, that it was only fit
To cut off his great head that came with it. Other poets describe death by some of its common appearances. Cowley says, with a learned allusion to sepulchral famps, real or fabulous,
"Twixt his right ribs deep pierc'd the furious blade,
Life's light goes out, when first they let in air.
Joas at first does bright and glorious shew,
In life's fresh morn his fame does early crow. Describing an undisciplined army, after having said with elegance,
His forces seem'd no army, but a crowd
Heartless, unarm'd, disorderly, and loud he gives them a fit of the ague.
The allusions, however, are not always to vulgar things; he offends by exaggeration as much as by diminution:
The king was plac'd alone, and o'er his head
I th' library a few choice authors stood,
Laborious effects of idleness. As the Davideis affords only four books, though intended to consist of twelve, there is no opportunity for such criticism as epic poems commonly supply. The plan of the whole work is very imperfectly shewn by the third part. The duration of an unfinished action cannot be known. Of characters either not yet introduced, or shewn but upon few occasions, the full extent and the nice discriminations cannot be ascertained. The fable is plainly implex, formed rather from the Odyssey than the Iliad: and many artifices of diversification are employed, with the skill of a man acquainted with the best models. The past is recalled by narration, and the future anticipated by vision: but he has been so lavish of his poetical art, that it is difficult to imagine now he could fill eight books more without practising again the same modes of disposing his matter: and perhaps the perception of this growing incumbrance inclined him to stop. By this abruption, posterity lost more instruction than delight. If the continuation of the Davideis can be missed, it is for the learning that had been diffused over it, and the notes in which it had been explained.
Had not his characters been depraved like every other part by improper decorations, they would have deserved uncommon praise. He gives Saul both the body and mind of a hero:
His way once chose, he forward thrust outright,
Nor turn'd aside for danger or delight. And the different beauties of the lofty Merah and the gentle Michol are very justly conceived and strongly painted.
Rymer has declared the Davideis superior to the Jerusalem of Tasso, “which," says he, “the poet, with all his eare, has not totally purged from pedantry.” If by pedantry is meant that minute knowledge which is derived from particular sciences and studies, in opposition to the general notions supplied by a wide survey of life and nature, Cowley certainly