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Thy rams are there,
Nebaioth, and the flocks of Kedar there;
The looms of Ormus, and the mines of Ind,
And Saba's spicy groves, pay tribute there.1
It will be noticed that what most frequently gives these lines their Miltonic ring is the inversion of the normal word-order, from which few sentences in The Task are free. When the inversion is accompanied by the omission of an auxiliary in a negative sentence, as in "disdains not,' 'nor conversant," "nor wanted aught within," "r nor suspends," 'proved He not plainly," "he seeks not," "not slothful he," there is a strong suggestion of Paradise Lost. That particularly Miltonic inversion, a word placed between two dependent words or phrases, - "devious course uncertain," "feathered tribes domestic," "a sordid mind Bestial," "for deep discernment praised And sound integrity,"3-was as attractive to Cowper as to his predecessor. By no means so common, but perhaps as frequent as in Milton (an instance on nearly every page), is his use of an adjective where an adverb would ordinarily be employed, as "spring spontane
," "invades the shore Resistless," 'cherups brisk," "sedulous I seek," "sipping calm," "disposes neat," "breathe mild," "wheeling slow," "impeded sore," "blazing clear," "sheepish he doffs his hat,' "now creeps he slow, and now . . . Wide scampering." 4
The diction of The Task, as might be expected in a poem published half a century later than Winter and but two years before Wordsworth entered college, is more simple and natural than was usual in eighteenth-century blank verse. Cowper's language is, indeed, more conversational than that of many authors who came after him. What makes us think of The Task with The Seasons rather than with The Prelude is its style and contents, not its diction. The strongly Latinized vocabulary that is largely responsible for the turgidity of Thomson and his followers is not a characteristic of Cowper. Occasionally, however, he does make use of such unusual words from the Greek or Latin as "vermicular," "recumbency," "arthritic," "revolvency," "feculence," "peccancy," "vortiginous," "refluent," "sempiternal," "oscitancy," "meliorate," "stercoraceous," "agglomerated," "ebriety," "tramontane," "introverted," "indu1 i. 123-5; ii. 111-20; iii. 258-60, 582-5; vi. 804-7.
2 i. 124; iii. 24; v. . 156; vi. 308, 447, 920, 928.
iii. 3; v. 62, 453-4; iii. 258-9; cf. also v. 119-20, 153, 164 (three instances on one page).
i. 603; ii. 114-15; iii. 9, 367, 391, 423, 443, 499; iv. 343, 381, 628; v. 48-9. For other instances, see i. 20, 110-11, 266, 347, 510-11; ii. 103, 374; iii. 563, 579; iv. 291, 293, 343-4, 478-9, 541; v. 7, 24-6 (two instances), 359–60, 426; vi. 79, 375–6, 723, etc.
rated," "vitreous," "lubricity," "terraqueous," "confutation," 'prelibation," "propense," "ostent." Now and then he employs words in their original though obsolete meanings or applications, as "speculative height" (affording an extensive view), "devotes" (vows to destruction), "obnoxious" (exposed to), "coincident" (agreeing), "soliciting" (trying to draw out, as darts in the side of a deer), "congenial" (kindred), "assimilate" (make similar), "admire" (wonder), "invest" (clothe the branch of a tree), "involved" (enveloped, as in tobacco-smoke), "induced" (drew on, of a chaircover), "reprieve" (said of preserving shade-trees), "lapse" (said of snowflakes), “ardent" (said of clouds).2
The most vicious of the many varieties of poetic diction that cursed the eighteenth century, the periphrasis, is so infrequent in The Task as to be negligible. Yet such phrases as "the sprightly chord" (harp?), "the sylvan scene" (fields), "philosophic tube" (telescope), "the fragrant lymph" (tea), "clouds Of Indian fume" (tobacco-smoke), "the feathered tribes domestic" (hens), "the fleecy flood" (snow), "the prickly and green-coated gourd" (cucumber), "the fragrant charge of a short tube That fumes beneath his nose" (tobacco),3 show a kinship between the poet of Olney and the writers of the first half of his century.
Compound epithets," Cowper wrote in the preface for a second edition of his Homer, "have obtained so long in the poetical language of our country, that I employed them without fear or scruple.” Even in The Task they are quite as common as in The Seasons, but, being more "happily combined," are far less noticeable. The first page I open to has three instances (an average number), all in the Thomson vein, - "card-devoted," "homely-featured," "birdalluring.” 5
Save for his frequent use of adjectives for adverbs, Cowper does not often make one part of speech do service for another. Yet in phrases like "all-essenced o'er With odours," "basket up the family," "well equipaged," "filleted about with hoops," "to buckram
1 i. 30, 82, 105, 372, 684; ii. 72, 102, 120, 499, 774; iii. 304, 463, 472; iv. 460, 533, 633; v. 98, 161, 165, 281, 567, 574, 585; vi. 486.
2 i. 289 (cf. P. L., xii. 588-9, P. R., iv. 236); ii. 20, 156, 374; iii. 115, 205; iv. 329; vi. 128; iii. 666 (and vi. 169); iv. 472; i. 32, 264; iv. 327; v. 4.
3 ii. 78, 107; iii. 229, 391; iv. 472–3; v. 62, 63; iii. 446; v. 55-6. The last two examples may be intended humorously, as those in iii. 463-543 certainly are. These are all the periphrases I have noted, but there are probably others.
• Preface for a second edition of his Homer.
5 iv. 229, 252, 263; some editions hyphenate "slow moving" (246). "Spectaclebestrid," "ear-erecting," "truth-tried," and "cheek-distending" (ii. 439, iii. 9, 56, iv. 488) are instances of Cowper's more marked and less successful combinations.
out the memory," he uses substantives as verbs; while in "garnish your profuse regales," and "the employs of rural life," he turns the tables. In "deluging the dry," "I am no proficient," "spare the soft And succulent," "no powdered pert," "the first and only fair" (meaning God), "in the vast and the minute," 3 adjectives appear as nouns; in "saturate with dew," "emancipate and loosed," "unadulterate air," we have the clipt form of participle that Milton liked. Since Cowper's natural, easy, and somewhat diffuse style is in marked contrast to the brevity and condensation of Paradise Lost, his poem might be expected to contain comparatively few of the parenthetical or appositional expressions that served Milton so well. Appositives, like "he of Gath, Goliath," and
No works indeed
That ask robust tough sinews bred to toil,
are rare; but parenthetical expressions are thick as autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa. "There's a parenthesis for you!" he exclaimed on one occasion, after quoting (for another purpose) four lines from Paradise Lost. "The parenthesis it seems is out of fashion, and perhaps the moderns are in the right to proscribe what they cannot attain to. I will answer for it that, had we the art at this day of insinuating a sentiment in this graceful manner, no reader of taste would quarrel with the practice." Many of the parentheses in The Task involve too little condensation to seem Miltonic, but a considerable number do recall Paradise Lost; for example,
The rest, no portion left
That may disgrace his art, or disappoint
(As often as, libidinous discourse
Exhausted, he resorts to solemn themes
Of theological and grave import,)
They gain at last his unreserved assent;
Till hardened his heart's temper in the forge
Of lust, and on the anvil of despair,
1 ii. 227-8, 667; iii. 98; v. 402; vi. 652.
2 iii. 551 (cf. his Odyssey, i. 177, ii. 25), 625 (cf. 406).
ii. 56; iii. 210, 417–18; iv. 145; v. 675, 811.
4 i. 494; ii. 39; iv. 750 (cf. v. 465).
iv. 269-70; iii. 404-6.
Letter to Bagot, Oct. 25, 1791..
And now, his prowess proved, and his sincere
His rage grew cool.1
Cowper's tendency to diffuseness also kept him, as a rule, from omitting words that would be expressed in prose. Yet there are not a few instances like these: "what can they less," "nor this to feed his own," own," " ," "the gods themselves had made," "happy who walks with Him," "so little mercy shows who needs so much," "who forgets, Or can, the more than Homer," "who will may preach, And what they will," "not slothful he, though seeming unemployed,"
Was honoured, loved, and wept
By more than one, themselves conspicuous there.
How lovely, and the moral sense how sure,
Consulted and obeyed, to guide his steps.2
The result of these various departures from ordinary usage is that a reader who is attentive to the matter catches reverberations from Paradise Lost on every page of The Task. These echoes were heard and admired at the time; for the Gentleman's Magazine lauded Cowper as "perhaps, without excepting even Philips, the most successful of the imitators of Milton."3 A curious, back-handed compliment this seems to us, but the writer probably meant that the blank verse of The Task was among the very best of the century and that it was essentially Miltonic. And these things are true.
With the completion of The Task, Cowper, whose mind "abhorred a vacuum as its chief bane," was already sinking into a fit of his old depression, when one day, happening to take up a copy of the Iliad, he translated a few lines by way of diversion. The experiment succeeded so well that he tried it again, and eventually, in 1791, published the whole of Homer in blank verse. One would expect the translation to be as much more Miltonic than The Task as its subject-matter is more heroic and exalted: the epic demanded "heigh style," and what example of lofty blank verse was there to compare with Paradise Lost? Nevertheless, it is with something of a shock that a reader of The Task opens the Homer. For the conversational ease and natural, flowing charm of the early work have given place
1 iii. 421-3; v. 659–66; vi. 531-3.
2 ii. 644; iv. 452; v. 292; vi. 247, 431, 645-7, 889-90, 928; ii. 786-7; v. 672–4. Note also p. 167 above.
3 lvi. 235 (March, 1786).
Letter to Newton, Dec. 3, 1785.
to a distorted word-order, an involved, jerky style, to inversions within inversions, parentheses crowding appositives, and to adjectives, torn from their natural positions, regularly performing the functions of adverbs. It is hard to see how Homer could be made any more Miltonic. My own first thought was that the inversions and the rest were introduced to preserve the word-order and other features of the original; but, on comparing with the Greek the passages that had struck me as most Miltonic, I found this was not the case. The line, "These things pondering in his mind, which were not to be fulfilled," 1 for example, Cowper translates,
In false hopes occupied and musings vain."
"If quickly had not perceived [him] great crest-tossing Hector. He went then through the van armed in shining brass," he renders,
Had not crest-tossing Hector huge perceived
The havoc; radiant to the van he flew.3
"For the dearest men are under my roof.' Thus he spoke, and Patroclus obeyed his dear companion," is changed to,
For dearer friends than these who now arrive
My roof beneath, or worthier, have I none.
"So I spoke, and the soul of swift-footed Æacides withdrew with great strides along the asphodel meadow, glad that I had said his son was famous," is contorted into
So I; then striding large, the spirit thence
The hoary mead pacing with joy elate
That I had blazon'd bright his son's renown.
"He knew [me] immediately when he saw me with his eyes, and me he, sorrowing, with winged words addressed," appears as
Me his eye
No sooner mark'd, than knowing me, in words
By sorrow quick suggested, he began."
1 In my translations everything else has been sacrificed to literalness and a close adherence to the word-order of the original.
2 Iliad, ii. 36; Cowper, ii. 44.
Iliad, v. 680-81; Cowper, v. 807–8.