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And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam.,
grows erect, as that comes home.
Like th' other foot obliquely run.
DONNE. In all these examples it is apparent, that whatever is improper or vitious, is produced by a voluntary deviation from nature in pursuit of something new and strange; and that the writers fail to give delight, by their desire of exciting admiration.
HAVING thus endeavoured to exhibit a general representation of the style and sentiments of the metaphysical poets, it is now. proper to examine particularly the works of Cowley, who was alinost the last of that race, and undoubtedly the best.
His Miscellanies contain a collection of short compositions, written some as they were dictated by a mind at leisure, and some as they were called forth by different occasions; with great variety of style and sentiment, from burlesque levity to awful grandeur. Such an assemblage of diversified excellence no other poet has hitherto afforded. To choose the best, among many good, is one of the most hazardous attempts of criticism. I know not whether Scaliger himself has persuaded many readers to join with him in his preference of the two favourite odes, which he estimates in his raptures at the value of a kingdom. I will however venture to recommend Cowley's first piece, which ought to be inscribed To my muse, for want of which the second couplet is without reference. When the title is added, there will still remain a defect; for every piece ouglit to contain in itself whatever is necessary to make it intelligiile. Pope has some epitaphs without names; which are therefore epitaplis to be lett, occupied indeed for the present, but hardly appropriated.
The ode on Wit is almost without a rival. It was about the time of Cowley that Wit, which had been till then used for Intellection, in contradistinction to Will, took the meaning, whatever it be, which it now bears.
Of all the passages in which poets have exemplified their own precepts, none will easily be found of greater excellence than that in which Cowley condemns exuberance of Wit :
Yet 'tis not to adorn and gild each part,
That shews more cost than arc.
Rather than all things wit, let none be there.
If there be nothing else between.
In his verses to Lord Falkland, whom every man of his time was proud to praise, there are, as there inust be in all Cowley's compositions, some striking thoughts; but they are not well wrought. His elegy on Sir Henry. Wotton is vi. gorous and happy, the series of thoughts is easy and natural, and the conclusion, though a little weakened by the intrusion of Alexander, is elegant and forcible.
It may be remarked, that in this Elegy, and in most of his encomiastic poeins, he has forgotten or neglected to name his heroes.
In his poem on the death of Harvey, there is much praise, but little passion, a very just and ample delineation of such virtues as a studious privacy admits, and such intellectual excellence as a mind not yet called forth to action can display. He knew how to distinguish, and how to commend the qualities of bis companion; but when he wishes to make us weep, he forgets to weep himself, and diverts his sorrow by imagining how his crown of bays, if he had it, would crackle in the fire. It is the odd fate of this thought to be worse for being true. The bay-leaf crackles remarkably as it burns; as therefore this property was not assigned it by chance, the mind must be thought sufficiently at ease that could attend to such minuteness of physiology. But the power of Cowley is not so much to move the affections, as to exercise the understanding.
The Chronicle is a composition unrivalled and alone : such gaiety of fancy, such facility of expression, such varied similitude, such a succession of images, and such a dance of words, it is in vain to expect except from Cowley. His strength always appears in his agility, his volatility is not the flutter of a light, but the bound of an elastic mind. His levity never leaves his learning behind it; the moralist, the politician, and the critick, mingle their influence even in this airy frolick of genius. To such a perforinance Suckling could have brought the gaiety, but not the knowledge; Dryden could have supplied the knowledge, but not the gaiety:
The verses to Davenant, which are vigorously begun, and happily concluded, contain some hints of criticism very justly conceived and happily expressed. Cowley's critical abilities have not been sufficiently observed: the few decisions and remarks which lis prefaces and his notes on the Davideis supply, were at that time accessions to English literature, and shew such skill as raises our wish for more examples.
Thie·lines from Jersey are a very curious and pleasing specimen of the familiar descending to the burlesque.
His two metrical disquisitions for and against Reason, are no inean specimens of metaphysical poetry. The stanzas against knowledge produce little conviction. In those which are intended to exalt the human faculties, Reason has its proper task assigned it; that of judging, not of things revealed, but of the reality of revelation, In the verses for Reason is a passage which Bentley, in the only English verses which he is known to have written, seems to have copied, though with the inferiority of an imitator.
The holy Book like the eighth sphere doth shine
With thousand lights of iruth divine,
Yet Reason must assist too; for in eis
So vast and dangerous as these,
Without the compass too below.
Who travels in religious jars,
In ocean wide or sinks or strays. Cowley seems to have had, what Milton is believed to have wanted, the skill to rate his own performances by their just value, and has therefore closed his Miscellanies with the verses upon Crashaw, which apparently excell all that have gone before them, and in which there are beauties which common authors may justly think not only above their attainment, but above their ambition.
To the Miscellanies succeeded the Anacreontiques, or paraphrastical translatiors of some little poems, which pass, however justly, under, the name of Anacreon. Of those songs dedicated to festivity and gaiety, in which even the morality is voluptuous, and which teach nothing but the enjoyment of the present day, he has given rather a pleasing than a faithful representation, having retained their sprightliness, but lost their simplicity. The Anacreon of Cowley, like the Homer of Pope, has admitted the decoration of some modern graces, by which he is undoubtedly more amiable to common readers, and perhaps, if they would honestly declare their own perceptions, to far the greater part of those whom courtesy and ignorance are content to style the Learned.
These little pieces will be found more finished in their kind than any other of Cowley's works. The diction shews nothing of the mould of time, and the sentiments are at no great distance from our presesit habitudes of thought. Real mirth must be always natural, and nature is uniform. Men have been wise in very different modes; but they have always laughed the same way.
Levity of thought naturally produced familiarity of language, and the familiar part language continues long the same: the dialogue of comedy, when it is transcribed from popular manners and real life, is read from age to age with equal pleasure. The artifices of inversion, by which the established order of words is changed, or of innovation, by which new words or new meanings of words are introduced, is practised, not by those who talk to be understood, bet by those who write to be admired.
The Anacreontiques therefore of Cowley give now all the pleasure which they ever gave. If he was formed by nature for one kind of writing more than for another, his power seems to have been greatest in the familiar and the festive.
The next class of his poems is called The Mistress, of which it is not necessary to select any particular pieces for praise or censure. They bave all the same beauties and faults, and nearly in the same proportion. They are written with
* Dodsley's Collection of Poems, vol. V. E.
exuberance of wit, and with copiousness of learning, and it is truly asserted by Sprat, that the plenitude of the writer's knowledge flows in upon his page, so that the reader is commonly surprised into some improvement. But, considered as the verses of a lover, no man that has ever loved will much commend them. They are neither courtly nor pathetick, have neither gallantry nor fondness. His praises are too far sought, and too hyperbolical, either to express love, or to excite it; every stanza is crowded with darts and flames, with wounds and death, with mingled souls, and with broken hearts.
The principal artifice hy which The Mistrese is filled with conceits is very copiously described by Addison. Love is by Cowley, as by other poets, expressed metaphorically by flame and fire ; and that which is true of real fire is said of love, or figurative fire, the same word in the same sentence retaining both significations. Thus,“ observing the cold regard of his mistress's eyes, “ and at the same time their power of producing love in him, he considen " them as burning glasses made of ice. Finding himself able to live in the "greatest extremities of love, he concludes the torrid zone to be habitable.
Upon the dying of a tree, on which he had cut his loves, he observes, that " his fames had burnt up and withered the tree.
These conceits Addison calls mixt wit; that is, wit which consists of thoughts true in one sense of the expression, and false in the other. Addison's representation is sufficiently indulgent. That confusion of images may entertain for a moment; but being unnatural, it soon grows wearisome. Cowley delighted in it, as much as if he had invented it; but not to mention the ancients, he might have found it full-blown in modern Italy. Thus Sannazaro:
Aspice quam variis distringar Lesbia curis !
Uror, & heu! nostro manat ab igne liquor;
O lacrimæ, aut lacrimas ebibe flamma meas. One of the severe theologians of that time censured him as having published a boak of profane and lascivious Verses. From the charge of profaneness, the constant tenoui of his life, which seems to have been eminently virtuous, and the general tendency of his opinions, which discover no irreverence of religion, must defend him; but that the accusation of lasciviousness is unjust, the perasal of his works will sufficiently evince.
Cowley's Mistress has no power of seduction : ” she plays round the head, “ but reaches not the heart.” Her beauty and absence, her kindness and cruelty. her disdain and inconstancy, produce no correspondence of emotiona "is poetical account of the virtues of plants, and colours of flowers, is not perused with more sluggish frigidity. The compositions are such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical shyiner who had only heard of another sex ; for they turn the mind only on tbe writer, whom, without thinking on a woman but as the subject for his task, we some. times esteem as learned, and sometimes despise as trifling, always admire as ingenious, and always condemn as unnatural.
The Pindarique Odes are now to be considered; a species of composition, which Cowley thinks Pancirolus might have counted in his list of the lost inventions of antiquity, and which he has made a bold and vigorous attempt to recover
The purpose with which he has paraphrased an Olympic and Nemæan Ode, is by himself sufficiently explained. His endeavour was, not to shew precisely schat Pindar spoke, but his manner of speaking. He was therefore not at all restrained to his expressions, nor much to his sentiments; nothing was required of bim, but not to write as Pindar would not have written.
Of the Olympic Ode the beginning is, I think, above the originalin elegance, and the conclusion below it in strength. The connection is supplied with great perspicuity, and the thoughts, which to a reader of less skill seem thrown together by chance, are concatenated without any abruption. Though the English ode cannot be called a translation, it may be very properly consulted as a commentary.
The spirit of Pindar is indeed not every where equally preserved. The following pretty lines are not such as his deep mouth was used to pour:
Great Rhea's son,
Lofty as that, and smooth as this. In the Nenean ode the reader must, in mere justice to Pindar, observe that whatever is said of the original new moon, her tender forehead and her horns, is . superadded by his paraphrast, who has inany other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original, as,
The table, free for every guest,
No doubt will thee admit,
And feast more upon thee, than thou on it. He sometimes extends his author's thoughts without improving them. In the Olympionick an oath is mentioned in a single word, and Cowley spends three lines in swearing by the Castalian Stream. We are told of Theron's bounty, with a bint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prose:
But in this thankless world the giver
Lest men should think we owe. It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming. that he imitated Pindar.