« PreviousContinue »
Again by death, although sad watch he keep,
It must be however confessed of these writers, that if they are upon uncommon subjects often unnecessarily and unpoetically subtle; yet, where scholastic speculation can be properly admitted, their copiousness and acuteness may justly be admired. What Cowley has written upon Hope shows an unequalled fertility of invention:
Hope, whose weak being ruin'd is, am
Of blessing thee!
If things then from their end we happy call, 'Tis Hope is the most hopeless thing of all.. Hope, thou bold taster of delight,
Who, whilst thou should'st but taste, devour'st it
The joys which we entire should wed,
Such mighty custom's paid to thee:
For joy, like wine kept close, does better taste,
To the following comparison of a man that travels and his wife that stays at home, with a pair of compasses, it may be doubted whether absurdity or ingenuity has better claim:
Our two souls, therefore, which are one,
If they be two, they are two so 1+2 191 #2
Yet, when the other far doth roam ab e
In all these examples it is apparent, that what ever is improper or vicious is produced by a voluntary deviation from nature in pursuit of something new and strange and that the writ ers fail to give delight by their desire of exciting admiration.
THOL 30 P JITA ATUST JADITOY SAT
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 almost the last of that race race, and undoubtedly was the best.
His Miscellanies contain a collection of short to weep himself, and diverts his sorrow by compositions, written, some as they were dic-imagining how his crown of bays, if he had it, tated by a mind at leisure, and some as they would crackle in the fire. It is the odd fate of were called forth by different occasions, with this thought to be the worse for being true. great variety of style and sentiment, from bur- The bay leaf crackles remarkably as it burns lesque levity to awful grandeur. Such an as- as therefore this property was not assigned it by semblage of diversified excellence no other poet chance, the mind must be thought sufficiently has hitherto afforded. To choose the best, at ease that could attend to such minuteness of among many good, is one of the most hazardous physiology. But the power of Cowley is not so attempts of criticism. I know not whether much to move the affections, as to exercise the Scaliger himself has persuaded many readers to understanding. 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 ought to contain in itself whatever is necessary to make it intelligible. Pope has some epitaphs without names; which are therefore epitaphs to be let, 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,
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 must be in all Cowley's compositions, some striking thoughts, but they are not well wrought. His elegy on Sir Henry Wotton is vigorous 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 poems, he has forgotten or neglected to name his heroes.
In his poem on the death of Hervey, 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 his companion; but, when he en he wishes to make us weep, he forgets
The Chronicle is a composition unrivalled and alone: such gayety of fancy, such facility of expression, such varied similitude, such a suc cession 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 critic, mingle their influence even in this airy frolic of genius. To such a performance, Suckling could have brought the gayety but not the knowledge: Dryden could have supplied the knowledge, but not the gayety.
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 sufficier tly observed; the few decisions and remarks, which his prefaces and his notes on the Davideis supply, were at that time accessions to English literature, and show such skill as raises our wish for more examples.
The lines from Jersey are a very curious and pleasing specimen of the familiar descending to the burlesque.
His two metrical disquisitions for and against
The Holy Book like the eighth sphere doth shine
Yet reason must assist too; for, in seas
Our course by stars above we cannot know
After this says Bentley:*
Who travels in religious jars,
Truth mix'd with error, shade with rays,
* Dodsley's Collection of Poems, vol. v.-R.
Like Whiston wanting pyx or stars,
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 excel 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 succeed the Anacreontics, or paraphrastical translations of some little poems, which pass, however justly, under the name of Anacreon. Of these songs dedicated to festivity and gayety, 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 shows nothing of the mould of time, and the sentiments are at no great distance from our present habitudes of thought. Real mirth must always be 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 of 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 inversior, by which the established order of words is changed, or of innovation, by which new words or meanings of words are introduced, is practised, not by those who talk to be understood, but by those who write to be admired.
The Anacreontics 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 plenitude of the writer's knowledge flows i upon his page, so that the reader is commonly surprised into some improvement. But, consi. dered as the verses of a lover, no man that ha ever loved, will much commend them. They are neither courtly nor pathetic, 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 dearn, with mingled souls and with broken hearts.
The principal artifice by which The Mistress is filled with conceits, is very copiously displayed 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 considers 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 flames had burnt up and withered the tree.
These conceits Addison calls mixed 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 fullblown in modern Italy. Thus Sannazarost
Aspice quam variis distringar Lesbia curis!
Uror, et heu! nostro manat ab igne liquor: Sum Nilus, sumque Etna simul; restringite flamma O lacrimæ, aut lacrimas ebibe flamma meas.
One of the severe theologians of that time censured him as having published a book of profane and lascivious verses. From the charge of profaneness, the constant tenor 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 perusal of his work 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 The next class of his poems is called The Mis- and cruelty, her disdain and inconstancy, protress, of which it is not necessary to select any duce no correspondence of emotion. His poetiparticular pieces for praise or censure. They cal account of the virtues of plants and colours have all the same beauties and faults, and nearly of flowers, is not perused with more sluggish in the same proportion. They are written with frigidity. The compositions are such as might exuberance of wit, and with copiousness of have been written for penance by a hermit, or learning; and it is truly asserted by Sprat, that, for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only
neard of another sex; for they turn the mind only on the writer, whom, without thinking on a woman but as the subject for his task, we sometimes esteem as learned, and sometimes despise as trifling, always admire as ingenious, and always condemn as unnatural.
The Pindaric 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 re
The purpose for which he has paraphrased an Olympic and Nemæan Ode is by himself sufficiently explained. His endeavour was, not to "show precisely what 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 him, but not to write as Pindar would not have written.
Of the Olympic Ode, the beginning is, I think, above the original in elegance, and the conclusion below it in strength. The connexion is supplied with great perspicuity; and 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,
If in Olympus top, where thou
If in Alpheus' silver flight,
If in my verse thou take delight,
In the Nemean 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 many other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original, as
The table, free for every guest,
And feast more upon thee, than thou on it.
He sometimes extends his author's thoughts without improving them. In the Olympionic, 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 hint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prose:
But in this thankless world the giver
Nay, 'tis much worse than so;
Lest men should think we owe.
It is hard to conceive that a man of 'he 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.
In the following odes, where Cowley chooses his own subjects, he sometimes rises to dignity truly Pindaric; and, if some deficiencies of language be forgiven, his strains are such as
those of the Theban Bard were to his contemporaries:
Begin the song, and strike the living lyre: Lo how the years to come, a numerous and wellfitted quire,
All hand in hand do decently advance,
And to my song with smooth and equal measure dance;
While the dance lasts, how long soe'er it be,
Till all gentle notes be drown'd
After such enthusiasm, who will not lament to find the poet conclude with lines like these:
But stop, my Muse
Hold thy Pindaric Pegasus closely in,
-Tis an unruly and a hard mouth'd horse-
But flings writer and reader too that sits not sure.
The fault of Cowley, and perhaps of all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to the last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality; for of the greatest things the parts are little; what is little can be but pretty, and by claiming dignity, becomes ridiculous. Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind by the mention of particulars is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that from which the illustration is drawn than that to which it is applied.
Of this we have a very eminent example in the ode, entitled The Muse, who goes to take the air, in an intellectual chariot, to which he harnesses Fancy and Judgment, Wit and Eloquence, Memory and Invention. How he distinguished Wit from Fancy, or how Memory could properly contribute to Motion, he has not explained; we are however content to suppose that he could have justified his own fiction, and wish to see the Muse begin her career; but there is yet more to be done.
Let the postilion Nature mount, and let
And let the airy footmen, running all beside,
And innocent loves, and pleasant truths, and useful lies,
In all their gaudy liveries.
Every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence; yet I cannot refuse myself
the four next lines:
Mount, glorious queen, thy travelling throne, And bid it to put on;
For long though cheerful is the way, And life, alas! allows but one ill winter's day.
In the same ode, celebrating the power of the Muse, he gives her prescience, or, in poetical language, the foresight of events hatching in futurity; but, having once an egg in his mind, he cannot forbear to show us that he knows what an egg contains :
Thou into the close nests of Time dost peep,
Through the firm shell and the thick white dost spy
Close in their sacred secundine asleep.
The same thought is more generally, and therefore more poetically expressed by Casimir, a writer who has many of the beauties and faults of Cowley.
Omnibus Mundi Dominator horis Aptat urgendas per inane pennas, Pars adhuc nido latet, et futuros
Crescit in annos.
Cowley, whatever was his subject, seems to have been carried, by a kind of destiny, to the light and the familiar, or to conceits which require still more ignoble epithets. A slaughter in the Red Sea new dies the water's name; and England, during the civil war, was Albion no more, nor to be named from white. It is surely by some fascination not easily surmounted, that a writer, professing to revive the noblest and highest, writing in verse, makes this address to the new year:
Nay, if thou lov'st me, gentle year,
There's of this caution little need,
Yet, gentle year, take heed
How thou dost make
Such a mistake;
Such love I mean alone
As by thy cruel predecessors ha: been shown;
The reader of this will be inclined to cry out with Prior,
"Ye critics, say,
How poor to this was Pindar's style!"
Even those who cannot perhaps find in the Isthmian or Nemæan songs what antiquity has disposed them to expect, will at least see that they are ill-represented by such puny poetry;
and all will determine that if this be the old Theban strain, it is not worthy of revival.
To the disproportion and incongruity of Cowley's sentiments must be added the uncertainty and looseness of his measures. He takes the liberty of using in any place a verse of any length, from two syllables to twelve. The verses of Pindar have, as he observes, very little harmony to a modern ear; yet by examining the syllables, we perceive them to be regular, and have reason enough for supposing that the ancient audiences were delighted with the sound. The imitator ought therefore to have adopted what he found, and to have added what was wanting; to have preserved a constant return of the same numbers, and to have supplied smoothness of transition and continuity of thought.
It is urged by Dr. Sprat, that the "irregularity of numbers is the very thing which makes that kind of poesy fit for all manner of subjects." But he should have remembered, that what is fit for every thing can fit nothing well. The great pleasure of verse arises from the known measure of the lines, and uniform structure of the stanzas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
If the Pindaric style be, what Cowley thinks it, "the highest and noblest kind of writing in verse," it can be adapted only to high and noble subjects; and it will not be easy to reconcile the poet with the critic, or to conceive how that can be the highest kind of writing in verse, which, according to Sprat, "is chiefly to be preferred for its near affinity to prose."
This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren, and flattered the laziness of the idle, that it immediately overspread our books of poetry; all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion, and they that could do nothing else, could write like Pindar. The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin; a poem* on the Sheldonian Theatre, in which all kinds of verse are shaken together, is unhappily in. serted in the "Muse Anglicanæ." Pindarisma