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prevailed about half a century; but at last died gradually away, and other imitations supply its place.
The Pindaric Odes have so long enjoyed the highest degree of poetical reputation, that I am not willing to dismiss them with unabated censure; and surely, though the mode of 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, no man but Cowley could have written
er of human genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language; "He spake the word, and they were made."
We are told that Saul was troubled with an evil spirit; from this, Cowley takes au oportunity of describing hell, and telling the history of Lucifer, who was, he says,
Once general of a gilded host of sprites,
Like Hesper leading forth the spangled nights;
And roar'd at his first plunge into the flame.
Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is something of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and, to give efficacy to his words, concludes by lashing his breast with his long tail. Envy, after a pause, steps out, and among other declarations of her zeal utters these lines.
Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply,
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 Eneid 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 men- It is not only when the events are confessedtion is made; it never appears in books, nor ly miraculous, that fancy and fiction lose their emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it effect; the whole system of life, while the theohas been once quoted; by Rymer it has once cracy was yet visible, has an appearance so dibeen praised; and by Dryden, in " Mack Fleck-ferent from all other scenes of human action, noe," it has once been imitated; nor do I recol. lect much other notice from its publication till now in the whole succession of English litera
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
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 degrée profane. Y
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of Divine power are above the pow.
Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being.
that the reader of the Sacred Volume habitually considers it as the peculiar mode of existence of a distinct species of mankind, that lived and acted with manners uncommunicable; so that it is difficult even for imagination to place us in the state of them whose story is related, and by consequence their joys and griefs are not easily adopted, nor can the attention be often interested in any thing that befalls them.
To the subject thus originally indisposed to the reception of poetical embellishments, the writer brought little that could reconcile impatience, or attract curiosity. Nothing can 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
* Dr. Warton discovers some contrariety of opinion between this and what is said of description in p. 14.-C.
As glimmering stars just at th' approach of day,
to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of In a simile descriptive of the Morning :
Saxum circumspicit ingens,
Cowley says of the stone with which Cain slew his brother,
I saw him fling the store, as if he meant
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 lamps, real or fabulous,
The dress of Gabriel deserves attention:
He took for skin a cloud most soft and bright,
Upon his cheeks a lively blush he spread,
The choicest piece cut out, a scarf is made.
This is a just specimen of Cowley's imagery: what might in general expressions be great and forcible, he weakens and makes ridiculous by branching it into small parts. That Gabri⚫1 was invested with the softest or brightest colours of the sky, we might have been told, and been dismissed to improve the idea in our different proportions of conception; but Cowley could not let us go till he had related where Gabriel But he has allusions vulgar as well as learned. got first his skin, and then his mantle, then his In a visionary succession of kings,
'Twixt his right ribs deep pierc'd the furious blade,
Joas at first does bright and glorious show,
lace, and then his scarf, and related it in the terms of the mercer and tailor.
Sometimes he indulges himself in a digression, always conceived with his natural exuberance,
Describing an undisciplined army, after hav- and commonly, even where it is not long, con
ing said with elegance,
tinued till it is tedious:
I' th' library a few choice authors stood,
The common prostitute she lately grew,
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 shown by the third part. The duration of an unfinished action cannot be known. Of characters either not yet introduced, or shown 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
His expressions have sometimes a degree of been so lavish of his poetical art, that it is diffi meanness that surpasses expectation:
Nay, gentle guests, he cries, since now you're in,
cult to imagine how 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 care, 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 errs, by introducing pedantry far more frequently than Tasso. I know not, indeed, why they should be compared; for the resemblance of Cowley's work to Tasso's is only that they both exhibit the agency of celestial and infernal spirits, in which however they differ widely; for Cowley supposes them commonly to operate upon the mind by suggestion; Tasso represents them as promoting or obstructing events by external agency.
Of particular passages that can be properly compared, I remember only the description of heaven, in which the different manner of the two writers is sufficiently discernible. Cowley's is scarcely description, unless it be possible to describe by negatives: for he tells us only what there is not in heaven. Tasso endeavours to represent the splendours and pleasures of the regions of happiness. Tasso affords images, and Cowley sentiments. It happens, however, that Tasso's description affords some reason for RyHe says of the Supreme Being,
Hà sotto i piedi fato e la natura
The second line has in it more of pedantry than perhaps can be found in any other stan za of the poem.
In the perusal of the Davideis, as of all Cowley's works, we find wit and learning unprofitably squandered. Attention has no relief; the affections are never moved; we are sometimes surprised, but never delighted, and find much to admire, but little to approve. Still however it is the work of Cowley, of a mind capacious by nature, and replenished by study.
In the general review of Cowley's poetry, it will be found that he wrote with abundant fertility, but negligent or unskilful selection; with
much thought, but with little imagery; that he is never pathetic, and rarely sublime; but always either ingenious or learned, either acute or profound.
It is said by Denham in his elegy,
To him no author was unknown, Yet what he writ was all his own.
This wide position requires less limitation, when it is affirmed of Cowley, than perhaps of any other poet.-He read much, and yet borrowed
His character of writing was indeed not his own: he. unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure in its spring was bright and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows.
He was in his own time considered as of unrivalled excellence. Clarendon represents him as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him; and Milton is said to have declared, that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shakspeare, and Cowley.
His manner he had in common with others; but his sentiments were his own. Upon every subject he thought for himself; and such was his copiousness of knowledge, that something at once remote and applicable rushed into his mind; yet it is not likely that he always rejected a commodious idea merely because another had used it: his known wealth was so great that he might have borrowed without loss t credit.
In his elegy on Sir Henry Wotton, the last lines have such resemblance to the noble epigram of Grotius on the death of Scaliger, that I cannot but think them copied from it, though they are copied by no servile hand.
One passage in his Mistress is so apparently borrowed from Donne, that he probably would not have written it, had it not mingled with his own thoughts, so as that he did not perceive himself taking it from another:
Although I think thou never found wilt be
Some that have deeper digg'd Love's mine than I
I have lov'd, and got, and told;
I should not find that hidden mystery;
Oh, 'tis imposture all !
And as no chymic yet th' elixir got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
So lovers dream a rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming summer's night.
if the first appearance offends, a further knowlege is not often sought. Whatever professes to benefit by pleasing, must please at once. pleasures of the mind imply something sudden and unexpected; that which elevates must always surprise. What is perceived by slow degrees may gratify us with consciousness of improvement, but will never strike with the sense
Jonson and Donne, as Dr. Hurd remarks, of pleasure. were then in the highest esteem.
It is related by Clarendon that Cowley always acknowledges his obligation to the learning and industry of Jonson; but I have found no traces of Jonson in his works: to emulate Donne appears to have been his purpose; and from Donne he may have learned that familiarity with religious images, and that light allusion to sacred things, by which readers far short of sanctity are frequently offended; and which would not be borne in the present age, when devotion, perhaps not more fervent, is more delicate.
Having produced one passage taken by Cowley from Donne, I will recompense him by another which Milton seems to have borrowed from him. He says of Goliah,
His spear, the trunk was of a lofty tree,
Of all this Cowley appears to have been without knowledge, or without care. He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase: he has no elegances, either lucky or elaborate: as his endeavours were rather to impress sentences upon the understanding than images on the fancy; he has few epithets, and those scattered without peculiar propriety of nice adaptation. It seems to follow from the necessity of the subject, rather than the care of the writer, that the diction of his heroic poem is less familiar than that of his slightest writings. He has given not the same numbers, but the same diction, to the gentle Anacreon and the tempestuous Pindar.
His versification seems to have had very little of his care; and if what he thinks be true, that
Which nature meant some tall ship's mast should be. his numbers are unmusical only when they are
Milton of Satan :
His spear, to equal which the tallest pine Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast Of some great admiral, were but a wand, He walked with.
His diction was in his own time censured as negligent. He seems not to have known, or not to have considered, that words being arbitrary must owe their power to association, and have the influence, and that only, which custom has given them. Language is the dress of thought: and as the noblest mien, or most graceful action, would be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rustics or mechanics; so the most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.
Truth indeed is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have an intrinsic and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual gold which defies destruction; but gold may be so concealed in baser matter, that only a chymist can recover it; sense may be so hidden in unrefined and plebeian words, that none but philosophers can distinguish it; and both may be so buried in impurities, as not to pay the cost of
The diction, being the vehicle of the thoughts, first presents itself to the intellectual eye: and
ill-read, the art of reading them is at present lost; for they are commonly harsh to modern
He has indeed many noble lines, such as the feeble care of Waller never could produce. The bulk of his thoughts sometimes swelled his verse to unexpected and inevitable grandeur; but his excellence of this kind is merely fortuitous: he sinks willingly down to his general carelessness, and avoids with very little care either meanness or asperity.
His contractions are often rugged and harsh :
One flings a mountain, and its rivers too
His rhymes are very often made by pronouns, or particles, or the like unimportant words, which disappoint the ear, and destroy the energy of the line.
His combination of different measures is sometimes dissonant and unpleasing; he joins verses together, of which the former does not slide easily into the latter.
The words do and did, which so much degrade in present estimation the line that admits them, were, in the time of Cowley, little censured or avoided: how often he used them, and with how bad an effect, at least to our ears, will appear by a passage in which every reader will lament to see just and noble thoughts defrauded of their praise by inelegance of language:
Who by resolves and vows engaged does stand,
o: The bondman of the cloister so,
1 All that he does receive does always owe.
And still as time comes in, it goes away, bu Not to enjoy but debts to pay!
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell!
Which his hour's work as well as hours does tell
His heroic lines are often formed of monosyllables; but yet they are sometimes sweet and sonorousfcia es arr. Hanze 1. execu9GET 112 He says of the Messiah,
Round the whole earth his dreaded name shall
And reach to worlds that must not yet be found.
Yet bid him go securely when he sends;
most part of hatsary to admonish the
it is not by negligence that this verse verse is so loose, long, and as it were, in the number the nature of
it is to
bsenhich is describes, which I would
in divers other p places of this poem, that else will pass for very careless verses: as before,
neither have our English poets observed it, for aught I can find. The Latins (qui Musas colunt severiores) sometimes did it; and their prince, Virgil, always: in whom the examples are innumerable, and taken notice of by all judicious men, so that it is superfluous to collect them.”
I know not whether he has, in many of these instances, attained the representation or resemblance that he purposes. Verse can imitate only sound and motion. A boundless verse, a headlong verse, and a verse of brass or of strong brass, seem to comprise very incongruous and unsociable ideas. What there is peculiar in the sound of the line expressing loose care, I cannot discover; nor why the pine is taller in an Alexandrine than in ten syllables.
But, not to defraud him of his due praise, he has given one example of representative versifi cation, which perhaps no other English line can equal:
Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise:
Cowley was, I believe, the first poet that mingled Alexandrines at pleasure with the common heroic of ten syllables; and from him Dryden borrowed the practice, whether ornamental or licentious. He considered the verse of twelve syllables as elevated and majestic, and has therefore deviated into that measure when he supposes the voice heard of the Supreme Being.
The author of the Davideis is commended by Dryden for having written it in couplets, because he discovered that any staff was too lyrical
the neighbouring fields with violent for an heroic poem; but this seems to have been
And over-runs the
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Of triplets in his Davideis he makes no use, and perhaps did not at first think them allowhis mind, for, in the verses on the government able; but he appears afterwards to have changed of Cromwell, he inserts them liberally with great happiness.
After so much criticism on his Poems, the Essays which accompany them must not be forgotten. What is said by Sprat of his conversation, that no man could draw from it any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may be applied