« PreviousContinue »
Nor was his feeling the cool, intellectual appreciation that is commonly given to Milton to-day, but a warm, personal devotion that led him even at sixty to burst out: "I would beat Warton if he were living, for supposing that Milton ever repented of his compliment to the memory of Bishop Andrews. I neither do, nor can, nor will believe it. Milton's mind could not be narrowed by any thing." He was still more incensed by the harsh treatment his favorite received at Johnson's hands. "Oh! I could thresh his old jacket," he raged, "till I made his pension jingle in his pocket," 2-strong words for an author of the Olney Hymns. "I abominate Nat. Lee," he wrote to Hayley, "for his unjust compliment to Dryden so much at the expense of a much greater poet." He even dreamed of meeting his "idol" and being graciously received by him. Such a strong, personal admiration was due in no small degree to the religious character of Paradise Lost and the lofty principles and noble life of its author. Even some of the defects of what he termed "the finest poem in the world," - its narrow Puritanism, its literal interpretation of the Bible, and its Hebraic conception of God, probably seemed to him virtues.
Cowper's devotion was lifelong.
Beginning at fourteen, it gave birth to the first of his poems that has been preserved; and when the shades of melancholy settled over him never again to rise they found him editing and dreaming of his favorite poet. Between the two periods is scattered many a Miltonic item. The well-known hymn, 'Jesus, where'er thy people meet," which appeared in his first volume, Olney Hymns (1779), contains a line,
And bring all heaven before our eyes,
taken with the change of only a pronoun from Penseroso. The next year came his Latin translations of a simile from Paradise Lost," and of Dryden's couplets on Milton (a modified form of these couplets he afterwards introduced into his Table Talk); and three years later followed his tribute in The Task,
1 Letter to Walter Bagot, Oct. 25, 1791.
2 See letters to Unwin, Oct. 31, 1779, and March 21, 1784; to Walter Bagot, May 2, 1791 (in which Johnson is threatened with "another slap or two"); to William Hayley, May 1, 1792 ("Oh that Johnson! how does every page of his on the subject [Milton], ay, almost every paragraph, kindle my indignation!"), and Oct. 13, 1792.
Letter to Hayley, Feb. 24, 1793.
3 Nov. 25, 1792.
• See his letter to Unwin, June 8, 1780; cf. P. L., ii. 488 ff.
Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
Milton, whose genius had angelic wings,
In 1790 the supposed disinterment of Milton's body called from his pen some "Stanzas," two of which are translated from Milton's Mansus.2 The following year appeared the preface to his Homer, containing, along with a number of other references, the words, "So long as Milton's works, whether his prose or his verse, shall exist, so long there will be abundant proof that no subject, however important, however sublime, can demand greater force of expression than is within the compass of the English language;" and six months later he wrote to a friend, "My veneration for our great countryman is equal to what I feel for the Grecian; and consequently I am happy, and feel myself honourably employed whatever I do for Milton. I am now translating his Epitaphium Damonis, a pastoral in my judgment equal to any of Virgil's Bucolics." 3 The translation he refers to was part of a new edition of Milton, for which he was to turn the Latin and Italian poems into English and furnish notes. Through this work he came to know Milton's biographer, William Hayley, with whom he translated the Adamo of Andreini, a poem important only because of its possible influence on Paradise Lost; and he was engaged upon the editing when his dreaded melancholia and hallucinations returned for the last time. Thus from youth to old age there were never many months when he was not occupied in parodying or praising or translating or imitating or editing "this first of poets." 4
The earliest work of Cowper's that we have is a travesty of Paradise Lost which was probably struck in the mint of the Splendid Shilling:
For neither meed
Of early breakfast, to dispel the fumes
Nor noontide feast, nor evening's cool repast,
Hopes she from this, presumptuous, though perhaps
Strange to say, his masterpiece, The Task, was also begun as a kind of parody on Milton's epic. "The Sofa," which Lady Austen had jestingly proposed to him as a subject, could hardly be the theme of a serious poem; yet he seems to have thought that he might do
? Lines 91-3.
1 iii. 255-6.
'To James Hurdis, Dec. 10, 1791.
'Letter to Hurdis, Nov. 24, 1793.
› Verses written in his 17th year, on Finding the Heel of a Shoe (1748), 4−9.
something amusing by handling it in the involved and dignified style of Paradise Lost. The beginning of The Task certainly recalls passages in Milton's two long poems:
I sing the Sofa. I who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
This appears to be an adaptation of the opening lines of Paradise Regained,
I, who erewhile the happy Garden sung
with a jocose reference to the "advent'rous song" and to another famous passage in Paradise Lost,
Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,
Escaped the Stygian pool, though long detain'd.1
A little farther on, in the humorous description of the evolution of the chair,
With here and there a tuft of crimson yarn,
If cushion might be called what harder seemed
the last line seems to parody the language in which Milton pictures Death,
The other Shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none.3
There can be no question of the parody in the following passage:
The nurse sleeps sweetly, hired to watch the sick,
Who quits the coach-box at the midnight hour
1 P. L., i. 13, iii. 13-14.
2 Task, i. 53-5.
3 P. L., ii. 666–7, and cf. i. 227-8. Possibly "as yet black breeches were not" (Task, i. 10) was intended to recall Milton's "as yet this world was not" (P. L., v. 577).
♦ Task, i. 89–102. Compare Eve's words to Adam, "Sweet is the breath of Morn,"
The burlesque is not continued beyond these lines, and reappears but once, in the third book, in a good-natured parody of Philips or Thomson.1 For, after a hundred lines of jesting, the poet slips off the sofa for a walk, and rambles on till the work that started upon "any subject" comes to include almost every subject, and the sofa is forgotten.
Cowper's enthusiasm for Paradise Lost inevitably made itself felt in his blank verse; yet Milton exerted less influence on The Task than on the work of many men-Thomson, for instance-who cared less for him. For this there are several reasons. In the first place, Cowper's native abilities and inclinations did not lie in stately periods but in easy, flowing, conversational verse, in the description not of sublime but of domestic scenes. The qualities that give charm to his poetry are those which made him a delightful letter-writer and by no means those which produced the lofty and austere beauties of Paradise Lost. These natural aptitudes, furthermore, he had developed in the volume of rimed poems he had just published, the first of which is, characteristically enough, called Table Talk. Then, too, a work undertaken to please a sprightly lady and dispel its author's gloom, a work which deals with tame hares, tea-drinking, wintermorning walks, and the pleasures of the garden and the fireside, is hardly one to employ the style and diction consecrated to the rebellion of archangels. To be sure, Philips, Grainger, and even Thomson had used the stately periods of Paradise Lost in the treatment of lowly themes; but Cowper's finer taste and far more delicate literary feeling would never have permitted the enormities these men were guilty of. Such topics as liberty, religion, war, and slavery, with which the poem has much to do, might properly enough have been discussed in a Miltonic style if the tone of the poem had not been fixed by the quiet pictures of nature and the homely subjects that receive most of the attention, and if Cowper had not preferred to treat even weighty matters in an incidental, conversational manner rather than with the formality required by a loftier strain.
For these reasons it is not surprising that The Task contains many passages like the following, which show no influence from Paradise Lost:
etc., "But neither breath of Morn.. nor rising Sun . nor grateful Evening... without thee is sweet" (P. L., iv. 641-56). Other passages in Cowper that seem to be derived from Milton are noted in Appendix A, below. In lines 14-16 of Yardley Oak there is a reference to Paradise Lost, ix. 1084-1100; and in a letter to Lady Hesketh, Oct. 13, 1798, there is one to Milton's sonnet on his blindness.
1 iii. 446-543 (directions for raising cucumbers).
He is the happy man, whose life even now
Verse so easy and flowing, so natural and conversational as this, is rare even near the end of the eighteenth century. It anticipates Wordsworth, and seems to belong to an entirely different age from that which produced Leonidas, the Sugar-Cane, and The Fleece. With Cowper, indeed, we reach the most supple blank verse, the kind best adapted to the ordinary uses of poetry, that was written before Tintern Abbey and Michael.2
Although the passage just quoted is typical of much of The Task, rarely are so many consecutive lines free from any suggestion of Paradise Lost. Ordinarily in this poem, as in the Night Thoughts, one or another feature of Milton's style or diction occurs in almost every paragraph. Yet such characteristics do not usually become marked throughout a number of consecutive lines, but only in short passages like these:
Hard fare! but such as boyish appetite,
Ocean . . . invades the shore
Upridged so high, and sent on such a charge,
That pressed the beach, and hasty to depart
Immortal Hale! for deep discernment praised,
Those Ausonia claims,
1 vi. 906–14.
? Besides making blank verse more supple and flowing, Cowper, like Young, helped to give it some of the epigrammatic crispness of the couplet.