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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Art Of Letters - 6. William Cowper
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The Art Of Letters - 6. William Cowper Post by :add2it Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :May 2012 Read :2890

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The Art Of Letters - 6. William Cowper

VI. WILLIAM COWPER

Cowper has the charm of littleness. His life and genius were on the miniature scale, though his tragedy was a burden for Atlas. He left several pictures of himself in his letters, all of which make one see him as a veritable Tom Thumb among Christians. He wrote, he tells us, at Olney, in "a summerhouse not much bigger than a sedan-chair." At an earlier date, when he was living at Huntingdon, he compared himself to "a Thames wherry in a world full of tempest and commotion," and congratulated himself on "the creek I have put into and the snugness it affords me." His very clothes suggested that he was the inhabitant of a plaything world. "Green and buff," he declared, "are colours in which I am oftener seen than in any others, and are become almost as natural to me as a parrot." "My thoughts," he informed the Rev. John Newton, "are clad in a sober livery, for the most part as grave as that of a bishop's servants"; but his body was dressed in parrot's colours, and his bald head was bagged or in a white cap. If he requested one of his friends to send him anything from town, it was usually some little thing, such as a "genteelish toothpick case," a handsome stock-buckle, a new hat--"not a round slouch, which I abhor, but a smart well-cocked fashionable affair"--or a cuckoo-clock. He seems to have shared Wordsworth's taste for the last of these. Are we not told that Wordsworth died as his favourite cuckoo-clock was striking noon? Cowper may almost be said, so far as his tastes and travels are concerned, to have lived in a cage. He never ventured outside England, and even of England he knew only a few of the southern counties. "I have lived much at Southampton," boasted at the age of sixty, "have slept and caught a sore throat at Lyndhurst, and have swum in the Bay of Weymouth." That was his grand tour. He made a journey to Eastham, near Chichester, about the time of this boast, and confessed that, as he drove with Mrs. Unwin over the downs by moonlight, "I indeed myself was a little daunted by the tremendous height of the Sussex hills in comparison of which all I had seen elsewhere are dwarfs." He went on a visit to some relations on the coast of Norfolk a few years later, and, writing to Lady Hesketh, lamented: "I shall never see Weston more. I have been tossed like a ball into a far country, from which there is no rebound for me." Who but the little recluse of a little world could think of Norfolk as a far country and shake with alarm before the "tremendous height" of the Sussex downs?

"We are strange creatures, my little friend," Cowper once wrote to Christopher Rowley; "everything that we do is in reality important, though half that we do seems to be push-pin." Here we see one of the main reasons of Cowper's eternal attractiveness. He played at push-pin during most of his life, but he did so in full consciousness of the background of doom. He trifled because he knew, if he did not trifle, he would go mad with thinking about Heaven and Hell. He sought in the infinitesimal a cure for the disease of brooding on the infinite. His distractions were those not of too light, but of too grave, a mind. If he picnicked with the ladies, it was in order to divert his thoughts from the wrath to come. He was gay, but on the edge of the precipice.

I do not mean to suggest that he had no natural inclination to trifling. Even in the days when he was studying law in the Temple he dined every Thursday with six of his old school-fellows at the Nonsense Club. His essays in Bonnell Thornton and Coleman's paper, _The Connoisseur_, written some time before he went mad and tried to hang himself in a garter, lead one to believe that, if it had not been for his breakdown, he might have equalled or surpassed Addison as a master of light prose. He was something of the traditional idle apprentice, indeed, during his first years in a solicitor's office, as we gather from the letter in which he reminds Lady Hesketh how he and Thurlow used to pass the time with her and her sister, Theodora, the object of his fruitless love. "There was I, and the future Lord Chancellor," he wrote, "constantly employed from morning to night in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law." Such was his life till the first attack of madness came at the age of thirty-two. He had already, it is true, on one occasion, felt an ominous shock as a schoolboy at Westminster, when a skull thrown up by a gravedigger at St. Margaret's rolled towards him and struck him on the leg. Again, in his chambers in the Middle Temple, he suffered for a time from religious melancholy, which he did his best to combat with the aid of the poems of George Herbert. Even at the age of twenty-three he told Robert Lloyd in a rhymed epistle that he "addressed the muse," not in order to show his genius or his wit,

But to divert a fierce banditti
(Sworn foe to everything that's witty)
That, in a black infernal train,
Make cruel inroads in my brain,
And daily threaten to drive thence
My little garrison of sense.


It was not till after his release from the St. Alban's madhouse in his thirties, however, that he began to build a little new world of pleasures on the ruins of the old. He now set himself of necessity to the task of creating a refuge within sight of the Cross, where he could live, in his brighter moments, a sort of Epicurean of evangelical piety. He was a damned soul that must occupy itself at all costs and not damn itself still deeper in the process. His round of recreation, it must be admitted, was for the most part such as would make the average modern pleasure-seeker quail worse than any inferno of miseries. Only a nature of peculiar sweetness could charm us from the atmosphere of endless sermons and hymns in which Cowper learned to be happy in the Unwins' Huntingdon home. Breakfast, he tells us, was between eight and nine. Then, "till eleven, we read either the Scripture, or the sermons of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries." Church was at eleven. After that he was at liberty to read, walk, ride, or work in the garden till the three o'clock dinner. Then to the garden, "where with Mrs. Unwin and her son I have generally the pleasure of religious conversation till tea-time." After tea came a four-mile walk, and "at night we read and converse, as before, till supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon; and last of all the family are called to prayers." In those days, it may be, evangelical religion had some of the attractions of a new discovery. Theories of religion were probably as exciting a theme of discussion in the age of Wesley as theories of art and literature in the age of cubism and _vers libre_. One has to remember this in order to be able to realize that, as Cowper said, "such a life as this is consistent with the utmost cheerfulness." He unquestionably found it so, and, when the Rev. Morley Unwin was killed as the result of a fall from his horse, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin moved to Olney in order to enjoy further evangelical companionship in the neighbourhood of the Rev. John Newton, the converted slave-trader, who was curate in that town. At Olney Cowper added at once to his terrors of Hell and to his amusements. For the terrors, Newton, who seems to have wielded the Gospel as fiercely as a slaver's whip, was largely responsible. He had earned a reputation for "preaching people mad," and Cowper, tortured with shyness, was even subjected to the ordeal of leading in prayer at gatherings of the faithful. Newton, however, was a man of tenderness, humour, and literary tastes, as well as of a somewhat savage piety. He was not only Cowper's tyrant, but Cowper's nurse, and, in setting Cowper to write the Olney Hymns, he gave a powerful impulse to a talent hitherto all but hidden. At the same time, when, as a result of the too merciless flagellation of his parishioners on the occasion of some Fifth of November revels, Newton was attacked by a mob and driven out of Olney, Cowper undoubtedly began to breathe more freely. Even under the eye of Newton, however, Cowper could enjoy his small pleasures, and we have an attractive picture of him feeding his eight pair of tame pigeons every morning on the gravel walk in the garden. He shared with Newton his amusements as well as his miseries. We find him in 1780 writing to the departed Newton to tell him of his recreations as an artist and gardener. "I draw," he said, "mountains, valleys, woods, and streams, and ducks, and dab-chicks." He represents himself in this lively letter as a Christian lover of baubles, rather to the disadvantage of lovers of baubles who are not Christians:

I delight in baubles, and know them to be so; for rested in, and
viewed without a reference to their author, what is the earth--what
are the planets--what is the sun itself but a bauble? Better for a
man never to have seen them, or to see them with the eyes of a
brute, stupid and unconscious of what he beholds, than not to be
able to say, "The Maker of all these wonders is my friend!" Their
eyes have never been opened to see that they are trifles; mine have
been, and will be till they are closed for ever. They think a fine
estate, a large conservatory, a hothouse rich as a West Indian
garden, things of consequence; visit them with pleasure, and muse
upon them with ten times more. I am pleased with a frame of four
lights, doubtful whether the few pines it contains will ever be
worth a farthing; amuse myself with a greenhouse which Lord Bute's
gardener could take upon his back, and walk away with; and when I
have paid it the accustomed visit, and watered it, and given it
air, I say to myself: "This is not mine, it is a plaything lent me
for the present; I must leave it soon."


In this and the following year we find him turning his thoughts more and more frequently to writing as a means of forgetting himself. "The necessity of amusement," he wrote to Mrs. Unwin's clergyman son, "makes me sometimes write verses; it made me a carpenter, a birdcage maker, a gardener; and has lately taught me to draw, and to draw too with ... surprising proficiency in the art, considering my total ignorance of it two months ago." His impulse towards writing verses, however, was an impulse of a playful fancy rather than of a burning imagination. "I have no more right to the name of poet," he once said, "than a maker of mouse-traps has to that of an engineer.... Such a talent in verse as mine is like a child's rattle--very entertaining to the trifler that uses it, and very disagreeable to all beside." "Alas," he wrote in another letter, "what can I do with my wit? I have not enough to do great things with, and these little things are so fugitive that, while a man catches at the subject, he is only filling his hand with smoke. I must do with it as I do with my linnet; I keep him for the most part in a cage, but now and then set open the door, that he may whisk about the room a little, and then shut him up again." It may be doubted whether, if subjects had not been imposed on him from without, he would have written much save in the vein of "dear Mat Prior's easy jingle" or the Latin trifles of Vincent Bourne, of whom Cowper said: "He can speak of a magpie or a cat in terms so exquisitely appropriated to the character he draws that one would suppose him animated by the spirit of the creature he describes."

Cowper was not to be allowed to write, except occasionally, on magpies and cats. Mrs. Unwin, who took a serious view of the poet's art, gave him as a subject _The Progress of Error_, and is thus mainly responsible for the now little-read volume of moral satires, with which he began his career as a poet at the age of fifty in 1782. It is not a book that can be read with unmixed, or even with much, delight. It seldom rises above a good man's rhetoric. Cowper, instead of writing about himself and his pets, and his cucumber-frames, wrote of the wicked world from which he had retired, and the vices of which he could not attack with that particularity that makes satire interesting. The satires are not exactly dull, but they are lacking in force, either of wit or of passion. They are hardly more than an expression of sentiment and opinion. The sentiments are usually sound--for Cowper was an honest lover of liberty and goodness--but even the cause of liberty is not likely to gain much from such a couplet as:

Man made for kings! those optics are but dim
That tell you so--say, rather, they for him.

Nor will the manners of the clergy benefit much as the result of such an attack on the "pleasant-Sunday-afternoon" kind of pastor as is contained in the lines:

If apostolic gravity be free
To play the fool on Sundays, why not we?
If he the tinkling harpsichord regards
As inoffensive, what offence in cards?


These, it must in fairness be said, are not examples of the best in the moral satires; but the latter is worth quoting as evidence of the way in which Cowper tried to use verse as the pulpit of a rather narrow creed. The satires are hardly more than denominational in their interest. They belong to the religious fashion of their time, and are interesting to us now only as the old clothes of eighteenth-century evangelicalism. The subject-matter is secular as well as religious, but the atmosphere almost always remains evangelical. The Rev. John Newton wrote a preface for the volume, suggesting this and claiming that the author "aims to communicate his own perceptions of the truth, beauty and influence of the religion of the Bible." The publisher became so alarmed at this advertisement of the piety of the book that he succeeded in suppressing it in the first edition. Cowper himself had enough worldly wisdom to wish to conceal his pious intentions from the first glance of the reader, and for this reason opened the book, not with _The Progress of Error_, but with the more attractively-named _Table Talk_. "My sole drift is to be useful," he told a relation, however. "... My readers will hardly have begun to laugh before they will be called upon to correct that levity, and peruse me with a more serious air." He informed Newton at the same time: "Thinking myself in a measure obliged to tickle, if I meant to please, I therefore affected a jocularity I did not feel." He also told Newton: "I am merry that I may decoy people into my company." On the other hand, Cowper did not write _John Gilpin which is certainly his masterpiece, in the mood of a man using wit as a decoy. He wrote it because it irresistibly demanded to be written. "I wonder," he once wrote to Newton, "that a sportive thought should ever knock at the door of my intellects, and still more that it should gain admittance. It is as if harlequin should intrude himself into the gloomy chamber where a corpse is deposited in state." Harlequin, luckily for us, took hold of his pen in _John Gilpin and in many of the letters. In the moral satires, harlequin is dressed in a sober suit and sent to a theological seminary. One cannot but feel that there is something incongruous in the boast of a wit and a poet that he had "found occasion towards the close of my last poem, called _Retirement_, to take some notice of the modern passion for seaside entertainments, and to direct the means by which they might be made useful as well as agreeable." This might serve well enough as a theme for a "letter to the editor" of _The Baptist Eye-opener_. One cannot imagine, however, its causing a flutter in the breast of even the meekest of the nine muses.

Cowper, to say truth, had the genius not of a poet but of a letter-writer. The interest of his verse is chiefly historical. He was a poet of the transition to Wordsworth and the revolutionists, and was a mouthpiece of his time. But he has left only a tiny quantity of memorable verse. Lamb has often been quoted in his favour. "I have," he wrote to Coleridge in 1796, "been reading _The Task with fresh delight. I am glad you love Cowper. I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton, but I would not call that man my friend who should be offended with the 'divine chit-chat of Cowper.'" Lamb, it should be remembered, was a youth of twenty-one when he wrote this, and Cowper's verse had still the attractions of early blossoms that herald the coming of spring. There is little in _The Task to make it worth reading to-day, except to the student of literary history. Like the Olney Hymns and the moral satires it was a poem written to order. Lady Austen, the vivacious widow who had meanwhile joined the Olney group, was anxious that Cowper should show what he could do in blank verse. He undertook to humour her if she would give him a subject. "Oh," she said, "you can never be in want of a subject; you can write upon any; write upon this sofa!" Cowper, in his more ambitious verse, seems seldom to have written under the compulsion of the subject as the great poets do. Even the noble lines _On the Loss of the Royal George were written, as he confessed, "by desire of Lady Austen, who wanted words to the March in _Scipio_." For this Lady Austen deserves the world's thanks, as she does for cheering him up in his low spirits with the story of John Gilpin. He did not write _John Gilpin by request, however. He was so delighted on hearing the story that he lay awake half the night laughing at it, and the next day he felt compelled to sit down and write it out as a ballad. "Strange as it may seem," he afterwards said of it, "the most ludicrous lines I ever wrote have been written in the saddest mood, and but for that saddest mood, perhaps, had never been written at all." "The grinners at _John Gilpin_," he said in another letter, "little dream what the author sometimes suffers. How I hated myself yesterday for having ever wrote it!" It was the publication of _The Task and _John Gilpin that made Cowper famous. It is not _The Task that keeps him famous to-day. There is, it seems to me, more of the divine fire in any half-dozen of his good letters than there is in the entire six books of _The Task_. One has only to read the argument at the top of the third book, called _The Garden_, in order to see in what a dreary didactic spirit it is written. Here is the argument in full:

Self-recollection and reproof--Address to domestic happiness--Some account of myself--The vanity of many of the pursuits which are accounted wise--Justification of my censures--Divine illumination necessary to the most expert philosopher--The question, what is truth? answered by other questions--Domestic happiness addressed again--Few lovers of the country--My tame hare--Occupations of a retired gentleman in the garden--Pruning--Framing--Greenhouse--Sowing of flower-seeds--The country preferable to the town even in the winter--Reasons why it is deserted at that season--Ruinous effects of gaming and of expensive improvement--Book concludes with an apostrophe to the metropolis.

It is true that, in the intervals of addresses to domestic happiness and apostrophes to the metropolis, there is plenty of room here for Virgilian verse if Cowper had had the genius for it. Unfortunately, when he writes about his garden, he too often writes about it as prosaically as a contributor to a gardening paper. His description of the making of a hot frame is merely a blank-verse paraphrase of the commonest prose. First, he tells us:

The stable yields a stercoraceous heap,
Impregnated with quick fermenting salts,
And potent to resist the freezing blast;
For, ere the beech and elm have cast their leaf,
Deciduous, when now November dark
Checks vegetation in the torpid plant,
Expos'd to his cold breath, the task begins.
Warily therefore, and with prudent heed
He seeks a favour'd spot; that where he builds
Th' agglomerated pile his frame may front
The sun's meridian disk, and at the back
Enjoy close shelter, wall, or reeds, or hedge
Impervious to the wind.

Having further prepared the ground:

Th' uplifted frame, compact at every joint,
And overlaid with clear translucent glass,
He settles next upon the sloping mount,
Whose sharp declivity shoots off secure
From the dash'd pane the deluge as it falls.


The writing of blank verse puts the poet to the severest test, and Cowper does not survive the test. Had _The Task been written in couplets he might have been forced to sharpen his wit by the necessity of rhyme. As it is, he is merely ponderous--a snail of imagination labouring under a heavy shell of eloquence. In the fragment called _Yardley Oak he undoubtedly achieved something worthier of a distant disciple of Milton. But I do not think he was ever sufficiently preoccupied with poetry to be a good poet. He had even ceased to read poetry by the time he began in earnest to write it. "I reckon it," he wrote in 1781, "among my principal advantages, as a composer of verses, that I have not read an English poet these thirteen years, and but one these thirteen years." So mild was his interest in his contemporaries that he had never heard Collins's name till he read about him in Johnson's _Lives of the Poets_. Though descended from Donne--his mother was Anne Donne--he was apparently more interested in Churchill and Beattie than in him. His one great poetical master in English was Milton, Johnson's disparagement of whom he resented with amusing vehemence. He was probably the least bookish poet who had ever had a classical education. He described himself in a letter to the Rev. Walter Bagot, in his later years, as "a poor man who has but twenty books in the world, and two of them are your brother Chester's." The passages I have quoted give, no doubt, an exaggerated impression of Cowper's indifference to literature. His relish for such books as he enjoyed is proved in many of his letters. But he was incapable of such enthusiasm for the great things in literature as Keats showed, for instance, in his sonnet on Chapman's Homer. Though Cowper, disgusted with Pope, took the extreme step of translating Homer into English verse, he enjoyed even Homer only with certain evangelical reservations. "I should not have chosen to have been the original author of such a business," he declared, while he was translating the nineteenth book of the _Iliad_, "even though all the Nine had stood at my elbow. Time has wonderful effects. We admire that in an ancient for which we should send a modern bard to Bedlam." It is hardly to be wondered at that his translation of Homer has not survived, while his delightful translation of Vincent Bourne's _Jackdaw has.

Cowper's poetry, however, is to be praised, if for nothing else, because it played so great a part in giving the world a letter-writer of genius. It brought him one of the best of his correspondents, his cousin, Lady Hesketh, and it gave various other people a reason for keeping his letters. Had it not been for his fame as a poet his letters might never have been published, and we should have missed one of the most exquisite histories of small beer to be had outside the pages of Jane Austen. As a letter-writer he does not, I think, stand in the same rank as Horace Walpole and Charles Lamb. He has less wit and humour, and he mirrors less of the world. His letters, however, have an extraordinarily soothing charm. Cowper's occupations amuse one, while his nature delights one. His letters, like Lamb's, have a soul of goodness--not of mere virtue, but of goodness--and we know from his biography that in life he endured the severest test to which a good nature can be subjected. His treatment of Mrs. Unwin in the imbecile despotism of her old age was as fine in its way as Lamb's treatment of his sister. Mrs. Unwin, who had supported Cowper through so many dark and suicidal hours, afterwards became palsied and lost her mental faculties. "Her character," as Sir James Frazer writes in the introduction to his charming selection from the letters,(2) "underwent a great change, and she who for years had found all her happiness in ministering to her afflicted friend, and seemed to have no thought but for his welfare, now became querulous and exacting, forgetful of him and mindful, apparently, only of herself. Unable to move out of her chair without help, or to walk across the room unless supported by two people, her speech at times almost unintelligible, she deprived him of all his wonted exercises, both bodily and mental, as she did not choose that he should leave her for a moment, or even use a pen or a book, except when he read to her. To these demands he responded with all the devotion of gratitude and affection; he was assiduous in his attentions to her, but the strain told heavily on his strength." To know all this does not modify our opinion of Cowper's letters, except is so far as it strengthens it. It helps us, however, to explain to ourselves why we love them. We love them because, as surely as the writings of Shakespeare and Lamb, they are an expression of that sort of heroic gentleness which can endure the fires of the most devastating tragedy. Shakespeare finally revealed the strong sweetness of his nature in _The Tempest_. Many people are inclined to over-estimate _The Tempest as poetry simply because it gives them so precious a clue to the character of his genius, and makes clear once more that the grand source and material of poetry is the infinite tenderness of the human heart. Cowper's letters are a tiny thing beside Shakespeare's plays. But the same light falls on them. They have an eighteenth-century restraint, and freedom from emotionalism and gush. But behind their chronicle of trifles, their small fancies, their little vanities, one is aware of an intensely loving and lovable personality. Cowper's poem, _To Mary_, written to Mrs. Unwin in the days of her feebleness, is, to my mind, made commonplace by the odious reiteration of "my Mary!" at the end of every verse. Leave the "my Marys" out, however, and see how beautiful, as well as moving, a poem it becomes. Cowper was at one time on the point of marrying Mrs. Unwin, when an attack of madness prevented him. Later on Lady Austen apparently wished to marry him. He had an extraordinary gift for commanding the affections of those of both sexes who knew him. His friendship with the poet Hayley, then a rocket fallen to earth, towards the close of his life, reveals the lovableness of both men.

(2) _Letters of William Cowper_. Chosen and edited by J.G. Frazer. Two vols. Eversley Series. Macmillan. 12s. net.

If we love Cowper, then, it is not only because of his little world, but because of his greatness of soul that stands in contrast to it. He is like one of those tiny pools among the rocks, left behind by the deep waters of ocean and reflecting the blue height of the sky. His most trivial actions acquire a pathos from what we know of the _De Profundis that is behind them. When we read of the Olney household--"our snug parlour, one lady knitting, the other netting, and the gentleman winding worsted"--we feel that this marionette-show has some second and immortal significance. On another day, "one of the ladies has been playing a harpsichord, while I, with the other, have been playing at battledore and shuttlecock." It is a game of cherubs, though of cherubs slightly unfeathered as a result of belonging to the pious English upper-middle classes. The poet, inclined to be fat, whose chief occupation in winter is "to walk ten times in a day from the fireside to his cucumber frame and back again," is busy enough on a heavenly errand. With his pet hares, his goldfinches, his dog, his carpentry, his greenhouse--"Is not our greenhouse a cabinet of perfumes?"--his clergymen, his ladies, and his tasks, he is not only constantly amusing himself, but carrying on a secret battle, with all the terrors of Hell. He is, indeed, a pilgrim who struggles out of one slough of despond only to fall waist-deep into another. This strange creature who passed so much of his time writing such things as _Verses written at Bath on Finding the Heel of a Shoe, Ode to Apollo on an Ink-glass almost dried in the Sun, Lines sent with Two Cockscombs to Miss Green_, and _On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton's Bullfinch_, stumbled along under a load of woe and repentance as terrible as any of the sorrows that we read of in the great tragedies. The last of his original poems, _The Castaway_, is an image of his utter hopelessness. As he lay dying in 1880 he was asked how he felt. He replied, "I feel unutterable despair." To face damnation with the sweet unselfishness of William Cowper is a rare and saintly accomplishment. It gives him a place in the company of the beloved authors with men of far greater genius than himself--with Shakespeare and Lamb and Dickens.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch has, in one of his essays, expressed the opinion that of all the English poets "the one who, but for a stroke of madness, would have become our English Horace was William Cowper. He had the wit," he added, "with the underlying moral seriousness." As for the wit, I doubt it. Cowper had not the wit that inevitably hardens into "jewels five words long." Laboriously as he sought after perfection in his verse, he was never a master of the Horatian phrase. Such phrases of his--and there are not many of them--as have passed into the common speech flash neither with wit nor with wisdom. Take the best-known of them:

"The cups
That cheer but not inebriate;"

"God made the country and man made the town;"

"I am monarch of all I survey;"

"Regions Caesar never knew;" and

"England, with all thy faults, I love thee still!"

This is lead for gold. Horace, it is true, must be judged as something more than an inventor of golden tags. But no man can hope to succeed Horace unless his lines and phrases are of the kind that naturally pass into golden tags. This, I know, is a matter not only of style but of temper. But it is in temper as much as in style that Cowper differs from Horace. Horace mixed on easy terms with the world. He enjoyed the same pleasures; he paid his respects to the same duties. He was a man of the world above all other poets. Cowper was in comparison a man of the parlour. His sensibilities would, I fancy, have driven him into retreat, even if he had been neither mad nor pious. He was the very opposite of a worldling. He was, as he said of himself in his early thirties, "of a very singular temper, and very unlike all the men that I have ever conversed with." While claiming that he was not an absolute fool, he added: "If I was as fit for the next world as I am unfit for this--and God forbid I should speak it in vanity--I would not change conditions with any saint in Christendom." Had Horace lived in the eighteenth century he would almost certainly have been a Deist. Cowper was very nearly a Methodist. The difference, indeed, between them is fundamental. Horace was a pig, though a charming one; Cowper was a pigeon.

This being so, it seems to me a mistake to regard Cowper as a Horace _manque_, instead of being content with his miraculous achievement as a letter-writer. It may well be that his sufferings, so far from destroying his real genius, harrowed and fertilized the soil in which it grew. He unquestionably was more ambitious for his verse than for his prose. He wrote his letters without labour, while he was never weary of using the file on his poems. "To touch and retouch," he once wrote to the Rev. William Unwin, "is, though some writers boast of negligence, and others would be ashamed to show their foul copies, the secret of almost all good writing, especially in verse. I am never weary of it myself." Even if we count him only a middling poet, however, this does not mean that all his fastidiousness of composition was wasted. He acquired in the workshop of verse the style that stood him in such good stead in the field of familiar prose. It is because of this hard-won ease of style that readers of English will never grow weary of that epistolary autobiography in which he recounts his maniacal fear that his food has been poisoned; his open-eyed wonder at balloons; the story of his mouse; the cure of the distention of his stomach by Lady Hesketh's gingerbread; the pulling out of a tooth at the dinner-table unperceived by the other guests; his desire to thrash Dr. Johnson till his pension jingled in his pocket; and the mildly fascinated tastes to which he confesses in such a paragraph as:

I know no beast in England whose voice I do not account
musical save and except always the braying of an ass.
The notes of all our birds and fowls please me without
one exception. I should not indeed think of keeping a
goose in a cage, that I might hang him up in the parlour
for the sake of his melody, but a goose upon a common,
or in a farm-yard, is no bad performer.


Here he is no missfire rival of Horace or Milton or Prior, or any of the other poets. Here he has arrived at the perfection for which he was born. How much better he was fitted to be a letter-writer than a poet may be seen by anyone who compares his treatment of the same incidents in verse and in prose. There is, for instance, that charming letter about the escaped goldfinch, which is not spoiled for us even though we may take Blake's view of caged birds:

I have two goldfinches, which in the summer occupy the greenhouse. A few days since, being employed in cleaning out their cages, I placed that which I had in hand upon the table, while the other hung against the wall; the windows and the doors stood wide open. I went to fill the fountain at the pump, and on my return was not a little surprised to find a goldfinch sitting on the top of the cage I had been cleaning, and singing to and kissing the goldfinch within. I approached him, and he discovered no fear; still nearer, and he discovered none. I advanced my hand towards him, and he took no notice of it. I seized him, and supposed I had caught a new bird, but casting my eye upon the other cage perceived my mistake. Its inhabitant, during my absence, had contrived to find an opening, where the wire had been a little bent, and made no other use of the escape it afforded him, than to salute his friend, and to converse with him more intimately than he had done before. I returned him to his proper mansion, but in vain. In less than a minute he had thrust his little person through the aperture again, and again perched upon his neighbour's cage, kissing him, as at the first, and singing, as if transported with the fortunate adventure. I could not but respect such friendship, as for the sake of its gratification had twice declined an opportunity to be free, and consenting to their union, resolved that for the future one cage should hold them both. I am glad of such incidents; for at a pinch, and when I need entertainment, the versification of them serves to divert me....

Cowper's "versification" of the incident is vapid compared to this. The incident of the viper and the kittens again, which he "versified" in _The Colubriad_, is chronicled far more charmingly in the letters. His quiet prose gave him a vehicle for that intimacy of the heart and fancy which was the deepest need of his nature. He made a full confession of himself only to his friends. In one of his letters he compares himself, as he rises in the morning to "an infernal frog out of Acheron, covered with the ooze and mud of melancholy." In his most ambitious verse he is a frog trying to blow himself out into a bull. It is the frog in him, not the intended bull, that makes friends with us to-day.

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