Page images

which he evidently puts forth with fear and trembling, as likely to cast a damp upon the interest of his work,—is precisely that in which we find its chief value to consist; and we fully anticipate that this will be the case with respect to many other readers besides ourselves—though certainly not to the majority. Those who have been accustomed to take a deep interest in the melancholy fate of Cowper, and who yet feel that they have not hitherto been able to penetrate into the real causes of that fate, will be likely to exclaim, on reading the passage 'which contains the above announcement :- Now, then, we shall probably be able to 'pluck out the heart of poor Cowper's mystery! It cannot be but that mystery is developed somewhere or other in the course of his private letters; for whatever his poems might be, his letters were evidently the effusions, not of his pen but his heart : and here are those which have been hitherto suppressed by the person whose object, perhaps whose duty, it was to give to the world nothing but what might prove creditable to the memory of the poet, and agreeable to his surviving friends. We shall surely find something here, then, which will prove to us that it was not in Cowper's own heart that were engendered those monstrous and degrading notions of God, and Man, and Nature, which shattered his intellect and blasted his peace; or, at all events, that if they were engendered there, it was not there that they found the foul materials on which they fed, and grew, and fourished !" We do not conceive that it falls within our province to determine, for the readers in question, whether they will find what they seek; especially as they are likely to be as well qualified as we are to make the decision for themselves on perusing the work. And in fact without perusing it, or at least all those various portions of it which bear upon the point, they would not be entitled to make any decision at all; and it does not consist with our plan to lay those passages

before them. But we may, perhaps, be allowed to say to those readers, (addressing them, not as critics, but as individuals deeply interested like themselves in a question no less important as a moral enquiry than affecting as an instance of human suffering,) that we have searched the work before us in the spirit in which we have supposed that they will search it, and that, for ourselves, we have found what we sought! And we will add, that the discovery has given us more sincere, though not unmingled delight, than any thing else of the kind that we remember to have met with.

But we are perhaps treating of this work with too exclusive a reference to what are likely to be the views and feelings of a few readers respecting it. Passing over the remainder of the editor's Preface, therefore, - which does not claim particular attention, either on account of its style or matter,- let us examine the work with a view to its general character, as a collection of letters from the pen of a favourite poet, and an amiable and accomplished man. We shall take a cursory glance at the general contents of the two volumes, omitting for the present all farther allusion to those particular portions of it to which we have referred in the beginning of this paper. But if our space will permit us, we shall probably again recur for a moment to that part of the subject.

The first volume commences with several short, but most agreeable letters to Mr. Joseph Hill, of the Temple; the only male friend,

as you

upon your back.

except Hayley, not decidedly devoted to religious pursuits, with whom Cowper kept up any connexion or correspondence after his retirement into the country- Some of these letters are delightful specimens of that easy gaiety of heart which, notwithstanding all the adventitious gloom with which it was so fatally blended, was, after all, the only natural turn of Cowper's disposition. There are many others throughout the volumes addressed to the same person, and of the same character. For the sake of variety, however, we shall extract as we go. Was there ever seen so graceful a mode of asking for a remittance, as the following short note presents ?

By this time, I presume, you are returned to the precincts of the law. The latter end of October, 1 'know, generally puts an end to your relaxalions, such as reading upon sunshiny banks, and contemplating the clouds;

lie “ Permit it to be one of the aliena negotia centum, which are now beginning to buzz in your ears, to send me a twenty pound note by the first opportunity. I beg my affectionate respects to my friends in Cook’s-court.”

Here is another equally short, and interesting from the literary opinions it includes. One of those opinions will sound a little startling to the admirers of Milton.

“ I have been reading Gray's Works, and think him the only poet since Shakspeare entitled to the character of sublime. Perhaps you will remember that I once had a different opinion of him. I was prejudiced. He did not belong to our Thursday society, and was an Eton man, which lowered him prodigiously in our esteem. “I once thought Swift's Letters the best

that could be written; but I like Gray's better. His humour, or his wit, or 1. whatever it is to be called, is never ill-natured or offensive, and yet, I think, equally poignant with the Dean's.”

There is something very touching in the following reflections on Mr. Newton's quitting Olney; and they are expressed with a sweet simplicity :

“ You have observed in common conversation, that the man who coughs the oftenest, (I mean if he has not a cold) does it because he has nothing to say. Even so it is in letter-writing: a long preface such as mine, is an ugly symptom, and always forebodes great sterility in the following pages.,

" The vicarage-house became a melancholy object, as soon as Mr. Newton had left it; when you left it, it became more melancholy: now it is actually occupied by another family, even I cannot look at it without being shocked. As I'walked in the garden this evening, I saw the smoke issue from the study chimney, and said to myself, That used to be a sign that Mr. Newton was there ; but it is so no longer. The walls of the house know nothing of the change that has taken place; the bolt of the chamber-door sounds just as it used to do; and when Mr. P- goes upstairs, for aught I know, or ever shall know, the fall of his foot could hardly, perhaps, be distinguished from that of Mr. Newton. But Mr. Newton's foot will never be heard upon that staircase again. These reflections, and such as these, occurred to me upon the occasion ;

If I were in a condition to leave Olney too, I certainly would not stay in it. It is no attachment to the place that binds me here, but an unfitness for every other. I lived in it once, but now I am buried in it, and have no business with the world on the outside of my sepulchre : my appearance would startle them, and theirs would be shocking to me.”

The first part of the following is admirably expressed. It seems to refer to a solicitation which he had received from his friend Mr. Newton, to reply to some pamphlet which had just appeared on a religious controversy in which his friend was engaged. But we give the extract chiefly on account of the last passage, which is full of a wild pathos that is affecting in the highest degree.

“If I had strength of mind, I have not strength of body for the task which, you say, some would impose upon me. I cannot bear much thinking: The meshes of that fine net-work, the brain, are composed of such mere spinners' threads in me, that when a long thought finds its way into them, it buzzes, and twangs, and bustles about at such a rate as seems to threaten the whole contexture.-No-I must needs refer it again to you.

.“ My enigma will probably find you out, and you will find out my enigma, at some future time. I am not in a humour to transcribe it now. Indeed I wonder 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. His antic gesticulations would be unseasonable at any rate, but more especially so if they should distort the features of the mournful attendants into laughter. But the mind long wearied with the sameness of a dull, dreary prospect, will gladly fix its eyes on any thing that may make a little variety in its contemplations, though it were but a kitten playing with her tail.”

The following passages are exceedingly interesting : one on account of the insight it gives us into the use to which the poet applied bis art; and the other, as explaining his own views on one of his principal works :

“ At this season of the year, and in this gloomy uncomfortable climate, it is no easy matter for the owner of a mind like inine, to divert it from sad subjects, and fix it upon such as may adıninister to its amusement. Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect. While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget every thing that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again."

“ I send you Tuble Talk. It is a medley of many things, some that may be useful, and some that, for aught I know, may be very diverting. I am merry that I may decoy people into my company, and grave that they may be the better for it. Now and then I put on the garb of a philosopher, and iake the opportunity that disguise procures me, to drop a word in favour of religion.' 'In short, there is sone froth, and here and there a bit of sweetmeat, which seems to entitle it justly to the name of a certain dish the ladies call a trifle. I did not choose to be more facetious, lest I should consult the taste of my readers at the expense of my own approbation ; por more serious than I hare been, lest I should forfeit theirs. A poet in my circumstances has a difficult part to act: One minute obliged to bridle his humour, if he has any, and the next, to clap a spur to the sides of it: Now ready to weep from a sense of the importance of his subject, and on a sudden constrained to laugh, lest his gravity should be mistaken for dulness. If this be not violent exercise for the mind, I know not what is ; and if any man doubt it, let him try. Whether all this management and contrivance be necessary, I do not know, but am inclined to suspect that if my Muse was to go forth clad in Quaker colour, without one bit of ribband to enliven her appearance, she might walk from one end of London to the other, as little noticed as if she were one of the sisterhood indeed.”

Here is another passage similar to one of the preceding :

" If a Board of Enquiry were to be established, at which poets were to undergo an examination respecting the motives that induced them to publish, and I were to be summoned to attend, that I might give an account of mine, I think I could truly say, what perhaps few poets could, that though I have no objection to lucrative consequences, if any such should follow, they are not my aim; much less is it my ambition to exhibit myself to the world as a genius. What then, says Mr. President, can possibly be your motive? I answer with a bow-Ainusement. There is nothing but this—no occupation within the compass of my small sphere, Poetry excepted-that can do much towards diverting that train of melancholy thoughts, which, when I am not thus employed, are for ever pouring themselves in upon me. And if I did not pubJish what I write, I could not interest myself sufficiently in my own success, to make an amusement of it."

We have hinted that Cowper's natural disposition was of a joyous character. It was so to a pitch of boyishness. He was, in fact, as pure and innocent as a child, and might have been as happy-sporting away his pleasant hours like a bird. How he delighted to make little riddles, and send them to his friends, and listen to their wrong solutions of them, and then send them the right! We have several instances of this in these volumes, and most affecting ones they are, occurring as they do in the midst of a gloom deep and deadly as that of the grave! Here follows one. He had sent his friend a cucumber, telling him that it was one “ of my raising, but not raised by me.”

“ It is worth while to-send you a riddle, you make such a variety of guesses, and turn and tumble it about with such an industrious curiosity. The solution of that in question is-let me see ; it requires some consideration to explain it, even though I made it. I raised the seed that produced the plant that produced the fruit, that produced the seed that produced the fruit l' sent you. This latter seed I gave to the gardener of Terningham, who brought me the cucumber you mention. Thus you see I raised i-that is to say, I raised it virtually by having raised its progenitor ; and yet I did not raise it, because the identical seed from which it grew was raised at a distance. You observe I did not speak rashly, when I spoke of it as dark enough to pose an Edipus; and have no need to call your own sagacity in question for falling short of the discovery."

We extract the following short passage for the purpose of pointing out the singular mixture which it presents, even within the same paragraph, of the adventitious, or perhaps we should say, the habitual, and the natural. The change from the one to the other, at the last clause, is striking.

“ Though much obliged to you for the favour of your last, and ready enough to acknowledge the debt, the present, however, is not a day in whicho i should have chosen to pay it. A dejection of mind, which perhaps may be removed by to-morrow, rather disqualifies me for writing,-a business I would always perform in good spirits, because inelancholy is catching, especially where there is much synpathy to assist the contagion. But certain poultry, which I understand are about to pay their respects to you, have advertised for an agrecable companion, and I find myself obliged to embrace the opportunity of going to town with them in that capacity.”

The following is very pleasant and natural, and the style of it is the perfection of easy simplicity. The occasion was that of having just converted a little summer-house in his garden into a writing-room.

“ It is an observation that naturally occurs upon the occasion, and which many other occasions furnish an opportunity to make, that people long for what they have not, and overlook the good in their possession. This is so true in the present instance, that for years past I should have thought myself happy to enjoy a retirement even less Aattering to my natural taste than this in which I am now writing; and have often looked wistfully at a snug cottage, which, on account of its situation at a distance from noise and disagreeable objects, seemed to promise me all I could wish or expect, so far as happiness may be said to be local; never once adverting to this comfortable nook, which affords me all that could be found in the most sequestered hermitage, with the advantage of having all those accommodations near at hand which no hermitage could possibly afford me. People imagine they should be happy in circumstances which they would find insupportably burthensome in less than a week. A man that has been clothed in fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, envies the peasant under a thatched hovel ; who, in return, envies him as much his palace and his pleasure-ground. Could they change situations, the fine gentleman would find his ceilings were too low, and that his caseinents admitted too much wind; that he had no cellar for his wine, and no wine to put in his cellar. These, with a thousand other. mortifying deficiencies, would shatter his romantic project into innumerable fragments in a moment. The clown, at the same time, would find the accession of so much unwieldy treasure an incumbrance quite incompatible with an hour's ease. His choice would be puzzled by variety. He would drink to excess, because he would foresee no end to his abundance; and he would eat himself sick for the same reason. He would have no idea of any other happiness than sensual gratification ; would make himself a beast, and die of his good fortune. The rich gentleman had, perhaps, or might have had, if he pleased, at the shortest notice, just such a recess as this ; but if he had it, he overlooked it, or, if he had it not, forgot that he might command it whenever he would. The rustic, too, was actually in possession of some blessings, which he was a fool to relinquish, but which he could neither see nor feel, because he had the daily and constant use of them ; such as good health, bodily strength, a head and a heart that never ached, and temperance, to the practice of which he was bound by necessity, that, humanly speaking, was a pledge and a security for the continuance of them all. “Thus I have sent you a school-boy's theme.”

The following is another singular compound of gloom and humour. It would be worth extracting, if it were only for the capital simile about the riot-act.

“ I do not at all doubt the truth of what you say, when you complain of that crowd of trifling thoughts that pesters you without ceasing; but then you always have a serious thought standing at the door of your imagination, like a justice of peace with the riot-act in his hand, ready to read it, and disperse the mob. Here lies the difference between you and me.

My thoughts are clad in a sober livery, for the most part as grave as that of a bishop's servants. They turn too upon spiritual subjects, but the tallest fellow and the loudest amongst them all, is he who is continually crying with a loud voice, Actum est de te, periisti. You wish for more attention, 1 for less. Dissipation itself would be welcome to me, so it were not a vicious one ; but however earnestly invited, it is coy, and keeps at a distance. Yet with all this distressing gloom upon my mind, I experience, as you do, the slipperiness of the present hour, and the rapidity with which time escapes me. Every thing around us, and every thing that befalls us, constitutes a variety, which, whether agreeable or otherwise, has still a thievish propensity, and steals from VOL. X. NO. XXXVII.


« PreviousContinue »