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“ I have been reading Gray's works, and think him sublime. * * * * I once thought Swift's letters the best that could be written, but I like Gray's better. His humour, or his wit, or whatever it is to be called, is never ill-natured or offensive, and yet I think equally poignant with the Dean's.”
The letters of Gray are admirable, but they appear to me not equal to those of Cowper, either in the graces of simplicity, or in the warmth of affection.
The very sweet stanzas that he has written on Friendship, would be alone sufficient to prove, that his heart and spirit were most tenderly alive to all the duties, and all the delights, of that inestimable connexion. He was indeed such a friend himself, as the voice of wisdom describes, in calling a true friend, “The Medicine of Life: and though misfortune precluded him, in his early days, from the enjoyments of connubial love, and of professional prosperity, he may be esteemed as singularly happy in this very important consolatory privilege of human existence; particularly in his friendships with that finer part of the creation, whose sensibility makes them most able to ., relish, or to call forth the powers of diffident genius, and to alleviate the pressure of mental affliction. It may be questioned, if any poet, on the records of Parnassus, ever enjoyed a confidential intimacy, as Cowper did, with a variety of accomplished women, maintaining at the same time consummate innocence of conduct.
Pre-eminent as he was, in warmth, and vigour of fancy and affection, the quickness and strength of his understanding were proportioned to the more perilous endowments of his mind. Though he had received from nature lively appetites and passions, his reason held them in the most steady and laudable subjection.
The only internal enemy of his peace and happiness, that his intellect could not subdue, was one tremendous idea, mysteriously impressed on his fervent imagination in a scene of bodily disorder, and at such periods recurring upon his mind with an overwhelming influence, which not all the admirable powers of his own innocent upright spirit, nor all the united aids of art and nature, were able to counteract.
Though he was sometimes subject to imaginary fears, he maintained, in his season of health, a most magnanimous reliance on the kindess of Heaven. This
sublime sentiment is forcibly and beautifully expresed in the following passage, extracted from his correspondence with Mr. Hill.
“ I suppose you are sometimes troubled on my account, but you need not, I have no doubt that it will be seen, when my days are closed, that I served a Master who would not suffer me to want any thing that was good for me. He said to Jacob, “ I will surely do thee good;"---and this he said not for his sake only, but for ours also, if we trust in him. This thought relieves me from the greatest part of the distress I should else suffer in my present circumstances, and enables 'me to sit down peacefully upon the wreck of my fortune.”
He also possessed, and exerted, that becoming fortitude, which teaches a man to support, under various trials, the sober respect that he owes to himself: Praise, however exalted, did not intoxicate him, and detraction was unable to poison his pure sense of his merit; so that he thus escaped an infirmity into which some great and good poets have fallen ; an infirmity, that was remarkable in Racine, and which I had once occasion to observe, and lament, in a very eminent departed author of our own country, who complained to me, that time had so far depressed his spirits, as to take from him all sense of pleasure in public praise, and yet left bim acute feelings of pain from public detraction.
Cowper possessed, in his original motives for appearing in the character of a poet, the best possible preservative against this double infelicity of mind,
His predominant desire was to render his poetry an instrument of good to mankind: his love of fame was a secondary passion, and like all his passions in perfect subjection to the great principles of religious duty, which he made the rule of his life. Yet he often lamented the ordinary malevolence of periodi. cal criticism, as a disgrace to literature. His sentiments on this subject appear in the following passage of a Letter to Mr. Johnson.
“ That extreme bitterness of censure, which I have so often observed in Reviews, and which nothing less than the immoral tendency of any work could at all justify, has frequently given me great disgust, and I doubt not that it has operated as a restraint, if not on the press, at least on the pen of many a modest man, as
certainly and effectually as any prohibitory law could have done."
He looked however, with a noble contempt on such malignity, when he saw it displayed against himself, and he pleased himself with the just idea that malice is sometimes so extravagant, as to produce an effect directly opposite to its own base intention. In speaking to the same correspondent on the various reviewers of his Homer, he expressed himself obliged by two of them, who had treated him with candour, the rest he thought, “ as incompetent as unmerciful—one in particular, is abusire, as I am told (says the poet) to a degree of malignity, that will rather serve me, than do me harm.”
It is evident from the tenor of his correspondence, that he had a lively, and a proper relish for praise, when justly and affectionately bestowed. The quickness, and the nicety of his feelings, on this delicate point, he has displayed in the following Letter to a lady (whose various talents he very highly esteemed) on receiving her poem, The Emigrants, addressed to him in a Dedication, most worthy of such a patron.