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be assigned to Cowper as a poet, I am persuaded they would address him to this effect.--" We are proud to receive you as a brother, because, if the form of your composition is different from ours, you are certainly equal to the noblest of our fraternity in the scope and effect of your verse. You are so truly a poet by the munificence of nature, that she seems to have given you an exclusive faculty (resembling the fabulous faculty of Midas relating to gold, though given to you for beneficial purposes alone) the faculty of turning whatever you touch, to a fit subject for poetry: you are the poet of familiar life; but you paint it with such felicity of design and execution, that as long as verse is valued upon earth, as a vehicle of instruction and delight, you must, and ought to be revered and beloved, as pre-eminently instructive and delightful—by having accomplished, with equal felicity, the two great and arduous objects of your art, you have deserved to be the most popular of poets.”
Such, I apprehend, would be the praise, which all the perfect judges of his poetry, could they be selected from every age, past, present, and future, would unanimously bestow on the genius of Cowper. Yet the Task, though taken altogether, it is perhaps
the most attractive poem that was ever produced, and such as required the rarest assemblage of truly poetical powers for its production, bears like every work from a human hand, that certain mark of a mortal agent-Defect. Even the partiality of friendship must allow, that the Task has its blemishes, and the greatest of them is that tone of asperity in reproof, which I am persuaded its gentle and benevolent author caught unconsciously from his frequent perusal of the prophets. The severe invective against the commemoration of Handel is the most striking instance of the asperity to which I allude, and it awakened the displeasure of a poetical lady, whose displeasure Cowper of all men would have been most truly sorry to have excited, had he been as well acquainted with the charms of her conversation, as he was with her literary talents.
Cowper's eminent contemporary, the favourite poet of Scotland, seems to have felt with fraternal sensibility, both the beauties, and the blemishes of this most celebrated work.
“Is not the Task a glorious poem ? (says Burns, in one of his letters to his accomplished and generous friend, Mrs. Dunlop) the religion of the Task, bating a few scraps of Calvinistic divinity, is
the religion of God and nature, the religion that exalts, that ennobles man!"
Though Cowper occasionally caught a certain air of Calvinistic austerity, he had not a particle of Calvin's intolerance in his heart. He could never have occasioned the cruel death of a Servetus. Indulgence and good-nature were the poet's predominant qualities, and their influence was such, that although his extraordinary talents for satire threw perpetual temptation in his way, he declined the temptation: he chose to be not a satirist, but a monitor, “ Vitæ sanctitas summa, comitas par; insectatur vitia non homines.” He wisely observed, that the most dignified satarists are little better than mere beadles of Parnassus. He considered satire rather as the bane, than the glory, both of Dryden and of Pope: in truth, though many an upright man has, in a fit of honest moral indignation, begun to write satire in a persuasion that such works would benefit the world, and do honour to himself, yet even satirists of this higher order have generally found, that they did little more than gratify the common malignity of the world, and suffer angry and blind prejudice, and passions, to insinuate themselves imperceptibly into their nobler purposes, disfiguring their works, and disquiet
ing their lives. Such perhaps was the natural train of reflection that suggested to Boileau the admirable verse, in which he feelingly and candidly condemns the path he had himself pursued.
“ C'est un mauvais metier que celui de medire."
Cowper felt the truth of this maxim so forcibly, that in his poem on Charity he has turned the sharpest weapons of satire against the satirists themselves,
Their acrid temper turns, as soon as stirr’d,
These lines are alone sufficient to prove that Cowper could occasionally assume the utmost severity of invective; yet nature formed him to delight in exhortation, more than in reproof; and hence he justly describes himself in his true monitory character in the verses that very sweetly terminate his instructive poem on Retirement.
Content, if thus sequester’d, I may raise
When a poet has so nobly entitled himself to the esteem and affection of his readers, the most fastidious of them can hardly be inclined to censure him as an egotist, if he takes more than one occasion to draw his own portrait. Few passages in Horace are read with more pleasure, than the verses in which he gives a cirsumstantial account of himself. This reflection induces me to add a few lines from the Task, in which the poet has delineated his own situation exactly in that point of view, which must be most pleasing to those who most feel an interest in his
The more we have sympathized in his amictions, the more we may rejoice in recollecting that he had seasons of felicity, which he, in some measure makes our own by the delightful fidelity of his description.
Had I the choice of sublunary good,