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Diffident as Cowper was by nature, though a poet, he wanted not the becoming resolution to defend his poetical opinions, when he felt them to be just; particularly on the structure of English verse, which he had examined with the eye of a master. As a proof of this resolution, I transcribe with pleasure, a passage from one of his earliest Letters to his bookseller, Mr. Johnson.
It happened that some accidental reviser of the manuscript, had taken the liberty to alter a line in a poem of Cowper's— this liberty drew from the offended poet, the following very just, and animated remonstrance, which I am anxious to preserve, because it elucidates with great felicity of expression, his deliberate ideas on English versification.
I did not write the line, that has been tampered with, hastily, or without due attention to the construction of it, and what appeared to me its only merit, is, in its present state, entirely annihilated.
. I know that the ears of modern verșe-writers are delicate to an excess, and their readers are troubled with the same squeamishness as themselves. So that if a line do not run as smooth as quicksilver, they are offended. A critic of the present day serves a poem as a cook serves a dead turkey, when she fastens the legs of it to a post, and draws out all the sinews. For this we may thank Pope, but unless we could imitate him in the closeness and compactness of his expression, as well as in the smoothness of his numbers, we had better drop the imitation, which serves no other purpose than to emasculate and weaken all we write. Give me a manly, rough line, with a deal of meaning in it, rather than a whole poem full of musical periods, that have nothing but their oily smoothness to reconimend them!
I have said thus much, as I hinted in the beginning, because I have just finished a much longer poem than the last, which our common friend will receive by the same messenger that has the charge of this letter. In that poem there are many lines, which an ear, so nice as the gentleman's who made the abovementioned alteration, would undoubtedly condemn, and yet (if I may be permitted to say it) they cannot be made smoother without being the worse for it. There is a roughness on a plum, which nobody that understands fruit would rub off, though the plum would be much more polished without it. But lest I tire you, I will only add, that I wish you to guard me
from all such meddling, assuring you, that I always write as smoothly as I can, but that I never did, never will, sacrifice the spirit or sense of a passage to the sound of it.”
In shewing with what proper spirit the poet could occasionally vindicate his own verse, let me observe, that although he frequently speaks in his Letters with humorous asperity concerning critics, no man could be more willing to receive, with becoming modesty and gratitude, the friendly assistance of just and temperate criticism. Some proofs of his humility, so laudable, if not uncommon, in poets of great powers, I shall seize this opportunity of producing in a few extracts from a series of the author's Letters to his bookseller.
Weston, Feb. 11, 1790. DEAR SIR,
I am very sensibly obliged by the remarks of Mr. Fuseli, and beg that you will tell him so; they afford me opportunities of improvement which I shall not neglect. When he shall see the press-copy, he will be convinced of this, and will be convinced likewise, that smart as he sometimes is,
he spares me often, when I have no mercy on myself. He will see almost a new translation. * * * I assure you faithfully, that whatever my faults may be, to be easily or liastily satisfied with what I have written is not one of them.
Sept. 7, 1790.
It grieves me, that after all, 1 am obliged to go into public without the whole advantage of Mr. Fuseli's judicious strictures. My only consolation is, that I have not forfeited them by my own impatience. Five years are no small portion of a man's life, especially at the latter end of it, and in those five years, being a man of alınost no engagements, I have done more in the way of hard work, than most could have done in twice the number. I beg you to present my compliments to Mr. Fuseli, with many and sincere thanks for the services that his own more important occupations would allow him to render me.
It is a singular spectacle for those who love to contemplate the progress of social arts, to observe a foreigner, who has raised himself to high rank in the arduous profession of a painter, correcting, and thanked for correcting, the chief poet of England, in his English version of Homer.
From the series of Letters now before me, I cannot resist the temptation of transcribing two more passages, because they display the disposition of Cowper in a very amiable point of view— the first relates to Mr. Newton--the second to Mr. Johnson himself.
Weston, Oct. 3, 1790.
Mr. Newton having again requested, that the preface, which he wrote for my first volume may be prefixed to it, I am desirous to gratify him in a particular, that so emphatically bespeaks his friendship for me; and sbould my books see another edition, shall be obliged to you if you will add it atcordingly.