Obrazy na stronie
PDF
ePub

in the days of Charles. And, it has been observed, that the king could forgive Rochester a pasquinade, but not Cowley 4 solemn ode, on this peculiar topic. The regicidal name of Brutus could not but have been obnoxious at court; and there is something both to be explained in the motive of Cowley for celebrating such a name, and for adopting such language as he chose to employ on the occasion :

66 Excellent Brutus ; of all human race

The best, till nature was improv'd by grace."

*

*

“ Ingrateful Brutus do they call ?

Ingrateful Cæsar who would Rome enthrall ?"

*

or slain it, like Cæsar, tho' it be A conqueror and monarch mightier far than he.” These were not likely to be palatable couplets at, or after the Restoration. If any thing may be inferred from the juxta-position of this ode in Cowley's works, to the ode inscribed to Dr. Scarborough, Cowley's bail when placed under arrest by the usurping authorities, it is natural to surmise, that, written during his intimacy with Scarborough, the ode on Brutus was really, as has been alleged, a sop to Cerberus—an attempt to mollify and appease the parties into whose power the unhappy poet had fallen. D’Israeli tells us an anecdote on the subject : “ Cowley," says he, “ in an ode had commemorated the genius of Brutus, with all the enthusiasm of a votary of liberty. After the king's return, when Cowley solicited some reward for his sufferings and services in the royal cause, the chancellor is said to have turned on him with a severe countenance, saying, “Mr. Cowley, your pardon is your reward! The very source whence D’Israeli gleaned this story, viz. a book intituled “The Judgment of Dr. Prideaux, in condemning the murder of Julius Cæsar, by the conspirators, as a most villainous act, maintained, 1721," proves how much and how long the party topic of Brutus was contested.

If Cowley, through the accident of being once left alone in the country, with nothing to recreate or amuse him but a copy of the Odes of Pindar, carned, as Johnson has it, the glory of giving to our literature " the greater as well as the lesser Ode,” lie was certainly more unfortunate in his Pindaries than in any other of his productions, both as they affected contemporary advantage and posterior renown. We have reason, in fact, to conclude, that while “Brutus” interfered with, restrained, and retarded that hard-won meed of Royal bounty finally obtained for him by his friends, “ Destiny" and the “Complaint" have both been employed as false media, through which his feelings

have been viewed in a form and tone distorted from their native purity and simplicity. Nor was it long ere, even as mere literary compositions, Cowley's Pindarics toppled headlong from the pinnacle on which the partiality of his immediate admirers had placed them. Sheffield, the eccentric Duke of Buckinghamshire, whose “ Essay on Poctry” has been praised by Roscommon, Dryden, and Pope, has recorded the opinion of Cowley's Odes, prevalent at the beginning of the 18th century, in a poetical passage, which, in spite of English grammar, is not quite destitute either of point or periphrasis:

"A higher flight and of a happier force

Are odes, the muses' most unruly horse,
That bounds so fierce, the rider hath no rest,
But foams at mouth, and snorts like one possest!
The poct here may be indeed inspired-
With fury too as well as fancy fired!
COWLEY might boast to have perform'd this part,
Had he with nature joined the rules of art.
But ill expression gives sometimes allay
To noble thoughts, whose fame will nc'er decay,
Though all appear in heat and fury done;
The language still must soft and easy run.
These laws may sound a little too severe ;
But judgment yields, and fancy governs here,
Which, though extravagant, this muse allows,
And makes the work much easier than it shews.”

Sheffield: Essay on Poetry. Without some account of Cowley's attempted epic, the “DAVIDEIS,” our strictures would be imperfect. The four books of this work are the fragments of a design intended, after that conventionality in the epic, which lengthens it out to twelve books-similar to the conventionality in tragedy, which limits it to five acts-to have been in twelve books. Cowley's explication of his design, and apology for his undertaking, embodied in a preface from which we have already quoted, embraces much that is “ germain to the matter,” and again tempts us to extract a piece of the poet's admirable prose :

“ I now come to the last part, which is Davideis, or an Heroical Poem of the Troubles of David, which I designed into twelve books, not for the tribes' sake, but after the pattern of our master, Virgil, and intended to close all with that most poetical and excellent elegy of David's on the death of Saul and Jonathan ; for I had no mind to carry him quite on to his anointing at Hebron, because it is the custom of heroic poets (as we see by the examples of Homer and Virgil, whom we should do ill to forsake to imitate others) never to come to the full end of their story, but only so near that every one may sce it, as men commonly play not out the game, when it is evident that

they can win it, but lay down their cards, and take up what they have won. This I say was the whole design, in which there are many

noble and fertile arguments behind; as, the barbarous cruelty of Saul to the priests at Nob; the several flights and escapes of David, and his manner of living in the wilderness ; the funeral of Saul; the love of Abigail; the sacking of Ziglag; the loss and recovery of David's wives from the Amalekites; the witch of Endor; the war with the Philistines; and the battle of Gilboa : all which I meant to interweave, upon several occasions, with the most illustrious stories of the Old Testament, and to embellish with the most remarkable antiquities of the Jews, and of other nations before or at that age. But I have had neither leisure hitherto, nor have appetite at present, to finish the work, nor so much as to revise that part, which is done with that care which I resolved to bestow upon it, and which the dignity of the matter well deserves: for what worthier subject could have been chosen, among all the treasuries of past times, than the life of this young prince, who, from so small beginnings, through such infinite troubles and oppositions, by such miraculous virtues and excellencies, and with such incomparable variety of wonderful actions and accidents, became the greatest monarch that ever sat on the most famous throne of the whole earth? Whom should a poet more justly seek to honour than the highest person who ever honoured his profession? Whom a Christian poet, rather than the man after God's own heart, and the man who had that sacred pre-eminence above all other princes, to be the best and mightiest of that royal race from whence Christ himself, according to the flesh, disdained not to descend? When I consider this, and how many other bright and magnificent subjects of the like nature the Holy Scripture affords and proffers, as it were, to poesy, in the wise managing and illustrating whereof the glory of God Almighty might be joined with the singular utility and noblest delight of mankind, it is not without grief and indignation that I behold that divine science employing all her inexhaustible riches of wit and eloquence, either in the wicked and beggarly flattery of great persons, or the unmanly idolizing of foolish women, or the wretched affectation of scurril laughter, or at best, on the confused antiquated dreams of senseless fables and metamorphoses. Amongst all holy and consecrated things which the Devil ever stole, and alienated from the service of the Deity, as altars, temples, sacrifices, prayers, and the like, there is none that he so universally and solely usurped as poetry. It is time to recover it out of the tyrant's hands, and to restore it to the kingdom of God, who is the father of it. It is time to baptize it in Jordan, for it will never become clean by bathing in the water of Damascus. There wants, methinks, but the conversion of that, and the Jews, for the accomplishment of the kingdom of Christ: and as men, before their receiving of the faith, do not, without some carnal reluctances, apprehend the bonds and fetters of it, but find it afterwards to be the truest and greatest liberty, it will fare no otherwise with this art after the regeneration of it; it will meet with wonderful variety of new, more beautiful, and more

delightful objects; neither will it want room, by being confined to heaven. There is not so great a lie to be found in any poet, as the vulgar conceit of men, that lying is essential to good poetry. Were there never so wholesome nourishment to be had (but, alas! it breeds nothing but diseases) out of those boasted feasts of love and fables, yet, methinks the unalterable continuance of the diet should make us nauseate it; for it is almost impossible to serve up any new dish of that kind; they are all but the cold meats of the ancients, new-heated and new set forth. I do not at all wonder that the old poets made some rich crops out of those grounds; the heart of the soil was not then wrought out with continual tillage : but what can we expect now, who come a-gleaning, not after the first reapers, but after the very beggars ? Besides, though those mad stories of the gods and heroes seem in themselves so ridiculous, yet they were then the whole body (or rather chaos) of the theology of those times : they were believed by all but a few philosophers, and perhaps some atheists, and served to good purpose among the vulgar (as pitiful things as they are) in strengthening the authority of laws with the terrors of conscience, and expectation of certain rewards, and unavoidable punishments. There was no other religion, and therefore that was better than none at all: but to us, who have no need of them—to us, who deride their folly, and are wearied with their impertinency, they ought to appear no better arguments for verse than those of their worthy successors, the Knights errant. What can we imagine more proper for the ornaments of wit and learning, in the story of Deucalion, than in that of Noah? Why will not the actions of Samson afford as plentiful matter as the labours of Hercules? Why is not Jeptha's daughter as good a woman as Iphigenia ? and the friendship of David and Jonathan more worthy celebration than that of Theseus and Perithous? Does not the passage of Moses and the Israelites into the Holy Land yield incomparably more poetical variety than the yoyages of Ulysses or Æneas ? Are the obsolete threadbare tales of Thebes and Troy half so stored with great, heroical, and supernatural actions (since verse will needs find or make such) as the wars of Joshua, of the Judges, of David, and divers others ? Can all the transformations of the gods give such copious hints to flourish and expatiate on, as the true miracles of Christ, or of his prophets and apostles ? What do I instance in these few particulars ? All the books of the Bible are either already most admirable and exalted pieces of poesy, or are the best materials in the world for it. Yet, though they be in themselves so proper to be made use of for this purpose, none but a good artist will know how to do it: neither must we think to cut and polish diamonds with so little skill as we do marble ; for, if any man design to compose a sacred poem, by only turning a story of scripture, like Mr. Quarles's, or some other godly matter, like Mr. Heywood, of Angels, into rhyme, he is so far from elevating of poesy, that he only abuses divinity. In brief, he who can write a profane poem well, may write a divine poem better; but he who can do that but ill, will do this much worse. The same fer

tility of invention, the same wisdom of disposition, the same judgment in observance of decencies, the same lustre and vigour of elocution, the same modesty and majesty of number, briefly, the same kind of habit is required to both ; only this latter allows better stuff, and therefore would look more deformedly if ill-dressed in it. I am far from assuming to myself to have fulfilled the duty of this weighty undertaking; but sure I am that there is nothing yet in our language (nor perhaps in any) that is in any degree answerable to the idea that I conceive of it; and I shall be ambitious of no other fruit from this weak and imperfect attempt of mine, but the opening of a way to the courage and industry of some other persons who may be better able to perform it thoroughly and successfully."

This lengthened extract forms of itself an essay of no small importance, on a subject which yet presses upon the attention of Christian poets. Strange it is, that in the English language, there should yet be no department of poetry so deficient! For although Milton's sublime poems have come, through the criticisms of Addison and his successors, to be so universally appreciated, the machinery employed by the blind bard is still fraught so fully with the classical mythology, that his poems do not correspond to the idea of the purely sacred works contemplated by Cowley. Should lofty anticipations of Cowley's own success in sacred epic poetry follow upon this spirited argument in its favour; the Davideis, we fear, must be acknowledged to offer nothing short of disappointment. The measures are heroic, but the least stately of heroics. Absurdly enough in a poem professedly at antipodes with the profane model, while there seems no other reason for laying out the incompleted design into twelve books, than that such was also the length of Virgil's incompleted epic, even the opening of Virgil's Æneid, “ Arma virumque cano,” has proved irresistible to Cowley, who, accordingly, has miserably paraphrased it in the first line of the Davideis :

" I sing the man who Judah's sceptre bore.” Embarking with such a determined lack of originality, Cowley was still the school-boy copying closely from his models, and we may safely predict, that even had he prosecuted this design to a conclusion, he never would have produced a standard sacred poem. The Davideis is certainly built up after a fashion on a mass of Scripture references, of which great parade is made at the bottom of every page; but the general character of David could not well be realized by any feeble assemblage of minute touches, gathered under a combined anxiety to cram the exact verbiage of the sacred text, or rather of our translation, into the monotony of the heroic limits, and to patch up with particles patiently gleaned, a view which can only be gained by generalisation. Although incident after incident in the Psalmist's

« PoprzedniaDalej »