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heights of poetical renown, which rendered him at last, what he ardently wished to prove—the poet of Christianity—the monitor of the world!
· It was after a very long and severe fit of mental depression, that by the friendly request of his faithful associate in affliction, he sought, in poetical composition of considerable extent, a salutary exercise for a mind formed for the most active, and beneficent exertion, though occasionally subject to an utter suspension of its admirable powers. I have already mentioned the circumstance communicated to me by Mrs. Unwin, concerning the first extensive poem, in point of time, that appears in the first volume of Cowper.
The Progress of Error seems the least attractive among the several admonitory poems of the collection, and we may judge from it that even the genius of Cowper required the frequent habit of writing verse to display itself to advantage. Yet even this poem, in which he is said to have made the first serious trial of his long suspended talent, has passages of exquisite beauty. Take for example, his portraits of Innocence and Folly, painted with the delicate simplicity and tenderness of Corregio.
Both baby-featur’d, and of infant size,
This poem also discovers, in some degree, that wonderful combination of very different powers, which the subsequent works of Cowper display in delightful profusion.
The affectionate and accomplished biographer of Burns has fallen (only I apprehend from a casual slip of memory) into a sort of silent injustice towards Cowper, when in speaking of the few poets who have at once excelled in humour, in tenderness, and in sublimity, he affirms that “this praise, in modern times, is only due to Ariosto, to Shakespeare, and perhaps to Voltaire.”
. Recollection, I am confident, must rapidly have convinced such a judge of poetical merit, that the works of Cowper contain many examples of that triple excellence, which is assuredly most rare, and which the masterly biographer very justly attributes to the marvellous peasant, whose life and genius he has so feelingly and so honourably described. But to return to the poem of which I was speaking, it proves that Cowper could occasionally blend the moral humour of Hogarth, with the tenderness and sublimity that belong to artists of a superior rank. The portraits of the English travellers, and the foreign abbè, that are sketched in this poem, are all touched with the spirit of Hogarth.
The Progress of Error contains also some of those happy verses of serious morality, in which Cowper excelled; verses that expressing a simple truth with perfect grace and precision, rapidly fix themselves, and with a lasting proverbial influence on the memory. I will cite only two detached couplets in proof of my assertion.
None sends his arrow to the mark in view,
Call’d to the temple of impure delight,
As soon as Cowper found that the composition of moral verse was medicinal to his mind, he seems to
have formed the noble resolution of making his works an universal medicine for the various mental infirmities of the world. His own ideas on this subject are perfectly expressed in the following passage from his first Letter to his friend Mr. Bull, who began his correspondence with the poet by a Letter of praise on the publication of his first volume.
March 24, 1782.
Your Letter gave me great pleasure, both as a testimony of your approbation, and of your regard, I wrote in hopes of pleasing you, and such as you, and though I must confess that, at the same time, I cast a sidelong glance at the good liking of the world at large, I believe I can say, it was more for the sake of their advantage and instruction, than their praise. They are children; if we give them physic, we must sweeten the rim of the cup with honey— if my book is so far honoured, as to be made the vehicle of true known ledge to any that are ignorant, I shall rejoice, and do already rejoice, that it has procured me a proof of your esteem.
It was probably this idea of tinging the rim of the cup with honey (an expression used by Lucretius and Tasso ) which induced Cowper to place in the front of his volume the poem entitled TableTalk. The title has in itself an inviting appearance, and the lively desultory spirit of the composition sufficiently vindicates the propriety of the title. It is a rapid and animated descant on a variety of interesting topics. The brief tale from that humorous and high-spirited Spaniard, Quevedo, is admirably told, and I have frequently heard it recited as a most striking example of Cowper's talent for such narration, by a very dear departed friend, of the most delicate discernment.
The poet in this outset of his moral enterprize, bestows a graceful compliment on his Sovereign.
His life a lesson to the land he sways.
And judged it right to annex to this high compliment such a profession of his own independent spirit, as every ingenuous mind must delight to observe from the pen of a poet, when his life and his writings reflect a reciprocal lustre on each other.