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kind of poesy fit for all manner of subjects. But nor do I recollect much other notice from its he should have remembered, that what is fit for publication till now in the whole succession of every thing can fit nothing well. The great | English literature. pleasure of verse arises from the known measure of the lines, and uniform structure of the stanzas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
Of this silence and neglect, if the reason be inquired, it will be found partly in the choice of the subject, and partly in the performance of the work.
Sacred history has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overaw
jects; and it will not be easy to reconcile the poet with the critic, or to conceive how that can be the highest kind of writing in verse, which, according to Sprat, is chiefly to be preferred for its near affinity to prose.
If the Pindarie style be, what Cowley thinks it, the highest and noblest kind of writing in verse, it can be adapted only to high and noble sub-ed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.
This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren, and flattered the laziness of the idle, that it immediately overspread our books of poetry; all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion, and they that could do nothing else could write like Pindar. The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin: a poem* on the Sheldonian Theatre, in which all kinds of verses are shaken together, is unhappily inserted in the Musa Anglicana. Pindar- We are told that Saul was troubled with an ism prevailed about half a century; but at last evil spirit; from this Cowley takes an opportudied gradually away, and other imitations sup-nity of describing hell, and telling the history of ply its place. Lucifer, who was, he says,
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of Divine Power are above the power of human genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language: He spake the word, and they were made.
The Pindaric odes have so long enjoyed the highest degree of poetical reputation, that I am not willing to dismiss them with unabated censure; and surely, though the mode of their composition be erroneous, yet many parts deserve at least that admiration which is due to great comprehension of knowledge, and great fertility of fancy. The thoughts are often new, and often striking; but the greatness of one part is disgraced by the littleness of another; and total negligence of language gives the no-zeal utters these lines: blest conceptions the appearance of a fabric august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise; of which it may be said with truth, that no man but Cowley could have written them.
The Davideis now remains to be considered; a poem which the author designed to have extended to twelve books, merely, as he makes no scruple of declaring, because the Eneid håd that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epic poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser, and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for in this undertaking Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscarried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author generally read, and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden, in "Mack Flecknoe," it has once been imitated;
First published in quarto, 1669, under the title of "Carmen Pindaricum in Theatrum Sheldonianum in
solennibus magnifici Operis Encaniis. Recitatum Julii die 9, Anno 1669, a Crobetto Owen, A. B. Ed. Chr.
Once general of a gilded host of sprites,
Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is something of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and to give efficacy to his words, concludes by lashing his breast with his long tail. Envy, after a pause, steps out, and among other declarations of her
Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply,
It is not only when the events are confessedly miraculous, that fancy and fiction lose their effect: the whole system of life, while the theocracy was yet visible, has an appearance so different from all other scenes of human action, that the reader of the Sacred Volume habitually considers it as the peculiar mode of existence of a distinct species of mankind, that lived and acted with manners uncommunicable: so that it is difficult even for imagination to place in the state of them whose story is related, and by consequence their joys and griefs are not easily adopted, nor can the attention be often interested in any thing that befalls them.
To the subject thus originally indisposed to the reception of poetical embellishments the writer brought little that could reconcile impatience, or attract curiosity. Nothing can be more disgusting than a narrative spangled with conceits; and conceits are all that Davideis supplies.
One of the great sources of poetical delight is description, or the power of presenting pictures to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of images, and shows not what may be supposed to have been seen, but what thoughts the sight might have suggested. When Virgil describes the stone which Turnus lifted against Æneas, he fixes the attention on its bulk and weight:
what might in general expressions be great and This is a just specimen of Cowley's imagery: forcible, he weakens and makes ridiculous by branching it into small parts. That Gabriel was invested with the softest or brightest colours of the sky, we might have been told, and been dismissed to improve the idea in our different proportions of conception; but Cowley
Cowley says of the stone with which Cain could not let us go till he had related where Gaslew his brother,
Saxum circumspicit ingens, Saxum antiquum, ingens, campo quod forte jacebat Limes agro positus, litem ut discerneret arvis.
I saw him fling the stone, as if he meant
Of the sword taken from Goliah, he says,
A sword so great, that it was only fit
To cut off his great head that came with it.
Other poets describe death by some of its common appearances. Cowley says, with a learned allusion to sepulchral lamps, real or fabulous,
Twixt his right ribs deep pierc'd the furious blade,
But he has allusions vulgar as well as learned. In a visionary succession of kings,
Joas at first does bright and glorious show,
His forces seem'd no army, but a crowd,
he gives them a fit of the ague.
The allusions however are not always to vulgar things; he offends by exaggeration as much as by diminution:
As the Davideis affords only four books, though intended to consist of twelve, there is no opportunity for such criticisms as epic poems commonly supply. The plan of the whole work is
Describing an undisciplined army, after hav-very imperfectly shown by the third part. The ing said with elegance,
duration of an unfinished action cannot be known. Of characters either not yet introduced, or shewn but upon few occasions, the full extent and the nice discriminations cannot be ascertained. The fable is plainly implex, formed rather from the Odyssey than the Iliad: and many artifices of diversification are employed, with the skill of a man acquainted with the best models. The past is recalled by narration, and so lavish of his poetical art, that it is difficult to the future anticipated by vision: but he has been imagine how he could fill eight books more without practising again the same modes of disposing of his matter: and perhaps the perception of this growing incumbrance inclined him to stop. By
In one passage he starts a sudden question, to this abruption posterity lost more instruction the confusion of philosophy:
than delight. If the continuation of the Davideis can be missed it is for the learning that had been diffused over it, and the notes in which it had been explained.
The king was plac'd alone, and o'er his head
some conceit :
Where the sun's fruitful beams give metals birth,
Ye learned heads, whom ivy garlands grace,
Nay, gentle guests, he cries, since now you're in,
This he with starry vapours sprinkles all,
In a simile descriptive of the morning:
He took for skin a cloud most soft and bright,
briel got first his skin, and then his mantle, then his lace, and then his scarf, and related it in the terms of the mercer and tailor.
Had not his characters been depraved, like
His expressions have sometimes a degree of every other part, by improper decorations, they meanness that surpasses expectation :
would have deserved uncommon praise. He gives Saul both the body and mind of a hero :
Dr. Warton discovers some contrariety of opinion between this, and what is said of description in p. 12 & 13.-C.
Sometimes he indulges himself in a digression, always conceived with his natural exuberance, and commonly, even where it is not long, continued till it is tedious.
I' th' library a few choice authors stood,
Yet 'twas well stor'd, for that small store was good,
His way once chose, he forward thrust outright,
And the different beauties of the lofty Merah and the gentle Michol are very justly conceived and strongly painted.
Rymer has declared the Davideis superior to the Jerusalem of Tasso, "which," says he, "the poet, with all his care, has not totally purged from pedantry." If by pedantry is meant that minute knowledge which is derived from particular sciences and studies, in opposition to the general notions supplied by a wide survey of life and nature, Cowley certainly errs, by introduI know not, indeed, why they should be comcing pedantry, far more frequently than Tasso. pared; for the resemblance of Cowley's work
to Tasso's is only that they both exhibit the agency of celestial and infernal spirits, in which however they differ widely; for Cowley supposes them commonly to operate upon the mind by suggestion; Tasso represents them as promoting or obstructing events by external agency.
Of particular pages that can be properly compared, I remember only the description of Heaven, in which the different manner of the two writers is sufficiently discernible. Cowley's is scarcely description, unless it be possible to describe by negatives; for he tells us only what there is not in Heaven. Tasso endeavours to represent the splendours and pleasures of the regions of happiness. Tasso affords images, and Cowley sentiments. It happens, however, that Tasso's descriptions afford some reason for Rhymer's censure. He says of the Supreme Being,
Hà sotto i piedi e fato e la natura
Ministri humili, e'l moto, e ch'il misura.
The second line has in it more of pedantry than perhaps can be found in any other stanza of the poem.
In the perusal of the Davideis, as of all Cowley's works, we find wit and learning unprofitably squandered. Attention has no relief; the affections are never moved; we are sometimes surprised, but never delighted, and find much to admire, but little to approve. Still however it is the work of Cowley, of a mind capacious by nature, and replenished by study.
In the general review of Cowley's poetry it will be found that he wrote with abundant fertility, but with negligent or unskilful selection: with much thought, but with little imagery; that he is never pathetic, and rarely sublime; but always either ingenious or learned, either acute or pro
It is said by Denham in his elegy,
To him no author was unknown,
This wide position requires less limitation, when it is affirmed of Cowley, than perhaps of any other poet.- He read much, and yet borrowed little.
His character of writing was indeed not his own: he unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure in its spring was bright and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows.
He was in his own time considered as of unrivalled excellence. Clarendon represents him as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him; and Milton is said to have declared, that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shakspeare, and Cowley.
His manner he had in common with others; but his sentiments were his own. Upon every subject he thought for himself; and such was his copiousness of knowledge, that something at once remote and applicable rushed into his mind; yet it is not likely that he always rejected a commodious idea merely because another had used it: his known wealth was so great that he might have borrowed without loss of credit.
In his elegy on Sir Henry Wotton, the last
lines have such resemblance to the noble epigram of Grotius on the death of Scaliger, that I cannot but think them copied from it, though they are copied by no servile hand.
One passage in his Mistress is so apparently borrowed from Donne, that he probably would not have written it, had it not mingled with his own thoughts, so as that he did not perceive himself taking it from another:
Although I think thou never found wilt be,
Yet things well worth his toil he gains:
Some that have deeper digg'd Love's mine than I,
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,
And as no chymic yet th' elixir got,
So lovers dream a rich and long delight,
It is related by Clarendon that Cowley always industry of Jonson; but I have found no traces acknowledges his obligation to the learning and of Jonson in his works: to emulate Donne appears to have been his purpose; and from Donne he may have learned that familiarity with religious images, and that light allusion to sacred things, by which readers far short of sanctity be borne in the present age, when devotion, perare frequently offended; and which would not haps not more fervent, is more delicate.
Having produced one passage taken by Cowley from Donne, I will recompense him by another which Milton seems to have borrowed from him. He says of Goliah,
His spear, the trunk was of a lofty tree,
His spear, to equal which the tallest pine Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast Of some great admiral, were but a wand, He walked with.
His diction was in his own time censured as negligent. He seems not to have known, or not to have considered, that words being arbitrary must owe their power to association, and have the influence, and that only, which custom has given them. Language is the dress of thought: and as the noblest mien, or most graceful action, would be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rustics or mechanics: so the most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.
Truth indeed is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have an intrinsic and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectua! gold which defies destruction; but gold may be so concealed in baser matter, that only a chy| mist can recover it; sense may be so hidden in
unrefined and plebeian words that none but philosophers can distinguish it; and both may be so buried in impurities, as not to pay the cost of their extraction.
His heroic lines are often formed of monosyl
The diction, being the vehicle of the thoughts, first presents itself to the intellectual eye; and if the first appearance offends, a further know-lables; but yet they are sometimes sweet and
ledge is not often sought. Whatever professes to benefit by pleasing, must please at once. The pleasures of the mind imply something sudden and unexpected; that which elevates must always surprise. What is perceived by slow degrees may gratify us with consciousness of improvement, but will never strike with the sense of pleasure.
Of all this, Cowley appears to have been without knowledge, or without care. He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase; he has no elegances either lucky or elaborate; as his endeavours were rather to impress sentences upon the understanding than images upon the fancy; he has few epithets, and those scattered without peculiar propriety or nice adaptation. It seems to follow from the necessity of the subject, rather than the care of the writer, that the diction of his heroic poem is less familiar than that of his slightest writings. He has given not the same numbers, but the same diction, to the gentle Anacreon and the tempestuous Pindar.
His versification seems to have had very little of his care; and if what he thinks be true, that his numbers are unmusical only when they are ill-read, the art of reading them is at present lost; for they are commonly harsh to modern ears. He has indeed many noble lines, such as the feeble care of Waller never could produce. The bulk of his thoughts sometimes swelled his verse to unexpected and inevitable grandeur; but his excellence of this kind is merely fortuitous he sinks willingly down to his general carelessness, and avoids with very little care either meanness or asperity.
His contractions are often rugged and harsh :
One flings a mountain, and its rivers too
His rhymes are very often made by pronouns, or particles, or the like unimportant words, which disappoint the ear, and destroy the energy of the line.
The words do and did, which so much degrade in present estimation the line that admits them, were, in the time of Cowley, little censured or avoided how often he used them, and with how bad an effect, at least to our ears, will appear by a passage, in which every reader will lament to see just and noble thoughts defrauded of their praise by inelegance of language:
Where honour or where conscience does not bind,
And still as Time comes in, it goes away,
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell!
Nor shall my future actions be confin'd
By my own present mind.
Does like an unthrift, mortgage his estate
Before it falls into his hand;
The bondman of the cloister so,
All that he does receive does always owe.
He says of the Messiah,
Some from the rocks cast themselves down headlong. And many more: but it is enough to instance in a few. The thing is, that the disposition of words and numbers should be such, as that, out of the order and sound of them, the things them
His combination of different measures is some-selves may be represented. This the Greeks times dissonant and unpleasing; he joins verses were not so accurate as to bind themselves to: together, of which the former does not slide neither have our English poets observed it, for easily into the latter. aught I can find. The Latins (qui Musas colunt severiores) sometimes did it; and their prince, Virgil, always: in whom the examples are in numerable, and taken notice of by all judi cious men, so that it is superfluous to collect them."
I know not whether he has, in many of these instances, attained the representation or resem blance that he purposes. Verse can imitate only sound and motion. A boundless verse, a headlong verse, and a verse of brass or of strong brass, seem to comprise very incongruous and unsociable ideas. What there is peculiar in the sound of the line expressing loose care, I cannot discover; nor why the pine is taller in an Alexandrine than in ten syllables.
But, not to defraud him of his due praise, he has given one example of representative versifi
Brass was his helmet, his boots brass, and o'er
Like some fair pine o'erlooking all the ignobler wood. And,
cation, which perhaps no other English line can his mind, for, in the verses on the government equal. of Cromwell he inserts theml iberally with great happiness.
After so much criticism on his poems, the essays which accompany them must not be forgotten. What is said by Sprat of his conversation, that no man could draw from it any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may be applied to these compositions. No author ever kept his verse and his prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far-sought, or hard-laboured; but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness.
Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise: He who defers this work from day to day, Does on a river's bank expecting stay Till the whole stream that stopp'd him shall be gone, Which runs, and as it runs, for ever shall run on. Cowley was, I believe, the first poet that mingled Alexandrines at pleasure with the common heroic of ten syllables; and from him Dryden borrowed the practice, whether ornamental or licentious. He considered the verse of twelve syllables as elevated and majestic, and has therefore deviated into that measure when he supposes the voice had heard of the Supreme Being. The author of the Davideis is commended by Dryden for having written it in couplets, because he discovered that any staff was too lyrical for an heroic poem; but this seems to have been known before by May and Sandys, the translators of the Pharsalia and the Metamorphoses. In the Davideis are some hemistichs, or verses left imperfect by the author, in imitation of Virgil, whom he supposes not to have intended to complete them: that this opinion is erroneous, may be probably concluded, because this trun-books could supply; that he was the first who cation is imitated by no subsequent Roman imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of poet; because Virgil himself filled up one the greater ode, and the gayety of the less; that broken line in the heat of recitation; because he was equally qualified for sprightly sallies, and in one the sense is now unfinished; and be- for lofty flights; that he was among those who cause all that can be done by a broken verse, a freed translation from servility, and, instead of ine intersected by a cœsura, and a full stop, will following his author at a distance, walked by equally effect. his side; and that, if he left versification yet improvable, he left likewise from time to time such specimens of excellence as enabled succeeding poets to improve it,
It may be affirmed, without any encomiastic fervour, that he brought to his poetic labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are embellished with all the ornaments which
Of triplets in his Davideis he makes no use, and perhaps did not at first think them allowable; but he appears afterwards to have changed
He was born at Dublin in 1615;* the only son of Sir John Denham, of Little Horseley, in Essex, then chief baron of the Exchequer in Ireland, and of Eleanor, daughter of Sir Garret More, baron of Mellefont.
OF SIR JOHN DENHAM very little is known | fore gave no prognostics of his future eminence; but what is related of him by Wood, or by him- nor was suspected to conceal, under sluggishness self. and laxity, a genius born to improve the literature of his country.
When he was, three years afterwards, removed to Lincoln's Inn, he prosecuted the common law with sufficient appearance of application; yet did not lose his propensity to cards and dice; but was very often plundered by gamesters.
Two years afterwards, his father, being made one of the barons of the Exchequer in England, Drought him away from his native country, and educated him in London.
It has been observed by Felton, in his Essay on the Classics, that Cowley was beloved by every muse that he courted; and that he has rivalled the ancients in every kind of poetry but tragedy.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and perhaps believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published "An Essay upon Gam
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry: for, in 1636, he translated the second book of the Æneid.
Two years after, his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him.
In 1642, he published "The Sophy." This seems to have given him his first hold of the public attention; for Waller remarked, "That