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The student of Cowper's Poems should begin with the perusal of the brief Life of their Author which is prefixed to the second volume of this Selection. It has been placed there, because a knowledge of the facts of Cowper's life was thought to be essential to an intelligent appreciation of his greatest poem, 'The Task,' which appears in that volume, and on which those facts form the best and most trustworthy of commentaries. But it will be found that a general acquaintance with the main events in the Poet's life is, of necessity, assumed in the Introduction, with which this
So many successive Memoirs of Cowper have been given to the public, and his own Letters partake so much of an autobiographical character, that the editor who is called on to present his readers with a new sketch of the Poet's life, finds his chief difficulty to arise from what our French neighbours call l'embarras des richesses. The great storehouse whence all subsequent biographers have drawn their supplies, is Southey's Life and Writings of Cowper. The edition of Southey's work which has been used in the preparation of this Selection, is that published in Bohn's Standard Library, 1853–5, in eight volumes; and to this reference is made by volume and page, thus (S. iii. 254). Of other editions of Cowper which have been consulted, the most important are, Mr. R. Bell's; Mr. J. Bruce's 'Aldine,' which is of the highest value
for its laborious collation of the texts of the various editions, especially those published during the Poet's lifetime; and the
Globe Edition,' 1870, by the Rev. W. Benham, whose Introductory Memoir has supplied some important particulars, unknown to the earlier biographers of the Poet.
The general reader of this Selection will bear in mind, that in the Clarendon Press Series we have to consider, not what an author may have produced in his various moods of feeling, but what is in his best mood and best manner ; as worthy of the careful study of those who have other subjects besides English Literature to pursue. Out of a regard to the requirements of this class, for whose use the Series was projected, the Editor has inserted many illustrative notes which may appear trivial, and would have been superfluous, to the more highly educated readers of English Poetry. On the same principle, he has not hesitated to give frequent quotations from those delightful Letters of Cowper's, which would of themselves have raised their writer to a high rank in English literature; even had he not written the Poems, on which they throw so much light, and which they help to invest with the personal interest that attaches to an autobiography.
H. T. G.
WILLIAM COWPER was emphatically a man, a gentleman, and an Englishman. Under these three general heads may be included such preliminary observations as seem to be needful to assist the student in forming a just estimate of this Poet's personal and literary character, and of his place amongst our English Classics.
§ i. Cowper was a Man. There are few of our poets so thoroughly masculine as he was, both in the matter and the manner of his writings. No effeminate man, no woman however richly endowed with the vision and the faculty divine,' could have written what he did, and as he did. Every line of his is marked by the strong sense, the practical aim, the firm grasp, and the trenchant force of a manly soul. If he studiously avoided the 'creamy smoothness' of a Pope,-and in his earlier poems he certainly did carry to excess his scorn of such 'whipped cream,'—he seldom lacked the fire that the fancy warms,' nor could he stoop to sacrifice the sentiment to sound.' Like his own 'proud swan' in 'Table Talk,' he could be satisfied with nothing less than 'conquering the stream by force. Those readers who take but a superficial view of the story of Cowper's domestic life, are apt to imagine that he betrays indications of feebleness in his private relations. We shall presently see, that a closer inspection would shew them good reasons for reversing this disparaging judgment, and for crediting him, in his personal no less than his literary character, with what he finely terms 'meek manliness of soul. Meanwhile all must allow, that as a
writer, whether in verse or prose, he everywhere displays the strong common sense of a powerful masculine intellect. When he trifles, he does so consciously, and of set purpose; and then, what "admirable fooling' does he give us ! -such fooling as none but a wise man is capable of.
Cowper's poetry, like his character, is utterly free from affectation of any kind. There is a straightforward simplicity about it which insures lucidity of style. He hated everything that savours of insincerity or unreality. They who know him stand in no need of his own assertion to this
but they can picture to themselves the curl of his lip, and the dilation of his nostrils, as he dashed off the lines, 'In man or woman, but far most in man,
in my soul I loathe
Object of my implacable disgust!' Accordingly, we find in Cowper's writings nothing of the pompous and pretentious air of the sciolist, who is compelled to be oracular in order to impose upon the world a belief in his profundity. He never indulged in what is known as “tall talk, nor in fine writing for its own sake. He lived in an age when he could say of his contemporaries, almost without an exaggeration,
Manner is all in all, whate'er is writ;
The substitute for genius, sense, and wit.' With such writers he could feel no sympathy. He would never have written at all, were it not that he felt he had something to say. And what he had to say, he said in a manly and outspoken fashion, without reserve or disguise; and studying the manner of saying it only so far as this might commend the matter of it to the acceptance of his fellow men. His aim was to set clearly before the minds of his readers, what his full meaning was; and he did not care to create the suspicion-so flattering to men of inferior powers, or of less singleness of moral purpose--that more is meant than meets the ear.' It came naturally to him to couch his utterances in such a form, as might tend most COWPER'S SIMPLICITY OF STYLE.
directly to the instruction, the improvement, and the ennoblement of his brother men, for whom he wrote. He came before the public not with the design of courting popularity. or admiration for himself, but because he wanted to do good to others. Having this single object in view, he was delivered from that temptation to express himself with a grand air of mystery, which appeals to authors who are less purified from a self-seeking spirit. The man of ordinary stature, or even the pygmy, when seen through the medium of a fog, assumes the proportions of a giant. On this principle, the writer whose primary object is the acquisition of fame, rather than the benefit of mankind, loves to envelope himself in an intellectual mist, through which he looms upon the startled eyes of the wayfarers of life, as a being of a height and magnitude almost superhuman. Not such was Cowper. It was nothing to him what people thought of himself, as the messenger of truth. He had a message to deliver, that was all -- a message which he was sure the world would be the better for hearing. He wanted everybody to listen to it and understand it, and to come away with the sense of it firmly fixed in their minds. He would not have them to forget the message in admiration of the handsome person, the majestic bearing, the superb attire, the silvery tones, or the graceful gestures of him, who was but the medium of its delivery. Having a definite aim before him, he went straight to the point. The interests involved in reaching that point seemed to his earnest and practical mind far too important to admit of his sauntering along by a circuitous route, or deviating into every attractive by-path. And this solemn sense of the reality and importance of what he had to say, imparted a dignified simplicity to his manner of writing. The most critical eye fails to detect in his poetry anything that is open to the charge of mysticism, involution of thought, quaintness of conceit, mannerism, clap-trap, flourish, or nonsense. word, there is nothing of the unreality which is beneath the dignity of a man, but with which the poetaster conceives that his art is chiefly concerned. Cowper's were at