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The occurrences related in the series of Letters, that I have just imparted to my Reader, have now brought me to the close of the second period in my work. As I contemplated the life of my friend, it seemed to display itself in three obvious divisions; the first ending with the remarkable æra, when he burst forth on the world, as a Poet, in his fiftieth year; on which occasion we may apply to him the lively compliment of Waller to Denham, and say, with superior truth, “ He burst out like the Irish Rebellion, threescore thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or in the least suspected it.” he second division may conclude with the publication of his Homer; comprising the incidents of ten splendid and fruitful years, that may be regarded as the meridian of his poetical career. The subsequent period extends to that awful event which terminates
labour of the Poet and the Man.
We have seen in many of the pre
of the preceding Letters, with what ardour of application and liveliness of hope, he devoted himself to his favourite project of enriching the literature of his country with an English Homer, that might be justly esteemed as a faithful, yet free Translation; a genuine and graceful representative of the justly idolized original.
After five years of intense and asseEtionate labour, in which nothing could withold him from his interesting work, except that oppressive and cruel malady, which suspended his powers of application for several months, he published his complete Version in
two Quarto Volumes, on the first of July 1791 : having inscribed the Iliad to his young noble kinsman, Earl Cowper ; and the Odyssey to the Dowager Countess Spencer; a Lady, for whose virtues he had long entertained a most cordial and affectionate veneration.
The accomplished Translator had exerted no common powers of genius and of industry to satisfy both himself and the world; yet, in his first edition of this long-laboured work, he afforded complete satisfaction to neither, and I believe for this reason-Homer is so exquisitely beautiful in his own language, and he has been so long an idol in every literary mind, that any copy of him, which the best of modern Poets can execute, must probably resemble in its effect the portrait of a graceful woman, painted by an excellent artist for her lover:-The lover, indeed, will acknowledge great merit in the work, and think himself much indebted to the skill of such an artist, but he will never acknowledge, as in truth he never can feel, that the best of resemblances exhibits all the grace that he discerns in the beloved original.
So fares it with the admirers of Homer; his very Translators themselves feel so perfectly the power of this predominant affection, that they gradually grow discontented with their own labour, however approved in the moment of its supposed completion.This was so remarkably the case with Cowper, that in process of time we shall see him employed upon what may almost be called his second Translation ; so great were the alterations he made in a deliberate revisal of his work for a second edition. And in the Preface which he prepared for that edition, he has spoken of his own labour with the most frank and ingenuous veracity. Yet of the first edition it may,
I think, be fairly said, that it accomplished more than any of his poetical predecessors had achieved before him. It made the nearest approach to that sweet majestic simplicity which forms one of the most attractive features in the great prince and father of Poets.
Cowper in reading Pope's Homer to Lady Austen and Mrs. Unwin, had frequently expressed a wish, and an expectation of seeing the simplicity of the ancient Bard more faithfully preserved in a new English version.—Lady Austen, with a kind severity, reproved him for expecting from others what he, of all men living, was best qualified to accomplish himself; and her solicitations on the subject, excited him to the arduous undertaking ; though it seems not to have been actually begun till after her departure from Olney.
If he was not at first completely successful in this long and mighty work, the continual and voluntary application with which he pursued it, was to himself a blessing of the utmost importance.
In those admirable admonitions to men of a poetical temperament, with which Dr. Currie has closed his instructive and pleasing “ Life of Burns,” that accomplished Physician has justly pointed to a regular and constant occupation, as the true remedy for an inordinate sensibility, which may prove so perilous an enemy to the peace and happiness of a Poet. His remark appears to be particularly verified in the striking, and I may say, medicinal influence which a daily attachment of his thoughts to Homer produced, for a long time, on the tender spirits of my friend ; an influence sufficiently proved by his frequent declarations, that he should be sorry to find himself at the end of his labour.-The work was certainly beneficial to his health; it contributed a little to his fortune ; and ultimately, I am persuded, it will redound to his fame in a much higher degree than it has hitherto done. Time will probably prove, that if it is not a perfeâ representation of Homer, it is at least such a copy of the matchless original, as no modern writer can surpass in the two essential articles of fidelity and freedom.
I must not omit to observe one more advantage which Cowper derived from this extensive labour, for it is an advantage which reflects great honour on his sensibility as a man. I mean a constant flow of affectionate pleasure, that he felt in the many kind offices which he received, from several friends, in the course of this laborious occupation.
I cannot more clearly illustrate his feelings on this subject, than by introducing a passage from one of his Letters to his most asidu
ous and affectionate amanuensis, his young kinsman of Norfolk !
Weston, June 1, 1791.
MY DEAREST JOHNNY,
Now you may rest—Now I can give you joy of the period, of which I gave you hope in my last; the period of all your labours in my service.—But this I can foretel you also, that if you persevere in serving your friends at this rate, your life is likely to be a life of labour :—Yet
your rest will be the sweeter hereafter. In the mean time I wish
you, if at any time you should find occasion for him, just such a friend as you have proved to me.