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TO THE FIFTH EDITION.
Various biographers of Cowper have appeared since the Author sketched the following Life, now nearly eighteen years ago. By some, indeed, the subject has been literally exhausted, and volumes were drawn from materials so scanty, that they border on the celebrated migrations from the “ blue bed to the brown,” which constitute the personal history of the recluse of Olney. In the opinion of the Public, or at least of the critics, this was the only error that Mr Hayley committed ; and in an age like the present, when the literature of the country is scooping for itself so many new and unwonted channels, and the cry
is my of price as well as of time, the maximum of information in the minimum of space,” it seems somewhat odd, that his example should have been followed rather than avoided. At the same time, it may be safely admitted, that brevity has its blemishes as well as bulkiness; and on this principle, the first biographer of Cowper in the wake of Mr Hayley, in re-addressing himself 4 to an early study, has been induced to extend the original Memoir very nearly a half. Change generally leads to extension ; and as a man should learn something during eighteen years by research, reflection, and comparison of notes, he ventures to hope, that the Memoir now prefixed to the Poems of Cowper, with all its faults, will be found at least the most compact that has yet appeared.
TO THE SECOND EDITION.
About two years ago the Publishers of the present volume, having resolved to print a new edition of CowPER’S WORKS, applied to me to furnish them with a short account of the Author's life. This task, after considerable hesitation, I agreed to execute. I was not only aware of my own unfitness for the undertaking, humble and commonplace as it is, but I had many doubts as to the propriety of engaging in any thing that might seem to interfere with the labours of Mr Hayley, to whom the public are under so many obligations. On the other hand, it occurred to me, that the bulkiness and expense of that gentleman's work rendered it in a great measure inaccessible to ordinary readers ; and that, instead of a condensed and connected view of the life and character of the poet, it is chiefly filled with a large selection from his private correspondence, which the biographer has merely bound together with a few detached paragraphs, to preserve the connexion of each series of letters, and render the subject of them intelligible. But, as the Edinburgh Reviewers justly remark, this plan of biography “ requires so much room for its execution, and consequently so much money and so much leisure in those who wish to be masters of it, that it ought to be reserved for those great and eminent characters that are likely to excite an interest among all orders and generations of mankind. While the biography of Shakspeare and Bacon shrinks into the corner of an octavo, we cannot help wondering that the history of the sequestered life of Cowper should have extended into two quarto volumes.”
In the whole range of English literature, there is perhaps not a single author who is more universally popular than Cowper. While the works of some of our greatest poets are left to slumber upon the shelves, his are perpetually upon the mantelpiece or the table; and although there may be some in the foremost rank of our immortals whose genius awakens a deeper sentiment of veneration, there is none whose writings come more directly home to the “ business and bosoms” of all classes of our countrymen. Even in the religious world, where so few of the poets are admitted into the list of innocent or edifying authors, Cowper enjoys a high and unequalled popularity; and when the judicious mother or daughter thinks of adding to the library of a distant son or brother-of selecting a companion for her own morning walk -or of affixing her name to a literary gift, which she wishes to be prized for its own sake as well as that of the giver, “ The Task” is generally the first volume that presents itself to her thoughts. In fact, such is the fame of Cowper, that new editions of his works, in some shape or other, are almost constantly issuing from the press;
and it has always struck me as singular, that not one of these editions that I have seen is accompanied by any thing like a memoir of the author. What common sense and custom have in all ages united, editors and publishers have, in this instance, contrived to divide; and, by an arrangement somewhat whimsical, the admirers of a poet, whose original productions can be comprised in one pocket volume, are referred, for the few particulars of his retired and solitary life, to a work extending to ten times the size. wish, however, to depreciate the editorial labours of Mr Hayley. All I contend for is, that the biography, like the poetry of Cowper, should be placed within the reach of all, either by prefixing it to the different editions of his poems, or by reducing it to a cheaper and more convenient form, as a separate work. Much, no doubt, might be said in praise of the poet's epistolary style ; but his letters, lively and unaffected as they are, would be much more prized were they reprinted upon a more rigid principle of selection, and without any view to that arrangement which seems to impose on us the necessity of perusing the whole series. When the history of a favourite author is presented to the reader in convenient dimensions,
It is not my