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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Rather damaged the chances of Cowper as a satirist


Cowper,

even more than most writers, deserves and requites consideration under the double aspect of matter and form. In both he did much to alter the generally accepted conditions of English poetry; and if his formal services have perhaps received less attention than they merit, his material achievements have never been denied. His disposition--in which, by a common enough contrast, the blackest and most hopeless melancholy was accompanied by the merriest and most playful humour--reflected itself unequally in his verse, the lighter side chiefly being exhibited. Except in "The Castaway," and a few--not many--of the hymns, Cowper is the very reverse of a gloomy poet. His amiability, however, could also pass into very strong moral indignation, and he endeavoured to give voice to this in a somewhat novel kind of satire, more serious and earnest than that of Pope, much less political and personal than that of Dryden, lighter and more restrained than that of the Elizabethans. His own unworldly disposition, together with the excessively retired life which he had led since early manhood, rather damaged the chances of Cowper as a satirist. We always feel that his censure wants actuality, that it is an exercise rather than an experience. His efforts in it, however, no doubt assisted, and were assisted by, that alteration of the fashionable Popian couplet which, after the example partly of Churchill and with a considerable return to Dryden, he attempted, made popular, and handed on to the next generation
to dis-Pope yet further. This couplet, paralleled by a not wholly dissimilar refashioning of blank verse, in which, though not deserting Milton, he beat out for himself a scheme quite different from Thomson's, perhaps show at their best in the descriptive matter of _The Task_ and similar poems. It was in these that Cowper chiefly displayed that faculty of "bringing back the eye to the object" and the object to the eye, in which he has been commonly and justly thought to be the great English restorer. Long before the end of the Elizabethan period, poetical observation of nature had ceased to be just; and, after substituting for justness the wildest eccentricities of conceit, it went for a long time into another extreme--that of copying and recopying certain academic conventionalities, instead of even attempting the natural model. It is not true, as Wordsworth and others have said, that Dryden himself could not draw from the life. He could and did; but his genius was not specially attracted to such drawing, his subjects did not usually call for it, and his readers did not want it. It is not true that Thomson could not "see"; nor is it true of all his contemporaries and immediate followers that they were blind. But the eighteenth century had slipped into a fault which was at least as fatal as that of the Idealist-Impressionists of the seventeenth, or as that of the Realist-Impressionists of our own time. The former neglected universality in their hunt after personal conceits; the latter neglect it in the endeavour to add nothing to rigidly elaborated personal sensation. The one kind outstrips nature; the other comes short of art. From Dryden to Cowper the fault was different from both of these. It neglected the personal impression and the attention to nature too much. It dared not present either without stewing them in a sauce of stock ideas, stock conventions, stock words and phrases, which equally missed the universal and the particular. Cowper and the other great men who were his contemporaries by publication if not by birth, set to work to cure this fault. Even the weakest of them could never have been guilty of such a passage as that famous one which Congreve (as clever a man as any) wrote, and which Johnson (as clever a man as any) admired. The sentiment which actuated them was, if we may trust Coleridge's account of Boyer or Bowyer, the famous tyrant of Christ's Hospital, well diffused. "'Nymph,' boy? You mean your nurse's daughter," puts in a somewhat brutal and narrow form the correction which the time needed, and which these four in their different ways applied.


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