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In his poem on the death of Hervey there is much praise, but little passion ; a very just and ample delineation of such virtues as a studious privacy admits, and such intellectual excellence as a mind not yet called forth to action can display. He knew how to distinguish and how to commend the qualities of his companion; but when he wishes to make us weep, he forgets to weep himself; and diverts his sorrow by imagining how his crown of bays, if he had it, would crackle in the fire. It is the odd fate of this thought to be the worse for being true. The bay-leaf crackles remarkably as it burns ; as, therefore, this property was not assigned it by chance, the mind must be thought sufficiently at ease that could attend to such minuteness of physiology. But the power of Cowley is not so much to move the affections as to exercise the understanding.
The Chronicle is a composition unrivalled and alone : such gaiety of fancy, such facility of expression, such varied similitude, such a succession of images, and such a dance of words, it is in vain to expect except from Cowley. His strength always appears in his agility; his volatility is not the flutter of a light, but the bound of an elastic mind. His levity never leaves his learning behind it; the moralist, the politician, and the critic, mingle their influence even in this airy frolic of genius. To such a performance Suckling could have brought the gaiety, but not the knowledge ; Dryden could have supplied the knowledge, but not the gaiety.
The verses to Davenant, which are vigorously begun and happily concluded, contain some hints of criticism very justly conceived and happily expressed. Cowley's critical abilities have not been sufficiently observed ; the few decisions and remarks which his prefaces and his notes on the Davideis supply, were at that time accessions to English literature, and show such skill as raises our wish for more examples.
The lines from Jersey are a very curious and pleasing specimen of the familiar descending to the burlesque.
His two metrical disquisitions for and against Reason are no mean specimens of metaphysical poetry. The stanzas against knowledge produce little conviction. In those which are intended to exalt the human faculties, reason has its proper task assigned it,-that of judging, not of things revealed, but of the reality of revelation. In the verses for reason is a passage which Bentley, in the only English verses which he is known to have written, seems to have copied, though with the inferiority of an imitator :
“ The Holy Book like the eighth sphere doth shine
With thousand lights of truth divine ;
It makes all-but one galaxy.
So vast and dangerous as these,
Without the compass too below.”
“ Who travels in religious jars,
Truth mix'd with errors, shade with rays,
Like Whiston, wanting pyx or stars,
In ocean wide or sinks or strays.” Cowley seems to have had, what Milton is believed to have wanted, the skill to rate his own performances by their just value; and has therefore closed his Miscellanies with the verses upon Crashaw, which apparently excel all that have gone before them, and in which there are beauties which common authors may justly think not only above their attainment, but above their ambition.
To the Miscellanies succeed the Anacreontiques, or paraphrastical translations of some little poems which pass, however justly, under the name of Anacreon. Of these songs dedicated to festivity and gaiety, in which even the morality is voluptuous, and which teach nothing but the enjoyment of the present day, he has given rather a pleasing than a faithful representation, having retained their sprightliness, but lost their simplicity. The Anacreon of Cowley, like the Homer of Pope, has admitted the decoration of some modern graces, by which he is undoubtedly more amiable to common readers, and perhaps if they would honestly declare their own perceptions, to far the greater part of those whom courtesy and ignorance are content to style the learned.
These little pieces will be found more finished in their kind than any other of Cowley's works. The diction shows nothing of the mould of time, and the sentiments are at no great distance from our present habitudes of thought. Real mirth must always be natural, and nature is uniform. Men have been wise in very different modes; but they have always laughed the same way.
Levity of thought naturally produced familiarity of language, and the familiar part of language continues long the same: the dialogue of comedy, when it is transcribed from popular manners and real life, is read from age to age with equal pleasure. The artifices of inversion, by which the established order of words is changed, or of innovation, by which new words or meanings of words are introduced, are practised not by those who talk to be understood, but by those who write to be admired.
The Anacreontiques, therefore, of Cowley give now all the pleasure which they ever gave. If he was formed by nature for one kind of writing more than for another, his power seems to have been greatest in the familiar and the festive.
The next class of his poems is called The Mistress, of which it is not necessary to select any particular pieces for praise or censure. They have all the same beauties and faults, and nearly in the same proportion. They are written with exuberance of wit and with copiousness of learning; and it is truly asserted by Sprat, that the plenitude of the writer's knowledge flows in upon his page, so that the reader is commonly surprised into some improvement. But considered as the verses of a lover, no man that has ever loved will much commend them. They are neither courtly nor pathetic, have neither gallantry nor fondness. His praises are too far sought, and too hyperbolical, either to express love or to excite it ; every stanza is crowded with darts and flames, with wounds and death, with mingled souls and with broken hearts.
The principal artifice by which The Mistress is filled with conceits
is very copiously displayed by Addison. Love is by Cowley, as by other poets, expressed metaphorically by flame and fire; and that which is true of real fire is said of love, or figurative fire, the same word in the same sentence retaining both significations. Thus, “observing the cold regard of his mistress's eyes, and at the same time their power of producing love in him, he considers them as burningglasses made of ice. Finding himself able to live in the greatest extremities of love, he concludes the torrid zone to be habitable. Upon the dying of a tree on which he had cut his loves, he observes that his flames had burnt up and withered the tree.”
These conceits Addison calls mixed wit; that is, wit which consists of thoughts true in one sense of the expression, and false in the other. Addison's representation is sufficiently indulgent : that confusion of images may entertain for a moment; but being unnatural, it soon grows wearisome. Cowley delighted in it, as much as if he had invented it; but not to mention the ancients, he might have found it full-blown in modern Italy. Thus Sannazaro :
“ Aspice quam variis distringar Lesbia curis !
ūror et heu ! nostro manat ab igne liquor :
O lacrimæ, aut lacrimas ebibe flamma meas.' One of the severe theologians of that time censured him as having published a book of profane and lascivious verses. From the charge of profaneness, the constant tenour of his life, which seems to have been eminently virtuous, and the general tendency of his opinions, which discover no irreverence of religion, must defend him; but that the accusation of lasciviousness is unjust, the perusal of his work will sufficiently evince.
Cowley's Mistress has no power of seduction ; she “ plays round the head, but reaches not the heart.” Her beauty and absence, her kindness and cruelty, her disdain and inconstancy, produce no correspondence of emotion. His poetical account of the virtues of plants and colours of flowers is not perused with more sluggish frigidity. The compositions are such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer, who had only heard of another sex; for they turn the mind only on the writer, whom, without thinking on a woman but as the subject for his task, we sometimes esteem as learned, and sometimes despise as trifling; always admire as ingenious, and always condemn as unnatural.*
* Of the Mistress, published 1647, he himself says: “It was composed when I was very young. Poets are scarce thought freemen of their company, without paying some duties and obliging themselves to be true to love. Sooner or later they must all pass through that trial; like some Mahometan monks, who are bound by their order once at least in their life to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But we must not always make a judgment of their manners from their writings of this kind, as the Romanists uncharitably do of Beza for a few lascivious sonnets composed by him in his youth. It is not in this sense that poetry is said to be a kind of painting; it is not the picture of the poet, but of things and persons imagined by him. He may be in his practice and disposition a philosopher, and yet sometimes speak with the softness of an amorous Sappho. I would not be misunderstood as if I affected so much gravity as to be ashamed to be thought really in love. On the contrary, I cannot have a good opinion of any man who is not, at least, capable of being so."
The Pindaric Odes are now to be considered ; a species of composition which Cowley thinks Pancirolus might have counted in “his list of the lost inventions of antiquity," and which he has made a bold and vigorous attempt to recover.
The purpose with which he has paraphrased an Olympic and Nemoan Ode is by himself sufficiently explained. His endeavour was not to show "precisely what Pindar spoke, but his manner of speaking." He was, therefore, not at all restrained to his expressions, nor much to his sentiments ; nothing was required of him, but not to write as Pindar would not have written
Of the Olympic Ode, the beginning is, I think, above the original in elegance, and the conclusion below it in strength. The connexion is supplied with great perspicuity; and the thoughts, which to a reader of less skill seem thrown together by chance, are concatenated without any abruption. Though the English ode cannot be called a translation, it may be very properly consulted as a commentary.
The spirit of Pindar is indeed not everywhere equally preserved. The following pretty lines are not such as his “deep mouth” was used to pour :
“ Great Rhea's son,
Lofty as that and smooth as this.” In the Nemcan Ode the reader must, in mere justice to Pindar, observe, that whatever is said of “the original new moon, her tender forehead and her horns," is superadded by his paraphrast, who has many other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original ; as,
“ The table, free for ev'ry guest,
No doubt will theo admit
And feast more upon thee than thou on it." He sometimes extends his author's thoughts without improving them. In the Olympionic an oath is mentioned in a single word; and Cowley spends three lines in swearing by the Castalian stream. We are told of Theron's bounty, with a hint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prose :
“But in this thankless world the giver
Is envied even by the receiver ;
Lest men should think we owe.” It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
In the following odes, where Cowley chooses his own subjects, he
sometimes rises to dignity truly Pindaric; and if some deficiencies of language be forgiven, his strains are such as those of the Theban bard were to his contemporaries :
“ Begin the song, and strike the living lyre!
All hand in hand do decently advance,
Till all gentle notes be drown'd
In the last trumpet's dreadful sound.” After such enthusiasm, who will not lament to find the poet conclude with lines like these?
“ But stop, my Muse;
But flings writer and reader too that sits not sure.” The fault of Cowley, and perhaps of all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to the last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality : for of the greatest things the parts are little; what is little can be but pretty, and by claiming dignity becomes ridiculous. Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind, by the mention of particulars, is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense ; more upon that from which the illustration is drawn than to that to which it is applied.
**Of this we have a very eminent example in the ode entitled The Muse, who goes to “take the air” in an intellectual chariot, to which he harnesses Fancy and Judgment, Wit and Eloquence, Memory and Invention. How he distinguished Wit from Fancy, or how Memory could properly contribute to motion, he has not explained; we are, however, content to suppose that he could have justified his own fiction, and wish to see the Muse begin her career ; but there is yet more to be done :
“ Let the postilion Nature mount, and let
The coachman Art be set;
In all their gaudy liveries.” Every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence ; yet I cannot refuse myself the next four lines :
“ Mount, glorious queen, thy travelling throne,
And bid it to put on;