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A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things." Of this haunting, supernatural, mystical view of nature Cowper never heard. Like the strong old lady who said, “ She was born before nerves were invented,” he may be said to have lived before the awakening of the detective sensibility which reveals this deep and obscure doctrine.

In another point of view, also, Cowper is curiously contrasted with Wordsworth, as a delineator of nature. The delineation of Cowper is a simple delineation. He makes a sketch of the object before him, and there he leaves it. Wordsworth, on the contrary, is not satisfied unless he describe not only the bare inanimate outward object which others see, but likewise the reflected high-wrought feelings which that object excites in a brooding self-conscious mind. His subject was not so much nature, as nature reflected by Wordsworth. Years of deep musing and long introspection had made him familiar with every shade and shadow in the many-coloured impression which the universe makes on meditative genius and observant sensibility. Now these feelings Cowper did not describe, because, to all appearance, he did not perceive them. He had a great pleasure in watching the common changes and common aspects of outward things, but he was not invincibly prone to brood and pore over their reflex effects upon his own mind.

“ A primrose hy the river's brim,

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.” According to the account which Cowper at first gave of his literary occupations, his entire design was to communicate the religious views to which he was then a convert. He fancied that the vehicle of verse might bring many to listen to truths which they would be disinclined to have stated to them in simple prose. And however tedious the recurrence of these theological tenets may be to the common reader, it is certain that a considerable portion of Cowper's peculiar popularity may be traced to their expression. He is the one poet of a class which have no poets. În that once large and still considerable portion of the English world, which regards the exercise of the fancy and the imagination as dangerous--snares, as they speak - distracting the soul from an intense consideration of abstract doctrine, Cowper's strenuous inculcation of those doctrines has obtained for him a certain toleration. Of course all verse is perilous. The use of single words is harmless, but the employment of two, in such a manner as to form a rhyme—the regularities of interval, and studied recurrence of the same sound, evince an attention to time, and a partiality to things of sense.

Most poets must be prohibited; the exercise of the fancy requires watching. But Cowper is a ticket-of-leave man. He has the chaplain's certificate. He has expressed himself “ with the utmost propriety.” The other imaginative criminals must be left to the fates, but he may be admitted to the sacred drawing-room, though with constant care and scrupulous surveillance. Perhaps, however, taken in connexion with his diseased and peculiar melancholy, these tenets really add to the artistic effect of Cowper's writings. The free discussion of daily matters, the delicate delineation of domestic detail, the passing narrative of fugitive occurrences, would seem light and transitory, if it were not broken by the interruption of a terrible earnestness, and relieved by the dark background of a deep and foreboding sadness. It is scarcely artistic to describe " the painted veil which those who live call life," and leave wholly out of view and undescribed "the chasm sightless and drear," which lies always beneath and around it.

It is of the “Task” more than of Cowper's earlier volume of poems that a critic of his poetry must more peculiarly be understood to speak. All the best qualities of his genius are there concentrated, and the alloy is less than elsewhere. He was fond of citing the saying of Dryden, that the rhyme had often helped him to a thought-a great but very perilous truth. The difficulty is, that the rhyme so frequently helps to the wrong thought—that the stress of the mind is recalled from the main thread of the poem, from the narrative, or sentiment, or delineation, to some wayside remark or fancy, which the casual resemblances of final sound may suggest. This is fatal, unless either a poet's imagination be so hot and determined as to bear down upon its objects, and to be unwilling to hear the voice of any charmer who might distract it, or, else, the nature of the poem itself should be of so desultory a character that it does not really matter about the sequence of the thought-at least within great and ample limits, as in some of Swift's casual rhymes, where the sound itself does seem really and truly the connecting link of unity. Now Cowper is not usually in either of these positions; he always has a thread of argument on which he is hanging his illustrations, and yet he has not the exclusive interest or the undeviating energetic downrightness of mind which would ensure his going through it without idling or turning aside; consequently the thoughts which the rhyme suggests are constantly breaking in upon the main matter, destroying the emphatic unity which is essential to rhythmical delineation.


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His blank verse of course is exempt from this defect, and there is perhaps something in the nature of this metre which fits it for the expression of studious and quiet reflection. The “Task" was, in fact, composed at the healthiest period of Cowper's later life, in the full vigour of his faculties, and the additional spur that he was well aware the semi-recognition of his first volume had made it a common subject of literary discussion, whether he was a poet or not. Many men could endure -as indeed all but about ten do actually in every generation endure

- to be without this distinction, but few could have an idea that it was a frequent point of argument whether they were duly entitled or not, without at least a strong desire to settle the question by some work of decisive excellence. This the “ Task " achieved for Cowper. Since its publication his name has been a household word-a particularly household word in English literature. The story of its composition is connected with one of the most curious incidents in Cowper's later life, and has given occasion to a good deal of writing.

In the summer of 1781 it happened that two ladies called at a shop exactly opposite the house at Olney where Cowper and Mrs. Unwin resided. One of these was a familiar and perhaps tame object,-a Mrs. Jones,—the wife of a neighbouring parson; the other, however, was so striking, that Cowper, one of the shyest and least demonstrative of men, immediately asked Mrs. Unwin to invite her to tea. This was a great event, and it would appear that few or no social interruptions, casual or contemplated, then varied what Cowper called the “duality of his existence." This favoured individual was Lady Austen, a person of what Mr. Hayley terms “colloquial talents ;” in truth an energetic, vivacious, amusing, and rather handsome lady of the world. She had been much in France, and is said to have caught the facility of manner and love of easy society, which is the unchanging characteristic of that land of change. She was a fascinating person in the great world, and it is not difficult to imagine she must have been an excitement indeed at Olney. She was, however, most gracious; fell in love, as Cowper says, not only with him but with Mrs. Unwin; was called “Sister Ann," laughed and made laugh, was altogether so great an acquisition that his seeing her seemed in his view to show “strong marks of providential interposition.” He thought her superior to the curate's wife, who was a “valuable person," but had a family, &c., &c. The new acquaintance had much to contribute to the Olney conversation. She had seen much of the world, and probably seen it well, and had at least a good deal to narrate concerning it.

Among other interesting matters she one day recounted to Cowper the story



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of John Gilpin, as one which she had heard in childhood, and in a short time the poet sent her the ballad, which every one has liked ever since. It was written, he says, no doubt truly, in order to relieve a fit of terrible and uncommon despondency; but altogether, for a few months after the introduction of this new companion, he was more happy and animated than at any other time after his first illness. Clouds, however, began to show themselves soon. The circumstances are of the minute and female kind, which it would require a good deal of writing to describe, even if we knew them perfectly. The original cause of misconstruction was a rather romantic letter of Lady Austen, drawing a sublime picture of what she expected from Cowper's friendship. Mr. Scott, the curate of Olney, who had taken the place of Mr. Newton, and who is described as a dry and sensible man, gave a short account of what he thought was the real embroilment. Who," said he, “can be surprised that two women should be daily in the society of one man and then quarrel with one another ?

From a scene of the most uninterrupted retirement,” he says to Mr. Unwin, “we have passed at once into a state of constant engagement. Not that our society is much multiplied; the addition of an individual has made all this difference. Lady Austen and we pass our days alternately at each other's chateau. In the morning I walk with one or other of the ladies, and in the afternoon wind thread. Thus did Hercules, and thus probably did Samson, and thus do I; and were both those heroes living. I should not fear to challenge them to a trial of skill in that business, or doubt to beat them both. As to killing lions and other amusements of that kind, with which they were so delighted, I should be their humble servant and beg to be excused.”

Things were in this state when she suggested to him the composition of a new poem of some length in blank verse, and on being asked to suggest a subject, said, Well, write upon that

a “sofa,” whence is the title of the first book of the “ Task.” According to Cowper's own account, it was this poem which was the cause of the ensuing dissension.

“On her first settlement in our neighbourhood, I made it my own particular business, (for at that time I was not employed in writing, having published my first volume, and not begun my second) to pay my devoirs to her ladyship every morning at eleven. Customs very soon become laws. I began the Task; for she was the lady who gave me the Sofa for a subject. Being once engaged in the work, I began to feel the inconvenience of my morning attendance. We had seldom breakfasted ourselves till ten; and the intervening hour was all the time that I could find in the whole day for writing; and occasionally it would happen that the half of

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that hour was all that I could secure for the purpose. But there was no remedy. Long usage had made that which at first was optional, a point of good manners, and consequently of necessity, and I was forced to neglect the Task, to attend upon the Muse who had inspired the subject. But she had ill health, and before I had quite finished the work was obliged to repair to Bristol."

And it is possible that this is the true account of the matter. Yet we fancy there is a kind of awkwardness and constraint in the manner in which it is spoken of. Of course, the plain and literal portion of mankind have set it down at once that Cowper was in love with Lady Austen, just as they married him over and over again to Mrs. Unwin. But of a strong passionate love, as we have before explained, we do not think Cowper capable, and there are certainly no signs of it in this case. There is, however, one odd circumstance. Years after, when no longer capable of original composition, he was fond of hearing all his poems read to him except “ John Gilpin.” There were recollections, he said, connected with those verses which were too painful. Did he mean, the worm that dieth not -the reminiscence of the animated narratress of that not intrinsically melancholy legend ?

The literary success of Cowper opened to him a far larger circle of acquaintance, and connected him in close bonds with many of his relations, who had looked with an unfavourable eye at the peculiar tenets which he had adopted, and the peculiar and recluse life which he had been advised to lead. It is to these friends and acquaintance that we owe that copious correspondence on which so much of Cowper's fame at present rests. The complete letter-writer is now an unknown animal. In the last century, when communications were difficult and epistles rare, there were a great many valuable people who devoted a good deal of time to writing elaborate letters. You wrote letters to a man whom you knew nineteen years and a half ago, and told him what you had for dinner, and what your second cousin said, and how the crops got on. Every detail of life was described, and dwelt on, and improved. The art of writing, at least of writing easily, was comparatively rare, which kept the number of such compositions within narrow limits. Sir Walter Scott says he knew a man who remembered that the London postbag once came to Edinburgh with only one letter in it. One can fancy the solemn conscientious elaborateness with which a person would write, with the notion that his letter would have a whole coach and a whole bag to itself, and travel two hundred miles alone, the exclusive object of a red guard's care. The only thing like it now-the deferential minuteness with which one public office writes to another,

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