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Wrliing, man's spiritual physic, was not then
As the Davideis affords only four books, though intended to consist of twelve, there is no no opportunity for such criticism as epic poems commonly supply. The plan of the whole work is very imperfectly shown by the third part. The duration of an unfinished action cannot be known. Of characters either not yet in. troduced, or shown but upon few occasions, the full extent and the nice discriminations cannot be ascertained. The fable is plainly implex, formed rather from the Odyssey than the Iliad : and many artifices of diversification are employed, with the skill of a man acquainted with the best models. The past is recalled by nar. ration, and the future anticipated by vision : but he has been so lavish of his poeti. cal art, that it is difficult to imagine how he could fill eight books more without practising again the same modes of disposing his matter; and perhaps the perception of this growing iocumbrance inclined him to stop. By this abruption, posterity lost more instruction than delight. If the continuation of the Davideis can be missed, it is for the learning that had been diffused over it, and the notes in which it had been explained.
Had not his characters been depraved, like every other part, by improper decora, tions, they would have deserved uncommon praise. He gives Saul both the body and mind of a hero :
His way once chose, he forward thrust outright,
And the different beauties of the lofty Merah and the gentle Michol are very justly conceived and strongly painted.
Rymer has declared the Davideis superior to the Jerusalem of Tasso, " which," says he, “ the pot, with all his care, has not totally purged from pedantry.” If by pedantry is meant that minute knowledge which is derived from particular sciences and studies, in opposition to the general notions supplied by a wide survey of life and nature, Cowley certainly errs, by introducing pedantry, far more frequently than Tasso. I kuow not, indeed, why they should be compared; for the resemblance of Cowley's work to Tasso's, is only that they both exhibit the agency of celestial and infernal spirits, in which however they differ widely; for Cowley supposes them commonly to operate upon the mind by suggestion; Tasso represents them as promoting or obstructing events by external agency.
Of particular passages that can be properly compared, I remember only the de. scription of Heaven, in which the different manner of the two writers is sufficiently discernible. Cawley's is scarcely description, unless it be possible to describe by negatives ; for he tells us only what there is not in Heaven. Tasso endeavours to represent the splendours and pleasures of the regions of happiness. Tasso af. fords images, and Cowley sentiments. It happens, however, that Tasso's description afiords some reason for Rymer's censure. He says of the Supreme Being,
Ha sotto i piedi e fato e la natura
The second line has in it more of pedantry than perhaps can be found in any other stanza of the poem.
In the perusal of the Davideis, as of all Cowley's works, we find wit and learn. ing unprofitably squandered. Attention has no relief; the affections are never mored; we are sometimes surprised, but never delighted, and find much to admire, but little to a prove. Still however, it is the work of Cowley, of a mind capacious by nature, and replenished by study.
In the general review of Cowley's poetry it will be found, that he wrote with abundant fertility, but negligent or unskilful selection; with much thought,, but with little imagery; that he is never pathetic, and rarely sublime; but always either ingenious or learned, either acute or profound.
It is said by Denham in his elegy,
To him no author was unknown,
This wide position requires less limitation, when it is affirmed of Cowley, than per. haps of any other poet.-Ile read much, and yet borrowed little.
His character of writing was indeed not his own: he unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise ; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure in its spring was bright and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows.
He was in his own time considered as of unrivalled excellence. Clarendon repre. sents him as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him ; and Milton is said to have declared, that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shak. speare, and Cowley.
His manner he had in common with others; but his sentiments were his own. Upon every subject he thought for himself; and such was his copiousness of knowledge, that something at once remote and applicable rushed into his mind; yet it is not likely that he always rejected a commodious idea merely because another had used it: his known wealth was so great, that he might have borrowed without loss of credit.
In his elegy on sir Henry Wotton, the last lines have such resemblance to the noble epigram of Grotius on the death of Scaliger, that I cannot but think them co. pied from it, though they are copied by no servile hand.
One passage in his Mistress is so apparently borrowed from Donne, that he pro. bably would not have written it, had it not mingled with his own thoughts, so as that he did not perceive himself taking it from another ;
Although I think thou never found wilt be,
Yet l'm resolv'd to search for thee;
The search itself rewards the pains.
Yet things well worth his toil he gains :
And does his charge and labour pay
Some that have deeper lige'd Love's mine than 1,
I have lor'd, and got, and told;
Oh, 'tis imposture all!
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befal
So livers dream a rich and long delight,
Jonson and Donne, as Dr. Hurd remarks, were then in the highest esteem.
It is related by Clarendon, that Cowley always acknowledges his obligation to the learning and industry of Jonson ; but I have found no traces of Jonson in his works: to emulate Donne appears to have been his purpose; and from Donne he may have learned that familiarity with religious images, and that light allusion i sacred things, by which readers far short of sanctity are frequently offended; 2:1d which would not be borne in the present age, when devotion, perhaps not sore fervent, is more delicate.
Having produced one passage taken by Cowley from Donne, I will recompense 1: by another which Milton seems to have borrowed from him. He says of Goliah,
His spear, the trunk was of a lofty tree,
Milton of Satan :
His spear, to equal which the tallest rine
Ilis diction was in his own time censured as negligent. He seems not to have known, or not to have considered, that words, being arbitrary, must owe their power ..) association, and have the influence, and that only, which custom has given them. anguage is the dress of thought: and as the noblest mien, or most graceful action, Ad be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of stics or mechanics; so the most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and e most splendid ideas dro their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used
commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and conta. minated by inelegant applications.
Truth indeed is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have an intrinsi and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual gold which defies destruction ; but gold may be so concealed in baser matter, that only a chymist can recover it : sense may be so hidden in unrefined and plebeian words, that none but philosophers can distinguish it; and both may be so buried in impurities, as not to pay the cosi of their extraction.
The diction, being the vehicle of the thoughts, first presents itself to the intei. lectual eye: and if the first appearance oflends, a further knowledge is not ofte! sought. Whatever professes to benefit by pleasing, must please at once. The pleasures of the mind imply something sudden and unexpected ; that which elevates must always surprise. What is perceived by slow degrees may gratify us with consciousness of improvement, but will never strike with the sense of pleasure.
Of all this, Cowley appears to have been without knowledge, or without care. He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase: he has no ele. gaucies either lucky or elaborate: as his endeavours were rather to impress sentence: upon the understanding than images on the fancy; he has few epithets, and those scattered without peculiar propriety or pice adaptation. It seems to follow from the necessity of the subject, rather than the care of the writer, that the diction of his heroic poem is less familiar than that of his slightest writings. He has given not the same numbers, but the same diction, to the gentle Anacreon and the tempestue ous Pindar.
His versification seems to have had very little of his care; and if what he thinks be true, that his numbers are unmusical only when they are ill-read, the art of reading them is at present lost; for they are commonly harsh to modern ears. He has indeed many noble lines, such as the feeble care of Waller never could produce. The bulk of his thoughts sometimes swelled his verse to unexpected and inevitable gran. deur ; but his excellence of this kind is merely fortuitous: he sinks willingly down to his general carelessness,' and avoids with very little care either meanness or asperity.
His contractions are often rugged and harsh:
One Aings a mountain, and its rivers too
His rhymes are very often made by pronouns, or particles, or the like unimportant words, which disappoint the ear, and destroy the energy of the line.'
His combination of different measures is sometimes dissonant and unpleasing; he joins verses together, of which the former does not slide easily into the latter.
The words do and did, which so much degrade in present estimation the line that admits them, were in the time of Cowley little censured or avoided : how often he used them, and with how bad an effect, at least to our ears, will appear by a pas. sage, in which every reader will lament to see just and noble thoughts defrauded of their praise by inelegance of language:
Where honour or where conscience does not bind,
No other law shall shackle me;
Slave to myself I ne'er will be;
By my own present mind.
For days, that yet belong to Fate,
Before it falls into his hand;
The bondman of the cloister so,
Not to enjoy, but debts to pay!
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell!
His heroic lines are often formed of monosyllables; but yet they are sometimes sweet and sonorous.
He says of the Messiah,
Round the whole Farth his dreaded name shall sound,
In another place, of David,
Yet bid him go securely, when he sends;
Yet amidst his negligence he sometimes attempted an improved and scier:tific versification; of which it will be best to give his own account subjoined to this line:
Nor can the glory contain itself in th’ endless space. " I am sorry that it is necessary to admonish the most part of readers, that it is not by negligence that this verse is so loose, long, and, as it were, vast; it is to paint in 1. number the nature of the thing which it describes, which I would have observed in divers other places of this poem, that else will pass for very careless verses: as before,