« 上一頁繼續 »
The poet is a teacher and an advocate; his business is to wean the world from worldliness to God.'
At fifty years of age, then, and under the influence of his friend of fifteen years, Mrs. Unwin, Cowper began to realise his own powers as a poet, and systematically to carry into practice this theory of the poct's duty. Already in 1776 the gloom of his second period of insanity had begun to roll away; he renewed his broken correspondence; he took to busying himself about the garden and the house at Olney. His brightest and most active years are those that follow-the fifteen years that begin with the renewal of his correspondence and end with the publication of his Homer. It was about 1780 that he began to find his glazing and his carpentering, and even his landscape-drawing not enough; to find it unsatisfying
To raise the prickly and green coated gourd,'
and to look for a more solid occupation than
'Weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit,
Or twining silken threads on ivory reels.'
1 April 6, 1780.
He asked for some employment more permanently exciting, and he found it in versifying on the themes set by Mrs. Unwin. What pleasure he gained from his new occupation is told in part in the poems themselves, and is reiterated in those volumes of narrative, humour, chat, argument, criticism, which are the daily record of Cowper's mind, and which so completely justify the title that Southey claimed for him of 'the best letter-writer in the English language.' In his poems, indeed, Cowper has revealed himself with a winning naïveté that is almost without example; and when we add to the autobiographical passages in Retirement and The Task the friendly confidences of the letters, we find that there remains nothing for the critic to interpret. Cowper explains himself with a simple frankness that makes half his charm.
For example, the letters abound with passages which show on' the one hand the pleasure that he derived from his newly-found gift of writing, and on the other the moral and religious aim that he believed himself to be fulfilling in his poetry. The necessity of amusement makes me sometimes write verses,' he says to William Unwin'; 'it made me a carpenter, a bird-cage maker, a gardener, and has lately taught me to draw.' Again, in a latter to Newton 2 : 2 Dec. 21, 1780.
'At this season of the year, and in this gloomy uncomfortable climate, it is no easy matter for the owner of a mind like mine to divest it from sad subjects and to fix it upon such as may administer to its amusement. Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect. While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagree-* able recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again.'
In a later letter to the same friend1, which refers still more painfully to his mental distress, he says:—
'God knows that my mind having been occupied more than twelve years in the contemplation of the most distressing subjects, the world, and its opinion of what I write, is become as unimportant to me as the whistling of a bird in a bush. Despair made amusement necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement. Had I not endeavoured to perform my best, it would not have amused me at all. The mere blotting of so much paper would have been but indifferent sport. wish that I might not write in vain.'
God give me grace also to
And again, as a reason for publishing,
'If I did not publish what I write, I could not interest myself sufficiently in my own success to make an amusement of it.'
Of course, however, as the second of these extracts shows, he has a deeper reason for writing than this; the preacher's and the moralist's reason, that appears so clearly in every page of his poems. My sole drift is to be useful,' he writes to his cousin Mrs. Cowper2; 'a point however which I know I should in vain aim at, unless I could be likewise entertaining.' To Lady Austen, in his well-known letter in verse, he appears as
'I, who scribble rhyme
To catch the triflers of the time,
And tell them truths divine and clear
Which, couched in prose, they will not hear.'
To Unwin he speaks of his first volume as
That would reclaim a vicious age.'
Table Talk, the opening poem, is, it will be remembered, an argument to prove that the true field of poetry is the beauty of religion, till then an unexplored land; and that the poet's true function is to
1 Aug. 6, 1785.
* Oct. 19, 1781.
'Spread the rich discovery, and invite Mankind to share in the divine delight.'
And in the beautiful lines which close Retirement, he claims the position of a teacher of mankind :
'Me poetry (or rather notes that aim
Employs, shut out from more important views,
And while I teach an art too little known,
From the Letters too we can learn much of Cowper's method of composition; enough at least to correct the first impression which we might derive from his poetry, that it was the work of a rapid and even careless writer. 'If there lives a man who stands clear of the charge of careless writing, I am that man,' he says to Lady Hesketh, in answer to some criticisms of his Homer made by General Cowper. His facility is unquestionable; but it is a fact that he composed slowly. He took Nulla dies sine linea for a motto, and when once he had taken up the profession of a poet he persevered in it, contenting himself, when Minerva was unwilling, with three lines of The Task as a day's production, and thinking three lines better than nothing. When the translation of Homer was in hand the work went on with the utmost regularity. 'I have, as you well know,' he tells Unwin, 'a daily occupation-forty lines to translate, a task which I never excuse myself when it is possible to perform it. Equally sedulous am I in the matter of transcribing, so that between both my morning and evening are for the most part completely engaged.' Transcribing however he thought slavish work, and of all occupations that which I dislike the most'; and accordingly he was glad when friends relieved him by copying some of the Homer. He deferred to the criticism of those about him, and was glad when his publisher, Johnson, suggested an alteration in a phrase. When Newton, of whom to the last he seems to have stood somewhat in awe, condemned a passage, Cowper consented with the best grace to remove it :— 'I am glad you have condemned it; and though I do not feel as if I could presently supply its place, shall be willing to attempt the task, whatever labour it may cost me'.' In effect we may say that
1 Nov. 27, 1781.
during the five years which ended with the publication of The Task, and to a certain extent during the years when Cowper was employed on this Homer, the writing and recasting of his poetry filled all his mind. The 'pleasure in poetic pains which only poets know' was known to him conspicuously among poets; the critical spirit within him, that independent and fastidious taste for which he is so remarkable, found full exercise; and in the excitement of doing his true work in the most perfect way he seems to have almost forgotten the cloud which had overshadowed him and was soon to return.
The Letters, again, tell us much of Cowper's opinions of other poets. We have already quoted the passage in which he speaks of his scanty reading of them—‘not more than one English poet for twenty years.' As Southey remarks, this probably means that he had not read more than one with minute care; with such care as he afterwards spent on Glover's Athenaid, when by way of preparing to review it he 'made an analysis of the first twelve books.' In his youth he had evidently been a reader of poetry, and he had an excellent memory." When Johnson's collection was sent to him in 1779 he found that the best poets were 'so fresh in his memory' that the collection taught him nothing. He is fond of mentioning Churchill, the admiration of his early manhood, with something more than respect; here and there he has an acute remark about Pope, as when he says 'never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united'.' He often falls foul of Johnson, ‘a great bear, in spite of all his learning and penetration.' He dissents from his view of Prior, and argues with great skill for a proper recognition of Prior's real poetical merits 2, while he is so enraged by the Doctor's attack on Milton that he breaks into the cry, 'O, I could thrash his old jacket till his pension jingled in his pocket!' All this shows that Cowper had a clear taste of his own in poetry, a goût vif et franc, as Sainte-Beuve calls it in his excellent criticism of him, but it does not show that he was a student of English poetry, any more than his quotations from Swift and Rabelais show that he read much and often in their books, or than the Horatian turn of his didactic pieces show that he was always reading Horace. The truth is, as we have all along implied, that Cowper is original if the word means anything. ‘My descriptions,' he writes of The Task, ' are all from nature ;-nut one
· Jan 5, 1782.
2 Jan. 17, 1783.
of them second-handed. My delincations of the heart are from my own experience ;—not one of them borrowed from books, or in the least degree conjectural. In my numbers, which I varied as much as I could (for blank verse without variety of numbers is no better than bladder and string), I have imitated nobody, though sometimes perhaps there may be an apparent resemblance; because at the same time that I would not imitate, I have not affectedly differed.'
It is this originality, this veracity, this exact correspondence of the phrase with the feeling, and of both with the object, that marks out Cowper. We sometimes hear it said that he owed much, especially in versification, to Churchill; if he owed anything, it was so much bettered in the borrowing' that it is hard to discover the debt. The very foundation of his poetry is his close observation of men and things: the same close observation that fills his letters with happily touched incidents of village life, with characters sketched in a sentence, furnishes the groundwork of The Task and the satires. The snow-covered fields, the waggon toiling through the drifts, 'the distant plough slow moving,' the garden, the fireside; the gipsies, the village thief, the clerical coxcomb Dubius, Sir Smug— of all these he gives us not only finished pictures, but pictures finished in the presence of the object and not in the studio. 'The Flemish masters have met their match!' says Sainte-Beuve, as he quotes with del ght one of these descriptions of Cowper's; might we not say with even greater truth, 'The English landscape painters have found their pattern'?
Yet it is undoubtedly true that Cowper is little read by the very class which is most given to the reading of poetry, and most competent to judge it. He is a favourite with the middle classes; he is not a favourite with the cultivated classes. What are the limitations of his genius which prevent his acceptance with them? Mr. Arnold, who long ago called Cowper 'that most interesting man and excellent poet,' perhaps sums them up when he speaks of Cowper's 'morbid religion and lumbering movement.' If we are to look to poetry for the successful 'application of ideas to life,' we shall look in vain to The Task; for the ideas are those of an inelastic puritanism, that would maim and mutilate life in the name of religion. 'Were I to write as many poems as Lope de Vega or Voltaire,' says Cowper, 'not one of them would be without this tincture,'-this puritanic tincture. He began with the resolve to make religion poetical, and he succeeded in making