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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
After such enthusiasm, who will not lament to find the poet conclude with lines like these :
But stop, my Muse
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 that to which it is applied.
Of this we have a very eminent example in the ode entituled 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 postillion Nature mount, and let
Every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence; yet I cannot refuse myself the four next lines :
Mount, glorious queen, thy travelling throne,
And bid it to put on;
In the same ode, celebrating the power of the Muse, he gives her prescience, or, in poetical language, the foresight of events hatching in futurity ; but, having once an egg in his mind, he cannot forbear to show us, that he knows what an egg contains.
Thou into the close nests of Time dost peep,
And there with piercing eye
Years to come a-forming lie,
The same thought is more generally, and therefore more poetically expressed by Casimir, a writer who has many of the beauties and faults of Cowley :
Omnibus Mundi Dominator horis
Crescit in annos.
Cowley, whatever was his subject, seems to have been carried, by a kind of destiny, to the light and the familiar, or to conceits which require still more ignoble epithets. A slaughter in the Red Sea new dies the water's name; and England, during the civil war, was Albion no iure, nor to be named from white. It is surely by some fascination not easily surmounted, that a writer, professing to revive the noblest and highest wriling in verse, makes this address to the new year:
Nay, if thou lov'st me, gentle Year,
Although I fear
Yet, gentle Year, take heed
Such a mistake;
The reader of this will be inclined to cry out with Prior
Ye critics, say,
How poor to this was Pindar's style ? Even those, who cannot perhaps find in the Isthmian or Nemæan songs what Antiquity has disposed them to expect, will at least see, that they are ill-represented by
such puny poetry; and all will determine, that if this be the old Theban strain, it is not worthy of revival.
To the disproportion and incongruity of Cowley's sentiments must be added the uncertainty and looseness of his measures. He takes the liberty of using in any place a verse of any length, from two syllables to twelve. The verses of Pindar have, as he observes, very little harmony to a modern ear; yet, by examining the sylla. bles, we perceive them to be regular, and have reason enough for supposing, that the ancient audiences were delighted with the sound. The imitator ought therefore to have adopted what he found, and to have added what was wanting; to have preserved a constant return of the same numbers, and to have supplied smoothness of transition and continuity of thought.
It is urged by Dr. Sprat, that the irregularity of numbers is the cery thing which makes that kind of poesy fit for all manner of subjects. But he should have remembered, that what is fit for every thing can fit nothing well. The great pleasure of verse arises from the known measure of the lines, and uniform structure of the stan. zas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
If the Pindaric style be, what Cowley thinks it, the highest and noblest kind of writing in verse, it can be adapted only to high and noble subjects; and it will not be easy to reconcile the poet with the critic, or to conceive how that can be the highest kind of writing in verse, which, according to Sprat, is chiefly to be preferred for its near affinity to prose.
This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren, and flattered the laziness of the idle, that it immediately overspread our books of poetry; all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion, and they that could do nothing else could write like Pindar. The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disor- . der tried to break into the Latin: a poem on the Sheldonian Theatre 3, in which all kinds of verse are shaken together, is unhappily inserted in the Musæ Anglicanæ. Pindarism prevailed about half a century; but at last died gradually away, and other imitations supply its place.
The Pindaric Odes have so long enjoyed the highest degree of poetical reputation, that I am not willing to dismiss them with unabated censure; and surely, though the mode of their composition be erroneous, yet many parts deserve at least that ad. miration, which is due to great comprehension of knowledge, and great fertility of fancy. The thoughts are often new, and often striking; but the greatness of one part is disgraced by the littleness of another; and total negligence of language gives the noblest conceptions the appearance of a fabric, august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise; of which it may be said with truth, that no man but Cowley could have written them.
The Davideis now remains to be considered : a poem which the author designed to have extended to twelve books, merely, as he makes no scruple of declaring, because the Æneid had that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epic poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser,
3 First published in quarto, 1669, under the title of Carmen Pindaricum in Theatrum Sheldonianum in solennibus magnifici Operis Encæniis. Recitatum Julii die 9, Anno 1669, a Corbetto Owen, A, B. Æd, Chr. Alumno Authore, R.
and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for in this undertaking Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscar. ried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author generally read, and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis do mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden, in Mack Flecknoe, it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice from its publication till now, in the whole succession of English literature.
of this silence and neglect, if the reason be inquired, it will be found partly in the choice of the subject, and partly in the performance of the work.
Sacred history has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overawed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of Divine Power are above the power of human genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language: He spake the word, and they were made.
We are told that Saul was troubled with an evil spirit ; from this Cowley takes an opportunity of describing Hell, and telling the history of Lucifer, who was, he says,
Once general of a gilded host of sprites,
And roard at his first plunge into the fame. Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is something of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and, to give efficacy to his words, concludes by lashing his breast with his long tail Envy, after a pause, steps out, and among other declarations of her zeal, utters these lines :
Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply,
Leaving their boasting songs tun'd to a sphere,
It is not only when the events are confessedly miraculous, that fancy and fiction lose their effect: the whole system of life, while the theocracy was yet visible, has an appearance so different from all other scenes of human action, that the reader of the sacred volume habitually considers it as the peculiar mode of existence of a dis. tinct species of mankind, that lived and acted with manners uncommunicable; so that it is difficult even for imagination to place us in the state of them whose story is related, and by consequence their joys and griefs are not easily adopted, nor can the attention be often interested in any thing that befalls them.
To the subject, thus originally indisposed to the reception of poetical embellish. ments, the writer brought little that could reconcile impatience, or attract curiosity. Nothing can be more disgusting than a narrative spangled with conceits; and conceits are all that the Davideis supplies.
One of the great sources of poetical delight is description", or the power of presenting pictures to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of images, and shows not what may be supposed to have been seen, but what thoughts the sight might have suggested. When Virgil describes the stone which Turnus lifted against Æneas, he fixes the attention on its bulk and weight:
Saxum circumspicit ingens,
Cowley says of the stone with which Cain slew his brother,
I saw him fing the stone, as if he meant
Of the sword taken from Goliah, he says,
A sword so great, that it was only fit
Other poets describe death by some of its common appearances. Cowley says, with a learned allusion to sepulchral lamps real or fabulous,
'Twixt his right ribs deep pierced the furious blade,
But he has allusions vulgar as well as learned. In a visionary succession of kings,
Joas at first does bright and glorious show,
Describing an undisciplined army, after having said with elegance,
His forces seem'd no army, but a crowd
he gives them a fit of the ague.
The allusions however, are not always to vulgar things; he offends by exaggera. tion as much as by diminution :
• Dr. Warton discovers some contrariety of opinion between this, and what is said of description in P. 49. C.