« 上一頁繼續 »
[WILLIAM COWPER was born at the rectory, Great Berkhamstead, Nov. 26, 1731. His father, the rector of the parish, was a nephew of Lord Chancellor Cowper; his mother was Ann Donne, of the family of Dr. John Donne, the celebrated Dean of St. Paul's. Cowper was educated at a private school and afterwards at Westminster, where Vincent Bourne was a master, and Warren Hastings, Robert Lloyd, Colman, and Churchill were among the boys. After leaving Westminster he became a member of the Middle Temple and was articled to a solicitor, a Mr. Chapman, one of his fellow clerks being Thurlow, afterwards Lord Chancellor. During his three years under Mr. Chapman, he saw much of the family of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, with one of whose daughters, Theodora, he formed a deep attachment. Another daughter, Harriet, afterwards Lady Hesketh, was in the later years of his life one of his warmest friends. The engagement of marriage with Theodora was not sanctioned by her father; and this disappointment, with other troubles, seems to have greatly affected Cowper, and to have prepared the way for his first attack of insanity, which took place in 1763. The immediate cause was the excitement occasioned by his appointment to two clerkships in the House of Lords, at the hands of his uncle, Major Cowper. His malady was intensified by the injudicious handling he received from his cousin Martin Madan, a strong Calvinist, and it was only after a stay of fifteen months under the care of the amiable physician and verse-writer, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, at St. Alban's, that he recovered. He did not resume work in London, but went to live at Huntingdon. There he fell in with the Unwins, and there began their lifelong intimacy. After Mr Unwin's death (1767) Cowper removed with Mrs. Unwin to Olney, where they remained till 1786. The peace of Cowper's life at Olney was shaken in 1773 by a second attack of melancholia, which lasted for sixteen months. Before and after that time he corres; onded freely with many friends; he joined with John Newton, curate-in-charge at Olney, in composing the Olney Hymns (published 1779); but it was not till December 1780 that he began seriously to write poetry, having deserted the art since the days of his early love-verses to 'Delia.' His first volume, containing Table Talk, Conversation, Retirement, and the other didactic poems, was published in 1782; his second, containing The Task, Tirocinium, and among others the ballad of John Gilpin
(which had been published in a newspaper, and had become famous through the recitations of Henderson the actor), appeared in 1785. The subjects of both John Gilpin and The Task were suggested to Cowper by Lady Austen, a fascinating person who for some years was on intimate terms with him and Mrs. Unwin. Afterwards he began his translation of Homer, which was completed and published in 1791. The last years of his life, from 1791 to 1800, were years of great misery. Mrs. Unwin was paralytic from 1791 to her death in 1796; he himself was suffering from hopeless dejection, regarding himself, as he had done since his first attack, as an outcast from God. He died at East Derehamı, in Norfolk, April 25, 1800.]
The pathos of Cowper's life and his position in our poetical history will always lend a special interest to his work, even though it is no longer possible to regard a poet limited as he was as a poet of the first order. He was an essentially original writer, owing much of course, as every writer must owe, to the subtle influences of his time, but deriving as little as ever poet derived from literary study. "I have not read more than one English poet for twenty years, and but one for thirteen years,' he says in one of his letters of the year 1782; and though that would seem to be an exaggeration, it is akin to a truth-that in mature life at least, he cared little for reading English poetry, and owed little to it. It is true that he formed his blank verse on the model of Milton, and that Churchill, 'the great Churchill,' gave him a pattern in the use of the heroic couplet which he soon surpassed; but essentially he stands alone, as remote from the stream of eighteenth-century verse as his life at Olney was remote from the public life of his day. The poet of Retirement and The Task is the beginning of a new order in poetry; he is one of the first symptoms, if not the originator, of the revolution in style which is soon to become a revolution in ideas. The 'clear, crisp English' of his verse is not the work of a man who belongs to a school, or who follows some conventional pattern. It is for his amusement, he repeats again and again in his letters, that he is a poet; just as it has been for his amusement that he has worked in the garden and made rabbit-hutches. He writes because it pleases him, without a thought of his fame or of contriving what the world will admire. The Task, his most characteristic poem, is indeed a work of great labour; but the labour is not directed, as Pope's labour was directed, towards methodising or arranging the material, towards working up the argument, towards forcing the ideas into the most striking situations. The labour is in the cadences and the
language; as for the thoughts, they are allowed to show themselves just as they come, in their natural order, so that the poem reads like the speech of a man talking to himself. To turn from a poem of Cowper's to a poem of Pope's, or even of Goldsmith's, is to turn from one sphere of art to quite another, from unconscious to conscious art. 'Formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery,' as Southey said; and how much that means! It means that the day of critical and so-called classical poetry is over; that the day of spontaneous, natural, romantic poetry has begun. Burns and Wordsworth are not yet, but they are close at hand.
The time at which Cowper, then fifty years of age, was writing and publishing his first volume, was not a time of mental stagnation in England, nor a time when poetry was not in fashion. On the contrary, it was an epoch of great mental activity; it was the epoch of Adam Smith and Hume, of Gibbon and Robertson, of Brindley and Watt. More than that, it was the epoch at which two great rival Collections of the British poets-the first that had ever been made-were being published with much success. But it was an epoch at which nothing of any value was being produced in poetry; Gray, Goldsmith, Chatterton were dead, and they had left no successors. Cowper has preserved for us with no smail pride the letter in which 'one of the first philosophers, one of the most eminent literary characters' of the age, Dr. Franklin, acknowledges the receipt of his volume, sent by a common friend. 'The relish for the reading of poetry had long since left me, but there is something so new in the manner, so easy and yet so correct in the language, so clear in the expression, yet concise, and so just in the sentiments, that I have read the whole with great pleasure, and some of the pieces more than once.' If we wish to appreciate what Dr. Franklin meant by this 'something so new in the manner,' we have only to turn to any of the volumes which contain what passed current as poetry at the moment; to the volumes of the Gentleman's Magazine, for example, or (to go back a few years) to some of the Collections or volumes of Miscellanies that the publishers of the time were fond of issuing. Dodsley's is one instance; another is Pearch's Collection of Poems by several hands, printed in four volumes in 1768-70. Much of the space is occupied by the work of well-known writers, that has survived and has always been celebrated-the work of Collins and Johnson for example. But the crowd, the forgotten crowd that fill the bulk of the volumes, they are the
writers who represent the average poetical level of the time, the level out of which Cowper suddenly emerged to charm Dr. Franklin. Mr. Cawthorne, Mr. Emily, Mr. Cunningham, Miss Carter, Mrs. Greville, and a hundred others, are the channels into which the river of eighteenth-century verse diffused itself before it was finally lost in the sand. It is harmless enough, this verse; it is not 'noise and nonsense,' like the Della Cruscan productions of twenty years later; but it is incurably banal, it wholly lacks distinction. When the excellent Miss Carter, the translator of Epictetus, has to write an Ode to Melancholy (and odes to Melancholy, to Concord, to Ambition, are the staple of the volumes) she begins :
'Come, melancholy, silent pow'r,
To sober thought confin'd;
When Mr. Henley writes an Ode to Evening, he can choose no more individual metre than that in which Collins had written his Ode a few years before. The publishers of the Collection speak of it with pride, as representing ‘an age in which literary merit so much abounds'; but the candid modern reader finds the merit to be but the merit of a more than Chinese uniformity. Poor Robert Lloyd, Cowper's and Colman's friend, was nearer the mark when he said, just at this time,
'Write what we will, our works bespeak us
Imi atores, servum pecus.
Tale, elegy, or lofty ode,
We travel on the beaten road:
The proverb still sticks closely by us-
In what precisely does this 'something so new in the manner' of Cowper's work consist? There is much debate among modern critics as to the answer to this question, which really is the question of Cowper's place in our literary history: some1 claiming for him a kinship with Rousseau, a spirit like that of Byron and Shelley-a revolutionary spirit that he certainly would not have claimed for himself; others-and this is the common viewagreeing with Mr. Arnold that he is 'the precursor of Words 1 Taine, Stopford Brooke, Pattison.
worth.' It would be truer to say that in his own curious and limited way Cowper contains both these elements, the Byronic and the Wordsworthian element; and that in so doing he embodies all the intellectual influences that were silently working around him towards the evolution of modern England. An interesting writer1 has characterised the tendencies of poetry in the latter half of the eighteenth century as 'love of natural description and attempts at a more vivid and wider delineation of human character and incident'; two tendencies which, we may add, are but different forms of one-of the revolt against convention both in art and society. The joy in natural objects, of which we have found traces in many writers since Thomson, begins to be linked with a sense of the brotherhood of mankind; to the religious mind (and the wide reach of the religious revival must be remembered) this sense of brotherhood and this sense of natural beauty being sharpened and strengthened by the belief in the near presence of the Creator and the Father of all. Cowper is the artist who has expressed in a new and permanent form this complex sentiment. He is the poet of the return to nature, and he is the poet of the simple human affections; both nature and humanity being of interest to him because of their divine source, and because of that alone. 'We are placed in the world,' he seems to say, 'by an omnipotent and irresponsible Being, on whose will our life and death, our health and sickness, our prosperity and adversity at every moment depend, and who decides at his pleasure the fate of empires and the issues of political events. The world as he made it is good, but the corruption of man has done much to spoil it. "God made the country and man made the town"; and though man cannot live without society, his vices are such that his towns soon become centres of corruption. Hence true beauty is to be found only in unadulterate Nature; trué pleasures only in the fields and woods, and in the simple offices of rural and domestic life. To watch Nature at her work; to meditate; to cultivate sympathy with those creatures that are, so to speak, most fresh from Nature's hand-with animals and the poor and the friends of your home-this is the only rational way to happiness; and to advocate this life is the poet's work. On the other hand, he may emphasise his teaching by contrast; by denouncing vice, by satire genial or severe; by drawing in outlines that all may recognise the harm of a departure from Nature Quarterly Review, July 1862.