Goldwin Smith.

Cowper online

. (page 5 of 9)
Online LibraryGoldwin SmithCowper → online text (page 5 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


published, he felt a keen interest in the success of his publication.
Yet he took its failure and the adverse criticism very calmly. With
all his sensitiveness, from irritable and suspicious egotism, such as
is the most common cause of moral madness, he was singularly free. In
this respect his philosophy served him well.

It may safely be said that the Moral Satires would have sunk into
oblivion if they had not been buoyed up by _The Task_.




CHAPTER V.

THE TASK.

Mrs. Unwin's influence produced the Moral Satires. _The Task_ was born
of a more potent inspiration. One day Mrs. Jones, the wife of a
neighbouring clergyman, came into Olney to shop, and with her came her
sister, Lady Austen, the widow of a Baronet, a woman of the world, who
had lived much in France, gay, sparkling and vivacious, but at the same
time full of feeling even to overflowing. The apparition acted like
magic on the recluse. He desired Mrs. Unwin to ask the two ladies to
stay to tea, then shrank from joining the party which he had himself
invited, ended by joining it, and, his shyness giving way with a rush,
engaged in animated conversation with Lady Austen, and walked with her
part of the way home. On her an equally great effect appears to have
been produced. A warm friendship at once sprang up, and before long
Lady Austen had verses addressed to her as Sister Anne. Her ladyship,
on her part, was smitten with a great love of retirement, and at the
same time with great admiration for Mr. Scott, the curate of Olney, as
a preacher, and she resolved to fit up for herself "that part of our
great building which is at present occupied by Dick Coleman, his wife
and child, and a thousand rats." That a woman of fashion, accustomed to
French salons, should choose such an abode, with a pair of Puritans for
her only society, seems to show that one of the Puritans at least must
have possessed great powers of attraction. Better quarters were found
for her in the Vicarage; and the private way between the gardens, which
apparently had been closed since Newton's departure, was opened again.

Lady Austen's presence evidently wrought on Cowper like an elixir:
"From a scene of the most uninterrupted retirement," he writes to Mrs.
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 evening 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." It was perhaps
while he was winding thread that Lady Austen told him the story of John
Gilpin. He lay awake at night laughing over it, and next morning
produced the ballad. It soon became famous, and was recited by
Henderson, a popular actor, on the stage, though, as its gentility was
doubtful, its author withheld his name. He afterwards fancied that
this wonderful piece of humour had been written in a mood of the
deepest depression. Probably he had written it in an interval of high
spirits between two such moods. Moreover he sometimes exaggerated his
own misery. He will begin a letter with a _de profundis_, and towards
the end forget his sorrows, glide into commonplace topics, and write
about them in the ordinary strain. Lady Austen inspired _John Gilpin_.
She inspired, it seems, the lines on the loss of the Royal George. She
did more: she invited Cowper to try his hand at something considerable
in blank verse. When he asked her for a subject, she was happier in
her choice than the lady who had suggested the _Progress of Error_.
8he bade him take the sofa on which she was reclining, and which, sofas
being then uncommon, was a more striking and suggestive object than it
would be now. The right chord was struck; the subject was accepted;
and _The Sofa_ grew into _The Task_; the title of the song reminding us
that it was "commanded by the fair." As _Paradise Lost_ is to militant
Puritanism, so is _The Task_ to the religious movement of its author's
time. To its character as the poem of a sect it no doubt owed and
still owes much of its popularity. Not only did it give beautiful and
effective expression to the sentiments of a large religious party, but
it was about the only poetry that a strict Methodist or Evangelical
could read; while to those whose worship was unritualistic and who were
debarred by their principles from the theatre and the concert, anything
in the way of art that was not illicit must have been eminently
welcome. But _The Task_ has merits of a more universal and enduring
kind. Its author himself says of it: - "If the work cannot boast a
regular plan (in which respect, however, I do not think it altogether
indefensible), it may yet boast, that the reflections are naturally
suggested always by the preceding passage, and that, except the fifth
book, which is rather of a political aspect, the whole has one
tendency, to discountenance the modern enthusiasm after a London life,
and to recommend rural ease and leisure as friendly to the cause of
piety and virtue." A regular plan, assuredly, _The Task_ has not. It
rambles through a vast variety of subjects, religious, political,
social, philosophical, and horticultural, with as little of method as
its author used in taking his morning walks. Nor as Mr. Benham has
shown, are the reflections, as a rule, naturally suggested by the
preceding passage. From the use of a sofa by the gouty to those, who
being free from gout, do not need sofas, - and so to country walks and
country life is hardly a natural transition. It is hardly a natural
transition from the ice palace built by a Russian despot, to despotism
and politics in general. But if Cowper deceives himself in fancying
that there is a plan or a close connexion of parts, he is right as to
the existence of a pervading tendency. The praise of retirement and of
country life as most friendly to piety and virtue, is the perpetual
refrain of The Task, if not its definite theme. From this idea
immediately now the best and the most popular passages: those which
please apart from anything peculiar to a religious school; those which
keep the poem alive; those which have found their way into the heart of
the nation, and intensified the taste for rural and domestic happiness,
to which they most winningly appeal. In these Cowper pours out his
inmost feelings, with the liveliness of exhilaration, enhanced by
contrast with previous misery. The pleasures of the country and of
home, the walk, the garden, but above all the "intimate delights" of
the winter evening, the snug parlour, with its close-drawn curtains
shutting out the stormy night, the steaming and bubbling tea-urn, the
cheerful circle, the book read aloud, the newspaper through which we
look out into the unquiet world, are painted by the writer with a
heartfelt enjoyment, which infects the reader. These are not the joys
of a hero, nor are they the joys of an Alcaeus "singing amidst the
clash of arms, or when he had moored on the wet shore his storm-tost
barque." But they are pure joys, and they present themselves in
competition with those of Ranelagh and the Basset Table, which are not
heroic or even masculine, any more than they are pure.

The well-known passages at the opening of _The Winter Evening_, are the
self-portraiture of a soul in bliss - such bliss as that soul could
know - and the poet would have found it very difficult to depict to
himself by the utmost effort of his religious imagination any paradise
which he would really have enjoyed more.

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.

* * * *

This folio of four pages, happy work!
Which not even critics criticise, that holds
Inquisitive attention while I read
Fast bound in chains of silence, which the fair,
Though eloquent themselves, yet fear to break,
What is it but a map of busy life,
Its fluctuations and its vast concerns?

* * * *

'Tis pleasant through the loop-holes of retreat
To peep at such a world. To see the stir
Of the great Babel and not feel the crowd.
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the injured ear.
Thus sitting and surveying thus at ease
The globe and its concerns, I seem advanced
To some secure and more than mortal height,
That liberates and exempts me from them all.
It turns submitted to my view, turns round
With all its generations; I behold
The tumult and am still. The sound of war
Has lost its terrors ere it reaches me,
Grieves but alarms me not. I mourn the pride
And avarice that make man a wolf to man,
Hear the faint echo of those brazen throats
By which he speaks the language of his heart,
And sigh, but never tremble at the sound.
He travels and expatiates, as the bee
From flower to flower, so he from land to land,
The manners, customs, policy of all
Pay contribution to the store he gleans;
He sucks intelligence in every clime,
And spreads the honey of his deep research
At his return, a rich repast for me,
He travels, and I too. I tread his deck,
Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes
Discover countries, with a kindred heart
Suffer his woes and share in his escapes,
While fancy, like the finger of a clock,
Runs the great circuit, and is still at home.
Oh winter! ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scatter'd hair with sleet like ashes fill'd,
Thy breath congeal'd upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fringed with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car indebted to no wheels,
And urged by storms along its slippery way;
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem'st,
And dreaded as thou art. Thou hold'st the sun
A prisoner in the yet undawning East,
Shortening his journey between morn and noon,
And hurrying him impatient of his stay
Down to the rosy West. But kindly still
Compensating his loss with added hours
Of social converse and instructive ease,
And gathering at short notice in one group
The family dispersed by daylight and its cares.
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb'd retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening know.

The writer of _The Task_ also deserves the crown which he has himself
claimed as a close observer and truthful painter of nature. In this
respect, he challenges comparison with Thomson. The range of Thomson
is far wider, he paints nature in all her moods, Cowper only in a few
and those the gentlest, though he has said of himself that "he was
always an admirer of thunderstorms, even before he knew whose voice be
heard in them, but especially of thunder rolling over the great
waters." The great waters he had not seen for many years; he had
never, so far as we know, seen mountains, hardly even high hills; his
only landscape was the flat country watered by the Ouse. On the other
hand he is perfectly genuine, thoroughly English, entirely emancipated
from false Arcadianism, the yoke of which still sits heavily upon
Thomson, whose "muse" moreover is perpetually "wafting" him away from
the country and the climate which he knows to countries and climates
which he does not know, and which he describes in the style of a prize
poem. Cowper's landscapes, too, are peopled with the peasantry of
England; Thomson's, with Damons, Palaemons, and Musidoras, tricked out
in the sentimental costume of the sham idyl. In Thomson, you always
find the effort of the artist working up a description; in Cowper, you
find no effort; the scene is simply mirrored on a mind of great
sensibility and high pictorial power.

And witness, dear companion of my walks,
Whose arm this twentieth winter I perceive
Fast lock'd in mine, with pleasure such as love,
Confirm'd by long experience of thy worth
And well-tried virtues, could alone inspire -
Witness a joy that thou hast doubled long.
Thou know'st my praise of nature most sincere,
And that my raptures are not conjured up
To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
But genuine, and art partner of them all.
How oft upon yon eminence our pace
Has slacken'd to a pause, and we have borne
The ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew,
While Admiration, feeding at the eye,
And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene!
Thence with what pleasure have we just discerned
The distant plough slow moving, and beside
His labouring team that swerved not from the track,
The sturdy swain diminish'd to a boy!
Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain
Of spacious meads, with cattle sprinkled o'er,
Conducts the eye along his sinuous course
Delighted. There, fast rooted in their bank,
Stand, never overlook'd, our favourite elms,
That screen the herdsman's solitary hut;
While far beyond, and overthwart the stream,
That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,
The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
Displaying on its varied side the grace
Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tower,
Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
Just undulates upon the listening ear,
Groves, heaths, and smoking villages, remote.
Scenes must be beautiful, which, daily viewed,
Please daily, and whose novelty survives
Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years -
Praise justly due to those that I describe.

This is evidently genuine and spontaneous. We stand with Cowper and
Mrs. Unwin on the hill in the ruffling wind, like them, scarcely
conscious that it blows, and feed admiration at the eye upon the rich
and thoroughly English champaign that is outspread below.

Nor rural sights alone, but rural sounds,
Exhilarate the spirit, and restore
The tone of languid Nature. Mighty winds,
_That sweep the skirt of some far-spreading wood
Of ancient growth, make music not unlike
The dash of Ocean on his winding shore_,
And lull the spirit while they nil the mind;
Unnumber'd branches waving in the blast,
And all their leaves fast fluttering, all at once.
Nor less composure waits upon the roar
Of distant floods, or on the softer voice
Of neighbouring fountain, or of _rills that slip
Through the cleft rock, and chiming as they fall
Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
In matted grass that with a livelier green
Betrays the secret of their silent course_.
Nature inanimate employs sweet sounds,
But animated nature sweeter still,
To soothe and satisfy the human ear.
Ten thousand warblers cheer the day, and one
The livelong night: nor these alone, whose notes
Nice-finger'd Art must emulate in vain,
But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime
In still-repeated circles, screaming loud,
The jay, the pie, and e'en the boding owl
That hails the rising moon, have charms for me.
Sounds inharmonious in themselves and harsh,
Yet heard in scenes where peace for ever reigns,
And only there, please highly for their sake.

Affection such as the last lines display for the inharmonious as well
as the harmonious, for the uncomely, as well as the comely parts of
nature has been made familiar by Wordsworth, but it was new in the time
of Cowper. Let us compare a landscape painted by Pope in his Windsor
forest, with the lines just quoted, and we shall see the difference
between the art of Cowper, and that of the Augustan age.

Here waving groves a checkered scene display,
And part admit and part exclude the day,
As some coy nymph her lover's warm address
Not quite indulges, nor can quite repress.
There interspersed in lawns and opening glades
The trees arise that share each other's shades;
Here in full light the russet plains extend,
There wrapt in clouds, the bluish hills ascend,
E'en the wild heath displays her purple dyes,
And midst the desert fruitful fields arise,
That crowned with tufted trees and springing corn.
Like verdant isles the sable waste adorn.

The low Berkshire hills wrapt in clouds on a sunny day; a sable desert
in the neighbourhood of Windsor; fruitful fields arising in it, and
crowned with tufted trees and springing corn - evidently Pope saw all
this, not on an eminence, in the ruffling wind, but in his study with
his back to the window, and the Georgics or a translation of them
before him.

Here again is a little picture of rural life from the _Winter Morning
Walk_.

The cattle mourn in corners, where the fence
Screens them, and seem half-petrified to sleep
In unrecumbent sadness. There they wait
Their wonted fodder; not like hungering man,
Fretful if unsupplied; but silent, meek,
And patient of the slow-paced swain's delay.
_He from the stack carves out the accustomed load
Deep-plunging, and again deep-plunging oft,
His broad keen knife into the solid mass:
Smooth as a wall the upright remnant stands,
With such undeviating and even force
He severs it away_: no needless care,
Lest storms should overset the leaning pile
Deciduous, or its own unbalanced weight.
Forth goes the woodman, leaving unconcern'd
The cheerful haunts of man; to wield the axe
And drive the wedge in yonder forest drear,
from, morn to eve, his solitary task.
Shaggy, and lean, and shrewd, with pointed ears
And tail cropp'd short, half lurcher and half cur,
His dog attends him. Close behind his heel
Now creeps he slow; and now, with many a frisk
Wide-scampering, snatches up the drifted snow
With ivory teeth, or ploughs it with his snout;
Then shakes his powder'd coat, and barks for joy.
Heedless of all his pranks, the sturdy churl
Moves right toward the mark; nor stops for aught
But now and then with pressure of his thumb
To adjust the fragrant charge of a short tube,
That fumes beneath his nose: the trailing cloud
Streams far behind him, scenting all the air.

The minutely faithful description of the man carving the load of hay
out of the stack, and again those of the gambolling dog, and the
woodman smoking his pipe with the stream of smoke trailing behind him,
remind us of the touches of minute fidelity in Homer. The same may be
said of many other passages.

The sheepfold here
Pours out its fleecy tenants o'er the glebe.
_At first, progressive as a stream they seek
The middle field: but, scatter'd by degrees,
Each to his choice, soon whiten all the land_.
There from the sun-burnt hay-field homeward creeps
_The loaded wain: while lighten'd of its charge,
The wain that meets it passes swiftly by_;
The boorish driver leaning o'er his team
Vociferous and impatient of delay.

A specimen of more imaginative and distinctly poetical description is
the well-known passage on evening, in writing which Cowper would seem
to have had Collins in his mind.

Come, Evening, once again, season of peace,
Return, sweet Evening, and continue long!
Methinks I see thee in the streaky west,
With matron-step slow-moving, while the Night
Treads on thy sweeping train; one hand employed
In letting fall the curtain of repose
On bird and beast, the other charged for man
With sweet oblivion of the cares of day:
Not sumptuously adorn'd, nor needing aid,
Like homely-featured Night, of clustering gems!
A star or two just twinkling on thy brow
Suffices thee; save that the moon is thine
No less than hers, not worn indeed on high
With ostentatious pageantry, but set.
With modest grandeur in thy purple zone,
Resplendent less, but of an ampler round.

Beyond this line Cowper does not go, and had no idea of going; he never
thinks of lending a soul to material nature as Wordsworth and Shelley
do. He is the poetic counterpart of Gainsborough, as the great
descriptive poets of a later and more spiritual day are the
counterparts of Turner. We have said that Cowper's peasants are
genuine as well as his landscape; he might have been a more exquisite
Crabbe if he had turned his mind that way, instead of writing sermons
about a world which to him was little more than an abstraction,
distorted moreover, and discoloured by his religious asceticism.

Poor, yet industrious, modest, quiet, neat,
Such claim compassion in a night like this,
And have a friend in every feeling heart.
Warm'd, while it lasts, by labour, all day long
They brave the season, and yet find at eve,
Ill clad, and fed but sparely, time to cool.
The frugal housewife trembles when she lights
Her scanty stock of brushwood, blazing clear,
But dying soon, like all terrestrial joys.
The few small embers left, she nurses well;
And, while her infant race, with outspread hands
And crowded knees sit cowering o'er the sparks,
Retires, content to quake, so they be warm'd.
The man feels least, as more inured than she
To winter, and the current in his veins
More briskly moved by his severer toil;
Yet he too finds his own distress in theirs,
The taper soon extinguish'd, which I saw
Dangled along at the cold finger's end
Just when the day declined; and the brown loaf
Lodged on the shelf, half eaten without sauce
Of savoury cheese, or batter, costlier still:
Sleep seems their only refuge: for, alas'
Where penury is felt the thought is chained,
And sweet colloquial pleasures are but few!
With all this thrift they thrive not. All the care
Ingenious Parsimony takes, but just
Saves the small inventory, bed and stool,
Skillet, and old carved chest, from public sale.
They live, and live without extorted alms
from grudging hands: but other boast have none
To soothe their honest pride that scorns to beg,
Nor comfort else, but in their mutual love.

Here we have the plain, unvarnished record of visitings among the poor
of Olney. The last two lines are simple truth as well as the rest.

"In some passages, especially in the second book, you will observe me
very satirical." In the second book of _The Task_, there are some
bitter things about the clergy, and in the passage pourtraying a
fashionable preacher, there is a touch of satiric vigour, or rather of
that power of comic description which was one of the writer's gifts.
But of Cowper as a satirist enough has been said.

"What there is of a religious cast in the volume I have thrown towards
the end of it, for two reasons; first, that I might not revolt the
reader at his entrance, and secondly, that my best impressions might be
made last. Were I to write as many volumes as Lope de Vega or
Voltaire, not one of them would be without this tincture. If the world
like it not, so much the worse for them. I make all the concessions I
can, that I may please them, but I will not please them at the expense
of conscience." The passages of _The Task_ penned by conscience, taken
together, form a lamentably large proportion of the poem. An ordinary
reader can be carried through them, if at all, only by his interest in
the history of opinion, or by the companionship of the writer, who is
always present, as Walton is in his Angler, as White is in his
Selbourne. Cowper, however, even at his worst, is a highly cultivated
methodist; if he is sometimes enthusiastic, and possibly superstitious,
he is never coarse or unctuous. He speaks with contempt of "the twang
of the conventicle." Even his enthusiasm had by this time been
somewhat tempered. Just after his conversion he used to preach to
everybody. He had found out, as he tells us himself, that this was a
mistake, that "the pulpit was for preaching; the garden, the parlour,
and the walk abroad were for friendly and agreeable conversation." It
may have been his consciousness of a certain change in himself that
deterred him from taking Newton into his confidence when he was engaged
upon _The Task_. The worst passages are those which betray a fanatical
antipathy to natural science, especially that in the third book
(150 - 190). The episode of the judgment of heaven on the young atheist
Misagathus, in the sixth book, is also fanatical and repulsive.


1 2 3 5 7 8 9

Online LibraryGoldwin SmithCowper → online text (page 5 of 9)