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NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.

No. LXXXII.

JANUARY, 1834.

Art. I.-Life of Cowper.
The Life of WILLIAM COWPER, Esq. By Thomas Tar-

LOR. Philadelphia. 1833.

When we saw that a new life of Cowper was offered to the world, we imagined that some able hand had undertaken to give a philosophical view of his character and writings ; and such is the interest which still follows him as a poet and a man, that we can hardly conceive of a finer subject for a sagacious and discriminating mind. Considering how little we are generally interested in any poetry excepting that of the day, it is rather surprising that he should still stand so prominently before the public eye; we mean the eye of all who are interested in subjects of the kind, a class which does not by any means embrace the whole human race, even in civilized countries. He is yet, though a quarter of a century has passed since his death, and twice that period since his day of fame, so interesting by reason of his genius and his sorrows, that any writer, who could do justice to the one, and give a rational explanation of the other, would be sure of a hearing and a welcome from the reading world. The mysterious affection of bis mind, which wrapped it sometimes in sudden and painful eclipse, and then, without apparent cause, suffered it to shine out with surpassing brightness, seems so much more like the capricious agency of an evil spirit than the common effect of dis

VOL. XXXVIII.-NO. 82.

ease, that its details, furnished by his own powerful and desperate hand, are eagerly devoured by vulgar curiosity, while more enlightened investigators study it as a marvellous page in the history of mind. Then too, all who have a taste for poetry, whether natural or refined, admire his faithful descriptions, his familiar truth to nature, and the manly grace and English freedom with which he walks in the path where those before him went with measured step, and manner suited to the prevailing taste, which they either worshipped as perfect, or had not enterprise enough to alter. Now had a biographer appeared, who had penetration enough to discover, and independence enough to tell the world what Cowper was, instead of repeating the dictations of party, he might have satisfied his own reasonable ambition, by repairing the statue which has been injured by the conflicts carried on around it, though not worn by the waste of time.

The present period is quite favorable for such an undertaking. So many fierce battles were fought concerning him, as soon as he was in the dust, that a long breathing-space necessarily followed; and accordingly the subject has been left untouched for some years, or agitated in a manner which seemed like a returning echo of old and narrow opinions. Cowper had an enterprising mind, however timid and retiring in bis habits and feelings. He struck out a new track for himself, and walked in it with so much glory and success, that his example of enterprise was followed; and in the brilliant period of poetry with which the present century began, each minstrel consulted his own taste and power, insomuch that, as once it happened in Israel, the highways were all deserted. To this breaking up of old associations we owe the fairy wildness of Southey, the oriental richness of Moore, the Druidical inspirations of Wordsworth, and the varied enchantment of Scott. They might possibly have written as they did had Cowper never existed, but any one who knows the power of classical associations must be aware, that hundreds see the benefit of change before one dares to make it. Cowper himself, perhaps, hermit as he was, did not feel the greatness of his adventure. But shortly after the declaration of its independence, the republic of letters was divided into fierce and bloody parties, each maintaining that its own writing, and nothing else, was poetry. The general strain of the dispute resembled the lawsuit between the eyes and the nose, contending to which

the spectacles rightfully belonged; but it was not by any means so easily decided. As no general law could be established to determine the invariable principles of poetry, which would have been in effect to reëstablish the despotism which had just been broken down, nothing remained but for men of similar tastes to associate themselves in schools, each with its peculiar and exclusive opinions. Far be it from us to revive the memory of these schools and their border wars. As often happens, what was peculiar to each was erroneous, and the truth was common to them all. That of Wordsworth has subsisted longest, but is losing its exclusiveness as fast as his poetry gains its rightful place in the public mind. But now that hostilities are over, and schools and creeds sinking into a forgetfulness, which we hope will be eternal, the times are favorable to a fair and impartial discussion of the poetical merits of Cowper,--showing how far he was affected by circumstances, how much he accomplished, and what accidental causes either aided or hindered his success.

Our readers may naturally doubt whether the state of the religious world be equally favorable to impartiality, but we trust that there is more enlargement of mind than in former days, since controversies, though not more gentle than formerly, are argued on more liberal and enlightened grounds. But whether this be so or not, it is evident that a fair view of the subject of Cowper's depression need not give offence to any religious party. Hayley and others, who did not agree with Cowper in his sentiments, have generally described his complaint as religious despondency; a phrase which has given much offence to those who hold those opinions. Even Montgomery, who, one would think, lived far enough from the scene of action to be able to keep his temper, expresses himself thus: • In spite of unanswerable confutations of the ignorant and malignant falsehood, the enemies of Christian truth persevere in asserting that too much religion made poor Cowper mad. If they be sincere, they are themselves under the strongest delusion; and it will be well if it prove not, on their part, a wilful one,-it will be well if they have not reached that last perversity of human reason, to believe a falsehood of their own invention ;'-and more equally in the spirit of the Gospel.

We know not where these stormy denunciations are meant to fall; for we think that no one who reads Cowper's history can suppose, that his depression was owing to religion. It is commonly thought necessary, that a cause should be antecedent to the effect in time : now every one knows, that prior to his confinement he was not overburdened with religion of any kind. His disease was insanity, which was immediately brought on or rather brought to a point by his dread of a public appearance before the House of Lords. Far from charging his insanity to his religion, the enemy of his religious opinions would be much more likely to ascribe his religion to his insanity, and to attempt to show, that the peculiar aspect in which that subject presented itself to his mind, was occasioned or affected by the gloom which he had just passed through. But if we understand the question, the suggestion, which gave so much offence, was that his madness took the form of religious anxiety. This is undeniably true : his prevailing feeling was despair of salvation ; but it is evident that the fierce agony of his disease, and not his religion, was the source and origin of that despair. It being admitted, then, that no views of religion are answerable for this insanity, which was the result of his constitutional tendencies, irritated by unfortunate circumstances through all his youth and manhood up to the hour when reason gave way before them, it is not to be supposed that any sect could take offence at a discussion of the question, whether other views than those which he adopted would have done more to secure the peace and happiness of his later years. Or, if party spirit is too jealous to permit this question to be debated by those who are enslaved to it, it is only necessary that the enquiry should be conducted by one who has a respect for all conscientious opinions, but is in bondage to none.

Since the times are favorable to an impartial estimate of the merits of this distinguished man, we cannot help regarding it as a signal calamity, that he should have fallen into the hands of Mr. Thomas Taylor. We know not whence he came, nor whither he is going; the publishers do not inform us whether this is a reprint of an English work or not; but though left in the dark on these subjects, which it concerns reviewers to know, we say, with confidence, that Mr. Taylor was never created to be the biographer of Cowper. No new facts were to be expected, and none are given, save one, viz. that

toward his excellent father he had always felt the strongest parental regard. The whole work consists of shreds and patches, taken partly from the writings of Cowper, and partly from the biographies and criticisms of others, strung together

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