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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 shew us that he knows what an egg contains:
Thou into the close nests of Time dost peep,
Through the firm shell and the thick white dost spy
Close in their sacred secundine asleep.
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
Aptat urgendas per inane pennas, e
Parsadhuc nido latet, et futuros
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 more, 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 writing in verse, makes this address to the new year: Nay if thou lov'st me, gentle year, Let not so much as love be there, Wain, fruitless love I mean; for, gentle year, Although I fear There’s of this caution little need, Yet, gentle year, take heed How thou dost make Such a mistake; Such love I mean alone As by thy cruel predecessors has been shewn For, though l have too much cause to doubt it, I sain would try, for once, if life can live without it.
The reader of this will be inclined to cry out with
Even those who cannot perhaps find in the Isthmian or Namaean 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 syllables, 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 very thing which makes that kind of foesy 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 stanzas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
If the Pindarick 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 critick, or to conceive how that can be the highest kind of writ
ing in verse, which, according to Sprat, is chiefly to be fireferred for its near affinity to furose. 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 disorder tried to break into the Latin: a poem" on the Sheldonian Theatre, in which all kinds of verse are shaken together, is unhappily inserted in the Musae Anglicana. Pindarism prevailed about half a century; but at last died gradually away, and other imitations supply its place. The Pindarick 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 admiration 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 fabrick august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise; soof 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 AEneid had that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epick poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser, 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 miscarried. 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 no mention is made ; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Shectator it has been once quoted ; by Rhymer 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 hu
* First published in quarto, 1669, under the title of “Carmen
Pindaricum in heatrum Sheldonianum in solemnibus magnifici
Operis Enerentis Recitatum Julii die 9, Anno 1669, a Crobetto Owen, A. B. Hod. Chr. Alumno Authore.” It.
man genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language : He shake the word, and they were made. We are told that Saul was troubled with an evil sfirit; 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, Like Hesper leading forth thc spangled nights, But down like lightning, which him struck, he came, And roar'd at his first plunge into the flame. 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, And thunder echo to the trembling sky; Whilst raging seas swell to so bold an height, As shall the fire's proud element affright. Th’ old drudging sun, from his long-beaten way, Shall at thy voice start, and misguide the day. The jocund orbs shall break their measur'd pace, And stubborn poles change their allotted place. Heaven’s gilded troops shall flutter here and there, Leaving their boasting songs tun'd to a sphere. Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being. 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 distinct species of mankind, that lived