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In the general review of Cowley’s poetry it will be found, that he wrote with abundant fertility, but negligent or unskilful selection: with much thought, but with little imagery; that he is never pathetick, and rarely sublime; but always either ingenious or learned, either acute or profound.
It is said by Denham in his elegy,
To him no author was unknown,
This wide position requires less limitation, when it is affirmed of Cowley, than perhaps of any other poet. —He read much, and yet borrowed little. His character of writing was indeed not his own : he unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the antients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure in its spring was bright and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows. * He was in his own time considered as of unrivalled excellence. Clarendon represents him as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him; and Milton is said to have declared, that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shakspeare, and Cowley. His manner he had in common with others; but his sentiments were his own. Upon every subject he thought for himself; and such was his copiousness of knowledge, that something at once remote and applicable rushed into his mind; yet it is not likely that he always rejected a commodious idea merely because another had used it: his known wealth was so great that he might have borrowed without loss of credit.
In his elegy on sir Henry Wotton, the last lines have such resemblance to the noble epigram of Grotius on the death of Scaliger, that I cannot but think them copied from it, though they are copied by no servile hand.
One passage in his Mistress is so apparently borrowed from Donne, that he probably would not have written it, had it not mingled with his own thoughts, so as that he did not perceive himself taking it from another.
Although I think thou never found wilt be,
Some that have deeper digg’d love's mine than J,
Jomson and Donne, as Dr. Hurd remarks, were then in the highest esteem.
It is related by Clarendon that Cowley always acknowledges his obligation to the learning and industry of Jonson; but I have found no traces of Jonson in his works: to emulate Donne appears to have been his purpose; and from Donne he may have learned
that familiarity with religious images, and that light allusion to sacred things, by which readers far short of sanctity are frequently offended; and which would not be borne in the present age, when devotion, perhaps not more fervent, is more delicate.
Having produced one passage taken by Cowley from Donne I will recompense him by another which Milton seems to have borrowed from him. He says of Goliah,
His spear, the trunk was of a lofty tree,
- Which nature meant some tall ship's mast should be. Milton of Satan :
His spear to equal which the tallest pine
His diction was in his own time censured as negligent. He seems not to have known, or not to have considered, that words being arbitrary must owe their power to association, and have the influence, and that only, which custom has given them. Language is the dress of thought: and as the noblest mien, or most graceful action would be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rusticks or mechanicks: so the most heroick sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.
Truth indeed is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have an intrinsic and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual gold which defies destruction; but gold may be so concealed in baser
matter, that only a chymist can recover it; sense may
be so hidden in unrefined and plebeian words that none but philosophers can distinguish it ; and both may be so buried in impurities, as not to pay the cost of their extraction. The diction, being the vehicle of the thoughts, first presents itself to the intellectual eye : and if the first appearance offends, a further knowledge is not often sought. Whatever professes to benefit by pleasing, must please at once. The pleasures of the mind imply something sudden and unexpected ; that which elevates must always surprise. What is perceived by slow degrees may gratify us with consciousness of improvement, but will never strike with the sense of pleasure. Of all this Cowley appears to have been without knowledge or without care. He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase; he has no elegancies either lucky or elaborate, as his endeavours were rather to impress sentences upon the understanding than images on the fancy; he has few epithets, and those scattered without peculiar propriety or nice adaptation. It seems to follow from the necessity of the subject, rather than the care of the writer, that the diction of his heroic poem is less familiar than that of his slightest writings. He has given not the same numbers, but the same diction, to the gentle Anacreon and the tempestuous Pindar. His versification seems to have had very little of his care ; and if what he thinks be true, that his numbers are unmusical only when they are ill-read, the art of reading them is at present lost; for they are commonly harsh to modern ears. He has indeed many noble lines, such as the feeble care of Waller never could produce. The bulk of his thoughts sometimes swelled his verse to unexpected and id
evitable grandeur; but his excellence of this kind is merely fortuitous: he sinks willingly down to his general carelessness, and avoids with very little care either meanness or asperity. His contractions are often rugged and harsh : One flings a mountain, and its rivers too Torn up with 't His rhymes are very often made by pronouns, or particles, or the like unimportant words which disappoint the ear, and destroy the energy of the line. His combination of different measures is sometimes dissonant and unpleasing; he joins verses together, of which the former does not slide easily into the latter. The words do and did, which so much degrade in present estimation the line that admits them, were, in the time of Cowley, little censured or avoided : how often he used them, and with how bad an effect, at least to our ears, will appear by a passage, in which every reader will lament to see just and noble thoughts defrauded of their praise by inelegance of language : Where honour or where conscience does not bind, No other law shall shackle me . . Slave to myself I ne'er will be ; Nor shall my future actions be confin’d By my own present mind. Who by resolves and vows engaged does stand, For days that yet belong to fate, Does like an unthrift, mortgage his estate Before it falls into his hand ; The bondman of the cloister so All that he does receive does always owe. And still as Time comes in, it goes away, Not to enjoy, but debts to pay !