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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 enquiring .by what means the ancients 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, Shakespeare, 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 ano
ther 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 upon 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 MiArefs 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.
Altho' I think thou never found wilt be,
Yet I'm refolv'd to search for thee ,
The search itself rewards the pains. So, tho' the chymic his great secret mifs, (For neither it in Art nor Nature is)
Yet things well worth his toil he gains :
And does his charge and labour pay With good unsought experiments by the way.
Some that have deeper digg'd Love's mine
I have lov'd, and got, and told ;
Oh, 'tis imposture all:
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befal
So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, But get a winter-seeming summer's night.
It is related by Clarendon, that Cowley always acknowledged 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 fome tall ship's maft
Milton of Satan,
His spear, to equal which the tallest pine Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast Of some great admiral, were but a wand, He walk'd with.
His diction was in his own time censured as negligent. He seems not to have known, or not to have considered, that words being arbi
trary trary 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 intrinsick and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual gold which defies destruction : but gold may be fo 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 fought. Whatever professes to benefit by pleasing, must please at once. The pleasures of reason imply something sudden and unexpected; that which elevates must always surprise. What is perceived by flow degrees may gratify us with the consciousness of improvement, but will never strike with the fense of pleasure.
Of all this, Cowley seems to have been without knowledge, or without care. He
makes 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 heroick poem is less familiar than that of his flightest 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 loft; 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 inevitable grandeur ; but his excellence of this kind is merely fortuitous : he links willingly down to his general carelessness, and avoids with very little care either meanness or afperity.
His contractions are often rugged and harsh :
One flings a mountain, and its rivers too
His rhymes are very often made by pronouns or particles, or the like unimportant