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Again by death, although sad watch he keep,
It must be however confessed of these writers, that if they are upon common subjects often unnecessarily and unpoetically subtle ; yet where scholastick speculation can be properly admitted, their copiousness and acuteness may justly be admired. What Cowley has written upon Hope, shews an unequalled fertility of invention :
Hope, whose weak being ruin'd is,
Alike if it succeed, and if it miss ;
Vain shadow, which dost vanish quite,
Of blessing thee ;
Hope, thou bold taster of delight, [quite !
Good fortunes without gain imported be,
Such mighty custom's paid to thee :
To the following comparison of a man that travels, and his wife that stays at home, with a pair of compasses, it may be doubted whether absurdity or ingenuity has the better claim :
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
As stiff twin-compasses are two :
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
Yet when the other far doth roam,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Like th’ other foot obliquely run.
And makes me end where I begun.
In all these examples it is apparent, that whatever is improper or vicious is produced by a voluntary deviation from nature in pursuit of something new and strange; and that the writers fail to give delight, by their desire of exciting admiration.
HAVING thus endeavoured to exhibit a general representation of the style and sentiments of the metaphysical poeis, it is now proper to examine particularly the works of Cowley, who was almost the last of that race, and undoubtedly the best.
His Miscellanies contain a collection of short compositions, written some as they were dictated by a mind at leisure, and some as they were called forth by different occasions ; with great variety of style and sentiment, from burlesque levity to awful grandeur. Such an assemblage of diversified excellence no other poet has hitherto afforded. To choose the best, among many good, is one of the most hazardous attempts of criticism. I know not whether Scaliger himself has persuaded many readers to join with him in his preference of the two favourite odes, which he estimates in his raptures at the value of a kingdom. I will however venture to recommend Cowley's first piece, which ought to be inscribed To my muse, for want of which the second couplet is without reference. When the title is added, there will still remain a defect; for every piece ought to contain in itself whatever is necessary to make it intelligible. Pope has some epitaphs without names; which are therefore epitaphs to be lett, occupied indeed for the present, but hardly appropriated.
The ode on wit is almost without a rival. It was about the time of Cowley that wit, which had been till then used for intellection, in contradistinction to will, took the meaning, whatever it be, which it now bears.
Of all the passages in which poets have exemplified their own precepts, none will easily be found of greater excellence than that in which Cowley condemns exuberance of wit:
Yet 'tis not to adorn and gild each part,
Several lights will not be seen,
If there be nothing else between.
In his verses to lord Falkland, whom every man of his time was proud to praise, there are, as there must be in all Cowley's compositions, some striking thoughts, but they are not well wrought. His elegy on sir Henry Wotton is vigorous and happy, the series of thoughts is easy and natural, and the conclusion, though a little weakened by the intrusion of Alexander, is elegant and forcible.
It may be remarked, that in this elegy, and in most of his encomiastic poems, he has forgotten or neglected to name his heroes.
In his poem on the death of Harvey, there is much praise, but little passion, a very just and ample delineation of such virtues as a studious privacy admits, and such intellectual excellence as