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JOHN GILBERT COOPER.
R. A, DAVENPORT, Esq.
The subject of this memoir was descended from an ancient and respectable family, which, since the reign of Henry the Eighth, has possessed the priory and estate of Thurgarton, in Nottinghamshire; and which, though, in consequence of its attachment to the cause of Charles the First, it suffered considerable losses, still retains its rank in the county. If a memorandum, to which Mr. Chalmers alludes, may be relied on, the father of the poet must have been of a collateral branch, as it is there said that his surname was Gilbert, and that he was permitted 'to use the surname and arms of Cooper, pursuant to the will of John Cooper, Esq. of Thurgarton.'
John Gilbert Cooper was born in 1723, and received his education, under Dr. Nicholls, at Westminster school. In 1743, he removed to Cambridge, where he became a fellow commoner of Trinity College. At the university he resided for two or three years, and, though he took no degree, his works make it evident that he pursued his classical studies with activity and success.
He quitted the university, in what year I cannot ascertain, but probably in 1746, to enter into the married state. The lady to whom he was united was Susanna, a grandaughter of Sir Nathan Wright, keeper of the great seal, who succeeded Somers, and of whom the Duchess of Marlborough severely says, that he was a man despised by all parties, of no use to the crown, and whose weak and wretched conduct in the court of chancery had almost brought his very office into contempt.' This character partakes, perhaps, too much of its author's bitterness, but it is certain that Sir Nathan Wright was deficient in talent, and it is to be feared that he was more eager for the fees of office than was decorous in a person of so elevated a station.
The first fruit of Cooper's marriage was a son, born in July 1749, who lived but a single day. This child was buried in St. Margaret's church, Leicester, and the father inscribed its tomb with a Latin epitaph, expressive of his fondness and affliction. An anonymous writer, possessed of more wit than feeling, has burlesqued this epitaph, in a doggerel translation; and a biographer, seemingly little gifted with either the one or the other, has sneeringly described it as . a curious specimen of sentimental grief,' which is deservedly ridiculed. Yet, in spite of these great authorities, it may be doubted whether there is any thing unnatural or ludicrous in the sorrow of a father, who had, perhaps, for months anticipated with delight the birth of his first-born child, and who saw the sudden destruction of all his hopes, even at the moment when he was exulting in their being fully realized.
That, however, nothing may be omitted, to fix on Cooper the stigma of being a mere pretender to fine feelings, the biographer has copied an anecdote from Boswell. Mr. Fitzherbert, the father of the late Lord St. Helens (says Boswell), found Cooper one
morning apparently in such violent agitation, on account of the indisposition of his second son, as to seem beyond the power of comfort. At length, however, he exclaimed, “ I'll write an elegy.” Mr. Fitzherbert being satisfied by this of the sincerity of bis emotions, slyly said, “ Had you not better take a postchaise, and go and see him?”)
This story, circumstantially as it is told, I believe to be a fabrication. It is not probable that any man of even common sense would expose himself to derision by such conduct as that which Boswell describes; and, on the other hand, the parental affection of Cooper was known to be so strong that he was declared, in print, to be one of the tenderest fathers in England. The fact, on which the tale is built, was thus related by Dr. Johnson: “A gentleman was making an affected rant, as many people do, of great feelings about “ his dear son,” who was at school near London, how anxious he was lest he might be ill, and what he would give to see him. “ Can't you (said Fitzherbert) take a post chaise and go to him.” This story affords one more proof on how slender a basis the monstrous superstructure of calumny may be raised.
The progress of Cooper as an author must now be traced. In 1745, while, perhaps, he was still at Cambridge, he published . The Power of Harmony,' a poem, in two books, and in blank verse. Cooper was an enthusiastic admirer of Shaftesbury and the writers of that nobleman's school of philosophy, and his work is deeply tinctured with their peculiar doctrines. The design of it, he tells us, 'is to show that a constant attention to what is perfect and beautiful in nature will by degrees harmonize the soul to a responsive regularity and sympathetic order.' The subject, abstruse in itself, is such as can please only the initiated few, and the author at times darkens it
still more by obscurity of expression; yet his poem, though it falls short of excellence, is redeemed from contempt by frequent touches of genuine poetry, by elegance of language, and by a style of versification which is not wanting in spirit, and bears some resemblance to that of Akenside. One assailant, and that one not to be despised, he, on this occasion, brought upon himself by his disrespectful mention of the priesthood. This was William Thompson, who retaliated, by satirically characterizing him as the sweet Farinelli of enervate song.'
Dodsley having established a periodical work, called · The Museum,' Cooper, in 1746 and 1747, was a liberal contributor to it, both in verse and prose, under the signature of Philaretes. In this magazine were first published the “ Epistle from Theagenes to Sylvia,' and the “ Estimate of Human Life.' The Epistle is not devoid of tenderness and animation; but it provokes a disadvantageous comparison with the Eloisa of Pope, and the heroic couplet of Cooper wants variety, and is less pleasing than any of his other metres. Of the Estimate, wbich is written in eight syllable couplets, the plan is ingenious, and the execution is poetical.
Hitherto Cooper had concealed his name, and exercised his genius only in short literary excursions. But, in 1749, he came forward undisguised, and with a work of considerable magnitude and pretension. This was his · Life of Socrates, collected from the Memorabilia of Xenophon and the Dialogues of Plato, and illustrated farther by Aristotle, Diodorus Siculus, Cicero, Proclus, A puleius, Maximus Tyrius, Boethius, Diogenes Laertius, Aulus Gellius, and others. In the composition of the notes he was aided by his friend, the Rev. John Jackson, of Leicester, who had long been at hostility with Warburton, and, as Cooper himself had a dislike of that extraordinary man, they did not forget to aim their shafts at him whenever an opportunity was afforded to them by the subject.
In this volume he gave incontrovertible proofs of talent and erudition. It cannot be denied, however, that, with regard to his own abilities, be displayed an overweening confidence, which at least bordered on vanity; and that he treated with little ceremony many of those authors from whom he differed in opinion. For this latter mode of proceeding he thought it necessary to offer a defence.
Some expressions (said he) may appear too harsh, and others too lusory; but all weapons are not to be used alike against all adversaries: for, as the ancient warlike Scythians found, in the servile war, that wbips more intimidated the army of slaves, that marched against them, than the sword, which had so often corrected the pride of nations; so contumely and ridicule will avail against those who are lost to good manners, candour, and good sense, when the nobler methods of humanity, reason, and learning, would prove ineffectual.'
Warburton was not a man to be attacked with impunity. He, nevertheless, suspended his vengeance till the publication of his edition of Pope's works, in 1751, and he then, in a note to the Essay on Criticism, assailed with his usual contemptuous asperity the work of Cooper, and at the same time charged the writer with combini a degree of ignorance and vanity which had given birth to every iniquity of impudent abuse and slander.' Roused by this language, Cooper remonstrated privately, and declared his intention of appealing to the public; to which Warburton replied, that he had himself been treated with a scurrility worse than Billingsgate, and had taken no other revenge than a casual mention of the author of the Life of Socrates, with a slight joke, without mentioning his name. To such a joke