« ZurückWeiter »
innovation, by which new words or meanings of words are introduced, is practised, not by those who talk to be understood, but by those who write to be admired.
The Anacreontiques therefore of Cowley give now all the pleasure which they ever gave. If he was formed by nature for one kind of writing more than for another, his power seems to have been greatest in the familiar and the festive.
The next class of his poems is called The Mistress, of which it is not necessary to select any particular pieces for praise or censure. They have all the same beauties and faults, and nearly in the same proportion. They are written with exuberance of wit, and with copiousness of learning; and it is truly asserted by Sprat, that the plenitude of the writer's knowledge flows in upon his page, so that the reader is commonly surprised into some improvement. But, considered as the verses of a lover, no man that has ever lored will much commend them. They are neither courtly nor pathetic, have neither gallantry nor fondness. His praises are too far sought, and too hyperbolical, either to express love or to excite it; every stanza is crowded with darts and flames, with wounds and death, with mingled souls and with broken hearts.
The principal artifice by which The Mistress is filled with conceits is very copiously displayed by Addison. Love is by Cowley, as by other poets, expressed metaphori. cally by flame and fire; and that which is true of real fire is said of love, or figurative fire, the same word in the same sentence retaining both significations. Thus, “ observing the cold regard of his mistress's eyes, and at the same time their power
of producing love in him, he considers them as burning-glasses made of ice. Finding himself able to live in the greatest extremities of love, he concludes the torrid zone to be habitable. Upon the dying of a tree, on which he had cut his loves, he observes, that his flames had burnt up and withered the tree.”
These conceits Addison calls mixed wit; that is, wit which consists of thoughts, true in one sense of the expression, and false in the other. Addison's representation is sufficiently indulgent: that confusion of images may entertain for a moment; but, being unnatural, it soon grows wearisome. Cowley delighted in it, as much as if he had invented it; but, not to mention the antients, he might have found it full blown in modern Italy. Thus Sannazaro :
Aspice quam variis distringar Lesbia curis !
Uror, & heu ! nostro manat ab igne liquor:
O lacrimæ, aut lacrimas ebibe flamma meas.
One of the severe theologians of that time censured him as having published a book of profane and lascivious verses. From the charge of profaneness, the constant te. nour of his life, which seems to have been eminently virtuous, and the general tendency of his opinions, which discover no irreverence of religion, must defend him; but that the accusation of lasciviousness is unjust, the perusal of his work will sufficiently evince.
Cowley's Mistress has no power of seduction : she “plays round the head, but reaches not the heart.” Her beauty and absence, her kindness and cruelty, her disdain and inconstancy, produce no correspondence of emotion. His poetical account of the virtues of plants, and colours of flowers, is not perused with more sluggish frigidity. The compositions ar. such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex; for they turn the mind only on the writer, whom, without thinking on a woman but as the subject for his task, we sometimes esteem as learned, and sometimes despise as trifling, always admire as ingenious, and always condemn as unnatural.
The Pindarique Odes are now to be considered; a species of composition, which Cowley thinks Pancirolus might have counted in his list of the lost inven. tions of antiquity, and which he has made a bold and vigorous attempt to recover.
The purpose with which he has paraphrased an Olympic and Nemæan Ode is by himself sufficiently explained. His endeavour was, not to show precisely what Pindar spoke, but his manner of speaking. He was therefore not at all restrained to bis expressions, nor much to his sentiments, nothing was required of him, but not to write as Pindar would not have written.
Of the Olympic Ode, the beginning is, I think, above the original in elegance, and the conclusion below it in strength. The connection is supplied with great perspicuity; and the thoughts, which to a realer of less skill seem thrown together by chance, are concatenated without any abruption. Though the English ode cannot be called a translation, it may be very properly consulted as a commentary.
The spirit of Pindar is indeed not every where equally preserved. The following pretty lines are not such as his deep mouth was used to pour;
Great Rhea's son,
Lufty as that, and smooth as this. In the Nemæan Ode, the reader must, in mere justice to Pindar, observe, that whatever is said of the original New-Moon, her tender forehead and her horns, is superadded by his paraphrast, who has many other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original, as,
The table, free for ev'ry guest,
No doubt will thee admit,
And feast more upon thee, than thou on it. He sometimes extends his author's thoughts without improving them. In the Olympionic an oath is mentioned in a single word, and Cowley spends thrèe lines in swearing by the Castalian Stream. We are told of Theron's bounty, with a hint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prote:
But in this thankless world the giver
It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank ia learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
In the following odes, where Cowley chooses his own subjects, he sometimes rises to dignity truly Pindaric; and, if some deficiencies of language be forgiven, his strains are such as those of the Theban bard were to his contemporaries :
Begin the song, and strike the living lyre:
All hand in hand do decently advance,
'Till all gentle notes be drown'd
After such enthusiasm, who will not lament to find the poet conclude with lines like these :
But stop, my Muse-
The fault of Cowley, and perhaps of all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to the last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality; for of the greatest things the parts are little; what is little can be but pretty, and by claiming dignity becomes ridiculous. Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind by the mention of particulars is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that from which the illustration is drawn, than that to which it is applied.
Of this we have a very eminent example in the ode entituled The Muse, who goes to take the air in an intellectual chariot, to which he harnesses Fancy and Judgment, Wit and Eloquence, Memory and Invention. How he distinguished Wit from Fancy, or how Memory could properly contribute to Motion, he has not explained : we are however content to suppose that he could have justified his own fiction, and wish to see the Muse begin her career ; but there is yet more to be done.
Let the postillion Nature mount, and let
Every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence; yet I cannot refuse myself the four next lines :
Mount, glorious queen, thy travelling throne,
And bid it to put on;
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 show us, that he knows what an egg contains.
Thou into the close nests of Time dost peep,
And there with piercing eye
Years to come a-forining lie,
The same thonght 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
Crescit in annos.
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,
Although I fear
Yet, gentle Year, take heed
Such a mistake;
The reader of this will be inclined to cry out with Prior
Ye critics, say,
How poor to this was Pindar's style ? Even those, who cannot perhaps find in the Isthmian or Nemæan 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 thut kind of poesy 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 stan. zas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
If the Pindaric 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 critic, or to conceive how that can be the high. est kind of writing in verse, which, according to Sprat, is chiefly to be preferred for its ncar affinity to prose.
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 3, in which all kinds of verse are shaken together, is unhappily inserted in the Musæ Anglicanæ. Pindarism prevailed about half a century; but at last died gradually away, and other imitations supply its place.
The Pindaric Odes have so long enjoyed the highest degree of poetical reputa. tion, 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 ad. miration, 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 fabric, august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise; of 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, be. cause the Æneid had that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epic poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser,
First published in quarto, 1669, under the title of Carmen Pindaricum in Theatrum Sheldonianum in solennibus magnifici Operis Encænijs. Recitatum Julii die 9, Anno 1669, a Corbetto Owen, A. B. Æd. Chr. Alumno Authore, R.