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The search itself rewards the pains.
So, though the chymic his great secret miss,
Yet things well worth his toil he gains:
With good unsought experiments by the way.
Some that have deeper digg'd Love's mine than I,
I have lov'd, and got, and told;
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,
Oh, 'tis imposture all!
And as no chymic yet th' elixir got,
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
So lovers dream a rich and long delight,
Jonson 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 rustics or mechanics; so the most heroic 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 intel lectual 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 caré. He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase: he has no cle gancies 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 tempestu. ous 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 inevitable gran deur; 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
His rhymes are very often made by pronouns, or particles, or the like unimpor tant 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,
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 engag'd does stand
The bondman of the cloister so,
All that he does receive does always owe.
Not to enjoy, but debts to pay!
Unhappy slave, and pupil to a bell!
Which his hour's work as well as hours does tell:
Unhappy till the last, the kind releasing knell.
His heroic lines are often formed of monosyllables; but yet they are sometimes sweet and sonorous.
He says of the Messiah,
Round the whole Earth his dreaded name shall sound,
In another place, of David,
Yet bid him go securely, when he sends;
Yet amidst his negligence he sometimes attempted an improved and scientific versification; of which it will be best to give his own account subjoined to this line:
Nor can the glory contain itself in th' endless space.
"I am sorry that it is necessary to admonish the most part of readers, that it is not by negligence that this verse is so loose, long, and, as it were, vast; it is to paint in the number the nature of the thing which it describes, which I would have observed in divers other places of this poem, that else will pass for very careless verses: as before,
And over-runs the neighb'ring fields with violent course.
"In the second book;
Down a precipice deep, down he casts them all.
And fell a-down his shoulders with loose care.
"In the third,
"In the fourth,
Brass was his helmet, his boots brass, and o'er
Like some fair pine o'er-looking all th' ignobler wood.
Some from the rocks cast themselves down headlong. And many more: but it is enough to instance in a few. The thing is, that the disposition of words and numbers should be such, as that, out of the order and sound of them, the things themselves may be represented. This the Greeks were not so accurate as to bind themselves to; neither have our English poets observed it, for aught I can find. The Latins (qui Musas colunt severiores) sometimes did it; and their prince, Virgil, always: in whom the examples are innumerable, and taken notice of by all judicious men, so that it is superfluous to collect them."
I know not whether he has, in many of these instances, attained the representation or resemblance that he purposes. Verse can imitate only sound and motion. boundless verse, a headlong verse, and a verse of brass or of strong brass, seem to comprise very incongruous and unsociable ideas. What there is peculiar in the sound of the line expressing loose care, I cannot discover; nor why the pine is taller in an alexandrine than in ten syllables.
But, not to defraud him of his due praise, he has given one example of repre sentative versification, which perhaps no other English line can equal:
Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise:
Does on a river's bank expecting stay
Till the whole stream that stopp'd him shall be gone,
Cowley was, I believe, the first poet that mingled alexandrines at pleasure with the common heroic of ten syllables; and from him Dryden borrowed the practice, whether ornamental or licentious. He considered the verse of twelve syllables as elevated and majestic, and has therefore deviated into that measure when he supposes the voice heard of the Supreme Being.
The author of the Davideis is commended by Dryden for having written it in couplets, because he discovered that any staff was too lyrical for an heroic poem; but this seems to have been known before by May and Sandys, the translators of the Pharsalia and the Metamorphoses.
In the Davideis are some hemistichs, or verses left imperfect by the author, in imitation of Virgil, whom he supposes not to have intended to complete them: that this opinion is erroneous, may be probably concluded, because this truncation is imitated by no subsequent Roman poet; because Virgil himself filled up one broken line in the heat of recitation; because in one the sense is now unfinished; and be
cause all that can be done by a broken verse, a line intersected by a cæsura, and a full stop, will equally effect.'
Of triplets in his Davideis he makes no use, and perhaps did not at first think them allowable; but he appears afterwards to have changed his mind, for in the verses on the government of Cromwell he inserts them liberally with great happiness.
After so much criticism on his Poems, the Essays which accompany them must not be forgotten. What is said by Sprat of his conversation, that no man could draw from it any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may be applied to these compositions. No author ever kept his verse and his prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far-sought, or hard-laboured: but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness.
It has been observed by Felton, in his Essay on the Classics, that Cowley was beloved by every muse that he courted; and that he has rivalled the ancients in every kind of poetry but tragedy.
It may be affirmed, without any encomiastic fervour, that he brought to his poetic labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater ode, and the gaiety of the less; that he was equally qualified for spritely sallies, and for lofty flights; that he was among those who freed translation from servility, and, instead of following his author at a distance, walked by his side; and that, if he left versification yet improveable, he left likewise from time to time such specimens of excellence, as enabled succeeding poets to improve it.