Page images

lor nobles - because fortune had placed him shall, in the mean time, confine ourserves to in that order, and because the power and dis- a very few observations suggested by the tinction which belonged to it were agreeable style and character of the tragedies with to him, and, he thought, would be exercised which we have been for some time acfor the good of his inferiors. When he heard quainted. that Voltaire had written a tragedy on the These pieces approach much nearer to the story of Brutus, he fell into a great passion, ancient Grecian model, than any other mod. and exclaimed, that the subject was too lofty ern production with which we are acquaintfor "a French plebeian, who, during twenty ed; in the simplicity of the plot, the fewness years, had subscribed himself gentleman in of the persons, the directness of the action, ordinary to the King !!!

and the uniformity and elaborate gravity of This love of aristocracy, however, will not the composition. Infinitely less declamatory explain the defence of monarchy and the abuse than the French tragedies, they have less of republics, which formed the substance of his brilliancy and variety, and a deeper tone of Antigallican. But the truth is, that he was dignity and nature. As they have not adoptantigallican from his youth up; and would ed the choral songs of the Greek stage, how. never have forgiven that nation, if they had ever, they are, on the whole, less poetical succeeded in establishing a free government, than those ancient compositions; although especially while Italy was in bondage. they are worked throughout with a fine and The contempt which Voltaire had expressed careful hand, and diligently purified from for Italian literature, and the general degra- every thing ignoble or feeble in the expresdation into which the national character had sion. The author's anxiety to keep clear of fallen, had sunk deep into his fierce and figures of mere ostentation, and to exclude all haughty spirit, and inspired him with an showpieces of fine writing in a dialogue of antipathy towards that people by whom his deep interest or impetuous passion, has beown countrymen had been subdued, ridiculed, trayed him, on some occasions, into too sen. and outshone. This paltry and vindictive feel- tentious and strained a diction, and given an ing leads him, throughout this whole work, air of labour and heaviness to many parts of to speak of them in the most unjust and un- his composition. He has felt, perhaps a little candid terms. There may be some truth in too constantly, that the cardinal virtue of a his remarks on the mean and meagre articu- dramatic writer is to keep his personages to lation of their language, and on their “horri- the business and the concerns that lie before ble u, with their thin lips drawn in to pro- them; and by no means to let them turn to nounce it, as if they were blowing hot soup." moral philosophers, or rhetorical describers of Nay, we could even excuse the nationality their own emotions. But, in his zealous adwhich leads him to declare, that "he would herence to this good maxim, he seems somerather be the author of ten good Italian verses, times to have forgotten, that certain passions than of volumes written in English or French, are declamatory in nature as well as on the or any such harsh and unharmonious jargon, --stage; and that, at any rate, they do not all though their cannon and their armies should vent themselves in concise and pithy sayings, continue to render these languages fashion- but run occasionally into hyperbole and amable." But we cannot believe in the sinceri- plification. As it is the great excellence, so ty of an amorous Italian, who declares, that it is occasionally the chief fault of Alfieri's he never could get through the first volume dialogue, that every word is honestly emof Rousseau's Héloise; or of a modern author ployed to help forward the action of the play, of regular dramas, who professes to see nothing by serious argument, necessary narrative, or at all admirable in the tragedies of Racine or the direct expression of natural emotion. Voltaire. It is evident to us, that he grudged There are no excursions or digressions,-no those great writers the glory that was due to episodical conversations,—and none but the them, out of a vindictive feeling of national most brief moralizings. This gives a certain sesentment; and that, for the same reason, air of solidity to the whole structure of the he grudged the French nation the freedom, in piece, that is apt to prove oppressive to an orwhich he would otherwise have been among dinary reader, and reduces the entire drama the first to believe and to exult.

to too great uniformity. It only remains to say a word or two of the We make these remarks chiefly with a refliterary productions of ihis extraordinary per- erence to French tragedy. For our son ;-a theme, however interesting and at part, we believe that those who are duly sentractive, upon which we can scarcely pretend sible of the merits of Shakespeare, will never to enter on the present occasion. We have be much struck with any other dramatical not yet been able to procure a complete copy compositions. There are no other plays, inof the works of Alfieri; and, even of those deed, that paint human nature,—that strike which have been lately transmitted to us, we off the characters of men with all the fresh. will confess that a considerable portion reness and sharpness of the original,—and mains to be perused. We have seen enough, speak the language of all the passions, not however, to satisfy us that they are deserving like a mimic, but an echo-neither softer nor of a careful analysis, and that a free and en- louder, nor differently modulated from the lightened estimate of their merit may be ren- spontaneous utterance of the heart. In these dered both interesting and instructive to the respects he disdains all comparison with Algreater part of our readers. We hope soon to fieri

, or with any other mortal: nor is it fair, be in a condition to attempt this task; and perhaps, to suggest a comparison, where no


rivalry can be imagined. Alfieri, like all the offer any opinion. They are considered, in continental dramatists, considers a tragedy as Italy, we believe, as the purest specimens of a poem. In England, we look upon it rather the favella Toscana that late ages have proas a representation of character and passion. duced. To us they certainly seem to want With them, of course, the style and diction, something of that flow and sweetness to which and the congruity and proportions of the we have been accustomed in Italian poetry, piece, are the main objects ;-with us, the and to be formed rather upon the model of truth and the force of the imitation. It is suf. Dante than of Petrarca. At all events, it is ficient for them, if there be character and obvious that the style is highly elaborate and action enough to prevent the composition from artificial; and that the author is constantly languishing, and to give spirit and propriety striving to give it a sort of factitious force and to the polished dialogue of which it consists; energy, by the use of condensed and em. -we are satisfied, if there be management phatic expressions, interrogatories, antitheses, enough in the story not to shock credibility and short and inverted sentences. In als entirely, and beauty and polish enough in the these respects, as well as in the chastised diction to exclude disgust or derision. In his gravity of the sentiments, and the temperance own way, Alfieri, we think, is excellent. His and propriety of all the delineations of pasfables are all admirably contrived and com- sion, these pieces are exactly the reverse of pletely developed; his dialogue is copious and what we should have expected from the fiery, progressive; and his characters all deliver fickle, and impatient character of the author. natural sentiments with great beauty, and From all that Alfieri has told us of himself, often with great force of expression. In our we should have expected to find in his plays eyes, however, it is a fault that the fable is too great vehemence and irregular eloquencesimple, and the incidents too scanty; and that sublime and extravagant sentiments-pasall ihe characters express themselves with sions rising to frenzy—and poetry swelling equal felicity, and urge their opposite views into bombast

. Instead of this, we have a suband pretensions with equal skill and plausi- dued and concise representation of energetic bility. We see at once, that an ingenious discourses-passions, not loud but deep-and author has versified the sum of a dialogue; a style so severely correct and scrupulously and never, for a moment, imagine that we pure, as to indicate, even to unskillul eyes, hear the real persons contending. There may the great labour which must have been bebe more eloquence and dignity in this style stowed on its purification. No characters can of dramatising ;—there is infinitely more de- be more different than that which we should ception in ours.

infer from reading the tragedies of Alfieri, and With regard to the diction of these pieces, that which he has assigned to himself in these it is not for tramontane critics to presume tól authentic memoirs.

(April, 1803.) The Life and Posthumous Writings of William CowPER, Esq. With an Introductory Letter

to the Right Honourable Earl Cowper. By WILLIAM HAYLEY, Esq. 2 vols. 4to. Chichester: 1803.

This book is too long; but it is composed features of the person it intends to commemoon a plan that makes prolixity unavoidable. rate. It is a plan, however, that requires so Instead of an account of the poet's life, and a much room for its execution, and consequently view of his character and performances, the so much money and so much leisure in those biographer has laid before the public a large who wish to be masters of it, that it ought to selection from his private correspondence, and be reserved, we conceive, for those great and merely inserted as much narrative between eminent characters that are likely to excite each series of letters, as was necessary to pre- an interest among all orders and generations serve their connection, and make the subject of mankind. While the biography of Shakeof them intelligible.

speare and Bacon shrinks into the corner of This scheme of biography, which was first an octavo, we can scarcely help wondering introduced, we believe, by Mason, in his life that the history of the sequestered life and of Gray, has many evident advantages in solitary studies of Cowper should have expoint of liveliness of colouring, and fidelity tended into two quarto volumes. of representation. It is something intermediate The little Mr. Hayley writes in these vo' between the egotism of confessions, and the umes is by no means well written; though questionable narrative of a surviving friend, certainly distinguished by a very amiable who must be partial, and may be mistaken: gentleness of semper, and the strongest apIt enables the reader to judge for himself, pearance of sincere veneration and affection from materials that were not provided for the for the departed friend to whose memory it is purpose of determining his judgment; and consecrated. It will be very hard, too, if they holds up to him, instead of a Hattering or un- do not become popular; as Mr. Hayley seems faithful portrait, the living lineaments and to have exerted himself to conciliate "readers of every description, not only by the most dence, if we rightly understand his biographer, lavish and indiscriminate praise of every in- that was the immediate cause of the unfordividual he has occasion to mention, but by a tunate derangement that overclouded the regeneral spirit of approbation and indulgence mainder of his life. In his thirty-first year, towards every practice and opinion which he his friends procured for him the office of has found it necessary to speak of. Among reading-clerk to the House of Lords ; but the the other symptoms of book making which this idea of reading in public, was the source of publication contains, we can scarcely forbear such torture and apprehension to him, that hu reckoning the expressions of this too obsequious very soon resigned that place, and had interest and unuffending philanthropy.

enough to exchange it for that of clerk of the The constitutional shyness and diffidence journals, which was supposed to require no of Cowper appeared in his earliest childhood, personal attendance. An unlucky dispute in rud was not subdued in any degree by the Parliament, however, made it necessary for bustle and contention of a Westminster edu- him to appear in his place ; and the consecation; where, though he acquired a consid- quences of this requisition are stated by Mr. erable portion of classical learning, he has Hayley, in the following, not very lucid, achimself declared, that "he was never able to count. raise his eye above the shoe-buckles of the elder boys, who tyrannized over him." From

“ His terrors on this occasion arose to such an this seminary, he seems to have passed, with- astonishing height, that they utterly overwhelmed out any academical preparation, into the So- prepare himself for his public duty, by attending ciety of the Inner Temple, where he continued closely at the office for several months, to examine to reside to the age of thirty-three. Neither the parliamentary journals, his application was ren. his biographer nor his letters give any satis- dered useless by that excess of diffidence, which factory account of the way in which this large made him conceive, that whatever knowledge he and most important part of his life was spent. at ihe bar of the House. This distressing appre

might previously acquire, it would all forsake him Although Lord Thurlow was one of his most hension increased to such a degree, as the time for intimate associates, it is certain that he never his appearance approached, that when the day so made any proficiency in the study of the law; anxiously dreaded arrived, he was unable to make and the few slight pieces of composition, in the experiment. The very friends, who called on which he appears to have been engaged in of Lords, acquiesced in the cruel necessity of relinthis interval, are but a scanty produce for fif- quishing the prospect of a station so severely forteen years of literary leisure. That a part of midable to a frame of such singular sensibility." those years was very idly spent, indeed, ap- " The conflict between the wishes of just affecpears from his own account of them. In a tionate ambition, and the terrors of diffidence, so letter to his cousin, in 1786, he says,

entirely overwhelmed his health and faculujes, that

after two learned and benevolent divines (Mr. John "I did actually live three years with Mr. Chap Cowper, his brother, and the celebrated Mr. Mar. man, a solicitor ; that is to say, I slept three years tin Madan, bis first cousin) had vainly endeavoured in his house ; but I lived, that is to say, I spent my to establish a lasting tranquillity in his mind, by days in Sourhampton Row, as you very well re- friendly and religious conversation, it was found member. There was I, and the future Lord Chan- necessary to remove him to St. Alban's, where he cellor, constantly employed, from morning to night, resided a considerable time, under the care of that in giggling, and making giggle, instead of studying eminent physician Dr. Cotton, a scholar and a poet, the law."'-Vol. i. p. 178.

who added to many accomplishments a peculiar And in a more serious letter to Mr. Rose, I had the pleasure of a personal acquaintance with

sweetness of manners, in very advanced life, when he makes the following just observations. him."-Vol. i. pp. 25, 26.

“ The colour of our whole life is generally such as the three or four first years, in which we are our

In this melancholy state he continued for own masters, make it. Then it is that we may be upwards of a year, when his mind began said to shape our own destiny, and to treasure up slowly to emerge from the depression under for ourselves a series of future successes or disap- which it had laboured, and to seek for con, pointments. Had I employed my time as wisely as solation in the study of the Scriptures, and been a poet perhaps, but I might by this time have other religious occupations. In the city of acquired a character of more importance in soci. Huntingdon, to which he had been removed ety; a situation in which my friends would have in his illness, he now formed an acquaintance been better pleased to see me. But three years with the family of the Reverend Mr. Unwin, misspent in an attorney's, office, were almost of with whose widow the greater part his after course followed by several more equally misspent life was passed. The series of letters, which in the Temple; and the consequence has been, as the Italian epitaph says, Slo qui.—The only use

Mr. Hayley has introduced in this place, are I can make of myself now, at least the best, is to altogether of a devotional cast, and bear eviserve in terrorem to others, when occasion may dent symptoms of continuing depression and happen to offer, that they may escape (so far as my anxiety. He talks a great deal of his converadmonitions can have any weight with them) my sion, of the levity and worldliness of his folly and my fate."'--Vol. i. pp. 333, 334.

former life, and of the grace which had at last Neither the idleness of this period, however, been vouchsafed to him ; and seems so entirely nor the gaiety in which it appears to have and constantly absorbed in those awful medibeen wasted, had corrected that radical defect tations, as to consider not only the occupations in his constitution, by which he was disabled of his earlier days, but all temporal business from making any public display of his acqui- or amusement, as utterly unworthy of his atsitions, and it was the excess of this diffi- tention. We do not think it necessary to make


any extract from this part of the publication ; i pieces. When I can find no other occupation, and perhaps Mr. Hayley might have spared ihink; and when I think, I am very apt to do it in some of the methodistical raptures and dissert- rhyme. Hence it comes 10 pass, that the season ations that are contained in those letters of poetry, unfolds mine, such as they are, and

of the year which generally pinches off the flowers without any injury either to the memory of crowns me with a winter garland. In this respect, his friend, or the reputation of his own per- therefore, I and my contemporary bards are by no formance.

means upon a par. They write when the delightful After the death of Mr. Unwin, he retired influence of fine weather, fine prospects, and a brisk with his widow to the village of Olney in motion of the animal spirits, make poetry almost the 1768, where he continued in the same pious all ihe leaves of the Parnassian laurel, and when a and 'sequestered habits of life till the year reasonable man would as little expect to succeed in 1772, when a second and more protracted verse, as to hear a black bird whistle. This must visitation of the same tremendous malady ob- be my apology to you for whatever want of fire and scured his faculties for a melancholy period animation you may observe in what you will shortly of eight years; during which he was attended have the perusal of. As to the public, if they like by Mrs. Unwin with a constancy and tender-me not, there is no remedy."— Vol. i. pp. 105, 106. ness of affection, which it was the great busi

The success of his first volume, which apness of his after life to repay. In 1780, he peared in the end of the year 1781, was by began gradually to recover; and in a letter no means such as to encourage him to proceed of that year to his cousin, describes himself to a second; and, indeed, it seems now to be in this m

admitted by every body but Mr. Hayley, that

it was not well calculated for becoming popu“ You see me sixteen years older, at the least, lar. Too serious for the general reader, it than when I saw you last ; but the effects of time had too much satire, wit, and criticism, to be seem to have taken place rather on the outside of my head than within it. What was brown is be- a favourite with the devout and enthusiastic; come grey, but what was foolish remains foolish the principal poems were also too long and still. Green fruit must rot before it ripens, if the desultory, and the versification throughout was season is such as to afford it nothing but cold winds more harsh and negligent, than the public had and dark clouds, that interrupt every ray of sunshine. yet been accustomed to. The book therefore My days steal away silently, and march on (as poor was very little read, till the increasing fame march) as if they were shod with felt! Not so of the author brought all his works into notice; silently but that I hear them; yet were it not that I and then, indeed, it was discovered, that it am always listening to their flight, having no in, contained many traits of strong and original firmity that I had not when I was much younger, I genius, and a richness of idiomatical phraseshould deceive myself with an imagination that I lology, that has been but seldom equalled in am still young."-Vol. i. pp. 96, 97.

our language. One of the first applications of his returning In the end of this year, Cowper formed an powers was to the taming and education of accidental acquaintance with the widow of Sir the three young hares, which he has since Thomas Austen, which, in spite of his insupercelebrated in his poetry: and, very soon after, able shyness, ripened gradually into a mutual the solicitations of his affectionate companion and cordial friendship, and was the immediate first induced him to prepare some moral pieces source of some of his happiest hours, and for publication, in the hope of giving a salu- most celebrated productions.—The facetious tary employment to his mind. At the age of history of "John Gilpin” arose from a sug. fifty, therefore, and at a distance from all the gestion of that lady, in circumstances and in excitements that emulation and ambition usu- a way that marks the perilous and moody ally hold out to a poet, Cowper began to write state of Cowper's understanding more strik. for the public, with the view of diverting his ingly perhaps than any general description. own melancholy, and doing service to the

* It happened one afternoon, in those years, cause of morality. Whatever effect his pub- when his accomplished friend Lady Austen made a lications had on the world, the composition part of his little evening circle, that she observed of them certainly had a most beneficial one him sinking into increasing dejection; it was her on himself. In a letter to his cousin he says, custom, on these occasions, to try all the resources

of her sprightly powers for his immediate relief. “Dejection of spirits, which I suppose may have She told him the story of John Gilpin (which had prevenied many a man from becoming an author, been treasured in her memory from her childhood) to made me one. I find constant employment neces. dissipate the gloom of the passing hour. Its effects sary, and therefore take care to be constantly em. on the fancy of Cowper had the air of enchanıment. ployed. - Manual occupations do not engage the He informed her the next morning, that convulsions mind sufficiently, as I know by experience, having of laughter, brought on by his recollection of her tried many. But composition, especially of verse, story, had kept him waking during the greatest part absorbs it wholly. I write, therefore, generally of the night! and that he had turned it into a ballad. three hours in a morning, and in an evening 1 -So arose the pleasant poem of John Gilpin.” transcribe. I read also, but less than I write."-Vol. i. pp. 128, 129. Vol. i. p. 147.

In the course of the year 1783, however, There is another passage in which he talks Lady Austen was fortunate enough to direct of his performance in so light and easy a the poet to a work of much greater importance; manner, and assumes so much of the pleasing, and to engage him, from a very accidental though antiquated language of Pope and Ad- circumstance, in the composition of “The dison, that we cannot resist extracting it.

Task,” by far the best and the most popular My labours are principally the production of of all his performances. The anecdote, which last winter ; all indeed, except a few of the minor I is such as the introduction of that poem has

probably suggested to most readers, is given translation, about this time, seem to have in this manner by Mr. Hayley.

drawn from him the following curious and ** This lady happened, as an admirer of Milton, unaffected delineation of his own thoughts and to be partial io blank verse, and often solicited her feelings. poetical friend to try his powers in that species of composition. After repeated solicitation, he pro- menced an author, I am most abundantly desirous

“I am not ashamed to confess, that having com. mised her, if she would furnish the subject, to comply with her request. “Oh!' she replied, you can

to succeed as such. I have (what perhaps you little never be in want of a subject ,---you can write upon bition. But with it, I have at the same time, as

suspect me of) in my nature, an infinite share of am. any-urile upon this sola!' The poet obeyed her command; and, from the lively repartee of familiar you well know, an equal share of diffidence. To conversation, arose a poem of many thousand verses, this combination of opposite qualities it has been une xampled, perhaps, both in its origin and excel owing, that, till lately, I stole ihrough life without lence."--Vol. i. p. 135.

undertaking any thing, yet always wishing to dis

tinguish myself. At last I ventured: ventured, too, This extraordinary production was finished in the only path that, at so late a period, was yet in less than a year, and became extremely open to me ; and I am determined, if God hath not popular from the very first month of its publica- determined otherwise, to work my way through tion. The charm of reputation, however, could the obscurity that hath been so long my portion,

into notice."-Vol. i. p. 190. not draw Cowper from his seclusion; and his solitude became still more dreary about this

As he advanced in his work, however, he period, by the cessation of his intercourse seems to have become better pleased with with Lady Austen, with whom certain little the execution of it; and in the year 1790, jealousies on the part of Mrs. Unwin (which addresses to his cousin the following candid ihe biographer might as well have passed and interesting observations: though we can. over in silence) obliged him to renounce any not but regret that we have not some specifarther connection. Besides the Task and mens least of what he calls the quaint and John Gilpin, he appears to have composed antiquated style of our earlier poets: and are several smaller poems for this lady, which are not without our suspicions that we should published, for the first time, in the work now have liked it better than that which he ultibefore us.

We were particularly struck with mately adopted. a ballad on the unfortunate loss of the Royal George, of which the following stanzas may the success of my translation, though in time past

“To say the truth, I have now no fears about serve as a specimen.

I have had many. I knew there was a style some** Toll for the brave!

where, could I but find it, in which Homer oughe Brave Kempenfelt is gone;

to be rendered, and which alone would suit hím. His last seafight is fought;

Long time I blundered about it, ere I could attain His work of glory done.

to any decided judgment on the matter. At first 1

was betrayed, by a desire of accommodating my " It was not in the battle;

language to the simplicity of his, into much of the No tempest gave the shock; quaininess that belonged to our writers of the fif. She sprang no fatal leak;

teenth century. In the course of many revisals, I She ran upon no rock.

have delivered myself from this evil, I believe, en. “His sword was in its sheath;

tirely : but I have done it slowly, and as a man His fingers held the pen,

separates himself from his mistress, when he is When Kempenfelt went down,

going to marry. I had so strong a predilection in With twice four hundred men.

favour of this style, at first, that I was crazed to Vol. i. p. 127.

find that others were not as much enamoured with

it as myself. At every passage of that sort, which The same year that saw the conclusion of I obliterated, I groaned bitterly, and said to myself, * The Task,” found Cowper engaged in the I am spoiling my work to please those who have translation of Homer. This laborious under- no taste for the simple graces of antiquity. But in taking, is said, by Mr. Hayley, to have been I became a convert to their opinion : and in the

last first suggested to him by Lady Austen also; revisal, which I am now making, am not sensible though there is nothing in the correspondence of having spared a single expression of the obsolete he has published, that seems to countenance kind. I see my work so much improved by this that idea. The work was pretty far advanced alteration, that I am filled with wonder at my own before he appears to have confided the secret backwardness to assent to the necessity of it; and of it to any one. In a letter to Mr. Hill, he whose manner I account myself intimately, ac.

the more, when I consider, that Milton, with explains his design in this manner:

quainted, is never quaint, never iwangs through the Knowing it to have been universally the opinion nose, but is every where grand and elegant, without of the literaii, ever since they have allowed them resorting to musty antiquity for his beauties. On selves to consider the matter coolly, that a transla- the contrary, he took a long stride forward, left the tion, properly so called, of Homer, is, notwithstand language of his own day far behind him, and antieing what Pope has done, a desideratum in the ipaled the expressions of a century yet to come.” Euglish language, it struck me, that an attempt to -Vol. i. pp. 360, 361. supply the deficiency would be an honourable one; and having made myself, in former years, some

The translation was finished in the year what critically a master of the original, I was, hy 1791, and published by subscription immethis double translation, induced to make the attempt diately after. Several applications were made myself. I am now translating into blank verse to the University of Oxford for the honour of the last book of the Iliad, and mean to publish by their subscription, but without success. Their subscription."-Vol. i. p. 154.

answer was, “That they subscribed to nothSome observations that were made by Dr. ing.”—“It seems not a little extraordinary.” Maty and others, upon a specimen of his says the offended poet on this occasion, “ chat

« PreviousContinue »