Слике страница

his character in every aspect, or his common experience from day to day, or his opinions on recent and indeed on any topics, his estimate of literary obligations, and of the connexion between an author and his reader; or, in fine, as they answer almost every inquiry that could be raised from reading his works generally, from reading the letters themselves, or the accounts of him that have been furnished by others. It may be proper to add, that to understand the value of the Letters in a biographical view, or indeed in any other, they should be read in their order and read through. Such scattered fragments as we find in the Life answer the immediate purpose very well, but give a very inadequate idea of the correspond


The simple, the precisely stated facts of his early life are few, though no doubt as numerous as ought to be expected. But he has contrived, by his manner of referring to this period in his letters, to fill it out and make it singularly beautiful and interesting. We cannot say very distinctly what this manner is. Certainly, indefinite allusions, such as his old acquaintance would fully understand, are not likely to give us what we call information.

Dim regrets, laughing recollections, and indications on every hand, that while he seems absolutely to live in the past, the present is still in and about him, that he is himself a changed man and yet touched as of old, and even more, by revisiting his former haunts, — all these marks of

truth and helps to truth would be every thing in the eye of the friend he was writing to. But why is it that they affect us so deeply and familiarly? Without any orderly narrative, without notes to fill up or clear up, all appears luminous, real, present, and entire. And it is all delightful, both for the truth, and the way the truth falls from him ; the broken, incidental way ; the absence of all thought of making a dream of boyhood or a choice of its beauties. His feelings illuminate his hints, and they swell into scenes. By knowing his spirit, we are able to interpret, to complete and make real.

We too were with him at school, at the club, and in Southampton Row, and we are now talking together of our old times and former selves.

But whatever be the topic, and whether of former or present days, he runs on with freedom and lightness ; there is not the least appearance of keeping a Diary or rendering an account; and no pressure of responsibleness, not even from the


[ocr errors]



necessity of getting something ready when he has nothing to say. He takes this very easily ; far more easily than Sterne, who says that he made half a dozen different beginnings to say nothing, and could no way please himself. Cowper enters upon the vacuity in the highest spirits. The want of a topic seems to be the best state of things possible to begin a letter. He is 66

He is “put to entreaty, and there begins new matter.” The whole case we are now considering is stated in a letter to Unwin.

“You like to hear from me; this is a very good reason why I should write. But I have nothing to say; this seems equally a good reason why I should not. Yet if you had alighted from your horse at our door this morning, and at this present writing, being five o'clock in the afternoon, had found occasion to say to me, – Mr. Cowper, you have not spoke since I came in ; have you resolved never to speak again ?' it would be but a poor reply, if in answer to the summons I should plead inability as my best and only excuse. And this by the way suggests to me a seasonable piece of instruction, and reminds me of what I am very apt to forget, when I have any epistolary business in hand, that a letter may be written upon any thing or nothing, just as that any thing or nothing happens to occur. that has a journey before him twenty miles in length, which he is to perform on foot, will not hesitate and doubt whether he shall set out or not, because he does not readily conceive how he shall ever reach the end of it; for he knows, that by the simple operation of moving one foot forward first, and then the other, he shall be sure to accomplish it. So it is in the present case, and so it is in every similar case. A letter is written as a conversation is maintained, or a journey performed; not by preconcerted or premeditated means, a new contrivance, or an invention never heard of before, but merely by maintaining a progress, and resolving as a postilion does, having once set out, never to stop till we reach the appointed end. If a man may talk without thinking, why may he not write upon the same terms? A grave gentleman of the last century, a tie-wig, square-toe, Steinkirk figure, would say, "My good sir, a man has no right to do either.' But it is to be hoped that the present century has nothing to do with the mouldy opinions of the last; and so, good Sir Launcelot, or Sir Paul, or whatever be your name, step into your picture frame again, and look as if you thought for another century, and leave us moderns in the mean time to think when we can, and to write whether we can or not, else we might as well be dead as you are.”

A man

Cowper makes it almost a condition of the correspondence, that he may “scribble away and write his uppermost thoughts, and those only.” But these sudden products of his mind bear marks of more than its activity. He can trifle and gossip ; and little things have their uses, if a man have the wit or philosophy to find them out. Horace Walpole raised gossip very near to the dignity of a fine art, and could set off sober wisdom the better in a crowd of vanities. With him, however, letter-writing seems to be a profession; while with Cowper, who probably gave to it as much of his time, it commonly has the ease and lightness of something called forth by a pleasing accident ; and the riches and variety of his mind would have been far less known but for this sort of irresponsible exercise. And though a letter be gloomy throughout, or one of grave advice, or sympathy, or criticism, or occupied wholly with his literary engagements, the freedom and despatch are equally visible. If heavy spirits and a reluctant genius compel him to make efforts, he tells us how it is with him, or we should suspect nothing of the matter, so soon does the exertion create facility.

As to literary merits, the better opinion seems to be that a letter should have none, or at least none which are susceptible of being critically defined. Walpole says, he hates what is called a good letter. Cowper observes, that West's Letters are “ elegant and sensible, but have nothing in them that is characteristic, or that discriminates them from the letters of any other young man of taste and learning.” Of course the elegance goes for very little. Upon hearing that bis own letters had been praised by Unwin for being “entertaining and clever, and so forth,” he makes a remonstrance which shows that he thought there must be something wrong in a letter that sought or received admiration.

“I found this consequence attending, or likely to attend the eulogium you bestowed; if my friend thought me witty before, he shall think me ten times more witty hereafter ; where I joked once, I will joke five times, and for one sensible remark I will send him a dozen. Now this foolish vanity would have spoiled me quite, and would have made me as disgusting a letter-writer as Pope, who seems to have thought that unless a sentence was well turned, and every period pointed with some conceit, it was not worth the carriage. Accordingly, he is to me, except in very few instances, the most disagreeable maker of epistles that ever I met with."


To say that his letters have every property of good style which is suitable for such compositions, and yet that they have no style at all, might be deemed (however near the truth) an affected mode of expression; so that we are tempted to specify a few particulars ; for instance, the purity of his diction, and the consummate grace and dexterity with which he uses the language. There is a music in the arrangement, which is felt as much, and observed as little, as a pleasant voice in conversation. The sentence takes its shape from the matter, and the manner varies with the topic or feeling, or the party addressed. In short, here is perfect English composition, in its kind, and a reigning harmony ; and the result is, that a body of familiar letters, in the first copy, has passed into English libraries as a monument of prose, and an established classic unequalled in its own department.

It is agreeable to know that Cowper found relief and amusement in his part of the correspondence. It was more to him than an exercise and expression of his love, and was rewarded with more than a grateful reply. We may see the diversion it afforded him, in one striking characteristic of the Letters ; we mean the unexpected turn he gives to common things, and usually a playful one. The grotesque is delicately applied to raise and set off a very simple matter. The comic and serious are so mixed as to have the effect, with seemingly no purpose, of irony. He is evidently amused himself"; but to all appearance he is entertained with something he has discovered in the thing he is describing, and not with the whimsical conceits it has suggested. It was of great moment to his happiness, that his fancy should be easily directed to objects that would make it active without producing strong emotion; and he seems to have so trained it to his service, that he could go to it for relief in his dejection as hopefully as another might have recourse to music. In the milder states of his melancholy, his strange and diverting fancies came forth, like the day-spring, to mingle with and scatter the throng of shadows. But sometimes he wrote bis merriest pieces under the influence of despair itself, as if it were the inspiring power, and the flashes and floods bad waited till the cloud were thickest. How much of real joy there was in such a revel, is bidden. Madness, we may suppose, has many alleviations of which we know nothing ; and Dr. Southey has suggested one in the case of Cowper, which


though foreign to that we have just spoken of, may have a place here.

“Our retrospect of any individual's history is colored by the fortune of his latter days, as a drama takes its character from the catastrophe. A melancholy sentiment will always for this reason prevail, when Cowper is thought of. But though his disease of mind settled at last into the deepest shade, and ended in the very blackness of darkness, it is not less certain that before it reached that point, it allowed him many years of moral and intellectual enjoyment. They who have had most opportunity of observing and studying madness in all its mysterious forms, and in all its stages, know that the same degree of mental suffering is not produced by imaginary causes of distress as by real ones. Violent emotions, and outbreaks of ungovernable anger are at times easily excited, but not anguish of mind, not that abiding grief which eats into the heart. The distress, even when the patient retains, like Cowper, the full use of reason upon all other points, is in this respect like that of a dream, a dream, indeed, from which the sufferer can neither wake nor be awakened; but it pierces no deeper, and there seems to be the same dim consciousness of its unreality.” — Vol. 11. p. 70.

We will close with one more extract from the Life, that is not without a cheering influence, though its tone is melancholy

“ Happily there was nothing irksome in any of the business to which he was called. His correspondence,

His correspondence, - except only when, upon writing to Mr. Newton, and to him alone, the consciousness of his malady arose in his mind, —was purely pleasurable. He had his own affliction, and that was of the heaviest kind; but from the ordinary cares and sorrows of life no man was ever more completely exempted. All his connexions were prosperous. Mr. Unwin was the only friend, whose longer life must have appeared desirable, of whom death bereaved him. From the time when in the prime of manhood he was rendered helpless, he was provided for by others; that Providence which feeds the ravens raised up one person after another to minister unto him. Mrs. Unwin was to him as a mother ; Lady Hes. keth as a sister; and when he lost in Unwin one who had been to him as a brother, young men, as has already been seen, in the instance of Rose, supplied that loss with almost filial affection. Sad as his story is, it is not altogether mournful; he had

. never to complain of injustice, nor of injuries, nor even of neglect. Man had no part in bringing on his calamity; and to

« ПретходнаНастави »