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and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for in this undertaking Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscar. ried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author ge. nerally read, and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden, in Mack Flecknoe, it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice from its publication till now, in the whole succession of English literature.
Of this silence and neglect, if the reason be inquired, it will be found partly in the choice of the subject, and partly in the performance of the work.
Sacred history has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overawed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of Divine Power are above the power of human genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language: He spake the word, and they were made.
We are told that Saul was troubled with an evil spirit; from this Cowley takes an opportunity of describing Hell, and telling the history of Lucifer, who was, he says,
Once general of a gilded host of sprites,
And roar'd at his first plunge into the fame. Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is some. thing of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and, to give efficacy to his words, concludes by lashing his breast with his long tail. Envy, after a pause, steps out, and among other declarations of her zeal, atters these lines :
Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply,
Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being.
It is not only when the events are confessedly miraculous, that fancy and fiction lose their effect: the whole system of life, while the theocracy was yet visible, has an appearance so different from all other scenes of human action, that the reader of the sacred volume habitually considers it as the peculiar mode of existence of a dis. tinct species of mankind, that lived and acted with manners uncommunicable; so that it is difficult even for imagination to place us in the state of them whose story is related, and by consequence their joys and griefs are not easily adopted, nor can the attention be often interested in any thing that befalls them.
To the subject, thus originally indisposed to the reception of poetical embellishments, the writer brought little that could reconcile im patience, or attract curiosity. Nothing can be more disgusting than a narrative spangled with conceits; and conceits are all that the Davideis supplies.
One of the great sources of poetical delight is description", or the power of pre. senting pictures to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of images, and shows not what may be supposed to have been seen, but what thoughts the sight might have suggested. When Virgil describes the stone which Turnus lifted against Æneas, he fixes the attention on its bulk and weight:
Saxum circumspicit ingens,
Cowley says of the stone with which Cain slew his brother,
I saw him fling the stone, as if he meant
- Of the sword taken from Goliah, he says,
A sword so great, that it was only fit
Other poets describe death by some of its common appearances. Cowley says, with a learned allusion to sepulchral lamps real or fabulous,
'Twixt his right ribs deep pierced the furious blade,
But he has allusions vulgar as well as learned. In a visionary succession of kings,
Joas at first does bright and glorious show,
Describing an undisciplined army, after having said with elegance,
His forces seem'd no army, but a crowd
he gives them a fit of the ague.
The allusions however, are not always to vulgar things; he offends by exaggera. tion as much as by diminution :
4 Dr. Warton discovers some contrariety of opinion between this, and what is said of description in p. 49. C.
The king was plac'd alone, and o'er his head
Whatever he writes is always polluted with some conceit:
Where the Sun's fruitful beams give metals birth,
In one passage he starts a sudden question to the confusion of philosophy:
Ye learned heads, whom ivy garlands grace,
His expressions have sometimes a degree of meanness that surpasses expectation;
Nay, gentle guests, he cries, since now you're in,
In a simile descriptive of the morning:
As glimmering stars just at th' approach of day,
The dress of Gabriel deserves attention ;
He took for skin a cloud most soft and bright,
This is a just specimen of Cowley's imagery: what might in general expressions be great and forcible, he weakens and makes ridiculous by branching it into small parts. That Gabriel was invested with the softest or brightest colours of the sky, we might have been told, and been dismissed to improve the idea in our different proportions of conception; but Cowley could not let us go till he had related where Gabriel got first his skin, and then his mantle, then his lace, and then his scarfe, and related it in the terms of the mercer and taylor.
Sometimes he indulges himself in a digression, always conceived with his natural exuberance, and commonly, even where it is not long, continued till it is tedious :
'th' library a few choice authors stood,
Writing, man's spiritual physic, was not then
As the Davideis affords only four books, though intended to consist of twelve, there is no no opportunity for such criticism as epic poems commonly supply. The plan of the whole work is very imperfectly shown by the third part. The duration of an unfinished action cannot be known. Of characters either not yet in. troduced, or shown but upon few occasions, the full extent and the nice discrimina. tions cannot be ascertained. The fable is plainly implex, formed rather from the Odyssey than the Iliad : and many artifices of diversification are employed, with the skill of a man acquainted with the best models. The past is recalled by nar. ration, and the future anticipated by vision : but he has been so lavish of his poeti. cal art, that it is difficult to imagine how he could fill eight books more without practising again the same modes of disposing his matter; and perhaps the perception of this growing incumbrance inclined him to stop. By this abruption, posterity lost more instruction than delight. If the continuation of the Davideis can be missed, it is for the learning that had been diffused over it, and the notes in which it had been explained.
Had not his characters been depraved, like every other part, by improper decora. tions, they would have deserved uncommon praise. He gives Saul both the body and mind of a hero :
His way once chose, he forward thrust outright,
And the different beauties of the lofty Merah and the gentle Michol are very justly conceived and strongly painted.
Rymer has declared the Dayideis superior to the Jerusalem of Tasso, “which,” says he, " the poet, with all his care, has not totally purged from pedantry.”. If by pedantry is meant that minute knowledge which is derived from particular sciences and studies, in opposition to the general notions supplied by a wide survey of life and nature, Cowley certainly errs, by introducing pedantry, far more frequently than Tasso. I know not, indeed, why they should be compared; for the re. semblance of Cowley's work to Tasso's, is only that they both exhibit the agency of celestial and infernal spirits, in which however they differ widely; for Cowley supposes them commonly to operate upon the mind by suggestion; Tasso repre. sents them as promoting or obstructing events by external agency.
of particular passages that can be properly compared, I remember only the de. scription of Heaven, in which the different manner of the two writers is sufficiently discernible. Cowley's is scarcely description, unless it be possible to describe by negatives ; for he tells us only what there is not in Heaven. Tasso endeavours to represent the splendours and pleasures of the regions of happiness. Tasso af. fords images, and Cowley sentiments. It happens, however, that Tasso's description affords some reason for Rymer's censure. He says of the Supreme Being,
Hà sotto i piedi e fato e la natura
The second line has in it more of pedantry than perhaps can be found in any other stanza of the poem.
In the perusal of the Davideis, as of all Cowley's works, we find wit and learn. ing unprofitably squandered. Attention has no relief; the affections are nerer mored ; we are sometimes surprised, but never delighted, and find much to admire, but little to approve. Still however, it is the work of Cowley, of a mind capacious by nature, and replenished by study.
In the general review of Cowley's poetry it will be found, that he wrote with abundant fertility, but negligent or unskilful selection ; with much thought, but with little imagery; that he is never pathetic, and rarely sublime; but always either ingenious or learned, either acute or profound.
It is said by Denham in his elegy,
To him no author was unknown,
This wide position requires less limitation, when it is affirmed of Cowley, than per. haps of any other poet.—He read much, and yet borrowed little.
His character of writing was indeed not his own: he unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise ; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel, of which the verdure in its spring was bright and gay, but which time has been continually stealing from his brows.
He was in his own time considered as of unrivalled excellence. Clarendon repre. sents him as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him; and Milton is said to have declared, that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shak. speare, and Cowley.
His manner he had in common with others; but his sentiments were his own. Upon every subject he thought for himself; and such was his copiousness of know. ledge, that something at once remote and applicable rushed into his mind; yet it is not likely that he always rejected a commodious idea merely because another had used it: his known wealth was so great, that he might have borrowed without loss of credit.
In bis elegy on sir Henry Wotton, the last lines have such resemblance to the noble epigram of Grotius on the death of Scaliger, that I cannot but think them co. pied from it, though they are copied by no servile band.
One passage in his Mistress is so apparently borrowed from Donne, that he probably would not have written it, had it not mingled with his own thoughts, so as that he did not perceive himself taking it from another :
Although I think thou never found wilt be,
Yet l'm resolv'd to search for thee ;