Goldwin Smith's Cowper

No one, we think, is so much master of the art of giving the essence of things, without the tediousness of detail, as Mr. Goldwin Smith. His study of Irish History — the book by which most of us probably came to know him first — possessed the reader with a sense of the people and their story in a fashion which was and remains unique. The exquisitely clear style, the vigorous and positive thinking, the unsentimental sympathy, the distinct and unmistakable point of view, are all excellences which unite to one effect. There is no waste of words in his work, but no diction is farther from crabbedness. The sparing is from a full mind; the reticence is that of one who knows how to withhold useless knowledge. If the reader wishes for a recent instance of his peculiar force and directness in characterization, let him turn to the quite matchless portrait of Swift in the paper on Pessimism, lately printed here; or if he would have something almost as good, and indefinitely more pleasing, let him take this little book on Cowper. It is charming, but that does not begin to say all; for it will be one’s own fault if one is not more than charmed. One ought to be put in thorough sympathy with a nature which, in spite of insanity and almost immeasurable weakness, became a great power in the world, to the glory, as Mr. Smith points out, of Christian civilization ; and one may profitably turn from our time, when so much has been said and so much insinuated in favor of a scientific return to barbarism, and recur to the time when human brotherhood began to be asserted, and the virtue of might to be questioned. Cowper was the prophet of the new impulse, and he long dictated the morality of that simple and now rather old-fashioned world, in which it was conceded that the feeble and inferior had paramount claims, that it was wrong to give pain, and that selfishness was wicked. It would not be surprising if, in a revulsion from our present collective way of taking ourselves, and condoning injustice and aggression as a perhaps necessary part of the general design, he should regain something of his old popularity. He could never get it all back; the world can never again, we hope, be so didactic as his world, but we trust it can be as gentle, as domestic, as religious.

His world was a world apart, — another world, — even in his own time; but it is historically important because the best modern feeling and morality had their spring in it. The sentiment of religious democracy, the abhorrence of slavery, the recognition of the brotherhood of men, we owe to that world, and Cowper was its poet. He was so much secluded from what seemed the prevailing influences of his time that it is hard to conceive of him as the contemporary of Johnson and Goldsmith, of Sterne and Fielding, of Garrick and Burke, and all that made London splendid and memorable; but, with the exception of Goldsmith, he has had a message for more human hearts than any or all of the others. He has been, like Milton, the poet whom militant devotion has spared, and he has kept the sense of beauty alive in thousands of righteous households where Shakespeare was held profane, and almost the whole body of English poetry was thought as ungodly as cardplaying and horse-racing. Yet he was nearly his whole life a hypochondriac, and he had accesses of madness in which he more than once attempted suicide ; so frail, so seemingly unfit, are the instruments through which Providence works its will upon the world.

Mr. Smith traces once more, with his graphic force, the outline of the story which is so well known, — the poet’s sickly and solitary childhood, darkened by the loss of his mother, and imbittered by his sufferings at school from the brutality of his fellows and teachers ; the brief glimpse of gayety and worldly happiness, when “ his days were spent in ‘giggling and making giggle’ with his cousins Theodora and Harriet; ” his moment of ambition, when he aspired to be clerk of the journals in the House of Lords, and recoiled from the possible opposition to his appointment in terror that drove him to his first attempt upon his own life; the transition from the mad-house to the household of the good clergyman Unwin, with whose wife he formed that singular friendship, not so much to be called Platonic as Evangelic, which lasted till her death ; the residence of the pair with the austere and devout old ex-slaver, Newton; their removal from his too powerful theologic influence, and their episodic relations with the potentially romantic Lady Austen ; the domestication of Lady Hesketh, Cowper’s cousin, with them ; and finally Mrs. Unwin’s death, and Cowper’s decline to a peaceful end. The biographer fills up this necessarily meagre sketch with special and general criticisms on Cowper’s literary growth and performances, and no doubt there will be those to say that he quotes the best of his poetry. It is true that it has formed the pleasure mostly of those for whom a very little poetry in their prose is enough; but it is to be hoped that Mr. Smith’s clear and just study will send his reader to it for the means of revising, or perhaps forming, his own opinion of its qualities. “ Once for all,” he tells us, the reader “ must make up his mind to acquiesce in religious forms of expression. If he does not sympathize with them, he will recognize them as phenomena of opinion, and bear them like a philosopher. He can easily translate them into the language of psychology,” or, he adds, with a touch of characteristic irony, “ even of physiology, if he thinks fit.”

Although Cowper was “ the great poet of the religious revival which marked the latter part of the eighteenth century in England,” we think that some of Mr. Smith’s readers, even after their pleasure and profit in his admirable book, will doubt whether he was “ the most important English poet of the period between Pope and the illustrious group headed by Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley.” Not especially to name Goldsmith, the supreme poet of the affections, whose influence remains almost undiminished, there are too many other names of that period to permit a ready assent to this sort of claim, which it does not seem to us is ever a useful one for the critic to make. Mr. Smith is on much safer ground in defining Cowper’s importance to the religious and moral reform which he promoted ; and nothing in his book is more interesting than his sketch of the prevalent irreligion and immorality which Methodism found in England.

He quotes from a letter of the Duchess of Buckingham to Lady Huntingdon, one of the first converts, a delicious passage which expresses the astonishment and indignation of the better classes at the impudence of the preachers, “ whose doctrines are most repulsive, and strongly tinctured with disrespect towards their superiors. ... It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly insulting and offensive ; and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.” Here the primal conception of Christianity was extinct, and it was to the redemption of society at its best so godless that Cowper was important. He might have been all in all to it without being the most important poet of that long period, for finally a poet’s importance is through literature.

Without giving Cowper the place assigned him by Southey as the best of English letter-writers, Mr. Smith is inclined to think it is shared with him by Byron alone ; and he gives a delightful chapter to those letters in which Cowper unaffectedly paints his life, with its literary and religious interests, its simple pleasures and cares, and its small excitements, amidst the gentle and good women with whom his lot was cast. When he is not writing at their suggestion, or reading to them, he is amusing himself with his hares or his flowers, or he is holding thread for them to wind. It is not at all a heroic life; but it is an immediately harmless one, and ultimately most beneficent. This poor, sick soul, who dwells like a frail child in the shelter of feminine sympathy, and for whom beyond it there is no way but that towards madness, is inspired to be the voice and the courage of a sentiment which we in our own day have seen extinguish slavery on fields of blood, and which silently works and has worked to the amelioration of all the wrongs that humanity suffers. The means is so strange, so apparently inadequate, and so little proportioned to the end that we cannot consider it without awe, nor help recurring to the biographer’s conviction that it “ is a remarkable triumph of the influences which have given birth to Christian civilization.” The sense of beauty is inherent in all races, times, and religions; the love of practical righteousness, the feeling for others’ woe, the horror of cruelty and wrong, find through Christianity their laureate in the shrinking and self-accusing poet, whose singing-robe was sometimes a strait-jacket.

  1. Cowper. [Morley’s English Men of Letters.] By GOLDWIN SMITH. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.