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LIFE OF COWPER.
Part the Second-Continued.
The completion of the second volume of Cowper's poems formed an important period in his literary history. It was the era of the establishment of his poetical fame. His first volume had already laid the foundation; the second raised the superstructure, which has secured for him a reputation as honourable as it is likely to be lasting. He was more particularly indebted for this distinction to his inimitable production, “ The Task," a work which every succeeding year has increasingly stamped with the seal of public approbation. If we inquire into the causes of its celebrity, they are to be found not merely in the multitude of poetical beauties, scattered throughout the poem ; it is the faithful delineation of nature and of the scenes of real life; it is the vein of
and elevated morality, the exquisite sensibility of feeling, and the powerful appeals to the heart and conscience, which constitute its great charm
and interest. The court, the town, and the country, all united in its praise, because conscience and nature never suffer their rights to be extinguished, except in minds the most perverted or depraved. These rights are coeval with our birth; they grow with our growth, and yield only to that universal decree, which levels taste, perception, and every moral feeling with the dust; and which will finally dissolve the whole system of created nature, and merge time itself in eternity.
Cowper's second volume, containing his “ Task,” and “ Tirocinium,” to which some smaller pieces were afterwards attached, was ready for the press in November, 1784,* though its publication was delayed till June 1785. The close of a literary undertaking is always contemplated as an event of great interest to the feelings of an author. It is the termination of his labours and the commencement of his hopes and fears. Gibbon the historian has thought proper to record the precise hour and day, in which he concluded his laborious work of the “ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” with feelings of a mingled and impressive character. “ I have presumed,” he says,
66 to mark the moment of conception: I shall now commemorate the hour of my final deliverance. It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last-page, in a summerhouse in my garden. After laying down my pen, I
* See vol. ii. p. 177.
took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that, whatever might be the future date of my history, the life of the historian might be short and precarious."*
These chastened feelings are implanted by a Divine Power, to check the pride and exultation of genius, and to maintain the mind in lowly humility. Nor is Pope's reflection less just and affecting : “ The morning after my exit,” he observes, “the sun will rise as bright as ever, the flowers smell as sweet, the plants spring as green, the world will proceed in its old course, and people laugh and marry as they were used to do." +
What then is the moral that is conveyed? If life be so evanescent, if its toils and labours, its sorrows and joys, so quickly pass away, it becomes us to leave some memorial behind, that we have not lived unprofitably either to others or to our
* See Life and Writings of Edward Gibbon, p. 30, prefixed to his " Decline and Fall,” &c.
+ See Pope's Letters.