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Cowper and Rousseau by Leslie Stephen


Sainte-Beuve's Essay on Cowper—considered as the type of domestic poets—has recently been translated for the benefit of English readers. It is interesting to know on the highest authority what are the qualities which may recommend a writer, so strongly tinged by local prejudices, to the admiration of a different race and generation. The gulf which separates the Olney of a century back from modern Paris is wide enough to give additional value to the generous appreciation of the critic. I have not the presumption to supplement or correct any part of his judgment. It is enough to remark briefly that Cowper's immediate popularity was, as is usually the case, due in part to qualities which have little to do with his more enduring reputation. Sainte-Beuve dwells with special fondness upon his pictures of domestic and rural life. He notices, of course, the marvellous keenness of his pathetic poems; and he touches, though with some hint that national affinity is necessary to its full appreciation, upon the playful humour which immortalised John Gilpin, and lights up the poet's most charming letters. Something, perhaps, might still be said by a competent critic upon the singular charm of Cowper's best style. A poet, for example, might perhaps tell us, though a prosaic person cannot, what is the secret of the impression made by such a poem as the 'Wreck of the Royal George.' Given an ordinary newspaper paragraph about wreck or battle, turn it into the simplest possible language, do not introduce a single metaphor or figure of speech, indulge in none but the most obvious of all reflections—as, for example, that when a man is once drowned he won't win any more battles—and produce as the result a copy of verses which nobody can ever read without instantly knowing them by heart. How Cowper managed to perform such a feat, and why not one poet even in a hundred can perform it, are questions which might lead to some curious critical speculation.

The qualities, however, which charm the purely literary critic do not account for the whole of Cowper's influence. A great part of his immediate, and some part of his more enduring success, have been clearly owing to a different cause. On reading Johnson's 'Lives,' Cowper remarked, rather uncharitably, that there was scarcely one good man amongst the poets. Few poets, indeed, shared those religious views which commended him more than any literary excellence to a large class of readers. Religious poetry is generally popular out of all proportion to its æsthetic merits. Young was but a second-rate Pope in point of talent; but probably the 'Night Thoughts' have been studied by a dozen people for one who has read the 'Essay on Man' or the 'Imitations of Horace.' In our own day, nobody, I suppose, would hold that the popularity of the 'Christian Year' has been strictly proportioned to its poetical excellence; and Cowper's vein of religious meditation has recommended him to thousands who, if biassed at all, were quite unconsciously biassed by the admirable qualities which endeared him to such a critic as Sainte-Beuve. His own view was frequently and unequivocally expressed. He says over and over again—and his entire sincerity lifts him above all suspicion of the affected self-depreciation of other writers—that he looked upon his poetical work as at best innocent trifling, except so far as his poems were versified sermons. His intention was everywhere didactic—sometimes annoyingly didactic—and his highest ambition was to be a useful auxiliary to the prosaic exhortations of Doddridge, Watts, or his friend Newton. His religion, said some people, drove him mad. Even a generous critic like Mr. Stopford Brooke cannot refrain from hinting that his madness was in some part due to the detested influence of Calvinism. In fact, it may be admitted that Newton—who is half inclined to boast that he has a name for driving people mad—scarcely showed his judgment in setting a man who had already been in confinement to write hymns which at times are the embodiment of despair. But it is obviously contrary to the plainest facts to say that Cowper was driven mad by his creed. His first attack preceded his religious enthusiasm; and a gentleman who tries to hang himself because he has received a comfortable appointment for life, is in a state of mind which may be explained without reference to his theological views. It would be truer to say that when Cowper's intellect was once unhinged, he found a congenial expression for the tortures of his soul in the imagery provided by the sternest of Christian sects. But neither can this circumstance be alleged as in itself disparaging to the doctrines thus misapplied. A religious belief which does not provide language for the darkest moods of the human mind, for profound melancholy, torturing remorse and gloomy foreboding, is a religion not calculated to lay a powerful grasp upon the imaginations of mankind. Had Cowper been a Roman Catholic, the same anguish of mind might have driven him to seek relief in the recesses of some austere monastery. Had he, like Rousseau, been a theoretical optimist, he would, like Rousseau, have tortured himself with the conflict between theory and fact—between the world as it might be and the corrupt and tyrannous world as it is—and have held that all men were in a conspiracy to rob him of his peace. The chief article of Rousseau's rather hazy creed was the duty of universal philanthropy, and Rousseau fancied himself to be the object of all men's hatred. Similarly, Cowper, who held that the first duty of man was the love of God, fancied that some mysterious cause had made him the object of the irrevocable hatred of his Creator. With such fancies, reason and creeds which embody reason have nothing to do except to give shape to the instruments of self-torture. The cause of the misery is the mind diseased. You can no more raze out its rooted troubles by arguing against the reality of the phantoms which it generates than cure any other delirium by the most irrefragable logic.

Sainte-Beuve makes some remarks upon this analogy between Rousseau and Cowper. The comparison suggests some curious considerations as to the contrast and likeness of the two cases represented. Some personal differences are, of course, profound and obvious. Cowper was as indisputably the most virtuous man, as Rousseau the greatest intellectual power. Cowper's domestic life was as beautiful as Rousseau's was repulsive. Rousseau, moreover, was more decidedly a sentimentalist than Cowper, if by sentimentalism we mean that disposition which makes a luxury of grief, and delights in poring over its own morbid emotions. Cowper's tears are always wrung from him by intense anguish of soul, and never, as is occasionally the case with Rousseau, suggests that the weeper is proud of his excessive tenderness. Nevertheless, it is probably true, as Mr. Lowell says, that Cowper is the nearest congener of Rousseau in our language. The two men, of course, occupy in one respect an analogous literary position. We habitually assign to Cowper an important place—though of course a subordinate place to Rousseau—in bringing about the reaction against the eighteenth-century code of taste and morality. In each case it would generally be said that the change indicated was a return to nature and passion from the artificial coldness of the dominant school. That reaction, whatever its precise nature, took characteristically different forms in England and in France; and it is as illustrating one of the most important distinctions that I propose to say a few words upon the contrast thus exhibited.

Return to Nature! That was the war-cry which animated the Lake school in their assault upon the then established authority. Pope, as they held, had tied the hands of English poets by his jingling metres and frigid conventionalities. The muse—to make use of the old-fashioned phrase—had been rouged and bewigged, and put into high-heeled boots, till she had lost the old majestic freedom of gait and energy of action. Let us go back to our ancient school, to Milton and Shakespeare and Spenser and Chaucer, and break the ignoble fetters imported from the pseudo-classicists of France. These and similar phrases, repeated and varied in a thousand forms, have become part of the stock-in-trade of literary historians, and are put forward so fluently that we sometimes forget to ask what it is precisely that they mean. Down to Milton, it is assumed, we were natural; then we became artificial; and with the Revolution we became natural again. That a theory so generally received and so consciously adopted by the leaders of the new movement must have in it a considerable amount of truth, is not to be disputed. But it is sometimes not easy to interpret it into very plain language. The method of explaining great intellectual and social movements by the phrase 'reaction' is a very tempting one, for the simple reason that it enables us to effect a great saving of thought. The change is made to explain itself. History becomes a record of oscillations; we are always swinging backwards and forwards, pendulum fashion, from one extreme to another. The courtiers of Charles II. were too dissolute because the Puritans were too strict; Addison and Steele were respectable because Congreve and Wycherley were licentious; Wesley was zealous because the Church had become indifferent; the Revolution of 1789 was a reaction against the manners of the last century, and the Revolution in running its course set up a reaction against itself. Now it is easy enough to admit that there is some truth in this theory. Every great man who moves his race profoundly is of necessity protesting against the worst evils of the time, and it is as true as a copy-book that zeal leads to extremes, and one extreme to its opposite. A river flowing through a nearly level plain turns its concavity alternately to the east and west, and we may fairly explain each bend by the fact that the previous bend was in the opposite direction. But that does not explain why the river flows down-hill, nor show which direction tends downwards. We may account for trifling oscillations, not for the main current. Nor does it seem at first a self-evident proposition that vice, for example, necessarily generates over-strictness. A man is not always a Pharisee because his father has been a sinner. In fact, the people who talk so fluently about reaction fall back whenever it suits them upon the inverse theory. If a process happens to be continuous, the reason is as simple and satisfactory as in the opposite case. A man is dissolute, they will tell us, because his father was dissolute; just as they will tell us, in the opposite case, that he was dissolute because his father was strict. Obviously, the mere statement of a reaction is not by itself satisfactory. We want to know why there should have been a reaction; why the code of morals which satisfied one generation did not satisfy its successors; why the coming man was repelled rather than attracted; what it was that made Pope array himself in a wig instead of appreciating the noble freedom of his predecessors; and why, again, at a given period men became tired of the old wig business. When we have solved, or approximated to a solution of, that problem, we shall generally find, I suspect, that the action and reaction are generally more superficial phenomena than we suppose, and that the great processes of evolution are going on beneath the surface comparatively undisturbed by the changes which first attract our notice. Every man naturally exaggerates the share of his education due to himself. He fancies that he has made a wonderful improvement upon his father's views, perhaps by reversing the improvement made by the father on the grandfather's. He does not see, what is plain enough to a more distant generation, that in reality each generation is most closely bound to its nearest predecessors.

There is, too, a special source of ambiguity in the catchword used by the revolutionary school. They spoke of a return to nature. What, to ask once more a very troublesome question, is meant by nature? Does it mean inanimate nature? If so, is a love of nature clearly good or 'natural?' Was Wordsworth justifiable primâ facie for telling us to study mountains rather than Pope for announcing that

    The proper study of mankind is man?

Is it not more natural to be interested in men than in mountains? Does nature include man in his natural state? If so, what is the natural state of man? Is the savage the man of nature, or the unsophisticated peasant, or the man whose natural powers are developed to the highest pitch? Is a native of the Andaman Islands the superior of Socrates? If you admit that Socrates is superior to the savage, where do you draw the line between the natural and the artificial? If a coral reef is natural and beautiful because it is the work of insects, and a town artificial and ugly because made by man, we must reject as unnatural all the best products of the human race. If you distinguish between different works of man, the distinction becomes irrelevant, for the products to which we most object are just as natural, in any assignable sense of the word, as those which we most admire. The word natural may indeed be used as equivalent simply to beneficial or healthy; but then it loses all value as an implicit test of what is and what is not beneficial. Probably, indeed, some such sense was floating before the minds of most who have used the term. We shall generally find a vague recognition of the fact that there is a continuous series of integrating and disintegrating processes; that some charges imply a normal development of the social or individual organism leading to increased health and strength, whilst others are significant of disease and ultimate obliteration or decay of structure. Thus the artificial style of the Pope school, the appeals to the muse, the pastoral affectation, and so forth, may be called unnatural, because the philosophy of that style is the retention of obsolete symbols after all vitality has departed, and when they consequently become mere obstructions, embarrassing the free flow of emotion which they once stimulated.

But, however this may be, it is plain that the very different senses given to the word nature by different schools of thought were characteristic of profoundly different conceptions of the world and its order. There is a sense in which it may be said with perfect accuracy that the worship of nature, so far from being a fresh doctrine of the new school, was the most characteristic tenet of the school from which it dissented. All the speculative part of the English literature in the first half of the eighteenth century is a prolonged discussion as to the meaning and value of the law of nature, the religion of nature, and the state of nature. The deist controversy, which occupied every one of the keenest thinkers of the time, turned essentially upon this problem: granting that there is an ascertainable and absolutely true religion of nature, what is its relation to revealed religion? That, for example, is the question explicitly discussed in Butler's typical book, which gives the pith of the whole orthodox argument, and the same speculation suggested the theme of Pope's 'Essay on Man,' which, in its occasional strength and its many weaknesses, is perhaps the most characteristic, though far from the most valuable product of the time. The religion of nature undoubtedly meant something very different with Butler or Pope from what it would have meant with Wordsworth or Coleridge—something so different, indeed, that we might at first say that the two creeds had nothing in common but the name. But we may see from Rousseau that there was a real and intimate connection. Rousseau's philosophy, in fact, is taken bodily from the teaching of his English predecessors. His celebrated profession of faith through the lips of the Vicaire Savoyard, which delighted Voltaire and profoundly influenced the leaders of the French Revolution, is in fact the expression of a deism identical with that of Pope's essay.[18] The political theories of the Social Contract are founded upon the same base which served Locke and the English political theorists of 1688; and are applied to sanction the attempt to remodel existing societies in accordance with what they would have called the law of nature. It is again perfectly true that Rousseau drew from his theory consequences which inspired Robespierre, and would have made Locke's hair stand on end; and that Pope would have been scandalised at the too open revelation of his religious tendencies. It is also true that Rousseau's passion was of infinitely greater importance than his philosophy. But it remains true that the logical framework into which his theories were fitted came to him straight from the same school of thought which was dominant in England during the preceding period. The real change effected by Rousseau was that he breathed life into the dead bones. The English theorists, as has been admirably shown by Mr. Morley in his 'Rousseau,' acted after their national method. They accepted doctrines which, if logically developed, would have led to a radical revolution, and therefore refused to develop them logically. They remained in their favourite attitude of compromise, and declined altogether to accommodate practice to theory. Locke's political principles fairly carried out implied universal suffrage, the absolute supremacy of the popular will, and the abolition of class privileges. And yet it never seems to have occurred to him that he was even indirectly attacking that complex structure of the British Constitution, rooted in history, marked in every detail by special conditions of growth, and therefore anomalous to the last degree when tried by à priori reasoning, of which Burke's philosophical eloquence gives the best explanation and apology. Similarly, Clarke's theology is pure deism, embodied in a series of propositions worked out on the model of a mathematical text-book, and yet in his eyes perfectly consistent with an acceptance of the orthodox dogmas which repose upon traditional authority. This attitude of mind, so intelligible on this side of the Channel, was utterly abhorrent to Rousseau's logical instincts. Englishmen were content to keep their abstract theories for the closet or the lecture-room, and dropped them as soon as they were in the pulpit or in Parliament. Rousseau could give no quarter to any doctrine which could not be fitted into a symmetrical edifice of abstract reasoning. He carried into actual warfare the weapons which his English teachers had kept for purposes of mere scholastic disputation. A monarchy, an order of privileged nobility, a hierarchy claiming supernatural authority, were not logically justifiable on the accepted principles. Never mind, was the English answer, they work very well in practice; let us leave them alone. Down with them to the ground! was Rousseau's passionate retort. Realise the ideal; force practice into conformity with theory; the voice of the poor and the oppressed is crying aloud for vengeance; the divergence of the actual from the theoretical is no mere trifle to be left to the slow action of time; it means the misery of millions and the corruption of their rulers. The doctrine which had amused philosophers was to become the war-cry of the masses; the men of '89 were at no loss to translate into precepts suited for the immediate wants of the day the doctrines which found their first utterance in the glow of his voluminous eloquence; and the fall of the Bastille showed the first vibrations of the earthquake which is still shaking the soil of Europe.

It is easy, then, to give a logical meaning to Rousseau's return to nature. The whole inanimate world, so ran his philosophy, is perfect, and shows plainly the marks of the Divine workmanship. All evil really comes from man's abuse of freewill. Mountains, and forests, and seas, all objects which have not suffered from his polluting touch, are perfect and admirable. Let us fall down and worship. Man, too, himself, as he came from his Creator's hands, is perfect. His 'natural'—that is, original—impulses are all good; and in all men, in all races and regions of the earth, we find a conscience which unerringly distinguishes good from evil, and a love of his fellows which causes man to obey the dictates of his conscience. And yet the world, as we see it, is a prison or a lazar-house. Disease and starvation make life a burden, and poison the health of the coming generations; those whom fortune has placed above the masses make use of their advantages to harden their hearts, and extract means of selfish enjoyment from the sufferings of their fellow-creatures. What is the source of this heartrending discord? The abuse of men's freewill; that is, of the mysterious power which enables us to act contrary to the dictates of nature. What is the best name for the disease which it generates? Luxury and corruption—the two cant objects of denunciations which were as popular in the pre-revolutionary generation as attacks upon sensationalism and over-excitement at the present day. And what, then, is the mode of cure? The return to nature. We are to make history run backwards, to raze to its foundations the whole social and intellectual structure that has been erected by generations of corrupt and selfish men. Everything by which the civilised man differs from some theoretical pretension is tainted with a kind of original sin. Political institutions, as they exist, are conveniences for enabling the rich to rob the poor, and churches contrivances by which priests make ignorance and superstition play into the hands of selfish authority. Level all the existing order, and build up a new one on principles of pure reason; give up all the philosophical and theological dogmas, which have been the work of designing priests and bewildered speculators, and revert to that pure and simple religion which is divinely implanted in the heart of every uncorrupted human being. The Savoyard vicar, if you have any doubts, will tell you what is the true creed; and if you don't believe it, is Rousseau's rather startling corollary, you ought to be put to death.

That final touch shows the arbitrary and despotic spirit characteristic of the relentless theorist. I need not here inquire what relation may be borne by Rousseau's theories to any which could now be accepted by intelligent thinkers. It is enough to say that there would be, to put it gently, some slight difficulty in settling the details of this pure creed common to all unsophisticated minds, and in seeing what would be left when we had destroyed all institutions alloyed by sin and selfishness. The meaning, however, in this connection of his love of nature, taking the words in their mere common-sense, is in harmony with his system. The mountains, whose worship he was the first to adumbrate, if not actually to institute, were the symbols of the great natural forces free from any stain of human interference. Greed and cruelty had not stained the pure waters of his lovely lake, or dimmed the light to which his vicar points as in the early morning it grazes the edges of the mighty mountain buttresses. Whatever symbolism may be found in the Alps, suggesting emotions of awe, wonder, and softened melancholy, came unstained by the association with the vices of a complex civilisation. If poets and critics have not quite analysed the precise nature of our modern love of mountain scenery, the sentiment may at least be illustrated by a modern parallel. The most eloquent writer who, in our day, has transferred to his pages the charm of Alpine beauties, shares in many ways Rousseau's antipathy for the social order. Mr. Ruskin would explain better than anyone why the love of the sublimest scenery should be associated with a profound conviction that all things are out of joint, and that society can only be regenerated by rejecting all the achievements upon which the ordinary optimist plumes himself. After all, it is not surprising that those who are most sick of man as he is should love the regions where man seems smallest. When Swift wished to express his disgust for his race, he showed how absurd our passions appear in a creature six inches high; and the mountains make us all Liliputians. In other mouths Rousseau's sentiment, more fully interpreted, became unequivocally misanthropical. Byron, if any definite logical theory were to be fixed upon him, excluded the human race at large from his conception of nature. He loved, or talked as though he loved, the wilderness precisely because it was a wilderness; the sea because it sent men 'shivering to their gods,' and the mountains because their avalanches crush the petty works of human industry. Rousseau was less anti-social than his disciple. The mountains with him were the great barriers which kept civilisation and all its horrors at bay. They were the asylums for liberty and simplicity. There the peasant, unspoilt as yet by trinkgelds, not oppressed by the great, nor corrupted by the rich, could lead that idyllic life upon which his fancy delighted. In a passage quoted, as Sainte-Beuve notices, by Cowper, Rousseau describes, with his usual warmth of sentiment, the delightful matinée anglaise passed in sight of the Alps by the family which had learnt the charms of simplicity, and regulated its manners and the education of its children by the unsophisticated laws of nature. It is doubtless a charming picture, though the virtuous persons concerned are a little over-conscious of their virtue, and it indicates a point of coincidence between the two men. Rousseau, as Mr. Morley says, could appreciate as well as Cowper the charms of a simple and natural life. Nobody could be more eloquent on the beauty of domesticity; no one could paint better the happiness of family life, where the main occupation was the primitive labour of cultivating the ground, where no breath of unhallowed excitement penetrated from the restless turmoil of the outside world, where the mother knew her place, and kept to her placid round of womanly duties, and where the children were taught with a gentle firmness which developed every germ of reason and affection, without undue stimulus or undue repression. And yet one must doubt whether Cowper would have felt himself quite at ease in the family of the Wolmars. The circle which gathered round the hearth at Olney to listen for the horn of the approaching postman, and solaced itself with cups 'that cheer but not inebriate,'[19] would have been a little scandalised by some of the sentiments current in the Vaudois paradise, and certainly by some of the antecedents of the party assembled. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin, and even their more fashionable friend, Lady Austen, would have felt their respectable prejudices shocked by contact with the new Héloïse; and the views of life taken by their teacher, the converted slaveholder, John Newton, were as opposite as possible to those of Rousseau's imaginary vicar. Indeed, Rousseau's ideal families have that stain of affectation from which Cowper is so conspicuously free. The rose-colour is laid on too thickly. They are too fond of taking credit for universal admiration of the fine feelings which invariably animate their breasts; their charitable sentiments are apt to take the form of very easy condonation of vice; and if they repudiate the world, we cannot believe that they are really unconscious of its existence. Perhaps this dash of self-consciousness was useful in recommending them to the taste of the jaded and weary society, sickening of a strange disease which it could not interpret to itself, and finding for the moment a new excitement in the charms of ancient simplicity. The real thing might have palled upon it. But Rousseau's artificial and self-conscious simplicity expressed that vague yearning and spirit of unrest which could generate a half-sensual sentimentalism, but could be repelled by genuine sentiment. Perhaps it not uncommonly happens that those who are more or less tainted with a morbid tendency can denounce it most effectually. The most effective satirist is the man who has escaped with labour and pains, and not without some grievous stains, from the slough in which others are still mired. The perfectly pure has sometimes too little sympathy with his weaker brethren to place himself at their point of view. Indeed, as we shall have occasion to remark, Cowper is an instance of a thinker too far apart from the great world to apply the lash effectually.

Rousseau's view of the world and its evils was thus coherent enough, however unsatisfactory in its basis, and was a development of, not a reaction against, the previously dominant philosophy; and, though using a different dialect and confined by different conditions, Cowper's attack upon the existing order harmonises with much of Rousseau's language. The first volume of poems, in which he had not yet discovered the secret of his own strength, is in form a continuation of the satires of the Pope school, and in substance a religious version of Rousseau's denunciations of luxury. Amongst the first symptoms of the growing feeling of uneasy discontent had been the popularity of Brown's now-forgotten 'Estimate.'

    The inestimable estimate of Brown
    Rose like a paper kite, and charmed the town,

says Cowper; and he proceeds to show that, though Chatham's victorious administration had for a moment restored the self-respect of the country, the evils denounced by Brown were symptoms of a profound and lasting disease. The poems called the 'Progress of Error,' 'Expostulation,' 'Truth,' 'Hope,' 'Charity,' and 'Conversation,' all turn upon the same theme. Though Cowper is for brief spaces playful or simply satirical, he always falls back into his habitual vein of meditation. For the ferocious personalities of Churchill, the coarse-fibred friend of his youth, we have a sad strain of lamentation over the growing luxury and effeminacy of the age. It is a continued anticipation of the lines in the 'Task,' which seem to express his most serious and sincere conviction.

    The course of human ills, from good to ill,
    From ill to worse, is fatal, never fails.
    Increase of power begets increase of wealth,
    Wealth luxury, and luxury excess:
    Excess the scrofulous and itchy plague,
    That seizes first the opulent, descends
    To the next rank contagious, and in time
    Taints downwards all the graduated scale
    Of order, from the chariot to the plough.

That is his one unvariable lesson, set in different lights, but associated more or less closely with every observation. The world is ripening or rotting; and, as with Rousseau, luxury is the most significant name of the absorbing evil. That such a view should commend itself to a mind so clouded with melancholy would not be at any time surprising, but it fell in with a widely spread conviction. Cowper had not, indeed, learnt the most effective mode of touching men's hearts. Separated by a retirement of twenty years from the world, with which he had never been very familiar, and at which he only 'peeped through the loopholes of retreat,' his satire wanted the brilliance, the quickness of illustration from actual life, which alone makes satire readable. His tone of feeling too frequently suggests that the critic represents the querulous comments of old ladies gossiping about the outside world over their tea-cups, easily scandalised by very simple things. Mrs. Unwin was an excellent old lady, and Newton a most zealous country clergyman. Probably they were intrinsically superior to the fine ladies and gentlemen who laughed at them. But a mind acclimatised to the atmosphere which they breathed inevitably lost its nervous tone. There was true masculine vigour underlying Cowper's jeremiads; but it was natural that many people should only see in him an amiable valetudinarian, not qualified for a censorship of statesmen and men of the world. The man who fights his way through London streets can't stop to lament over every splash and puddle which might shock poor Cowper's nervous sensibility.

The last poem of the series, however, 'Retirement,' showed that Cowper had a more characteristic and solacing message to mankind than a mere rehearsal of the threadbare denunciations of luxury. The 'Task' revealed his genuine power. There appeared those admirable delineations of country scenery and country thoughts which Sainte-Beuve detaches so lovingly from the mass of serious speculation in which they are embedded. What he, as a purely literary critic, passed over as comparatively uninteresting, gives the exposition of Cowper's intellectual position. The poem is in fact a political, moral, and religious disquisition interspersed with charming vignettes, which, though not obtrusively moralised, illustrate the general thesis. The poetical connoisseur may separate them from their environment, as a collector of engravings might cut out the illustrations from the now worthless letterpress. The poor author might complain that the most important moral was thus eliminated from his book. But the author is dead, and his opinions don't much matter. To understand Cowper's mind, however, we must take the now obsolete meditation with the permanently attractive pictures. To know why he so tenderly loved the slow windings of the sinuous Ouse, we must see what he thought of the great Babel beyond. It is the distant murmur of the great city that makes his little refuge so attractive. The general vein of thought which appears in every book of the poem is most characteristically expressed in the fifth, called 'A Winter Morning Walk.' Cowper strolls out at sunrise in his usual mood of tender playfulness, smiles at the vast shadow cast by the low winter sun, as he sees upon the cottage wall the

    Preposterous sight! the legs without the man.

He remarks, with a passing recollection of his last sermon, that we are all shadows; but turns to note the cattle cowering behind the fences; the labourer carving the haystack; the woodman going to work, followed by his half-bred cur, and cheered by the fragrance of his short pipe. He watches the marauding sparrows, and thinks with tenderness of the fate of less audacious birds; and then pauses to examine the strange fretwork erected at the mill-dam by the capricious freaks of the frost. Art, it suggests to him, is often beaten by Nature; and his fancy goes off to the winter palace of ice erected by the Russian empress. His friend Newton makes use of the same easily allegorised object in one of his religious writings; though I know not whether the poet or the divine first turned it to account. Cowper, at any rate, is immediately diverted into a meditation on 'human grandeur and the courts of kings.' The selfishness and folly of the great give him an obvious theme for a dissertation in the true Rousseau style. He tells us how 'kings were first invented'—the ordinary theory of the time being that political—deists added religious—institutions were all somehow 'invented' by knaves to impose upon fools. 'War is a game,' he says, in the familiar phrase,

          'Which were their subjects wise
    Kings would not play at.'

But, unluckily, their subjects are fools. In England indeed—for Cowper, by virtue of his family traditions, was in theory a sound Whig—we know how far to trust our kings; and he rises into a warmth on behalf of liberty for which he thinks it right to make a simple-minded apology in a note. The sentiment suggests a vigorous and indeed prophetic denunciation of the terrors of the Bastille, and its 'horrid towers and dungeons.'

    There's not an English heart that would not leap
    To hear that ye were fallen at last!

Within five or six years English hearts were indeed welcoming the event thus foretold as the prospect of a new era of liberty. Liberty, says Cowper, is the one thing which makes England dear. Were that boon lost,

    I would at least bewail it under skies
    Milder, amongst a people less austere;
    In scenes which, having never known me free,
    Would not reproach me with the loss I felt.[20]

So far Cowper was but expressing the sentiments of Rousseau, omitting, of course, Rousseau's hearty dislike for England. But liberty suggests to Cowper a different and more solemn vein of thought. There are worse dungeons, he remembers, than the Bastille, and a slavery compared with which that of the victims of French tyranny is a trifle—

    There is yet a liberty unsung
    By poets, and by senators unpraised,
    Which monarchs cannot grant, nor all the power
    Of earth and hell confederate take away.

The patriot is lower than the martyr, though more highly prized by the world; and Cowper changes his strain of patriotic fervour into a prolonged devotional comment upon the text,

    He is the freeman whom the truth makes free,
    And all are slaves besides.

Who would have thought that we could glide so easily into so solemn a topic from looking at the quaint freaks of morning shadows? But the charm of the 'Task' is its sincerity; and in Cowper's mind the most trivial objects really are connected by subtle threads of association with the most solemn thoughts. He begins with mock heroics on the sofa, and ends with a glowing vision of the millennium. No dream of human perfectibility, but the expected advent of the true Ruler of the earth, is the relief to the palpable darkness of the existing world. The 'Winter Walk' traces the circle of thought through which his mind invariably revolves.

It would be a waste of labour to draw out in definite formula the systems adopted, from emotional sympathy, rather than from any logical speculation, by Cowper and Rousseau. Each in some degree owed his power—though Rousseau in a far higher degree than Cowper—to his profound sensitiveness to the heavy burden of the time. Each of them felt like a personal grief, and exaggerated in a distempered imagination, the weariness and the forebodings more dimly present to contemporaries. In an age when old forms of government had grown rigid and obsolete, when the stiffened crust of society was beginning to heave with new throes, when ancient faiths had left mere husks of dead formulæ to cramp the minds of men, when even superficial observers were startled by vague omens of a coming crash, or expected some melodramatic regeneration of the world, it was perhaps not strange that two men, tottering on the verge of madness, should be amongst the most impressive prophets. The truth of Butler's speculation, that nations, like individuals, might go mad, was about to receive an apparent confirmation. Cowper, like Rousseau, might see the world through the distorting haze of a disordered fancy, but the world at large was itself strangely disordered, and the smouldering discontent of the inarticulate masses found an echo in their passionate utterances. Their voices were like the moan of a coming earthquake.

The difference, however, so characteristic of the two countries, is reflected by the national representatives. Nobody could be less of a revolutionist than Cowper. His whiggism was little more than a tradition. Though he felt bound to denounce kings, to talk about Hampden and Sidney, and to sympathise with Mrs. Macaulay's old-fashioned republicanism, there was not a more loyal subject of George III., or one more disposed, when he could turn his mind from his pet hares to the concerns of the empire, to lament the revolt of the American colonies. The awakening of England from the pleasant slumbers of the eighteenth century—for it seems pleasant in these more restless times—took place in a curiously sporadic and heterogeneous fashion. In France the spiritual and temporal were so intricately welded together, the interests of the State were so deeply involved in maintaining the faith of the Church, that conservatism and orthodoxy naturally went together. Philosophers rejected with equal fervour the established religious and the political creed. The new volume of passionate feeling, no longer satisfied with the ancient barriers, poured itself in both cases into the revolutionary channel. In England no such plain and simple issue existed. We had our usual system of compromises in practice, and hybrid combinations of theory. There were infidel conservatives and radical believers. The man who more than any other influenced English history during that century was John Wesley. Wesley was to the full as deeply impressed as Rousseau with the moral and social evils of the time. We may doubt whether Cowper's denunciations of luxury owed most to Rousseau's sentimental eloquence or to the matter-of-fact vigour of Wesley's 'Appeals.' Cowper's portrait of Whitefield—'Leuconomus,' as he calls him, to evade the sneers of the cultivated—and his frequent references to the despised sect of Methodists reveal the immediate source of much of his indignation. So far as those evils were caused by the intellectual and moral conditions common to Europe at large, Wesley and Rousseau might be called allies. Both of them gave satisfaction to the need for a free play of unsatisfied emotions. Their solutions of the problem were of course radically different; and Cowper only speaks the familiar language of his sect when he taunts the philosopher with his incapacity to free man from his bondage:

                  Spend all the powers
    Of rant and rhapsody in virtue's praise,
    Be most sublimely good, verbosely grand,
    And with poetic trappings grace thy prose
    Till it outmantle all the pride of verse;

where he was possibly, as Sainte-Beuve suggests, thinking of Rousseau, though Shaftesbury was the more frequent butt of such denunciations. The difference in the solution of the great problem of moral regeneration was facilitated by the difference of the environment. Rousseau, though he shows a sentimental tenderness for Christianity, could not be orthodox without putting himself on the side of the oppressors. Wesley, though feeling profoundly the social discords of the time, could take the side of the poor without the need of breaking in pieces a rigid system of class-privilege. The evil which he had to encounter did not present itself as tyranny oppressing helplessness, but as a general neglect of reciprocal duties verging upon license. On the whole, therefore, he took the conservative side of political questions. When the American war gave the first signal of coming troubles, the combinations of opinion were significant of the general state of mind. Wesley and Johnson denounced the rebels from the orthodox point of view with curious coincidence of language. The only man of equal intellectual calibre who took the same side unequivocally was the arch-infidel Gibbon. The then sleepy Established Church was too tolerant or too indifferent to trouble him: why should he ally himself with Puritans and enthusiasts to attack the Government which at once supported and tied its hands? On the other side, we find such lovers of the established religious order as Burke associated with free-thinkers like Tom Paine and Horne Tooke. Tooke might agree with Voltaire in private, but he could not air his opinions to a party which relied in no small measure on the political zeal of sound dissenters. Dissent, in fact, meant something like atheism combined with radicalism in France; in England it meant desire for the traditional liberties of Englishmen, combined with an often fanatical theological creed.

Cowper, brought up amidst such surroundings, had no temptation to adopt Rousseau's sweeping revolutionary fervour. His nominal whiggism was not warmed into any subversive tendency. The labourers with whose sorrows he sympathised might be ignorant, coarse, and drunken; he saw their faults too clearly to believe in Rousseau's idyllic conventionalities, and painted the truth as realistically as Crabbe: they required to be kept out of the public-house, not to be liberated from obsolete feudal disqualifications; a poacher, such as he described, was not the victim of a brutal aristocracy, but simply a commonplace variety of thief. And, on the other hand, when he denounces the laziness and selfishness of the Establishment, the luxurious bishops, the sycophantic curates, the sporting and the fiddling and the card-playing parson, he has no thought of the enmity to Christianity which such satire would have suggested to a French reformer, but is mentally contrasting the sleepiness of the bishops with the virtues of Newton or Whitefield.

    'Where dwell these matchless saints?' old Curio cries.
    'Even at your side, sir, and before your eyes,
    The favour'd few, the enthusiasts you despise.'

And whatever be thought of Cowper's general estimate of the needs of his race, it must be granted that in one respect his philosophy was more consequent than Rousseau's. Rousseau, though a deist in theory, rejected the deist conclusion, that whatever is, is right; and consequently the problem of how it can be that men, who are naturally so good, are in fact so vile, remained a difficulty, only slurred over by his fluent metaphysics about freewill. Cowper's belief in the profound corruption of human nature supplied him with a doctrine less at variance with his view of facts. He has no illusions about the man of nature. The savage, he tells us, was a drunken beast till rescued from his bondage by the zeal of the Moravian missionaries; and the poor are to be envied, not because their lives are actually much better, but because they escape the temptations and sophistries of the rich and learned.

But how should this sentiment fit in with Cowper's love of nature? In the language of his sect, nature is generally opposed to grace. It is applied to a world in which not only the human inhabitants, but the whole creation, is tainted with a mysterious evil. Why should Cowper find relief in contemplating a system in which waste and carnage play so conspicuous a part? Why, when he rescued his pet hares from the general fate of their race, did he not think of the innumerable hares who suffered not only from guns and greyhounds, but from the general annoyances incident to the struggle for existence? Would it not have been more logical if he had placed his happiness altogether in another world, where the struggles and torments of our everyday life are unknown? Indeed, though Cowper, as an orthodox Protestant, held that ascetic practices ministered simply to spiritual conceit, was he not bound to a sufficiently galling form of asceticism? His friends habitually looked askance upon all those pleasures of the intellect and the imagination which are not directly subservient to the religious emotions. They had grave doubts of the expediency of his studies of the pagan Homer. They looked with suspicion upon the slightest indulgence in social amusements. And Cowper fully shared their sentiments. A taste for music, for example, generally suggests to him a parson fiddling when he ought to be praying; and following once more the lead of Newton, he remarks upon the Handel celebration as a piece of grotesque profanity. The name of science calls up to him a pert geologist, declaring after an examination of the earth

    That He who made it, and revealed its date
    To Moses, was mistaken in its age.

Not only is the great bulk of his poetry directly religious or devotional, but on publishing the 'Task' he assures Newton that he has admitted none but Scriptural images, and kept as closely as possible to Scriptural language. Elsewhere he quotes Swift's motto, Vive la bagatelle! as a justification of 'John Gilpin.' Fox is recorded to have said that Swift must have been fundamentally a good-natured man because he wrote so much nonsense. To me the explanation seems to be very different. Nothing is more melancholy than Swift's elaborate triflings, because they represent the efforts of a powerful intellect passing into madness under enforced inaction, to kill time by childish occupation. And the diagnosis of Cowper's case is similar. He trifles, he says, because he is reduced to it by necessity. His most ludicrous verses have been written in his saddest mood. It would be, he adds, 'but a shocking vagary' if the sailors on a ship in danger relieved themselves 'by fiddling and dancing; yet sometimes much such a part act I.' His love of country sights and pleasures is so intense because it is the most effectual relief. 'Oh!' he exclaims, 'I could spend whole days and nights in gazing upon a lovely prospect! My eyes drink the rivers as they flow.' And he adds, in his characteristic vein of thought, 'if every human being upon earth could feel as I have done for many years, there might perhaps be many miserable men among them, but not an unawakened one could be found from the Arctic to the Antarctic circle.' The earth and the sun itself are, he says, but 'baubles;' but they are the baubles which alone can distract his attention from more awful prospects. His little garden and greenhouse are playthings lent to him for a time, and soon to be left. He 'never framed a wish or formed a plan,' as he says in the 'Task,' of which the scene was not laid in the country; and when the gloomiest forebodings unhinged his mind, his love became a passion. He is like his own prisoner in the Bastille playing with spiders. All other avenues of delight are closed to him; he believes, whenever his dark hour of serious thought returns, that he is soon to be carried off to unspeakable torments; all ordinary methods of human pleasure seem to be tainted with some corrupting influence; but whilst playing with his spaniel, or watching his cucumbers, or walking with Mrs. Unwin in the fields, he can for a moment distract his mind with purely innocent pleasures. The awful background of his visions, never quite absent, though often, we may hope, far removed from actual consciousness, throws out these hours of delight into more prominent relief. The sternest of his monitors, John Newton himself, could hardly grudge this cup of cold water presented, as it were, to the lips of a man in a self-made purgatory.

This is the peculiar turn which gives so characteristic a tone to Cowper's loving portraits of scenery. He is like the Judas seen by St. Brandan on the iceberg; he is enjoying a momentary relaxation between the past of misery and the future of anticipated torment. Such a sentiment must, fortunately, be in some sense exceptional and idiosyncratic. And yet, once more, it fell in with the prevailing current of thought. Cowper agrees with Rousseau in finding that the contemplation of scenery, unpolluted by human passion, and the enjoyment of a calm domestic life is the best anodyne for a spirit wearied with the perpetual disorders of a corrupt social order. He differs from him, as we have seen, in the conviction that a deeper remedy is wanting than any mere political change; in a more profound sense of human wickedness, and, on the other hand, in a narrower estimate of the conditions of human life. His definition of Nature, to put it logically, would exclude that natural man in whose potential existence Rousseau more or less believed. The passionate love of scenery was enough to distinguish him from the poets of the preceding school, whose supposed hatred of Nature meant simply that they were thoroughly immersed in the pleasures of a society then first developed in its modern form, and not yet undermined by the approach of a new revolution. The men of Pope and Addison's time looked upon country squires as bores incapable of intellectual pleasure, and, therefore, upon country life as a topic for gentle ridicule, or more frequently as an unmitigated nuisance. Probably their estimate was a very sound one. When a true poet like Thomson really enjoyed the fresh air, his taste did not become a passion, and the scenery appeared to him as a pleasant background to his Castle of Indolence. Cowper's peculiar religious views prevented him again from anticipating the wider and more philosophical sentiment of Wordsworth. Like Pope and Wordsworth, indeed, he occasionally uses language which has a pantheistic sound. He expresses his belief that

                There lives and works
    A soul in all things, and that soul is God.

But when Pope uses a similar phrase, it is the expression of a decaying philosophy which never had much vitality, or passed from the sphere of intellectual speculation to affect the imagination and the emotions. It is a dogma which he holds sincerely, it may be, but not firmly enough to colour his habitual sentiments. With Wordsworth, whatever its precise meaning, it is an expression of an habitual and abiding sentiment, which rises naturally to his lips whenever he abandons himself to his spontaneous impulses. With Cowper, as is the case with all Cowper's utterances, it is absolutely sincere for the time; but it is a doctrine not very easily adapted to his habitual creed, and which drops out of his mind whenever he passes from external nature to himself or his fellows. The indwelling divinity whom he recognises in every 'freckle, streak, or stain' on his favourite flowers, seems to be hopelessly removed from his own personal interests. An awful and mysterious decree has separated him for ever from the sole source of consolation.

This is not the place to hint at any judgment upon Cowper's theology, or to inquire how far a love of nature, in his sense of the words, can be logically combined with a system based upon the fundamental dogma of the corruption of man. Certainly a similar anticipation of the poetical pantheism of Wordsworth may be found in that most logical of Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards. Cowper, too, could be at no loss for scriptural precedents, when recognising the immediate voice of God in thunder and earthquakes, or in the calmer voices of the waterbrooks and the meadows. His love of nature, at any rate, is at once of a narrower and sincerer kind than that which Rousseau first made fashionable. He has no tendency to the misanthropic or cynical view which induces men of morbid or affected minds to profess a love of savage scenery simply because it is savage. Neither does he rise to the more philosophical view which sees in the seas and the mountains the most striking symbols of the great forces of the universe to which we must accommodate ourselves, and which might therefore rightfully be associated by a Wordsworth with the deepest emotions of reverential awe. Nature is to him but a collection of 'baubles,' soon to be taken away, and he seeks in its contemplation a temporary relief from anguish, not a permanent object of worship. He would dread that sentiment as a deistical form of idolatry; and he is equally far from thinking that the natural man, wherever that vague person might be found, could possibly be a desirable object of imitation. His love of nature, in short, keen as it might be, was not the reflection of any philosophical, religious, or political theory. But it was genuine enough to charm many who might regard his theological sentiments as a mere recrudescence of an obsolete form of belief. Mr. Mill tells us how Wordsworth's poetry, little as he sympathised with Wordsworth's opinions, solaced an intellect wearied with premature Greek and over-doses of Benthamism. Such a relief must have come to many readers of Cowper, who would put down his religion as rank fanaticism, and his satire as anile declamation. Men suffered even then—though Cowper was a predecessor of Miss Austen—from existing forms of 'life at high pressure.' If life was not then so overcrowded, the evils under which men were suffering appeared to be even more hopeless. The great lesson of the value of intervals of calm retreat, of silence and meditation, was already needed, if it is now still more pressing. Cowper said, substantially, Leave the world, as Rousseau said, Upset the world. The reformer, to say nothing of his greater intellectual power, naturally interested the world which he threatened more than the recluse whom it frightened. Limited within a narrower circle of ideas, and living in a society where the great issues of the time were not presented in so naked a form, Cowper's influence ran in a more confined channel. He felt the incapacity of the old order to satisfy the emotional wants of mankind, but was content to revive the old forms of belief instead of seeking a more radical remedy in some subversive or reconstructive system of thought. But the depth and sincerity of feeling which explains his marvellous intensity of pathos is sometimes a pleasant relief to the sentimentalism of his greater predecessor. Nor is it hard to understand why his passages of sweet and melancholy musing by the quiet Ouse should have come like a breath of fresh air to the jaded generation waiting for the fall of the Bastille—and of other things.


[18] Rousseau himself seems to refer to Clarke, the leader of the English rationalising school, as the best expounder of his theory, and defended Pope's Essay against the criticisms of Voltaire.

[19] A phrase by the way, which Cowper, though little given to borrowing, took straight from Berkeley's 'Siris.'

[20] Lord Tennyson suggests the same consolation in the lines ending—

    Yet waft me from the harbour-mouth,
      Wild winds, I seek a warmer sky;
      And I will see before I die
    The palms and temples of the South.


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