“An idler is a watch that wants
As useless if it goes as when it stands."
“Vociferated logic kills me quite;
A noisy man is always in the right."
[Illustration: COWPER’S COTTAGE AT WESTON.]
The bare didacticism of these poems is softened and sweetened by the gentle, devout nature of the poet, and is enlivened by a vein of pure humor.
He is one of England’s most delightful letter writers because of his humor, which ripples occasionally over the stream of his constitutional melancholy. The Diverting History of John Gilpin is extremely humorous. The poet seems to have forgotten himself in this ballad and to have given full expression to his sense of the ludicrous.
[Illustration: JOHN GILPIN’S RIDE. From a drawing by R. Caldecott.]
The work that has made his name famous is The Task. He gave it this title half humorously because his friend, Lady Austen, had bidden him write a poem in blank verse upon some subject or other, the sofa, for instance; and he called the first book of the poem The Sofa. The Task is chiefly remarkable because it turns from the artificial and conventional subjects which had been popular, and describes simple beauties of nature and the joys of country life. Cowper says:—
“God made the country, and man made the town.”
To a public acquainted with the nature poetry of Burns, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, Cowper’s poem does not seem a wonderful production. Appearing as it did, however, during the ascendancy of Pope’s influence, when aristocratic city life was the only theme for verse, The Task is a strikingly original work. It marks a change from the artificial style of eighteenth century poetry and proclaims the dawn of the natural style of the new school. He who could write of—
Through the cleft rock, and chiming as they fall
Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
In matted grass, that with a livelier green
Betrays the secret of their silent course,”
was a worthy forerunner of Shelley and Keats.
General Characteristics.—Cowper’s religious fervor was the strongest element in both his life and his writings. Perhaps that which next appealed to his nature was the pathetic. He had considerable mastery of pathos, as may be seen in the drawing of “crazed Kate” in The Task, in the lines To Mary, and in the touchingly beautiful poem On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk, beginning with that well-known line:—
“Oh that those lips had language!”
The two most attractive characteristics of his works are refined, gentle humor and a simple and true manner of picturing rural scenes and incidents. He says that he described no spot which he had not seen, and expressed no emotion which he had not felt. In this way, he restricted the range of his subjects and displayed a somewhat literal mind; but what he had seen and felt he touched with a light fancy and with considerable imaginative power.