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The immediate success of his first Volume was very far from being equal to its extraordinary merit. For some time it seemed to be neglected by the publick, although the first poem in the collection contains such a powerful image of its author, as might be thought sufficient not only to excite attention, but to secure attachment: for Cowper had undesignedly executed a masterly portrait of himself, in describing the true poet: I allude to the following verses in “ Table Talk.”
Nature, exerting an unwearied power,
And, as the sun in rising beauty drest .
The concluding lines may be considered as an omen of that celebrity, which such a writer, in the process of time, could not fail to obtain. Yet powerful as the claims of Cowper were to instant admiration and applause, it must be allowed (as an apology for the inattention of the publick) that he hazarded some sentiments in his first Volume, which were very likely to obstruct its immediate success in the world. I particularly allude to his bold eulogy on Whitfield, whom the dramatic satire of Foote, in his comedy of the Minor, had taught the nation to deride as a mischievous fanatic. I allude also to a little acrimonious censure, in which he had indulged himself, against one of Whitfield's devout rivals, Mr. Charles Wesley, for allowing sacred music to form a part of his occu
pation in a sunday evening. Such praise, and such reproof, might easily induce many careless readers, unacquainted with the singular mildness, and purity of character, that really belonged to the new poet, to reject his book, without giving it a fair perusal, as the production of a recluse, inflamed with the fierce spirit of bigotry. No supposition could have been wider from the truth; for Cowper was indeed a rare example of true Christian benevolence; yet, as the best of men have their little occasional foibles, he allowed himself, sometimes with his pen, but never I believe in conversation, to speak rather acrimoniously of several pursuits and pastimes, that seem not to deserve any austerity of reproof. Of this he was aware himself, and confessed it, in the most ingenuous manner, on the following occasion. One of his intimate friends had written, in the first volume of his Poems, the following passage from the younger Pliny, as descriptive of the book : Multa tenuiter, multa sublimiter, multa venuste, multa tenere, multa dulciter, mulla cum bile.” Many passages are delicate, many sublime, many beautiful, many tender, many sweet, many acrimonious.
Cowper was pleased with the application, and said, with the utmost candour and sincerity, « The
latter part is rery true indeed; yes ! yes! there are multa cum bile, many acrimonious.”
These little occasional touches of austerity would naturally arise in a life so sequestered: but how just a subject of surprize and admiration is it, to behold an author starting under such a load of disadvantages, and displaying, on the sudden, such a variety of excellence! For neglected, as it was, for a few years, the first Volume of Cowper exhibits such a diversity of poetical powers, as have been given very rarely indeed to any individual of the modern, or of the antient world. He is not only great in passages of pathos, and sublimity, but he is equally admirable in wit and humour. After descanting, most copiously, on sacred subjects, with the animation of a prophet, and the simplicity of an apostle, he paints the ludicrous characters of common life with the comic force of Moliere ; particularly in his poem on Conversation, and his exquisite portrait of a fretful temper; a piece of moral painting so highly finished, and so happily calculated to promote good humour, that a transcript of the verses shall close the first part of these memoirs.
Some fretful tempers wince at every touch ;
END OF THE FIRST PART,
AND OF THE FIRST VOLUME.