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In the Nemæan ode, the reader must, in mere justice to Pindar, observe, that whatever is said of the original neu moon, her tender forehead, and her horns, is superadded by his paraphrast, who has many other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original; as,
The table, free for ev'ry guest,
No doubt will thee admit,
And feast more upon thee, than thou on it. He sometimes extends his author's thoughts without improving them. In the Olympionic, an oath is mentioned in a single word, and Cowley spends three lines in swearing by the Castalian stream. We are told of Theron's bounty, with a hint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prose:
But, in this thankless world, the giver
Lest men should think we owe. It is hard to conceive, that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.
In the following odes, where Cowley chooses his own subjects, he sometimes rises to dignity truly Pindaric; and, if some deficiencies of language be forgiven, his strains are such as those of the Theban bard were to his contemporaries :
Begin the song, and strike the living lyre:
All hand in hand do decently advance,
Till all gentle notes be drown'd
After such enthusiasm, who will not lament to find the poet conclude with lines like these :
But stop, my muse-
The fault of Cowley, and perhaps of all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to the last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality; for, of the greatest things, the parts are little; what is little can be but pretty; and, by claiming dignity, becomes ridiculous. Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind, by the mention of particulars, is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that from which the illustration is drawn than that to which it is applied.
Of this we have a very eminent example in the ode entitled The Muse, who goes to take the air in an intellectual chariot, to which he harnesses fancy and judgment, wit and eloquence, memory and invention: how he distinguished wit from fancy, or how memory could properly contribute to motion, he has not explained: we are, however, content to suppose that he could have justified his own fiction, and wish to see the muse begin her career ; but there is yet more to be done:
Let the postillien, nature, mount; and let
Every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of mag. nificence; yet I cannot refuse myself the four next lines:
Mount, glorious queen, thy travelling throne,
And bid it to put on;
In the same ode, celebrating the power of the muse, ho gives her prescience, or, in poetical language, the foresight of events hatching in futurity; but, having once an egg in his mind, he cannot forbear to shew us that he knows what an egg contains:
Thou into the close nests of time dost peep,
And there, with piercing eye,
Years to come a-forming lie,
The same thought is more generally, and therefore more poetically, expressed by Casimir, a writer who has many of the beauties and faults of Cowley:
Omnibus mundi Dominator horis
Crescit in annos.
Cowley, whatever was his subject, seems to have been carried, by a kind of destiny, to the light and the familiar, or to conceits which require still more ignoble epithets. A slaughter in the Red Sea new-dies the water's name ; and England, during the civil war, was Albion no more, nor to be named from white. It is surely by some fascination, not easily surmounted, that a writer, professing to revive the noblest and highest writing in verse, makes this address to the new year:
Nay, if thou lov'st me, gentle year,
Although I fear
Yet, gentle year, take heed
Such love I mean alone
The reader of this will be inclined to cry out with Prior
Ye critics, say,
How poor to this was Pindar's style! Even those who cannot perhaps find in the Isthmian or Nemæan songs what antiquity has disposed them to expect, will at least see that they are ill-represented by such puny poetry; and all will determine, that, if this be the old Theban strain, it is not worthy of revival.
To the disproportion and incongruity of Cowley's sentiments must be added the uncertainty and looseness of his
He takes the liberty of using in any place a verse of any length, from two syllables to twelve. The verses of Pindar have, as he observes, very little harmony to a modern ear; yet, by examining the syllables, we perceive them to be regular, and have reason enough for supposing that the ancient audiences were delighted with the sound. The imitator ought, therefore, to have adopted what he found, and to have added what was wanting; to have preserved a constant return of the same numbers, and to have supplied smoothness of transition and continuity of thought.
It is urged by dr. Sprat, that the irregularity of numbers is the very thing which makes that kind of poesy fit for all manner of subjects. But he should have remembered,
that what is fit for every thing can fit nothing well. The great pleasure of verse arises from the known measure of the lines, and uniform structure of the stanzas, by which the voice is regulated, and the memory relieved.
If the Pindaric style be, what Cowley thinks it, the highest and noblest kind of writing in verse, it can be adapted only to high and noble subjects; and it will not be easy to reconcile the poet with the critic, or to conceive how that can be the highest kind of writing, in verse, which, according to Sprat, is chiefly to be preferred for its near affinity to prose.
This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren, and flattered the laziness of the idle, that it immediately overspread our books of poetry: all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion, and they that could do nothing else could write like Pindar. The rights of antiquity. were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin: a poem on the Sheldonian theatre, in which all kinds of verse are shaken together, is unhappily inserted in the Musæ Anglicana. Pindarism prevailed about half a century; but at last died gradually away, and other imitations supply its place.
The Pindaric odes have so long enjoyed the highest degree of poetical reputation, that I am not willing to dismiss them with unabated censure; and surely, though the mode of their composition be erroneous, yet many parts deserve at least that admiration which is due to great comprehension of knowledge, and great fertility of fancy. The thoughts are often new, and often striking; but the greatness of one part is disgraced by the littleness of another; and total negligence of language gives the noblest conceptions the appearance of a fabric august in the plan, but mean in the materials. Yet surely those verses are not without a just claim to praise, of which it may be said with truth, man but Cowley could have written them.
The Davideis now remains to be considered; a poem which the author designed to have extended to twelve books, merely, as he makes no scruple of declaring, because the Æneid had that number; but he had leisure or perseverance only to write the third part. Epic poems have been left unfinished by Virgil, Statius, Spenser, and Cowley. That we have not the whole Davideis is, however, not much to be regretted; for, in this undertaking, Cowley is, tacitly at least, confessed to have miscarried. There are not many examples of so great a work, produced by an author generally read, and generally praised, that has crept through a century with so little regard. Whatever is said of Cowley, is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden, in “Mack