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Flecknoe,” it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice, from its publication till now, in the whole succession of English literature.
of this silence and neglect, if the reason be inquired, it will be found partly in the choice of the subject, and partly in the performance of the work.
Sacred history has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination overawed and controlled. . We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentic narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition, to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion, seems not only useless, but in some degree profane.
Such events as were produced by the visible interposition of divine power are above the power of human genius to dignify. The miracle of creation, however it may teem with images, is best described with little diffusion of language: He spake the word, and they were made.
We are told that Saul was troubled with an evil spirit; from this Cowley takes an opportunity of describing hell, and telling the history of Lucifer, who was,
And roar'd at his first plunge into the flame. Lucifer makes a speech to the inferior agents of mischief, in which there is something of heathenism, and therefore of impropriety; and, to give efficacy to his words, concludes by lashing his breast with his long tail. Envy, after a pause, steps out, and, among other declarations of her zeal utters these lines :
Do thou but threat, lond storms shall make reply,
Shall at thy voice start, and misguide the day.
Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of in allegorical being.
It is not only when the events are confessedly miraculous, that fancy and fiction lose their effect; the whole system of life, while the theocracy was yet visible, has an appearance so different from all other scenes of human action, that the reader of the sacred volume habitually considers it as the peculiar mode of existence of a distinct species of mankind, that lived and acted with manners uncommuni. cable; so that it is difficult even for imagination to place us in the state of them whose story is related; and, by consequence, their joys and griefs are not easily adopted, nor can the attention be often interested in any thing that befalls them.
To the subject, thus originally indisposed to the reception of poetical embellishments, the writer brought little that could reconcile impatience, or attract curiosity: Nothing can be more disgusting than a narrative spangled with conceits; and conceits are all that the Davideis supplies.
One of the great sources of poetical delight is description, or the power of presenting pictures to the mind. Cowley gives inferences instead of images, and shews not what may be supposed to have been seen, but what thoughts the sight might have suggested. When Virgil describes the stone which Turnus lifted against Æneas, he fixes the attention on its bulk and weight :
Saxum circumspicit ingens,
Limes agro positus, litem ut discerneret arvis. Cowley says of the stone with which Cain slew his brother,
I saw bim fing the stone, as if he meant
Of the sword taken from Goliath, he says,
A sword so great, that it was only fit
Other poets describe death by some of its common appearances. Cowley says, with a learned allusion to sepul chral lamps, real or fabulous,
'Twixt his right ribs deep pierc'd the furious blade,
But he has allusions vulgar as well as learned. In a visionary succession of kings:
Joas at first does bright and glorious shew,
In life's fresh morn his fame does early crow. Describing an undisciplined army, after having said with elegance,
His forces seem'd no army, but a crowd,
Heartless, unarm’d, disorderly, and loud, he gives them a fit of the ague.
The allusions, however, are not always lo vulgar things; he offends by exaggeration as much as by diminution:
The king was plac'd alone, and o'er his head
A well-wrought heaven of silk and gold was spread. Whatever he writes is always polluted with some conccit:
Where the sun's fruitful beams give metals birth,
Gold, which alone more influence has than lie. In one passage, he starts a sudden question, to the con. fusion of philosophy :
Ye learned heads, whom ivy garlands grace,
His expressions have sometimes a degree of meanness that surpasses expectation:
Nay, gentle guests, he cries, since now you're in,
In a simile descriptive of the morning :
As glimmering stars, just at the approach of day,
The dress of Gabriel deserves attention:
He took for skin a cloud most soft and briglit,
The choicest piece cut out, a scarf is made. This is a just specimen of Cowley's imagery: what might in general expressions be great and forcible, he weakens and makes ridiculous by branching it into small parts. That Gabriel was invested with the softest or brightest colours of the sky, we might have been told, and been dismissed to improve the idea in our different proportions of conception; but Cowley could not let us go till he had rclated where Gabriel got first his skin, and then his mantle, then his lace, and then his scarf, and related it in the terms of the mercer and tailor.
Sometimes he indulges himself in a digression, always conceived with his natural exuberance, and commonly, even where it is not long, continued till it is tedious.
l'th' library, a few choice authors stood;
Learning (young virgin) but few snitors knew;
Laborious effects of idleness. As the Davideis affords only four books, though intended to consist of twelve, there is no opportunity for such criticism as epic poems commonly supply. The plan of the whole work is very imperfectly shewn by the third part. The duration of an unfinished action cannot be known. Of characters, either not yet introduced, or shewn but upon few occasions, the full extent and the nice discriminations cannot be ascertained. The fable is plainly implex, formed rather from the Odyssey than the Iliad: and many artifices of diversification are employed, with the skill of a man acquainted with the best models. The past is recalled by narration, and the future anticipated by vision: but he has been so lavish of his poetical art, that it is difficult to ima. gine how he could fill eight books more without practising again the same modes of disposing his matter; and perhaps the perception of this growing incumbrance inclined him to stop. By this abruption, posterity lost more instruction than delight. If the continuation of the Davideis can be missed, it is for the learning that had been diffused over it, and the notes in which it had been explained.
Had not his characters been depraved, like every other part, by improper decorations, they would have deserved uncommon praise. He gives Saul both the body and mind of a hero:
His way once chose, he forward thrust outright,
Nor turn'd aside for danger or delight. And the different beauties of the lofty Merah and the gentle Michol are very justly conceived and strongly painted.
Rymcr has declared the Davideis superior to the Jerusalem of Tasso, “which” (says he) “ the poet, with all his care, has not totally purged from pedantry.” If by pedantry is meant that minute knowledge which is derived from particular sciences and studies, in opposition to the general notions supplied by a wide survey of life and nature, Cowley certainly errs, by introducing pedantry far more