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His heroic lines are often formed of monosyllables; but yet they are sometimes sweet and sonorous. He says of the Messiah,
Round the whole earth his dreaded name shall sound,
In another place, of David,
Yet bid him go securely, when he sends;
Yet, amidst his negligence, he sometimes attempted an improved and scientific versification; of which it will be best to give his own account, subjoined to this line:
Nor can the glory contain itself in th' endless space.
"I am sorry that it is necessary to admonish the most part of readers, that it is not by negligence that this verse is so loose, long, and, as it were, vast; it is to paint, in the number, the nature of the thing which it describes, which I would have observed in divers other places of this poem, that else will pass for very careless verses: as before,
And over-runs the neighb’ring fields with violent course.
"In the second book:
Down a precipice deep, down he casts them all.
And fell a-doun his shoulders with loose care. "In the third,
Brass was his helmet, his boots brass, and o'er
"In the fourth,
Like some fair pine o'er-looking all th' ignobler wood.
Some from the rocks cast themselves down headlong.
"And many more: but it is enough to instance in a few. The thing is, that the disposition of words and numbers
should be such, as that, out of the order and sound of them, the things themselves may be represented. This the Greeks were not so accurate as to bind themselves to; neither have our English poets observed it, for aught I can find. The Latins (qui musas colunt severiores) sometimes did it; and their prince, Virgil, always; in whom the examples are innumerable, and taken notice of by all judicious men, so that it is superfluous to collect them."
I know not whether he has in many of these instances attained the representation or resemblance that he purposes. Verse can imitate only sound and motion. A boundless verse, a headlong verse, and a verse of brass, or of strong brass, seem to comprise very incongruous and unsociable ideas. What there is peculiar in the sound of the line expressing loose care, I cannot discover; nor why the pine is taller in an alexandrine than in ten syllables.
But, not to defraud him of his due praise, he has given one example of representative versification, which perhaps no other English line can equal:
Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise:
He, who defers this work from day to day,
Does on a river's bank, expecting, stay
Till the whole stream that stopp'd him shall be gone,
Cowley was, I believe, the first poet that mingled alexandrines at pleasure with the common heroic of ten syllables; and from him Dryden borrowed the practice, whether ornamental or licentious. He considered the verse of twelve syllables as elevated and majestic, and has therefore deviated into that measure, when he supposes the voice heard of the Supreme Being.
The author of the Davideis is commended by Dryden for having written it in couplets, because he discovered that any staff was too lyrical for an heroic poem; but this seems to have been known before by May and Sandys, the translators of the Pharsalia and the Metamorphoses.
In the Davideis are some hemistichs, or verses left imperfect by the author, in imitation of Virgil, whom he supposes not to have intended to complete them. That this opinion is erroneous, may be probably concluded, because
this truncation is imitated by no subsequent Roman poet; because Virgil himself filled up one broken line in the heat of recitation; because in one the sense is now unfinished; and because all that can be done by a broken verse, a line intersected by a cæsura, and a full stop, will equally effect.
Of triplets in his Davideis he makes no use, and perhaps did not at first think them allowable; but he appears afterwards to have changed his mind; for, in the verses on the government of Cromwell, he inserts them liberally, with great happiness.
After so much criticism on his poems, the essays which accompany them must not be forgotten. What is said by Sprat of his conversation, that no man could draw from it any suspicion of his excellence in poetry, may be applied to these compositions. No author ever kept his verse and prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far-sought, or hard-laboured; but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness.
It has been observed by Felton, in his essay on the classics, that Cowley was beloved by every muse that he courted; and that he has rivalled the ancients in every kind of poetry but tragedy.
It may be affirmed, without any encomiastic fervour, that he brought to his poetic labours a mind replete with learning, and that his pages are embellished with all the ornaments which books could supply; that he was the first who imparted to English numbers the enthusiasm of the greater ode, and the gaiety of the less; that he was equally qualified for sprightly sallies, and for lofty flights; that he was among those who freed translation from servility, and, înstead of following his author at a distance, walked by his side; and that, if he left versification yet improvable, he left likewise, from time to time, such specimens of excellence as enabled succeeding poets to improve it.
F sir JOHN DENHAM very little is known but what is related of him by Wood, or by himself.
He was born at Dublin in 1615; the only son of sir John Denham, of Little Horsley in Essex, then chief baron of the exchequer in Ireland, and of Eleanor, daughter of sir Garret More, baron of Mellefont.
Two years afterwards, his father, being made one of the barons of the exchequer in England, brought him away from his native country, and educated him in London.
In 1631, he was sent to Oxford, where he was considered as a dreaming young man, given more to dice and cards than study:" and therefore gave no prognostics of his future eminence; nor was suspected to conceal, under sluggishness and laxity, a genius born to improve the literature of his country.
When he was, three years afterwards, removed to Lincoln's inn, he prosecuted the common law with sufficient appearance of application; yet did not lose his propensity to cards and dice; but was very often plundered by gamesters.
Being severely reproved for this folly, he professed, and perhaps believed, himself reclaimed; and, to testify the sincerity of his repentance, wrote and published "An Essay upon Gaming."
He seems to have divided his studies between law and poetry; for, in 1636, he translated the second book of the Æneid.
Two years after, his father died; and then, notwithstanding his resolutions and professions, he returned again to the vice of gaming, and lost several thousand pounds that had been left him.
In 1641, he published "The Sophy." This seems to have given him his first hold of the public attention; for Waller remarked, "that he broke out, like the Irish rebellion, three-score thousand strong, when nobody was aware, or
in the least suspected it ;" an observation which could have had no propriety, had his poetical abilities been known before.
He was after that pricked for sheriff of Surrey, and made governor of Farnham castle for the king; but he soon resigned that charge, and retreated to Oxford, where, in 1643, he published "Cooper's Hill.”
This poem had such reputation as to excite the common artifice by which envy degrades excellence.
A report was spread, that the performance was not his own, but that he had bought it of a vicar for forty pounds. The same attempt was made to rob Addison of his Cato, and Pope of his essay on criticism.
In 1647, the distresses of the royal family required him to engage in more dangerous employments. He was entrusted by the queen with a message to the king; and, by whatever means, so far softened the ferocity of Hugh Peters, that by his intercession admission was procured. Of the king's condescension he has given an account in the dedication of his works.
He was afterwards employed in carrying on the king's correspondence; and, as he says, discharged this office with great safety to the royalists: and, being accidentally discovered by the adverse party's knowledge of mr. Cowley's hand, he escaped happily both for himself and his friends.
He was yet engaged in a greater undertaking. In April, 1648, he conveyed James the duke of York from London into France, and delivered him there to the queen and prince of Wales. This year he published his translation of "Cato Major."
He now resided in France, as one of the followers of the exiled king; and, to divert the melancholy of their condition, was sometimes enjoined by his master to write occasional verses; one of which amusements was probably his ode or song upon the embassy to Poland, by which he and lord Crofts procured a contribution of ten thousand pounds from the Scotch, that wandered over that kingdom. Poland was at that time very much frequented by itinerant traders, who, in a country of very little commerce and of great extent, where every man resided on his own estate, contri