Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. III. Addison to Blake
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
 
The Past and Future of Poetry (from Table Talk)
By William Cowper (1731–1800)
 
  IN Eden, ere yet innocence of heart
Had faded, poetry was not an art;
Language above all teaching, or if taught,
Only by gratitude and glowing thought,—
Elegant as simplicity, and warm        5
As ecstasy, unmanacled by form,—
Not prompted, as in our degenerate days,
By low ambition and the thirst of praise,
Was natural as is the flowing stream,
And yet magnificent, a God the theme.        10
That theme on earth exhausted, though above
’Tis found as everlasting as His love,
Man lavished all his thoughts on human things,
The feats of heroes and the wrath of kings,
But still while virtue kindled his delight,        15
The song was moral, and so far was right.
’Twas thus till luxury seduced the mind
To joys less innocent, as less refined,
Then genius danced a bacchanal, he crowned
The brimming goblet, seized the thyrsus, bound        20
His brows with ivy, rushed into the field
Of wild imagination, and there reeled
The victim of his own lascivious fires,
And, dizzy with delight, profaned the sacred wires.
Anacreon, Horace, played in Greece and Rome        25
This Bedlam part; and, others nearer home.
When Cromwell fought for power, and while he reigned
The proud Protector of the power he gained,
Religion harsh, intolerant, austere,
Parent of manners like herself severe,        30
Drew a rough copy of the Christian face
Without the smile, the sweetness, or the grace;
The dark and sullen humour of the time
Judged every effort of the Muse a crime;
Verse in the finest mould of fancy cast,        35
Was lumber in an age so void of taste:
But when the second Charles assumed the way,
And arts revived beneath a softer day,
Then like a bow long forced into a curve,
The mind, released from too constrained a nerve,        40
Flew to its first position with a spring
That made the vaulted roofs of pleasure ring.
His court, the dissolute and hateful school
Of wantonness, where vice was taught by rule,
Swarmed with a scribbling herd as deep inlaid        45
With brutal lust as ever Circe made.
From these a long succession in the rage
Of rank obscenity debauched their age,
Nor ceased, till ever anxious to redress
The abuses of her sacred charge, the press,        50
The Muse instructed a well-nurtured train
Of abler votaries to cleanse the stain,
And claim the palm for purity of song,
That lewdness had usurped and worn so long.
Then decent pleasantry and sterling sense,        55
That neither gave nor would endure offence,
Whipped out of sight, with satire just and keen,
The puppy pack that had defiled the scene.
  In front of these came Addison. In him
Humour, in holiday and sightly trim,        60
Sublimity and Attic taste combined,
To polish, furnish, and delight the mind.
Then Pope, as harmony itself exact,
In verse well-disciplined, complete, compact,
Gave virtue and morality a grace        65
That, quite eclipsing pleasure’s painted face,
Levied a tax of wonder and applause,
Even on the fools that trampled on their laws.
But he (his musical finesse was such,
So nice his ear, so delicate his touch)        70
Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every warbler has his tune by heart.
Nature imparting her satiric gift,
Her serious mirth, to Arbuthnot and Swift,
With droll sobriety they raised a smile        75
At folly’s cost, themselves unmoved the while.
That constellation set, the world in vain
Must hope to look upon their like again.
  A.  Are we then left—B.  Not wholly in the dark:
Wit now and then, struck smartly, shows a spark,        80
Sufficient to redeem the modern race
From total night and absolute disgrace.
While servile trick and imitative knack
Confine the million in the beaten track,
Perhaps some courser who disdains the road        85
Snuffs up the wind and flings himself abroad.
  Contemporaries all surpassed, see one,
Short his career, indeed, but ably run.
Churchill, himself unconscious of his powers,
In penury consumed his idle hours,        90
And, like a scattered seed at random sown,
Was left to spring by vigour of his own.
Lifted at length, by dignity of thought
And dint of genius, to an affluent lot,
He laid his head in luxury’s soft lap,        95
And took too often there his easy nap.
If brighter beams than all he threw not forth,
’Twas negligence in him, not want of worth.
Surly and slovenly, and bold and coarse,
Too proud for art, and trusting in mere force,        100
Spendthrift alike of money and of wit,
Always at speed, and never drawing bit,
He struck the lyre in such a careless mood,
And so disdained the rules he understood,
The laurel seemed to wait on his command,        105
He snatched it rudely from the Muses’ hand.
  Nature, exerting an unwearied power,
Forms, opens, and give scent to every flower,
Spreads the fresh verdure of the field, and leads
The dancing Naiads through the dewy meads;        110
She fills profuse ten thousand little throats
With music, modulating all their notes,
And charms the woodland scenes and wilds unknown
With artless airs and concerts of her own;
But seldom (as if fearful of expense)        115
Vouchsafes to man a poet’s just pretence.
Fervency, freedom, fluency of thought,
Harmony, strength, words exquisitely sought,
Fancy that from the bow that spans the sky
Brings colours dipt in heaven that never die,        120
A soul exalted above earth, a mind
Skilled in the characters that form mankind,—
And as the sun, in rising beauty dressed,
Looks to the westward from the dappled east,
And marks, whatever clouds may interpose,        125
Ere yet his race begins, its glorious close,
An eye like his to catch the distant goal,
Or ere the wheels of verse begin to roll,
Like his to shed illuminating rays
On every scene and subject it surveys,—        130
Thus graced, the man asserts a poet’s name,
And the world cheerfully admits the claim.
  Pity Religion has so seldom found
A skilful guide into poetic ground!
The flowers would spring where’er she deigned to stray,        135
And every muse attend her in her way.
Virtue indeed meets many a rhyming friend,
And many a compliment politely penned,
But unattired in that becoming vest
Religion weaves for her, and half undressed,        140
Stands in the desert shivering and forlorn,
A wintry figure, like a withered thorn.
The shelves are full, all other themes are sped,
Hackneyed and worn to the last flimsy thread;
Satire has long since done his best, and curst        145
And loathsome Ribaldry has done his worst;
Fancy has sported all her powers away
In tales, in trifles, and in children’s play;
And ’tis the sad complaint, and almost true,
Whate’er we write, we bring forth nothing new.        150
’Twere new indeed to see a bard all fire,
Touched with a coal from heaven, assume the lyre,
And tell the world, still kindling as he sung,
With more than mortal music on his tongue,
That He who died below, and reigns above,        155
Inspires the song, and that his name is Love.
 
 
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