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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 “ Mac 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, he says,
Once general of a gilded host of sprites,
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 thèse lines:
Do thou but threat, loud storms shall make reply, And thunder echo to the trembling sky: Whilst raging seas swell to so bold an height, As shall the fire's proud element affright. Th’ old drudging Sun, from his long-beaten way, Shall at thy voice start, and misguide the day. The jocund orbs shall break their measur'd pace, And stubborn poles change their allotted place, Heaven's gilded troops shall flutter here and there, Leaving their boasting songs tun'd to a sphere. Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an 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 uncommunicable ; 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 him fling the stone, as if he meant
At once his murther and his monument.
A sword so great, that it was only fit,.
To cut off his great head that came with it. Other poets describe Death by some of its common appearances. Cowley says, with a learned allusion to sepulchral lamps real or fabulous,
* Dr. Warton discovers some contrariety of opinion between this and what is said of description, in p. 49. C.
'Twixt his right ribs deep pierc'd the furious blade,
Life's light goes out, when first they let in air. 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 to 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 conceit:
Where the sun's fruitful beams give metals birth,
Gold, which alone more influence has than he. . In one passage he starts a sudden question, to the confusion 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,
The story of your gallant friend begin.
As glimmering stars just at the approach of day,
Cashier'd by troops, at last drop all away.
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 related 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.