« AnteriorContinuar »
friend that life of our favourite poet, in which I had then made some progress; I had the great pleasure of revising with him all his translations from the Latin and Italian poetry of Milton. We compared the versions continually with the originals, and the excellent translator in the course of this revisal made many considerable improvements in various parts of his work. Let me here remark, to the honour of Cowper, that with all his poetic powers, he was ever willing to receive, and to avail himself of friendly criticism, with a spirit equally modest and grateful. Our sentiments concerning the many compositions,which we examined together, were so happily in unison, that we had no difference of opinion upon any one poem of the diversified collection ; and we most cordially agreed in thinking, that the verses addressed by Milton to his father are the most exquisite, and delightful, in the whole series of his Latin poetry. They have a peculiar tenderness and dignity of sentiment, united to the most delicate and powerful expression.
Of this charming poem, Dr. Symmons has added a translation in rhyme to his animated life of Milton. His translation has considerable merit; but my opinion of the respectable author's taste and candour is such, that I persuade myself he will agree with me in thinking the blank verse of Cowper, in expressing the same ideas, has more hap
pily caught the sweetness and spirit of the original.
Another favorite of Cowper's, the Epitaphium Damonis, has been translated in part, and elegantly translated, by Langhorne ; but, I trust, I am not influenced by any undue partiality in preferring the version of my friend.
He finished his revisal, and correction, of all the translated poems, while he was with me in Sussex: but at a period mich later, and when his spirits had suffered the most deplorable depression, his compassionate kinsman, with whom he resided at Dereham, contrived to amuse his mind by reading to him these translations, and by inducing him to retouch a few passages. It is worthy of remark, that, dejected as he was, he made a considerable improvement in his conclusion of the Ode to Rouse, by new-modelling the four last lines. His kind relation added a memorandum with a pencil at the bottom of the page, by which it appears, that the improvement, I speak of, was made by Cowper on the 22d of August, 1793, a time, when the calamitous state of his health gave a peculiar interest to every exertion of his mind.
But to return to the happier season, when he spoke chearfully at Eartham of what he had already done, and what he intended to do, as an editor of Milton! Although the translations were completed, the more burthensome part of his undertaking, a projected commentary, was hardly begun-but to this he looked forward with chearful hopes, and he thus expressed his own feelings on the subject in writing to Mr. Johnson.
“ Eartham, Aug. 21, 1792.
Since our arrival here Mrs. Unwin has seemed daily to recover strength, so that I have hopes of carrying her back to Weston, about the middle of September, in such a state of health as will consist with a little more diligence and constancy on my part in the work, you have given me to do.
“ I thank you for setting my heart at rest from the disquietude, I felt, when I wrote last, on the score of time, lest I should not be ready at the moment. I long nevertheless to be making a progress; and shall not allow myself to loiter merely because I am not pressed. In truth I have no wish at present more sincere, or ardent, than to finish my Miltonic labours, that I may find myself at full leisure for poetry, having learned by experience, that to divide my attention between two objects, is to give neither of them a sufficient share of it !”
When Cowper first thought of forming a com
mentary on Milton, he felt the want of a proper collection of books for that purpose: but he had several friends, who took a pleasure in the hope of supplying him with every thing he could require: One sent him that rarity of Italian literature, the Adamo of Andreini. Another a copy of Bentley's Milton, containing many very severe censures, in manuscript, against the presumptuous editor, written probably when the book was published in 1732. These smothered embers of ancient animosity (to borrow a metaphor which Cowper used on another occasion) he was far from wishing to rekindle; for although he did not scruple to join a host of eminent writers in blaming the arrogance of Bentley, (in one of his letters he alludes, with much pleasantry, to the Doctor's contentious spirit) yet he considered the bitter squabbles of literary men as a disgrace to literature, and thought it most worthy of a scholar and a Christian, rather to suppress the hasty occasional virulence even of angry wit, than to give it new circulation.
The task of pointing out the numerous absurdities of Bentley, in his endeavour to improve the poetry of Milton, would not properly have belonged to Cowper, had he continued his commentary, because that painful task had been sufficiently, and temperately, performed by Doctor Pearce in his judicious “ Review of the Text of Paradise Lost.”
When Bentley's unfortunate Milton first appeared, “it was received (says Mr. Tódd) with disgust and derision !" It has given rise to various angry invectives against the veteran of criticism, who was at that time so far advanced in the vale of years, that he ought perhaps to have been universally treated with pity, rather than anger; for his Milton was a work of the great scholar's declining days, and seems to prove, that he was then sinking into that most pitiable dotage, to which the acutest of human minds are liable; especially those active minds, whose ardour may have hurried them into excesses of mental labour! But Bentley had rendered himself an object of much satirical indignation : he had indulged his spleen in the unbecoming, and perilous, habit of speaking very contemptuously of other eminent writers. He had superciliously offended an irritable race, whom however he regarded so highly, that he shewed something like a desire to be reckoned one of their tribe, for, in the preface to his Milton, he applied to himself the following words of a great poet.
« Sunt et mihi carmina; me quoque dicunt
Whatever might be the Doctor's credulity, or incredulity on this topic, he had the temerity to insult Pope in conversation, by calling his Honer a