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TO MR. JOHNSON.
I AM obliged to you for your queries, the poems will be the better for them. I wish you always to read me with the closest attention and to give my lines as strict a scrutiny as you can find time for some things always escape a writer, which yet strike a judicious reader perhaps at the first view; and while you allow me a right of decision in the last instance, if I go into public with any uncorrected faults upon my head, the blame and the disgrace will be all my own. You will perceive that I have made some use of the liberty I stipulated for beforehand, and though I have followed your advice in several passages, yet not in all. I proceed according to previous engagements to give my reasons.
No man living abhors a louse more than I do, but hermits are notoriously infested with these vermin; it is even a part of their supposed meritorious mortification to encourage the breed; the fact being true becomes an important feature in the face of that folly I mean to expose, and having occasion to mention the loathsome animal, I cannot, I think, do better than call him by his loathsome name. It is a false delicacy that is offended by the mention of any thing God has seen fit to create, where the laws of modesty are not violated, and therefore we will not mind it.
Die then. The word italicised to direct the
emphasis, the objection to that line I suppose must vanish, at least I can see none, the sentiment I take to be unquestionably true. I confess the two lines that close the period are two of my favourites, they may possibly at first sight seem chargeable with some harshness of expression, but that harshness is rather to be ascribed to the truth they convey, than to the terms in which it is conceived; every body knows that a final rejection of the Gospel must terminate in destruction; the words damnable and damned may be vehement indeed, but they are no more than adequate to the case, nor would any other words that I can think of do justice to the idea they intend; that vehemence is indeed the very circumstance that gives them a peculiar propriety in the place they occupy, they bring up the rear of a whole clause of admonitions and cautions, and therefore cannot make too forcible an impression, they are the lead at the end of the bludgeon.
You may draw on me when you please for about eight hundred lines, I have just finished a poem of that length, which I intended should take the lead in a second volume, upon proper encouragement to print again. But if you choose to begin with Table Talk and end with Conversation (for that is the title of it), I have no objection: the last bears no affinity to the first except in the name of it.
Olney, August 6, 1781.
TO MR. JOHNSON, BOOKSELLER.
I RETURN the copy always by the first opportunity, though sometimes I may seem to detain it longer than necessary. We have the post but three times a week. Mr. Newton writes me word he has received 'Conversation,' which, therefore, I suppose will soon pay its respects to you. I am now writing, but whether what I write will be ready for the present volume, should you choose to insert it, I know not. I never write except when I can do it with facility, and am rather apprehensive that the muse is about to forsake me for the present; ever since I could use a pen I have been subject to such vicissitudes.
September 3, 1781.
I have corrected no mistakes but my own.
In a letter to Johnson, dated Feb. 17, 1782, he says, "I now reckon the book finished, and therefore once for all and very unfeignedly return you my thanks for the many useful hints you have given me; and if I were to prefix an advertisement to the reader, would most willingly acknowledge myself indebted to my bookseller as my very judicious, and only corrector."
There is much novelty in Cowper's opinion of music, as conveyed in a letter to Mr. Newton, in September, 1781: "The lawfulness of music,
when used with moderation, and in its proper place, is unquestionable; but I believe that wine itself, though a man be guilty of habitual intoxication, does not more debauch and befool the natural understanding, than music, always music, music in season and out of season, weakens and destroys the spiritual discernment. If it is not used with an unfeigned reference to the worship of God, and with a design to assist the soul in the performance of it, which cannot be the case when it is the only occupation, it degenerates into a sensual delight, and becomes a most powerful advocate for the admission of other pleasures, grosser perhaps in degree, but in their kind the same."
Cowper's observations upon the Ocean, which occur in a letter, dated September, 1781, are extremely poetical: "I think with you, that the most magnificent object under heaven is the great deep; and cannot but feel an unpolite species of astonishment, when I consider the multitudes that view it without emotion, and even without reflection. In all its various forms, it is an object of all others the most suited to affect us with lasting impressions of the awful Power that created and controls it. I am the less inclined to think this negligence excusable, because at a time of life when I gave as little attention to religious subjects as almost any man, I yet remember that the waves would preach to me, and that in the midst of dissipation I had an ear to hear them.
One of Shakespeare's characters says, I am never merry when I hear sweet music.' The same effect that harmony seems to have had upon him, I have experienced from the sight and sound of the ocean, which have often composed my thoughts into a melancholy not unpleasing, nor without its use."
In the autumn of 1782 Cowper wrote the popular ballad of Johnny Gilpin, which originated in the following circumstance. With the hope of diverting his mind during an unusually severe attack of gloom, Lady Austen related to him, the history of the renowned citizen, which she had heard in her childhood. The tale made a vivid impression, and the next morning he told her that the ludicrous incident had convulsed him with laughter during the night, and that he had embodied the whole into a ballad. It was first printed anonymously in the Public Advertiser; and Henderson, the comedian, having recited it in public, with the humorous expression of which it is susceptible, the poem soon attained the popularity it still enjoys. In a letter dated on the 4th November in that year, to Mr. Unwin, Cowper observed in reference to the ballad:
"You tell me that John Gilpin made you laugh tears, and that the ladies at court are delighted with my Poems. Much good may they do them! May they become as wise as the writer wishes them, and they will be much happier than he! I know there is in the book that