The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IV. William Cowper

§ 4. Satires

Most of Cowper’s critics have been unduly severe upon these moral satires. Doubtless, they are not so good as The Task or many of the shorter poems. Their weakness is obvious. A satirist, whether he be of the indignant order, like Juvenal, or the bitter, like Swift, or the genial, like Horace, must begin by knowing the world that he intends to attack; and Cowper, who had been cut off from the world, did not know it. When he attacks bishops and other clergy who were not of his own evangelical cast, or newspapers, or town life, it is difficult not to resent his easy smartness at the expense of things which his narrowness of outlook prevented him from understanding. Again, writing, as it seems, with an eye seeking for the approval of John Newton, Cowper gives too much space to good advice, and too little to the allurements which should distinguish the satirist from the preacher.

  • The clear harangue, and cold as it is clear,
  • Falls soporific on the listless ear
  • are lines from The Progress of Error which have been quoted against their author ever since the satires first appeared. And it may be said in general that, fine as is the famous passage on Petronius (Lord Chesterfield) in The Progress of Error
  • Thou polished and high-finished foe to truth,
  • Grey-beard corrupter of our listening youth;
  • Cowper’s poetry is not at its best when he is attacking or scolding; and, writing primarily to distract his mind and to benefit humanity, only secondarily to produce works of polished art, he is weak in the construction and arrangement of his poems. These objections, however, cannot outweigh the many merits of Cowper’s moral satires. Their diction is precise and epigrammatic, not so much because Cowper polished his work minutely, as because his mind was exact and clear. Several of his couplets have become familiar as household words; and one of them,
  • How much a dunce that has been sent to roam
  • Excells a dunce that has been kept at home,
  • achieved the honour of quotation by Bulwer Lytton in his play Money. On a higher level is his criticism of Pope:
  • But he (his musical finesse was such,
  • So nice his ear, so delicate his touch)
  • Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
  • And every warbler has his tune by heart.
  • Cowper himself had the tune by heart, no doubt; but he did not sing it. Using the heroic couplet throughout these satires, he contrives to write quite unlike Pope. His versification is already unlike anything to be found in English literature, unless it be the verse of his former schoolfellow, Churchill, whose work he greatly admired. But Cowper’s mind was so different from Churchill’s that the resemblance does not go very deep. In the most successful portions of these satires—especially in the immortal picture of the statesman out of office, in Retirement—Cowper, both in matter and in manner, resembles Horace more than he resembles any other poet. He shows the same shrewd wisdom, the same precision and refinement, the same delicate playfulness. Retirement, which is the latest of these satires, is, undoubtedly, the best; and the perspicacious suggestion has been made that it was written under the influence of Cowper’s friend, Lady Austen, to whom we shall return. At any rate, in Retirement, as in The Task, he is talking of things which he understood and liked for their own sake; and, since his tender and genial spirit was more responsive to the stimulus of what he liked than of what he disliked, was better, in short, at loving than at hating, in the positive than in the negative, Retirement shows him well suited by his subject and happy in its treatment.

    The volume was published in 1782 under the title Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. Besides the satires, it contained thirty-five shorter poems, of which three were in Latin. Those in English include one or two pieces of note: Boadicea: an Ode, which has well earned its place in the literature of the schoolroom and its reputation in the world as a fine example of great power and weight attained by perfectly simple means; the pretty Invitation into the Country, addressed to Newton; some very graceful and delicate translations from the Latin poems of Cowper’s Westminster schoolmaster Vincent Bourne; the powerful Verses supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk; and two poems showing Cowper’s possession of a gift for writing delicate and suggestive lyric poetry—lyric poetry with the indefinable touch of magic in it—which he did not thoroughly cultivate. One is the poem entitled The Shrubbery, to which reference was made above; the other, the lines “addressed to a young lady” beginning

  • Sweet stream, that winds through yonder glade,
  • Apt emblem of a virtuous maid!
  • a poem which equals the best achievements of Wordsworth or Byron in the same field.