Friday, October 18, 2013

A Letter on Johnson, from William Cowper

To the Rev. Walter Bagot, dated Weston, March 18, 1791

My dear Friend,

I give you joy that you are about to receive some more of my elegant prose, and I feel myself in danger of attempting to make it even more elegant than usual, thereby spoiling it, under the influence of your commendations.  But my old helter-skelter manner has already succeeded so well, that I will not even for the sake of entitling myself to a still greater portion of your praise, abandon it.

I did not call in question Johnson's true spirit of poetry, because he was not qualified to relish blank verse (though, to tell you the truth, I think that but an ugly symptom); but if I did not express it I meant, however, to infer it from the perverse judgement that he has formed of our poets in general; deprecating some of the best, and making honourable mention of others, in my opinion not undeservedly neglected.  I will lay you sixpence that, had he lived in the days of Milton, and by any accident had met his Paradise Lost, he would neither have directed the attention of others to it, nor have much admired it himself.  Good sense, in short, and strength of intellect, seem to me, rather than a fine taste, to have been his distinguished characteristics.  But should you still think otherwise, you have my free permission; for so long as you have yourself a taste for the beauties of Cowper, I care not a fig whether Johnson had taste or not...

W. C.

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