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[Born, 1731. Died, 1800.]
ture," a most uncolloquial expression indeed, and savouring much more of Mr. Hayley's genius than his own. At this period, he wrote some verse translations from Horace, which he gave to the Duncombes; and assisted Lloyd and Colman with some prose papers for their periodical works‡. It was only at this time, that Cowper could ever be said to have lived as a man of the world. Though shy to strangers, he was highly valued, for his wit and pleasantry, amidst an intimate and gay circle of men of talents. But though he was then in the focus of convivial society, he never partook of its intemperance.
His patrimony being well nigh spent, a powerful friend and relation (Major Cowper) obtained for him the situation of Clerk to the Committees of the House of Lords; but, on account of his dislike to the publicity of the situation, the appointment was changed to that of Clerk of the Journals of the same House§. The path to an easy maintenance now seemed to lie open before him; but a calamitous disappointment was impending, the approaches of which are best explained in his own words. "In the beginning" (he says) "a strong opposition to my friend's right of nomination began to show itself. A powerful party was formed among the Lords to thwart it. Every advantage, I was told, would be sought for, and eagerly seized, to disconcert us. I was bid to expect an examination at the bar of the house, touching my sufficiency for the post I had taken. Being necessarily ignorant of the nature of that business, it became expedient that I should visit the office daily, in order to qualify myself for the strictest scrutiny. All the horror of my fears and perplexities now returned. A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this intelligence. I knew to demonstration, that upon these terms the Clerkship of the Journals was no place for me. To require my attendance at the bar of the house, that I might there pub licly entitle myself to the office, was, in effect, to exclude me from it. In the mean time, the interest of my friend, the honour of his choice, my own reputation and circumstances, all urged me forward, all pressed me to undertake that which I saw to be impracticable. They whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves, on any occasion, is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horrors of my situation-others can have none. My
WILLIAM COWPER was born at Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire. His grandfather was Spencer wper, a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, da younger brother of the Lord Chancellor wper. His father was the rector of Great rkhamstead, and chaplain to George II. At years of age, he was taken from the care of indulgent mother, and placed at a school in dfordshire. He there endured such hardps as embittered his opinion of public educafor all his life. His chief affliction was, to singled out, as a victim of secret cruelty, by a ng monster, about fifteen years of age; whose -barities were, however, at last detected, and ished by his expulsion. Cowper was also en from the school. From the age of eight aine, he was boarded with a famous oculist+, account of a complaint in his eyes, which, ing his whole life, were subject to inflamma. He was sent from thence to Westminster, continued there till the age of eighteen, when vent into the office of a London solicitor. His ount of himself in this situation candidly acwledges his extreme idleness. "I did actually ve," he says, in letter to Lady Hesketh, ree years with Mr. Chapman, a solicitor; that -say, I slept three years in his house. I spent days in Southampton-row, as you very well ember. There was I, and the future Lord ncellor Thurlow, constantly employed from ning to night in giggling and making giggle." In the solicitor's house he went into chambers ne Temple; but seems to have made no aption to the study of the law. "Here he bled," says Mr. Hayley, "to use his own quial expression, from the thorny road of =prudence to the primrose paths of litera
n Hayley's Life his first school is said to have been
He does not inform us where, but calls the oculist
[ The Connoisseur, and St. James's Chronicle] [§ His kinsman Major Cowper was the patentee these appointments.]
continual misery at length brought on a nervous fever; quiet forsook me by day, and peace by night; a finger raised against me was more than I could stand against. In this posture of mind I attended regularly at the office, where, instead of a soul upon the rack, the most active spirits were essentially necessary for my purpose. I expected no assistance from anybody there, all the inferior clerks being under the influence of my opponent, and accordingly I received none. The Journal books were indeed thrown open to me; a thing which could not be refused, and from which perhaps a man in health, and with a head turned to business, might have gained all the information he wanted; but it was not so with me. I read without perception; and was so distressed, that had every clerk in the office been my friend, it could have availed me little; for I was not in a condition to receive instruction, much less to elicit it out of MSS. without direction. Many months went over me thus employed; constant in the use of means, despairing as to the issue. The feelings of a man when he arrives at the place of execution are probably much like mine every time I set my foot in the office, which was every day for more than half a year together." These agonies at length unsettled his brain. When his benevolent friend came to him, on the day appointed for his examination at Westminster, he found him in a dread-scribed by himself. "We breakfast," he says, in ful condition. He had, in fact, the same morning, made an attempt at self-destruction; and showed a garter, which had been broken, and an iron rod across his bed, which had been bent, in the effort to accomplish his purpose by strangulation. From the state of his mind, it became necessary to remove him to the house of Dr. Cotton, of St. Albans, with whom he continued for about nineteen months. Within less than the half of that time, his faculties began to return; and the religious despair, which constituted the most tremendous circumstance of his malady, had given way to more consoling views of faith and piety+. On his recovery, he determined to re
[* Author of Visions in Verse-The Fireside, &c. See ante, p. 615.]
nounce London for ever; and, that he might
The crisis of his recovery seems to have been accelerated by the conversation of his brother, who visited him at Dr. Cotton's. "As soon as we were left alone," he says, "my brother asked me how I found myself. I answered, As much better as despair can make me.' We went together into the garden. Here, on expressing a settled assurance of sudden judgment, he protested to me that it was all a delusion, and protested so strongly, that I could not help giving some attention to him. I burst into tears, and cried out, If it be a delusion, then I am one of the happiest of beings!' Something like a ray of hope was shot into my heart, but still I was afraid to indulge it. We dined together, and spent the afternoon in a more cheerful manner *****. I went to bed, and slept well. In the morning I dreamt that the sweetest boy I ever saw came dancing up to my bed-side; he seemed just out of leading-strings; yet I took particular notice of the firmness and steadiness of his tread. The sight affected me with pleasure, and served at least
one of his letters, "commonly between eight and nine; till eleven we read either the Scriptures or the sermons of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries. At eleven we attend divine service, which is performed here twice every day; and from twelve to three we separate and amuse ourselves as we please. During that interval, I either read in my own apartment, or walk, or ride, or work in the garden. We seldom sit an hour after dinner, but, if the weather permits, adjourn to the garden, where, with Mrs. Unwin and her son, I have generally the plessure of religious conversation. If it rains, or is too windy for walking, we either converse within doors, or sing some hymns of Martin's collection, and, by the help of Mrs. Unwin's harpsichord, make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope, are the most musical performers. After tea, we sally forth to walk in good earnest, and we generally travel four miles before we see home again. At night, we read and converse as before till supper, and commonly finish the evening with hymns or a sermon."
After the death of Mr. Unwin, senior, in 1767, he accompanied Mrs. Unwin and her daughter to a new residence which they chose at Olney, in Buckinghamshire. Here he formed an intimate friendship with Mr. Newton, then curate of
to harmonise my spirits. So that I awoke for the first time with a sensation of delight on my mind."-Memoir published in 1816.
Martin Madan, a cousin of the poet.
Olney, with whom he voluntarily associated himself in the duty of visiting the cottages of the poor, and comforting their distresses. Mr. Newton and he were joint almoners in the secret donations of the wealthy and charitable Mr. Thornton, who transmitted 2007. a year for the poor of Olney. At Mr. Newton's request he wrote some hymns, which were published in a collection, long before he was known as a poet.
His tremendous malady unhappily returned in 1773, attended with severe paroxysms of religious despondency, and his faculties were again eclipsed for about five years. During that period Mrs. Unwin watched over him with a patience and tenderness truly maternal. After his second recovery, some of his amusements, such as taming hares, and making bird-cages, would seem to indicate no great confidence in the capacity of his mind for mental employment. But he still continued to be a cursory reader; he betook himself also to drawing landscapes; and, what might have been still less expected at fifty years of age, began in earnest to cultivate his poetical talents. These had lain, if not dormant, at least so slightly employed, as to make his poetical progress, in the former part of his life, scarcely capable of being traced. He spent, however, the winter of 1780-1 in preparing his first volume of Poems for the press, consisting of "Table Talk," 66 Hope," ," "The Progress of Error," "Charity," &c. and it was published in 1782. Its reception was not equal to its merit, though his modest expectations were not upon the whole disappointed; and he had the satisfaction of ranking Dr. Johnson and Benjamin Franklin among his zealous admirers. The volume was certainly good fruit under a rough rind, conveying manly thoughts, but in a tone of enthusiasm which is often harsh and forbidding.
In the same year that he published his first volume, an elegant and accomplished visitant came to Olney, with whom Cowper formed an acquaintance that was for some time very delightful to him. This was the widow of Sir Robert Austen. She had wit, gaiety, agreeable manners, and elegant taste. While she enlivened Cowper's unequal spirits by her conversation, she was also the task-mistress of his Muse. He began his great original poem at her suggestion, and was exhorted by her to undertake the translation of Homer. So much cheerfulness seems to have beamed upon his sequestered life from the influence of her society, that he gave her the endearing appellation of Sister Anne, and ascribed the arrival of so pleasing a friend to the direct interposition of Heaven. But his devout old friend,
*At the age of eighteen, he wrote some tolerable verses on finding the heel of a shoe; a subject which is not uncharacteristic of his disposition to moralise on whimsical subjects. [These verses have an imitative resemblance to the style of "The Splendid Shilling." Philips was a great favourite with Cowper, as with Thomson. It is remarkable that "The Task" should open in Philips' style.]
Mrs. Unwin, saw nothing very providential in the ascendancy of a female so much more fascinating than herself over Cowper's mind; and, appealing to his gratitude for her past services, she gave him his choice of either renouncing Lady Austen's acquaintance, or her own. Cowper decided upon adhering to the friend who had watched over him in his deepest afflictions, and sent Lady Austen a valedictory letter, couched in terms of regret and regard, but which necessarily put an end to their acquaintance. Whether in making this decision he sacrificed a passion, or only a friendship for Lady Austen, it must be impossible to tell; but it has been said, though not by Mr. Hayley, that the remembrance of a deep and devoted attachment of his youth was never effaced by any succeeding impression of the same nature, and that his fondness for Lady Austen was as platonic as for Mary Unwin. The sacrifice, however, cost him much pain, and is, perhaps, as much to be admired as regretted †.
Fortunately, the jealousy of Mrs. Unwin did not extend to his cousin, Lady Hesketh. His letters to that lady give the most pleasing view of Cowper's mind, exhibiting all the warmth of his heart as a kinsman, and his simple and unstudied elegance as a correspondent. His intercourse with this relation, after a separation of nearly thirty years, was revived by her writing to congratulate him on the appearance of his "Task," in 1784. Two years after, Lady Hesketh paid him a visit at Olney; and settling at Weston, in the immediate neighbourhood, provided a house for him and Mrs. Unwin there, which was more commodious than their former habitation. She also brought her carriage and horses with her, and thus induced him to survey the country in a wider range than he had been hitherto accustomed to take, as well as to mix a little more with its inhabitants. As soon as "The Task" had been sent to the press, he began the "Tirocinium," a poem on the subject of education, the purport of which was (in his own words) to censure the want of discipline and the inattention to morals which prevail in public schools, and to recommend private education as preferable on all accounts. In the same year, 1784, he commenced his translation of Homer, which was brought to a conclusion and published by subscription in 1791. The first edition of Homer was scarcely out of his hands, when he embraced a proposal from a bookseller to be the editor of Milton's poetry, and to furnish a version of his Italian and Latin poems, together with a critical commentary on his whole works. Capable as he was of guiding the reader's attention to the higher beauties of Milton, his habits and recluse situation made him peculiarly unfit for the more minute functions of an editor. In the progress of the work, he seems
[Both Lady Austen and Mrs. Unwin," says Southey, "appear to me to have been wronged by the causes assigned for the difference between them."]
to have been constantly drawn away, by the anxious correction of his great translation; insomuch, that his second edition of Homer was rather a new work than a revisal of the old. The subsequent history of his life may make us thankful that the powers of his mind were spared to accomplish so great an undertaking. Their decline was fast approaching. In 1792, Mr. Hayley paid him a visit at Olney, and was present to console him under his affliction, at seeing Mrs. Unwin attacked by the palsy. The shock subsided, and a journey, which he undertook in company with Mrs. Unwin, to Mr. Hayley's at Eartham, contributed, with the genial air of the south, and the beautiful scenery of the country, to revive his spirits; but they drooped, and became habitually dejected, on his return to Olney. In a moment of recovered cheerfulness, he projected a poem on the four ages of man-infancy, youth, manhood, and old age; but he only finished a short fragment of it. Mr. Hayley paid him a second visit in the November of 1793; he found him still possessed of all his exquisite feelings; but there was something undescribable in his appearance, which foreboded his relapsing into hopeless despondency. Lady Hesketh repaired once more to Olney, and with a noble friendship undertook the care of two invalids, who were now incapable of managing themselves, Mrs. Unwin being, at this time, entirely helpless and paralytic. Upon a third visit, Mr. Hayley found him plunged into a melancholy torpor, which extinguished even his social feelings. He met Mr. Hayley with apparent indifference; and when it was announced to him that his Majesty had bestowed on him a pension of 300l. a year, the intelligence arrived too late to give him pleasure. He continued under the care of Lady Hesketh until the end of July 1795, when he was removed, together with Mrs. Unwin, to the house of his kinsman, Mr. Johnson, at North Tuddenham, in Norfolk. Stopping on the journey at the village of Eaton, near St. Neots, Cowper walked with Mr. Johnson in the churchyard of that village by moonlight, and talked with more composure than he had shown for many months. The subject of their conversation was the poet Thomson. Some time after, he went to see his cousin, Mrs. Bodham, at a village near the residence of Mr. Johnson. When he saw, in Mrs. Bodham's parlour, a portrait of himself, which had been done by Abbot, he clasped his hands in a paroxysm of distress, wishing that he could now be what he was when that likeness was taken.
In December 1796, Mrs. Unwin died, in a house to which Mr. Johnson had removed, at Dunham, in the same county. Cowper, who had seen her half an hour before she expired, attended Mr. Johnson to survey her remains in the dusk of the evening; but, after looking on her for a few moments, he started away, with a vehement unfinished exclamation of anguish; and, either
forgetting her in the suspension of his faculties, or not daring to trust his lips with the subject, he never afterwards uttered her name.
In 1799 he resumed some power of exertion; he finished the revision of his Homer, translated some of Gay's fables into Latin, and wrote his last original poem, "The Cast-away." But it seems, from the utterly desolate tone of that production, that the finishing blaze of his fancy and intellects had communicated no warmth of joy to his heart. The dropsy, which had become visible in his person, assumed an incurable aspect in the following year; and, after a rapid decline, he expired, on the 5th of April, 1800.
The nature of Cowper's works makes us peculiarly identify the poet and the man in perusing them. As an individual, he was retired and weaned from the vanities of the world; and as an original writer, he left the ambitious and luxuriant subjects of fiction and passion, for those of real life and simple nature, and for the development of his own earnest feelings, in behalf of moral and religious truth. His language has such a masculine idiomatic strength, and his manner, whether he rises into grace or falls into negligence, has so much plain and familiar freedom, that we read no poetry with a deeper conviction of its sentiments having come from the author's heart, and of the enthusiasm, in whatever he describes, having been unfeigned and unexaggerated. He impresses us with the idea of a being whose fine spirit had been long enough in the mixed society of the world to be polished by its intercourse, and yet withdrawn so soon as to retain an unworldly degree of purity and simplicity. He was advanced in years before he became an author; but his compositions display a tenderness of feeling so youthfully preserved, and even a vein of humour so far from being extinguished by his ascetic habits, that we can scarcely regret his not having written them at an earlier period of life. For he blends the determination of age with an exquisite and ingenuous sensibility; and though he sports very much with his subjects, yet when he is in earnest, there is a gravity of long-felt conviction in his sentiments, which gives an uncommon ripeness of character to his poetry.
It is due to Cowper to fix our regard on this unaffectedness and authenticity of his works, considered as representations of himself, because he forms a striking instance of genius writing the history of its own secluded feelings, reflections, and enjoyments, in a shape so interesting as to engage the imagination like a work of fiction. He has invented no character in fable, nor in the drama; but he has left a record of his own character, which forms not only an object of deep
[* Founded upon an incident related in Anson's Voyages. It is the last original piece he composed, and, all circumstances considered, one of the most affecting that ever was composed.-SOUTHEY.]
sympathy, but a subject for the study of human nature. His verse, it is true, considered as such a record, abounds with opposite traits of severity and gentleness, of playfulness and superstition*, of solemnity and mirth, which appear almost anomalous; and there is, undoubtedly, sometimes an air of moody versatility in the extreme contrasts of his feelings. But looking to his poetry as an entire structure, it has a massive air of sincerity. It is founded in stedfast principles of belief; and if we may prolong the architectural metaphor, though its arches may be sometimes gloomy, its tracery sportive, and its lights and shadows grotesquely crossed, yet altogether it still forms a vast, various, and interesting monument of the builder's mind. Young's works are as devout, as satirical, sometimes as merry, as those of Cowper, and undoubtedly more witty. But the melancholy and wit of Young do not make up to us the idea of a conceivable or natural being. He has sketched in his pages the ingenious but incongruous form of a fictitious mind-Cowper's soul speaks from his volumes.
At the same time, while there is in Cowper a power of simple expression-of solid thought -and sincere feeling, which may be said, in a general view, to make the harsher and softer traits of his genius harmonise, I cannot but recur to the observation, that there are occasions when his contrarieties and asperities are positively unpleasing. Mr. Hayley commends him for possessing, above any ancient or modern author, the nice art of passing, by the most delicate transition, from subjects to subjects, which might otherwise seem to be but little, or not at all, allied to each other:
"From grave to gay, from lively to severe." With regard to Cowper's art of transition, I am disposed to agree with Mr. Hayley, that it was very nice. In his own mind, trivial and solemn subjects were easily associated, and he appears to make no effort in bringing them together. The transition sprang from the peculiar habits of his imagination, and was marked by the delicacy and subtlety of his powers. But the general taste and frame of the human mind is not calculated to receive pleasure from such transitions, however dexterously they may be made. The reader's imagination is never so passively in the hands of an author, as not to compare the different impressions arising from successive passages; and there is no versatility in the writer's own thoughts,
* Vide his story of Misagathus, [" The Task," B. vi..] which is meant to record the miraculous punishment of a sinner by his own horse. Misagathus, a wicked fellow, as his name denotes, is riding abroad, and overtakes a sober-minded traveller on the road, whose ears he assails with the most improper language; till his horse, out of all patience at his owner's impiety, approaches the brink of a precipice, and fairly tosses his reprobate rider into the sea.
that will give an air of natural connexion to subjects, if it does not belong to them. Whatever Cowper's art of transition may be, the effect of it is to crowd into close contiguity his Dutch painting and Divinity. This moment we view him, as if prompted by a disdain of all the gaudy subjects of imagination, sporting agreeably with every trifle that comes in his way; in the next, a recollection of the most awful concerns of the human soul, and a belief that four-fifths of the species are living under the ban of their Creator's displeasure, come across his mind; and we then, in the compass of a page, exchange the facetious satirist, or the poet of the garden or the greenhouse, for one who speaks to us in the name of the Omnipotent, and who announces to us all his terrors. No one, undoubtedly, shall prescribe limits to the association of devout and ordinary thoughts; but still propriety dictates, that the aspect of composition shall not rapidly turn from the smile of levity to a frown that denounces eternal perdition.
He not only passes, within a short compass, from the jocose to the awful, but he sometimes blends them intimately together. It is fair that blundering commentators on the Bible should be exposed. The idea of a drunken postilion forgetting to put the linchpin in the wheel of his carriage, may also be very entertaining to those whose safety is not endangered by his negligence; but still the comparison of a false judgment which a perverse commentator may pass on the Holy Scriptures, with the accident of Tom the driver being in his cups, is somewhat too familiar for so grave a subject. The force, the humour, and picturesqueness of those satirical sketches, which are interspersed with his religious poems on Hope, Truth, Charity, &c. in his first volume, need not be disputed. One should be sorry to lose them, or indeed anything that Cowper has written, always saving and excepting the story of Misagathus and his horse, which might be mistaken for an interpolation by Mrs. Unwin. But in those satirical sketches there is still a taste of something like comic sermons; whether he describes the antiquated prude going to church, followed by her footboy, with the dew-drop hanging at his nose, or Vinoso, in the military messroom, thus expounding his religious belief: