The Poetical Works of William Cowper
|The Poetical Works of William Cowper (Introductory memoir) (1870)
|From the Globe Edition, 1870|
Both by father and mother Cowper was of gentle blood. His father's family is traced back without interruption to the time of Edward IV, when the Cowpers were possessors of land at Strode, in the parish of Slinfold, in Sussex. His mother was Ann, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk, of the same family as Dr. Donne, the Dean of St. Paul's, and said to be "descended through four different lines from King Henry II." [footnote: Johnson's Memoir, p. xii]
A younger member of the Cowper family, leaving Strode in the possession of his elder brother, settled in London in the reign of Henry VIII, married an heiress, Margaret Spencer, and bought an estate at Nonington, in Kent. His son John, [footnote: Up to this time the name was spelt Cooper, and it has never been pronounced otherwise by the family. He altered it, probably in affectation of the Norman spelling "Cupere," or "Coupre," as the names appear in the roll of Battle Abbey. Many of the family, however, retained the old spelling for some time after. In Lord Campbell's Life of Chancellor Cowper, we have one or two letters signed "Wm. Cooper."] Alderman of London, who died in 1609, was the father of Sir William, the first baronet. Sir William is noteworthy for his love and reverence for Hooker, "his spiritual father," as Walton calls him. It was he who erected the monument to the great divine in Bishopsbourne Church, and composed the epitaph for it, which will not be out of place here.
- "Though nothing can be spoke worthy his fame,
- Or the remembrance of that precious name,
- Judicious HOOKER; though this cost be spent
- On him that hath a lasting monument
- In his own books; yet ought we to express,
- If not his worth, yet our respectfulness.
- Church ceremonies he maintain'd; then why
- Without all ceremony should he die?
- Was it because his life and death should be
- Both equal patterns of humility?
- Or that, perhaps, this only glorious one
- Was above all, to ask, why had he none?
- Yet he that lay so long obscurely low,
- Doth now preferr'd to greater honours go.
- Ambitious men, learn hence to be more wise,
- Humility is the true way to rise:
- And God in me this lesson did inspire,
- To bid this humble man, 'Friend, sit up higher.'"
Sir William was an ardent Churchman and Royalist, and was imprisoned with his son John during the Commonwealth. The latter died in prison, leaving an infant son, who on Sir William's death in 1664 succeeded to the title, and by his marriage with one Sarah Holled became father of two sons, William and Spencer. The former became Lord Chancellor, and an Earl, in 1706. Spencer having been tried for murder and acquitted, [footnote: Lord Campbell gives the case at length (Chancellors, iv. 260). He decides that the verdict was a righteous one, though the case was not without suspicion. Macaulay (History of England, chapter xxv.) holds the charge to be absolutely groundless, got up out of nothing but political spite.)] became Chief Justice of Chester, and a Judge of the Common Pleas. He died in 1728, leaving three sons, William, John and Ashley, and several daughters. One of these married Colonel Madan, and became the mother of Martin Madan, whose name will occur several times in this volume, and of Frances Maria, who married her cousin Major Cowper, and became one of Cowper's constant correspondents.
The second of the three sons became the Rev. John Cowper, Chaplain to King George II, and Rector of Great Berkhamstead. He married Ann Donne; and at the rectory (or as her son afterwards called it, "the pastoral house") she gave birth to the future poet on the 26th of November (O.S. 15th), 1731. The house was pulled down to make room for a new rectory about thirty years ago. His parents had five other children, all of whom died in infancy except John. He lived until manhood, but his birthday was a heavy day for Berkhamstead parsonage. The mother died at the age of thirty-four. [footnote: She is buried within the altar-rails of Berkhamstead Church.] It was the 14th of November, 1737. William therefore was just six years old. In what sacred remembrance the gentle child held her love and care of him we shall find in more than one passage of his life. When heavy clouds gathered round his spirit in years after, and seemed altogether to hide the blessing of God from him, the image of his mother remained clear in his memory, one bright spot which told him that there was a Heaven above. The gift of her picture, which he received fifty-three years after her death, gave him the occasion to pour out all his love and gratitude in what is probably the most touching elegy in the English language.
The death of his mother, generally the heaviest loss which a child can have, was a more than ordinary calamity here. He was delicate in body, sensitive and nervous in mind. His father, zealous towards his flock, and, according to his son's testimony, labouring to do them good, appears not to have understood his child's extreme need of sympathy and care. Within a year of his mother's death the poor boy was sent to school at a Dr. Pitman's, at Markyate Street, a straggling, unattractive village between St. Alban's and Dunstable. There he remained for two years, the victim of systematic bullying from some of his school companions. His shyness, sensibility, ill-health, were all converted into means of tormenting him. There was one boy in particular who persecuted him so relentlessly that Cowper writes in his autobiography, "I had such a dread of him, that I did not dare lift my eyes to his face. I knew him best by his shoe-buckle." This cruelty was at length discovered, the brute was expelled, and Cowper was removed from the school.
Meanwhile another trouble had fallen upon the child, inflammation of the eyes. Accordingly, he spent the next two years in the house of an oculist, leading a dull, and apparently not a healthy life. However, his sight became better, and at ten years of age his father sent him to Westminster.
Cowper has spoken at great length in his auitobiography of the religious feelings and fancies of his boyish days. These need not detain us. Most children have strong though transient religious impressions, and there is little in his account of his own which has not probably befallen other boys. Later in life he looked back upon his feelings through the light of his morbid fancies, and exaggerated their significance.
It would be more to the purpose if we could discover anything concerning the religious teaching which he received in his childhood, for unquestionably it left its mark upon him for many a year. All writers agree in holding that it was an evil time both in faith and practice. The company in which Mr. Pattison found himself in his excellent Essay on the Religious Thought of the 18th Century, [footnote: No. VI in "Essays and Reviews] has somewhat discredited that essay. But it is at any rate valuable for our present purpose, as gathering up into short compass the characteristics of the time in which young Cowper was brought up. "It was a period," writes Mr. Pattison in the opening of his essay, "of decay of religion, licentiousness of morals, public corruption, profaneness of language,--a day of rebuke and blasphemy. Even those who look with suspicion on the contemporary complaints from the Jacobite clergy of 'decay of religion,' will not hesitate to say that it was an age destitute of depth and earnestness; an age whose poetry was without romance, whose philosophy was without insight, and whose public men were without character; an age of 'light without love,' whose very merits were of the earth, earthy."
This is certainly true in the general, though there are certain qualifications which the author makes in the course of his essay. Our concern at this moment is with the theology of the period. And that may be summed up in a word--it was the period of the Evidences. Let us hear Mr. Pattison once more. "Dogmatic theology had ceased to exist; the exhibition of religious truth for practical purposes was confined to a few obscure writers. Every one who had anything to say on sacred subjects drilled it into an array of arguments against a supposed objector. Christianity appeared made for nothing else but to be 'proved;' what use to make of it when it was proved was not much thought about. The only quality in Scripture which was dwelt on was its credibility."
We may, then, fairly suppose that the worthy Rector of Berkhamstead was on a par with his brother clergy--that he would preach against the Deists, and marshal his arguments as well as he could; but that he would not go beyond this, nor exhibit in his sermons the depth and experience of the Christian life. If we add to this the tenderness and gentle piety of his wife, with little knowledge of religious differences or dogmatics, we shall probably be very near the mark in estimating the influences under which the child received his first religious instruction. That the Established religion was the true one, and could be proved so, that it promoted virtue and morality, this the boy must have been taught from the beginning; and probably not much beyond it. The death of his mother removed the last chance which remained of anything beyond intellectual teaching. And that this is not theology, but only the surrounding of it, that it cannot satisfy the spirit of man, many a one besides Cowper has found. He mentions in one of his letters, that when he was eleven years old his father gave him a treatise in favour of Suicide, and requested him to give his opinions upon it. It does not seem a high proof of parental wisdom. The oculist's household too, if the autobiography is not hard upon him, was unfavourable to religious feeling, and the atmosphere of Westminster School not much less so. The head master, Dr. Nicholls, in preparing him for Confirmation, made some impression upon him, he says, but it was transient. It had no root, and withered away. He did not apparently commit any great acts of sin, but he grew careless about religious things, and ceased to pray. Let it be considered that the mocking laughter of Fielding was now in full vigour, in entire harmony with a wide-spread public opinion, and that is was holding up to unsparing ridicule what the boy had been taught to look upon as religion, and we shall hardly wonder that he was fascinated by the daring and recklessness of it, and, conscious of that, began to look upon himself as a young reprobate, at enmity with God.
Such thoughts, however, would be soon done with, and his life at Westminster seems to have been a very happy one. He not only became an excellent scholar, but was a good cricketer and football player; [footnote: See "Tirocinium"] and was popular both with masters and boys. The usher of his form was Vincent Bourne, (celebrated for his Latin poetry), [footnote: see "Translations from Vincent Bourne" and notes on them] another usher was Dr. Pierson Lloyd. Among his schoolfellows were Robert Lloyd (son of the doctor), Warren Hastings and his future enemy Impey, George Colman, Charles Churchill, George Cumberland, and William Russell. His intimacy with these at school was for the most part brought to an end, as is usual in such cases, by their parting. But we shall see how various passages in the course of his life brought back the memory of old times. Of all his friendships here the warmest were those with Russell and Lloyd. The former was, a few years later, drowned while bathing, at a time when Cowper was in deep distress from another cause. He has blended both sorrows together in an effusion which shows how deep the love between them was ("On the Death of Sir W. Russell").
Lloyd was a clever, showy youth, who in due course graduated at Cambridge, and became, like his father, an usher at Westminster. But the irregularities of his life, and his impatience of steady work, brought this to an end, and he betook himself to the precarious profession of literature. A clever poem called "The Actor" gained a very favourable reception; and Cowper, who made swans, not unfrequently, of very small geese, called him "the successor of Prior." Public taste has not ratified the verdict, and Lloyd is no longer reckoned among the English poets. His poetical abilities where undoubtedly good, but his habitual indolence, which prevented him from seeking worthy materials, as well as from bestowing the needful labour upon what he wrote, blighted his hopes.
Churchill's poems were of a much higher order. What can be said in mitigation of the follies and excesses of his life has been said admirably by Mr. Forster. [footnote: "Defoe and Churchill." Two Essays, by John Forster.] Lloyd, who is said to have been attached to Churchill's sister, took to his bed on hearing of his death, saying, "Ah! I shall soon follow poor Charles." The one died in November, the other in December, 1764. The way in which Cowper afterwards spoke of these friends is very characteristic of him. In the abstract he was not only most indignant at wrong-doing, but he was censorious; ready to take an unfairly bad view of motives, as well as to condemn trivial faults without measure. He denounces oratorios, chess, whist-playing, and smoking, as severely as he does breaches of the moral law. But when he afterwards came across a smoker in the person of his friend Bull, his anger and scorn were over and done with directly. In the estimate of all his personal acquaintances he was the most charitable of men. And so when the voice of society pronounced Churchill only a good-for-nothing rake, Cowper took occasion to express his hearty admiration of the man. [footnote: "Table Talk", l. 670ff.] Macaulay, speaking of his chivalrous sonnet to Warren Hastings, attributes it to Cowper's partiality. [footnote: Essays, vol. ii. p. 183] No doubs; yet Cowper's estimate is still, not improbably, a righteous one. Intimate knowledge of men shows that none are devils, and the tone of affection which comes natural to us need not be out of unison with the voice of heavenly love, which has bidden us judge none, but hope the best of all. So different as these two men were, Cowper learned his poetic style from the works of Churchill. The versification is very similar, and the realism which Churchill revived with such felicitous results to our literature was taken up by Cowper. It may be mentioned here that his first poem ("On Finding the Heel of a Shoe"), written while he was still at Westminster, was an imitation of John Philips' "Splendid Shilling." Its easy and finished rhythm proves that it was by no means the only attempt of the kind. He says in one of his letters, that he translated an elegy of Tibullus when he was fourteen. He also read the English poets with delight, especially Milton and Cowley. With regard to Milton, he says that he was quite unhappy because he had not made his acquaintance till he was fourteen, and so the previous years had suffered a loss which could never be made up. He appears to have known Milton nearly by heart.
He left Westminster in 1748, and was entered of the Middle Temple. After spending nine months in his father's house, he was articled for three years to a solicitor, Mr. Chapman, of Ely Place, Holborn. Not far off, in Southampton Row, lived his uncle Ashley, afterwards Clerk of the Parliaments. [footnote: Ashley Cowper was a very little man, and he used to wear a white hat lined with yellow. On which two facts Cowper once expressed his opinion that it would not be surprising if some day he should be "picked" by mistake for a mushroom, and popped into a basket.] He had three daughters; two of them, Harriet and Theodora, were ripening into womanhood. It was arranged that William was to visit them every Sunday, and this soon led to his being there continually on week-days. He was "to be found there," he said afterwards, "from morning to night, giggling and making giggle." In this pleasant occupation he was much assisted by a fellow-clerk at Mr. Chapman's, whom he had introduced at his uncle's house. This clerk, Edward Thurlow by name, was Cowper's junior by a few months. He had been educated at the King's School, Canterbury, and afterwards at Cambridge; and though wayward, and given to continual breaches of discipline, had been able, by fits of application and hard work, to make himself a good scholar. In like manner now, though he lounged about places of amusement and drank much punch, he contrived to give himself a good knowledge of law. Cowper saw the young man's great powers, and his knack of turning to account everything that he acquired, and one day said to him: "Thurlow, I am nobody, and shall always be nobody, and you will be Lord Chancellor. You shall provide for me when you are!" Thurlow smiled and said, "I surely will!" "These ladies are witnesses," said Cowper. "Let them be," answered Thurlow, "for I will certainly do it." The same prophecy had been made to Thurlow when a little boy, by a clergyman named Leach, and possibly the repetition of it by Cowper led to this lightly-made compact now. Cowper's prophecy was fulfilled, but not Thurlow's promise.
Thus, pleasantly rather than profitably, the three years of clerkship went by, and when they were ended Cowper was deeply in love with Theodora, and his love was as tenderly returned. The progress of this courtship, the quarrels and renewals of love, the young gentleman's bashfulness, and his increased care fo his personal appearance,--all these things are described for us, as well as such matters can be, in the poems which courtship produced. I cannot at all agree with Mr. Bell's judgment of them. "Cowper," he says, "was not capable of very strong emotions. The shadow of love seems to have hovered about him, but he was indifferent to the reality. We look in vain for the fervour or a youthful devotion." Whilst the young poet was pluming his wings, consciously imitating others, it is no wonder that some of these early love pieces are artificial. To me at least it is evident that his passion became anything but a shadow "which made no lasting impression upon him." Cowper was very reserved all his life on other matters besides this, but I believe that his love-affair affected the whole of his life very deeply.
For a while the course of love ran tolerably smooth. But when, on the expiration of his clerkship, he went into residence at the Temple, in 1752, a fresh shadow soon fell upon his course. Seclusion had its natural effect upon the nervous sensitive youth, and he had hard work to drive melancholy away. He tried first medicine, then religiosity, reading George Herbert, and "composing a set of prayers." Herbert, he says, relived him a good deal: "I found in him a strain of piety which I could not but admire." But "a very near and dear relation" (probably Madan) disapproved of Herbert, and he was laid aside. His friends found a better cure for morbidness in taking him away for change of scene. He went with Mr. Hesketh, the affianced lover of his cousin Harriet, to Southampton, and remained some months there. In his autobiography he gives more of his morbid feelings and thoughts here, which we again pass by. At length, much relieved, he returned to London in 1754, and was called to the Bar. But Ashley Cowper soon saw, or had already seen, enough of his nephew's aptitude for business to induce him to take an important step. He refused to sanction his daughter's engagement. The young lady pleaded with such earnestness as to shake his resolution for a while, but he returned to it, and after a considerable interval, during which some communication was still allowed, he forbade the lovers from meeting. The young lady regretfully submitted, and they never saw each other again. And Cowper never mentions her in any of his poems or letters. Nor does he write of love in any of his future poems. That he was mortified and angry appears from several slight but unmistakeable proofs. Meanwhile few will read without pity the effusions belonging to the latter part of his courtship, evidently the faithful picture of his alternating hopes and fears, until all hope was at an end. [footnote: "Early Poems"] The effect upon Theodora was deep and lasting. She never loved again, but always took the deepest interest in hearing about him. She read his poems with eagerness, and afterwards, as we shall see, showed her unaltered affection in a more substantial way. The verses which he had written to her she treasured up until the close of her life. Then, at a time when she also had apparently sunk into melancholy, she gave them in a sealed packet, for reasons which can only be guessed at, to a friend, directing that the packet should be opened after her death. The friend and she died nearly together, in 1824, and the sealed packet was then sent to her nephew Mr. Croft. He published them the following year, as we have already told. [footnote omitted]
Other sorrows had fallen on Cowper besides the loss of his love. His father died in July 1756; and although Cowper's connexion with Berkhamstead had never been continuous since his mother's death, he had always retained a warm affection for it. The connexion now ceased entirely; and he says the parting with it was most bitter to him. His father had married again, and the widow continued to reside there. But her stepson and she, though friendly, were not intimate, and never visited her, though they occasionally corresponded. She died not very long afterwards. His brother John was now at Cambridge, studying for holy orders.
The profession of a barrister is generally more honourable than lucrative for the first few years. It certainly was so in Cowper's case, for it is doubtful whether he ever had a brief. [footnote: A letter to Hill, dated October 10, 1767, after asking a law question, contains the following: "You are a better counsellor than I was, but I think you have much such a client in me as I had in Dick Harcourt."] He moved from the Middle to the Inner Temple, and bought chambers there for £250. The little money which he had was fast diminishing, and his father's death warned him that this was a matter which would have to be attended to without loss of time. One or two of his letters exist, written at this time; he speaks lightly on the matter, [footnote: "This provokes me, that a covetous dog who will work by candlelight in the morning, to get what he does not want, shall be praised for his thriftiness, while a gentleman will be abused for submitting to his wants, rather than work like an ass to relieve them. . . There are some sensible folks, who having great estates, have wisdom enough to spend them properly; there are others, who are not less wise, perhaps, as knowing how to shift without 'em. . . This is a strange epistle, nor can I imagine how the devil I came to write it."--Letter to Rowley, September 2, 1762.] but one may say with tolerable certainty that a very anxious heart lay beneath the jesting manner, and that the anxiety increased every day. Though this may not have been the cause of the melancholy which soon after appeared, the forced hilarity is painful enough when one knows what followed. He was made a Commissioner of Bankrupts about this time through family influence, which brought him £60 a year.
He was now a member of the Nonsense Club, [footnote: The Nonsense Club originated the "Exhibition of Sign Painters," a piece of drollery which, without giving offence, made much fun of the newly-opened Royal Academy. It consisted of a number of daubs, with humorous descriptions in the catalogue, and was very successful.] consisting of some old "Westminsters," among them Robert Lloyd and Colman. The leading member was Bonnell Thornton, another old Westminster boy, but much Cowper's senior. He had already made several essays in authorship, before he started, in company with Colman, the Connoisseur. The first number was published January 31, 1754, and it was continued weekly, until September 30, 1756. Cowper contributed a few papers to the last volume. The following were his. [footnote: The evidence of their authorship is as follows: Southey says they are "all attributed to the same author in the concluding pages of the volume." (Life, vol. i. p. 325.) But this is a mistake, for the words at the end of the volume are, "From a friend, a gentleman of the Temple, we received Nos. 111, 115, and 119." The other two are not referred to. They, with No. 119, are given as Cowper's by Hayley, whose authority in this matter is conclusive. He says, "During Cowper's visit to Eartham, he kindly pointed out to me three of his papers in the last volume of the Connoisseur. I inscribed them with his name at the time, and find other numbers of that work ascribed to him, but the three following I print as his, on his own explicit authority." (Vol. iv. p. 384) No. 119 is also mentioned by Cowper himself, in one of his letters, as having been written by him. He says that the writing of it had a good effect upon him: "I have never broken a secret since."] I take the titles from the table of contents to the volumes.
|No. 111||Letter, containing the character of the delicate Billy Suckling.|
|No. 115||Letter from Christopher Ironside, an old Bachelor, complaining of the indignities received by him from the ladies.|
|No. 119||Of keeping a secret.--Characters of faithless confidantes.|
|No. 134||Letter from Mr. Village, giving an account of the present state of Country Churches, their Clergy, and their Congregations.|
|No. 138||On Conversation. The chief pests of Society pointed out. Those who converse irrationally, considered as imitating the language of different animals.|
More than this, he "produced several half-penny ballads, two or three of which had the honour to become popular." [Letter to Newton, Dec. 4, 1781.] It is unfortunate that they are lost, for half-penny ballads by the Author of "John Gilpin" would certainly have been worth preserving. He also contributed a few papers to the St. James's Chronicle, of which Thornton and Colman were part proprietors. He kept up his classical studies also, especially that of Homer, and translated two books of Voltaire's "Henriade," said to have been published in a magazine in 1759. The humorous ode given at p. 21 of this volume was printed in the St. James Chronicle. It was not signed with his name, and there is no direct evidence to prove that it was his; but as Southey thought it to be so, all succeeding editions have included it. (See note on it.)
But by the time that ode was published, a dreadful calamity had fallen upon Cowper. He had gone mad. We have seen already that he had had melancholy fits at school. The opening lines of his Epistle to Lloyd ("An Epistle to Robert Lloyd, Esq."), written in 1754, show that these fits had taken an intenser form, and, as we have said, his fears of poverty probably made matters worse. An event which happened in 1763, which for the moment filled him with joy, brought the catastrophe. The Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords died, and the gentleman who held the two offices of Reading Clerk and Clerk of Committees resigned at the same time. The right of presentation to all the appointments belonged to Major Cowper, who immediately offered the two most lucrative of them to his cousin. The offer was no sooner accepted, than Cowper began to reproach himself with having wished for the former holder's death, and therefore being a murderer. First one fancy, then another. After a week he begged his cousin to give the more lucrative places to a friend, a Mr. Arnold, and the poorest, the Clerkship of the Journals, to himself. With a little demur (for in the eyes of the world, which did not know the circumstances, there would be some suspicion of bribery) the Major consented to this, and for a week or two there was calm.
But very soon came another obstacle. A powerful party in the Lords contested the Major's right to nominate. An inquiry was begun, and the new clerk was told that he must give evidence of qualification at the bar of the House. At this news he broke down again, not immediately, for he tried and tried again for more than half a year to prepare for examination, but all was of no use. Each day his terrors increased; a visit to Margate checked them, for a letter exists written to his cousin Harriet, now become Lady Hesketh, in which he is fairly cheerful. But on his return the evil spirit returned once more. His cousin came to the Temple to see him, but he would not speak to her nor look at her. He has written down a long account of these days in his autobiography, but one's memory recoils from it,--from the attempts upon his life with laudanum and knife and cord. The last time his purpose hardly failed. On that occasion he so far recovered from his dream as to be conscience-stricken; but this brought no relief, nothing but the conviction that he was damned beyond hope.
God knows whether any human means could have drawn him forth out of this horrible pit; but we who behold in Christ the healer of all infirmities, the caster-forth of devils, must believe that to have followed His steps by telling of the infinite love of God to His creatures might have brought the blessing of health. But no such message reached poor Cowper. His cousin Martin Madan, chaplain of the Lock Hospital, and a strong Calvinist, came to visit him. He spoke of the efficacy of Christ's blood for justification; and the poor sufferer, as he says, began to feel his heart burn within him, and the tears which he had just before declared impossible flowed freely, as hope sprung up in his heart. But when Madan began with his restrictions, the necessity of certain feelings, the hopelessness of the case in which they were absent, this hope was again thrown away. All the confusions and fancies of vague thoughts and opinions tossed and surged around him, and that faith in God's everlasting love which might have guided him safely was not there. He was at the mercy of every wind of vain doctrine. Every text of the Bible, and every religious word, was turned into fresh proof that the mouth of hell was opened upon him, and he wrote the awful sapphics [of "Lines Written under the Influence of Delirium".] His relatives, rightly judging that there was no other resource left to them, placed him in a lunatic asylum at St. Alban's. This was on December 7, 1763.
The proprietor of this asylum, Dr. Nathanael Cotton, possessed a high name for his professional skill, and was also a man of great moral worth. [footnote: Notice of his life in Anderson's "Poets," vol. xi. p. 1105.] He had also won considerable popularity as a writer of verse. His "Visions" passed through many editions; and though they are no longer read, they contain a good deal of sound sense and practical benevolence. He died in 1788. Under his judicious care Cowper slowly recovered. The physician saw this before the patient, and summoned his brother. The first meeting was a disappointment, for Cowper put on a stiff reserve, but he recovered himself, and improved daily. He was now filled with religious fervor; he had received from his heavenly Father, he said, the full assurance of faith, and out of his stony heart had been raised up a child unto Abraham. It was a good and righteous conviction, but it did not go far enough. It made its foundation upon his own feelings, and not upon God's love. His is not the only case where such ecstasy breaks down. In some it is followed by desperate plunges into sin again; in this, despair again after a while supervened. Yet transient feelings of such joy are feelings to be thankful for, when we regard them as God's testimony of a love which is not transient, of an eternal mercy and loving-kindness. [footnote: Maurice's "Prophets and Kings of the Old Testament." pp. 33, 34.]
Immediately after his recovery he wrote the hymn ["The Happy Change"]:
- "How blessed thy creature is, O God."
What a contrast to the production which he had last written, "Hatred and Vengeance"!
Though his recovery took place within three or four months after he was sent to Dr. Cotton's, Cowper continued there for a year, apparently dreading a relapse, and unequal to the task of facing the rough world. But he was very poor, and already owed Dr. Cotton money, and so determined to remove to some quiet home. The hymn ["Retirement"]--
- "Far from the world, O Lord, I flee"--
was written while thinking over this matter. London he would see no more, and he threw up his Commissionership of Bankrupts, and with it nearly all his income--to wit, £60 a year. His relations, feeling that this was unavoidable, subscribed together to make him an annual allowance.
His brother was now Fellow of St. Benet's College, Cambridge, and he wished to find lodgings near him. But none suitable could be found nearer than Huntingdon, and hither he moved in June 1765, accompanied by a lad who had waited on him at Dr. Cotton's. With this exception he was entirely surrounded by strangers; but the quiet tranquil town suited him well. "I do really think it the most agreeable neighborhood I ever saw," he wrote. There were morning and evening prayers daily in the church, which he always attended; there was the Ouse for him to bathe in, and many pleasant walks. Some of the residents used to send him books and newspapers. The Rector, Mr. Hodgson, and Curate, Mr. Nicholson, called upon him, and he liked them both. [footnote: "Another acquaintance I have lately made is with a Mr. Nicholson, a north-country divine, very poor, but very good and very happy. He reads prayers here twice a day all the year round, and travels on foot to serve two churches every Sunday; his journey out and home again being sixteen miles. I supped with him last night. He gave me bread and cheese, and a black jug of ale brewed with his own hands."--To Lady Hesketh, September 14, 1765.] Then the brothers met every week, and Cambridge and Huntingdon alternately, and this caused him to become a horseman.
Soon after his arrival he was visited by an old London friend, whose name has hitherto not been mentioned, but who always held one of the foremost places in his affection, Joseph Hill. Nothing is known of his early life, except that he had been an old Westminster boy, and also one of the members of the Nonsense Club. He was an attorney, living in George Street, Westminster. Cowper had introduced him to Thurlow, who, on his appointment to the Chancellorship afterwards, made him his secretary. He had kindly managed Cowper's affairs during his illness, and now gratuitously made himself his general agent in town, disposing of his rooms in the Temple, arranging his money matters, and receiving the bounty of his kinsmen. With him and with Lady Hesketh Cowper now began that regular correspondence which has won for him the praise of being "the best letter writer in the English language." His letters to Hill are playful, and relate mostly to his finances; those to Lady Hesketh are entirely of a religious character. He is still enraptured with his own religious condition, and hints that he would fain see her even as himself. It is evident that though no one could have had a higher regard for him, she had little sympathy with his religious fervour. We note in passing that she sent him "Hervey's Meditations," and that he was delighted with it. Besides these, he opened correspondence next year with Major Cowper and his wife. The latter, it will be remembered, was also his first cousin, sister to Martin Madan, and therefore, in Cowper's present state of feeling, a peculiarly acceptable correspondent. Several of his letters to her are a discussion of the question of mutual recognition in heaven, he holding the affirmative against her negative. From one of them we learn that he had formed an idea of taking orders. Fortunately he abandoned it. Meanwhile his finances became embarrassed. The following extract from a letter, written less than a fortnight after he got to Huntingdon, is amusing, but very much to the purpose. It is addressed to Hill.
- DEAR JOE,--Whatever you may think of the matter, it is no such easy thing to keep house for two people. A man cannot always live upon sheeps' heads, and liver and lights, like the lions the Tower; and a joint of meat, in so small a family, is an endless encumbrance. My butcher's bill for last week amounted to four shillings and tenpence. I set off with a leg of lamb, and was forced to give part of it away to a washerwoman. Then I made an experiment upon a sheep's heart, and that was too little. Next I put three pounds of beef into a pie, and this had like to have been too much, for it lasted three days, though my landlord was admitted to a share in it. Then as to small-beer, I am puzzled to pieces about it. I have bought as much for a shilling as will serve us at least a month, and it is grown sour already. In short, I never knew how to pity poor housekeepers before; but now I cease to wonder at that politic cast which their occupation usually gives to their countenance, for it is really a matter full of perplexity." [footnote: July 3, 1765.]
This prepares us for the announcement by and by that he has "contrived, by the help of good management and a clear notion of economical affairs, to spend the income of a twelvemonth" between June and September. His relatives wrote to scold him for what they considered extravagance, and a few months later Colonel (late Major) Cowper threatened to give him nothing more. While this correspondence was going on, he received an anonymous letter, telling him that if the threatened withdrawal should take place, he had one who loved and admired him, who would supply the deficiency. He thought that Lady Hesketh was the writer, but it is more likely, as will be seen hereafter, that it was her sister, Cowper's former love. His anxiety was naturally returning. Besides, Huntingdon shows to less advantage in the decline of the year than in June, and his outdoor pursuits were becoming circumscribed. But at this critical moment a happy accident came to his relief. His daily attendance at church, his solitariness, his quiet and thoughtful face, strongly attracted the notice of a young man who had just returned home after graduating at Cambridge. He wished to call on Mr. Cowper, but his mother was against it, having heard that the stranger did not care for company. However, he addressed him one morning after church, and was cordially met. They took a walk together, were mutually delighted, and Cowper invited him to tea that afternoon. The new acquaintance was named William Cawthorne Unwin.
His father, the Rev. Morley Unwin, had some years before been master of the Free School at Huntingdon, but in 1742 had received the college living of Grimston, in Norfolk. On this appointment he had married Mary Cawthorne (much younger than himself), the pretty, clever daughter of a draper at Ely. Their son was baptized at Grimston, March 15, 1744. But Mrs. Unwin did not like Grimston, [footnote: From a kind and interesting letter which I have received from the Rev. J. Rowlands, the present Rector of Grimston, it appears that Mr. Unwin resided at Grimston from 1742 to 1748, though it is startling to find that his signature never appears in the church registers before 1765. This does not prove that he did nothing, for in old registers the Occasional Offices are not each attested by the signature of the officiating minister. But the absence of his name altogether, and the appearance of his curate's where a signature is needed, proves that the curate did the greater part of the work. On his return to Huntingdon he became lecturer at the parish church. The parish books contain several resolutions of censure upon him for neglect of his duty, and once he was nearly dismissed. Mr. Rowlands gives me reasons for supposing that he resigned Grimston in 1766.] and persuaded her husband to become a non-resident. He returned with his two children (for they had now also a daughter) to Huntingdon, where he took pupils. Cowper, writing to Hill, describes this family, into which he was now introduced, as "the most agreeable people imaginable, quite sociable, and free from the ceremonious civility of country gentlefolks. The old gentleman is a man of learning and sense, and as simple as Parson Adams." He tells Lady Hesketh that he has just come from a two hours' walk with Mrs. U., and that "the conversation has done him more good than an audience of the first prince in Europe." He finds that they "have one faith, and have been baptized with the same baptism," and "gives God thanks, who has brought him into the society of Christians."
The intimacy increased, and Cowper found himself there constantly. In a few weeks (Nov. 1765) a pupil left Mr. Unwin. Cowper then begged to be taken as their lodger, and they gladly consented. The first agreement was that he should pay them eighty guineas a year; but when his means threatened to fall short, she offered to take half this sum. The following extract from a letter to his cousin, Mrs. Cowper, describes their manner of life together:--
"I am obliged to you for the interest you take in my welfare, and for your inquiring so particularly after the manner in which my time passes here. As to amusements, I mean what the world calls such, we have none--the place indeed swarms with them; and cards and dancing are the professed business of almost all the gentle inhabitants of Huntingdon. We refuse to take part in them, or to be accessaries [sic] to this way of murdering our time, and by so doing have acquired the name of Methodists. Having told you how we do not spend our time, I will next say how we do. We breakfast 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. [footnote: He says in another letter: "I am become a great florist and shrub-doctor. If the Major can make up a small packet of seeds for a garden where there is little but jessamine and honeysuckle, I will promise to take great care of them."] 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 pleasure of religious conversation till tea-time. If it rains, or is too windy for walking, we either converse within-doors, or sing some hymns of Martin's [footnote: Martin Madan, Mrs. Cowper's brother. He had some musical skill. The popular tune Helmsley, "Lo! He comes with clouds descending," was composed by him.] collection, and by the help of Mrs. Unwin's harpsichord make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope, are the best and most musical performers. After tea we sally forth to walk in good earnest. Mrs. Unwin is a good walker, and we have generally travelled about four miles before we see home again. When the days are short, we make this excursion in the former part of the day, between church-time and dinner. At night we read and converse, as before, till supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon, and, last of all, the family are called to prayers. I need not tell you that such a life as this is consistent with the utmost cheerfulness; accordingly we are all happy, and dwell together in unity as brethren."
We must give one more extract--a proof of his sensitiveness, or rather of his high-minded conscientiousness. William Unwin was going to London, and Cowper gave him an introduction to Mrs. Cowper. In writing afterwards to thank her for her courteous reception of his friend, he goes on to denounce his own vile and deceitful heart. He had wanted Unwin to call on her, because there were people who looked down upon him, and had even gone the length of calling him "that fellow Cowper;" so he could not resist the opportunity of furnishing the Unwins with ocular demonstration of his high connexion. Upon this discovery of his own heart he bursts out:
- "Oh Pride! Pride! it deceives with the subtlety of a serpent, and seems to walk erect, though it crawls upon the earth. How will it twist and twine itself about to get from under the Cross which it is the glory of our Christian calling to be able to bear with patience and good-will. They who can guess at the heart of a stranger, and you especially, who are of a compassionate temper, will be more ready, perhaps, to excuse me, in this instance, than I can be to excuse myself. But, in good truth, it was abominable pride of heart, indignation, and vanity, and deserves no bettername. How should such a creature be admitted into those pure and sinless mansions, where nothing shall enter that defileth, did not the blood of Christ, applied by the hand of faith, take away the guilt of sin, and leave no spot or stain behind it? Oh what continual need have I of an Almighty, All-sufficient Saviour!" (April 3, 1767)
The tranquil life at Huntingdon was destroyed by a sudden blow. On the 28th June, 1767, Mr. Unwin, while riding to church, was thrown from his horse, fractured his skull, and died four days afterwards. The two children were started in life. William was ordained to a curacy, and his sister [footnote: She lived till 1835, dying at the age of eighty-nine.] was soon afterwards married to the Rev. Matthew Powley, Vicar of Dewsbury. It was necessary for Mrs. Unwin to remove, and Cowper determined to go with her, as her behaviour to him had "always been that of a mother to a son," and, moreover, "Mr. Unwin had intimated to his wife his desire that if she survived him, Mr. Cowper might still dwell with her." [footnote: This latter statement is made by Newton. (Bull's Memorials, p. 157.)]
A few days after Unwin's death, the Rev. John Newton, Curate of Olney, on his way thither from Cambridge, had stayed at Huntingdon, and called on Mrs. Unwin, at the request of a friend. Much interested both in her and Cowper, he agreed, at their request, to look out for a house for them. He soon found them one at Olney, and they removed thither on the 14th of September, 1767.
The Rev. John Newton, under whose influence Cowper was thus brought, was about five years his senior. He had passed through the strangest vicissitudes of fortune. In his youth he had been a sailor of idle and vicious habits, had been flogged for desertion, and was only prevented from drowning himself by fearing that the lady whom he afterwards married would form a bad opinion of him. He suffered frightful miseries in a slave plantation at Sierra Leone, and after being released was shipwrecked on his way home, and barely saved his life. This event, which he was always wont to call his "Great Deliverance," changed his character altogether. He resolved to lead a new life, and kept the resolution. Looking upon this as a special interposition of Providence on his behalf, he was a Calvinist from that time. He soon became master of a vessel, and for the next four years was engaged on the sea. From this time until his death, he kept a diary, of which the following passage is the opening, dated Dec. 22, 1751:--
- "I dedicate unto Thee, most blessed God, this clean, unsullied book; and at the same time renew my tender of a foul, blotted, corrupt heart. Be pleased, O Lord, to assist me with the influences of Thy Spirit to fill the one in a manner agreeable to Thy will, and by Thy all-sufficient grace to overpower and erase the ill impressions sin and the world have from time to time made in the other, so that both my public converse and retired meditation may testify that I am indeed Thy servant, redeemed, renewed, and accepted in the sufferings, merit, and mediation of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, honour, and dominion, world without end. Amen."
Then he goes on to detail the holy resolutions which he has made; amongst them is one to set apart a special day "to recommend himself and his concerns, his journey and his voyage," to the blessing of God. He speaks of his devotions with his crew, and ever and anon writes down prayers of intense and unquestionable earnestness. And at the end of his voyage he expresses his thankfulness to God for having prospered him so well. It may not have occurred to the reader to ask what was the business in which he was engaged. But it was the slave-trade.
Forty years later, when Wilberforce was moving heaven and earth for abolition, Newton preached on the same side, and wrote his "Thoughts upon the African Slave-Trade," denouncing it unsparingly. "I am bound in conscience," he says, "to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and miscief to which I have formerly been accessory." And he adds,--what is probably just,--"Perhaps what I have said of myself may be applicable to the nation at large. The slave-trade was always unjustifiable, but inattention and self-interest prevented for a time the evil from being perceived." Newton's religiousness was unquestionably sincere and real, but his morality in this matter cannot be said to be of the highest kind, and both now and after he displays a want of deep reflection, as well as some selfishness of character. His "Cardiphonia" contains passages which are hardly surpassed for their beauty and earnest zeal towards God. And there, more than anywhere else that I know of, the large-heartedness of the man appears. He has come to the conclusion, even in the first letter (1775), that "observation and experience contribute, by the grace of God, gradually to soften and sweeten our spirits;" that Protestants, Papists, Socinians, are all his neighbours; and that he must not expect to see with his eyes. Here speaks the man, not the theologian; for his sight was narrow as his heart was large. He is always seeking to interpret every "dispensation;" if he cannot do it at the moment, he is sure the interpretation will soon come. He cannot understand why Molly P. should have the small-pox at such an inconvenient time, and is surprised that his prayers for her have not yet been heard. In short, no man perhaps ever had a stronger faith in God's personal love for him; but that "the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof," was more apparently than had taken possession of his mind. The same kind of spirit is shown in his taking a lottery ticket some years afterwards, supposing that "his vow and his design of usefulness therein sanctioned his hope that the Lord would give him a prize." [footnote: I cannot forbear referring to Sir James Stephen's wise and weighty words concerning Newton. I had not read them until the above was in type, but it is gratifying to be able to claim him in support of my view. Essay on the Evangelical Succession, p. 114.]
Severe illness brought Newton's seafaring life to an end, and he obtained the post of tide surveyor at Liverpool. During the time that he held it he was brought much into contact with Whitefield, and to some degree also with Wesley. In 1764, after difficulties which he showed great courage in overcoming, he was ordained to the curacy of Olney. There can be no question that the step was taken from a love for the souls of men, and that it was done at a great personal sacrifice. The same year he made the acquaintance of Wilberforce, and of John Thornton. [footnote: John Thornton was born in 1720, and succeeded his father as a Russian merchant. He was remarkably keen and skilful in business, and to the end of his life was always on the look-out for good investments. There is a story that he strolled along Cork harbour, when an old man, saw a freight of tallow come in, and made a vast sum by buying it at once, then strolled into a nursery ground, and with the profits he had just made set an impoverished man on his feet. But his greatest acts of generosity, whether wise or unwise, were towards ministers of religion. He bought up livings, and bestowed them on "truly religious" ministers. His sister married Wilberforce's uncle, and the Evangelicalism of Wilberforce was owing to this connexion. Thornton died in 1790. It was his brother-in-law, Dr. Conyers, who introduced Newton to Cowper.] The latter formed so high an opinion of him that he made him an allowance of £200 a year, mainly with the view of enabling him to keep open house, and so to influence the more people for good.
The labours of Newton (who lived till 1807) are of course no part of our subject, except so far as they illustrate Cowper's life. To the latter we therefore now pass on.
The house in which he now took up his residence is in the market-place at Olney. It was called Orchard Side. The vicarage, in which Newton lived, was close by, and he said afterwards that for twelve years he and Cowper were hardly ever twelve hours apart. "The first six," he adds, "were spent in admiring and trying to imitate him; during the second six I walked with him in the shadow of death."
Olney lies on the Ouse at the northern extremity of Buckinghamshire. [footnote: The most interesting description which has been written of Olney and its neighborhood is that of Hugh Miller, in his "First Impressions of England."] It is not an attractive town, and the staple occupations of its inhabitants, and whole neighborhood, lacemaking and strawplaiting, were, and still are, very prejudicial to health, wealth, and godliness. The vicar, Moses Browne, was an absentee through debt, and there were no gentry. Cowper was commonly known there as "Sir Cowper." Newton fell in with the popular appellation, and calls him so often in his letters. Cowper says, later, in one of his letters, "We have
- "One parson, one poet, one bellman, one crier,
- And the poor poet is the only squire."
To minister among the poor here was a task requiring great energy and courage, arduous and, as far as this world is concerned, thankless. Newton, who had wonderful bodily strength and nerve, enjoyed it thoroughly, but certainly it was not suitable labour for the nervous, sensitive invalid, who now under Newton's guidance undertook it. He visited indefatigably, and read and prayed with the sick. Newton had started prayer-meetings at an unihabited house in the town belonging to Lord Dartmouth,--the "Great House" it was called,--and the heat and excitement of these may be judged by any one who reads Newton's account. We need not say what a contrast such devotions were to the daily prayers in Huntingdon Church, and few will doubt that the change was not for the better to Cowper. But who would not tremble for the result when we add to this that he himself was called to take part in, sometimes to lead, the extempore prayers--he who had said of himself, when called on to qualify for his clerkship, "that doing anything in public was mortal poison" to him! Mr. Bull quotes the saying of some one who was there, that he "never heard praying that equalled Mr. Cowper's." But it was at a terrible cost. Nor was this all. He lost his regular exercise. He had been accustomed to a quiet evening walk, but "now," he says to Lady Hesketh, "we have sermon or lecture every evening, which lasts till supper-time."
Mr. Bull gives several letters from Mr. Newton belonging to this period. That they breathe real piety needs not to be said; but they are not altogether pleasing to read. Instead of enlarging upon God's care for His creatures, and His mercy toward every soul which seeks after Him, he gives highly-wrought pictures of particular providences, and searches after God's love in religious excitement. The Lord is to be found not in the still small voice, but in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. Where these are not, so it might seem, God is not. As long as these feelings were kept alive by the unhealthful religious stimulants, Cowper could boast of his "decided Christian happiness." But a time comes when stimulants fail to act, and then reaction comes, and ruin with it.
Threatenings appeared from a very early period of his residence at Olney. In a letter to Hill, for instance, dated June 16, 1768, he expresses his belief that his life is drawing to an end. All his letters are upon religious topics, and generally gloomy in tone; he drops his old friends, and even writes chilling letters to Hill--one declining an invitation, another in reply to the announcement of his marriage. The common idea that his first years at Olney were happy ones is certainly not well-founded.
His melancholy was greatly increased by the death of his brother, which took place at Cambridge in March 1770. Their affection from infancy had been unbroken, and Cowper mourned for him deeply. He gave expression to his feelings by writing a memoir of him, which was afterwards published by Newton. (No. 9 in List of Works, p. xviii. See also the "Time Piece," 780-787) His brother left £700, but £350 were owed to his college; the rest was transferred to Cowper's account by Hill. But he speaks of himself as being a considerable loser by his brother's death. He must therefore have received a regular allowance from him as well as from his other relatives. [footnote: see letters to Hill, Nov. 5 and 17, 1772]
In 1771 Mr. Newton proposed that they should jointly compose a volume of hymns, partly "for the promotion of the faith and comfort of sincere Christians," partly to perpetuate the memory of their friendship. The work was undertaken, but not completed for 8 years. It was then published with this title:--
The volume is dated Olney, February 15, 1779, and contains 348 hymns, Cowper's being distinguished by a C.
Many of these compositions have become so popular, that a collection of hymns without them would seem incomplete. Such, for example, is Newton's "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds." There are others which are not in the least suited for congregational worship. Poems, for example, like the seventh in the present volume are not acts of worship, but diatribes. Some begin as prayers, but trail off into sermons, like the 22d. But all Cowper's hymns throw light upon his mental state at the time, and there are several allusions to the circumstances of his life. Such compositions as Nos. 8 and 9,--the one written in joy, the other in sadness,--are not only beautiful, but such as probably all faithful Christians at one time or another are ready to adopt. But it is different with such pieces as Nos. 37-44. The expressions of assurance are hardly to be distinguished from cries of despair. "Assurance of salvation" is a cardinal point in the Calvinist's creed, and it would not be difficult to lay one's hand upon a remarkable case in which great physical energy and exuberant animal spirits joined with this assurance have given wonderful life and power to a preacher. Preaching comes so easy in such a case, there is no attempt to grapple with the hard problems which perplex more subtle and thoughtful minds, there is an impatience of them; the creed is an easy one to the holder, and he goes on his way rejoicing. But Cowper's mind was a delicate one, his brain restless and busy; the full assurance which on Newton's word he held to be necessary was a physical impossibility with him, and thereof came despondency and sadness. The high wave is not more naturally followed by the deep trough. Brooding over his morbid sensations increased them; his mind oscillated fearfully on the balance between assurance of salvation, and assurance of perdition, till his whole being reeled and tottered. Before the work had proceeded very far, he was a second time insane. This accounts for the fact that eight years elapsed between the projection of the Olney Hymns and their publication. The return of his malady also put a stop to his intended marriage with Mrs. Unwin. Their engagement has been warmly denied. Southey writes: "I believe it to be utterly unfounded; for that no such engagement was either known or suspected by Mr. Newton I am enabled to assert, and who can suppose that it would have been concealed from him?" On what ground he makes this assertion he does not say, but there is an assertion on the other side, lately made known, of which the truth cannot be doubted. Mr. Bull, in his Memorials of Newton, declares that again and again he had heard his father say that they were about to be married when Cowper's malady returned in 1773, and that Bull knew this from Mrs. Unwin herself. And then he adds the following extract from Newton's hitherto unpublished diary:--
- "They were congenial spirits, united in the faith and hope of the gospel, and their intimate and growing friendship led them in the course of four or five years to an engagement of marriage, which was well known to me, and to most of their and my friends, and was to have taken place in a few months, but was prevented by the terrible malady which seized him about that time."
This settles the question, and shows that Southey was mistaken. The evidence from Cowper's own letters is too slight to build upon, but, viewed in the light of the positive statement, it is confirmatory. Cowper must have known that, as far as society is concerned, he was in a false position with regard to Mrs. Unwin. He could hardly expect that his excellent and pure life would secure them from ill-natured remarks, nor did it; but it is moreover natural to suppose that their feelings towards each other had changed. Her kindness at first had recalled to his memory the love of his long-lost mother; he had leaned upon her and admired her. But after her husband's death her kindness was no longer that of the wife of an old man, it was that of a woman only four or five years his senior. And thus friendship, trust, and admiration, ended in marriage engagement. Cowper's condition from this time forward was not such as to render a renewal of their hopes possible, and there is no further evidence upon the subject. But the fact as now stated throws light upon a matter which will find its due place in our history, and which has caused much perplexity.
The second attack of insanity came on by degrees. His letters at this time, as well as the Olney Hymns, show his oscillations of spirit.
The following extracts from the Memorials of Newton are painfully expressive:--
"Tuesday, July 7 .--Time fully taken up in visiting and receiving visits. Preached at the Great House from Heb. ii. 18, to which I was led by Mr. Cowper's prayer."
Next day in a letter to his wife, he says:--
"Dear Sir Cowper is in the depths as much as ever. The manner of his prayer last night led me to speak from Heb. ii. 18. I do not think he was much the better for it, but perhaps it might suit others."
Not the better for it! No, for most unwittingly Newton has created a Frankenstein, and is now sorrowing that he cannot control it. [footnote: "I believe my name is up about the country for preaching people mad; for whether it is owing to the sedentary life the women lead here, poring over their [lace] pillows for ten or twelve hours every day, and breathing confined air in their crowded little rooms, or whatever may be the immediate cause, I suppose we have near a dozen in different degrees disordered in their heads, and most of them, I believe, truly gracious people."--Letter of Newton to Thornton.]
On January 2, 1773, Newton writes thus:--
"My time and thoughts much engrossed to-day by an afflicting and critical dispensation at Orchard Side. I was sent for early this morning, and returned astonished and grieved."
There was too sad reason for grief. The poor lunatic had again attempted his life, and he repeated the attempt more than once. He became persuaded that it was the sovereign will of God that he should do so, and because he failed, he believed himself condemned to double perdition. He ceased not only from public worship, but from private prayer. "For him to implore mercy," he said, "would only anger God the more."
In order to be out of hearing of the noise of the annual fair, which was held in April, he visited Newton at the vicarage, and being there, entreated not to be sent away. There he remained till May in the following year; so piteous were his tears and entreaties to be suffered to remain, that Newton had not the heart to remove him. His malady, on the whole, was still increasing upon him. Yet it was not till October 1773 that Newton thought of consulting Dr. Cotton. It was too late then; perhaps it would have been of no use earlier. Some years later the unhappy patient described the thousand fancies which beset him; but there is no good in repeating a sick man's dreams. Mrs. Unwin watched over him all this time with the most tender solicitude. She undertook the care of him single-handed, and shared her diminished income with him. The expense of his living fell heavily also on Newton, as appears from a letter to his benefactor Thornton; but Newton's affection was too unselfish to allow him to put his poor friend from his house. During this sad time Cowper employed himself in gardening. He spoke little,--never except when questioned. The first signs of improvement were seen in the garden; he began to make remarks on the state of the trees, and the growing of them. One day when feeding the chickens some trifle made him smile. "That is the first smile for sixteen months," said Newton. His companion, taking courage from this, proposed to return home. He consented, and having done so, was impatient of the few days' necessary delay. At home he again took to gardening, and also to carpentering. A friend gave him three hares, which he may be said to have immortalised. Ten years later he wrote his famous article in the Gentleman's Magazine [June, 1784], giving an account of these animals, and his arrangements for their health and comfort. His friends, pleased with his interest, gave him other animals--five rabbits, two guinea-pigs, two dogs, a magpie, a jay, a starling, and some pigeons, canaries, and goldfinches. The interest he took in them shows that his mind was partially recovering itself, though the clouds still hung heavily upon it. "As long as he is employed," says Newton of this period, "he is tolerably easy; but as soon as he leaves off, he is instantly swallowed up by the most gloomy apprehensions, though in everything that does not concern his own peace he is as sensible and discovers as quick a judgment as ever." [footnote: Bull, p. 202]
What I have already said will indicate the opinion to which I have been brought on the relation of his religious views to his madness. I have never forgotten--who could, in reading this strange and melancholy life?--that insanity is verily an inscrutable mystery, on which it behoves our words at all times to be wary and few. I do not believe certainly that religious opinions were the original cause of the madness. When I began the study of this life I believed that I should find that the views were merely the form which the madness happened to take. But this belief I cannot now hold. It became as clear to me as any demonstration could make it, that the Calvinistic doctrine and religious excitements threw an already trembling mind off its balance, and aggravated a malady which but for them might probably have been cured.
In 1776 he recommenced correspondence, as well as reading, and his letters are even playful. He had written none since 1772. One of the first was to Hill, thanking him for a present of fish. [footnote: Cowper was remarkable fond of fish. "The most ichthyophagous of Protestants" he called himself. It is most amusing, in turning over his letters, to find him asking for fish over and over.] He also took to sketching, and drew "mountains, valleys, woods, streams, ducks, and dabchicks." But this employment hurt his eyes. He formed a plan of taking three or four boys into his house as pupils, [footnote: Letter to Hill, July 6, 1776.] but none offered. Several friends, Hill especially, lent him books, on which he sent back criticisms. In one letter he asks especially for a work on the microscope, and Vincent Bourne's Poems. But his letters as yet were few.
In September 1779 Mr. Newton, who was disappointed and out of heart at his ill-success with the people of Olney, was presented by Thornton to the living of St. Mary Woolnoth, and left Olney at the end of the year. His last act before doing so was the publication of the Olney Hymns, by which Cowper was first introduced to the world. His departure naturally made great changes in Cowper's habits and doings, the chief being that he had much time thrown on his hands. In order to fill up the gap in his small circle of acquaintance, Newton, on leaving, introduced him to the Rev. W. Bull, an Independent minister residing at Newport-Pagnell, five miles from Olney. This choice was a happy one, and they became fast friends. Cowper had a knack of giving all his friends nicknames, and Mr. Bull become "Carissime Taurorum." But the distance between their homes, and Bull's hard work, prevented them from being much together, and Cowper was thrown on his own resources. He worked at his garden with more energy than ever, built frames for pine plants, and glazed the kitchen windows. Of his last achievement he gives a very humorous account in one of his letters. He revived his law studies a little, and gave advice gratis in a few cases. But, happily for English literature, he began to betake himself regularly to poetical composition. It is noticeable that "Nose v. Eyes," as well as the lines "On the Burning of Lord Mansfield's Library," were written now. Speaking of the first of these,--"Happy is the man," says he, "who knows just so much law as to make himself a little merry now and then with the solemnity of judicial proceedings." But in a letter to Newton a few days later, he uses a ghastly similitude about this jocularity. He compares himself to harlequin dancing round a corpse.
His prophecy concerning Thurlow had been fulfilled in June 1778, when the latter succeeded Earl Bathurst as Lord Chancellor of England. Cowper's friends hoped that this would bring some preferment to him, and William Unwin, now become Rector of Stock, in Essex, urged him to write to Thurlow. But Cowper was much too sensitive to do so. "He is very liberal, generous, and discerning," he replied, "but he is well aware of the tricks that are played upon such occasions, and after fifteen years' interruption of all intercourse between us, would translate my letter into this language--Pray remember the poor." But he was not without great hope that Thurlow would do something for him unasked, and it is not impossible that the latter had the will to do so, but lacked opportunity. At any rate he appointed, without solicitation, his and Cowper's friend Hill as his secretary. There seems an expression of disappointment in the end of a letter of Cowper to Hill, dated February 15, 1781. "Farewell, my friend, better than any I have to boast of either among the Lords--or Gentlemen of the House of Commons." The latter clause probably refers to his cousin, Colonel Cowper, judging from some expressions in the earlier part of the letter. The letters written at this period are among the most delightful of his compositions, full of kindly humour, and rarely morbid. Even those to Newton--there are not many--avoid religious discussion. He encloses to whomsoever he may be writing the last new poem he has thrown off, apparently with no thought but that of amusing his friends.
One piece written now requires special mention, and that not of a pleasant character. Martin Madan's name has occurred more than once in this biography; it will be remembered that he was Cowper's first cousin, and chaplain of the Lock Hospital. In 1781 he published a work in two large octavos, to which he afterwards added a third as supplement, entitled "Thelyphthora; or a Treatise on Marriage," and the estimate which he made of his performance may be judged by the first sentence which it contains:--"The author doth not scruple to call this Treatise one of the most important and interesting Publications that have appeared since the days of the Protestant Reformation." The substance of it is that Polygamy is a state which was not only allowed by the Most High to the Jews, but spoken of in His law in such a manner as to show that it received His sanction to the end of the world. There is an abundance of learned discussion of the sacred languages, and many quotations from the Fathers, the author throughout taking his position upon the strictest literalism, and holding himself bound by every word of the Sacred Book, but rejecting every other ground of argument. The book has never been reprinted,--not even by Brigham Young. But it is a work which has left its mark. It is no wild guess to say that it had much to do with John Henry Newman's growing disgust towards, and final rejection of, Protestantism. "Protestantism," he said, long before quitting the English Church, "has sometimes developed into Polygamy." When one remembers what the tone of his mind was from youth, what a high store he set upon the celibate life, it will be felt with what shuddering he must have penned that sentence. And when it is compared with his renewed and distinct reference to Madan's book in his celebrated correspondence with Mr. Kingsley (pp. 17, 18). there can be no question that a system which could have produced such a book must long have raised an antagonism in his mind.
Cowper and Newton would of course have no such thought as this. Instead of generalizing upon it, they came to the conclusion that it was simply the work of a vicious and immorally-minded man. To one who knows so little of Madan as I have been able to discover, it is impossible to give any judgment on this point. But internal evidence does not support such a view. If Madan ever looked sorrowfully upon his charge at the Lock, and thought how each fallen woman had been once an innocent child, and might have been a happy wife with children round her knees, is it to be wondered at that he pondered on the question "On what theory might these have been wives?" Dwelling upon this,--being (let it be remembered) a Puritan in theology, and Judaizing in his view of the Scriptures,--one is not surprised that he rushed into the notion that the polygamy of the Mosaic days is not contrary to the will of God, and that by the restoration of it harlotry might be put an end to. If we start with the assumption that the law of the Pentateuch is the basis and limit of all moral legislation whatsoever,--and such an assumption should scarcely appear startling to many Protestants,--then the whole of Madan's doctrine follows from a matter of course, for no one disputes the minor premiss, that Polygamy was allowed and practised. But those who hold that the world has been under a Divine Education, that the Christian Church has mounted on the stepping-stones of Judaism to higher things, will hold the theory to be an outrage on religion,--on the whole Bible. The consensus of Christian nations, of all nations indeed which have emerged out of barbarism, has a far higher authority in this matter than texts out of Leviticus. [footnote: For some thoughts in this criticism I am indebted to my friend Professor Plumptre.] It is not wonderful that the righteous instincts of Cowper revolted at the theory. But considering his kinship with Madan, and their former intercourse, his course is certainly much to be regretted. His epigrams on the book, poor enough, were only written for Newton's eye; but he wrote, and printed anonymously (1781), a long Poem entitled "Antithelyphthora," and a wretched production it is. It seems almost incredible that such a foolish straining after the comic, such a coarse and vulgar effusion, could have proceeded from so delightful a humorist and such a thorough gentleman. It may be said in excuse that he was now only a novice in the art of Poetry, and that as most of the poets that he had read were coarse, he may have thought it a necessity to be the same, just as Waller could not get on without an imaginary Saccharissa.
Cowper appears to have been somewhat ashamed of the production himself, for neither he nor his executors ever included it in his works. It was only by a curious accident that its authorship was discovered. Southey found in a book which he had borrowed, a note from Samuel Rose--a friend of Cowper's of whom mention will hereafter be made,--to Isaac Reid, shut between the leaves as a marker. In this note Rose, in answer to a question, gives the name of the poem, and speaks of it as Cowper's. Southey made inquiry at the British Museum, and found the work, printed in quarto. Allusions in Cowper's letters confirm the proof of its authorship, and it has ever since been included in his works. If his own wishes could have been consulted, I cannot help thinking that it would have continued buried in the Museum.
It was Mrs. Unwin who first proposed to him some work of greater importance, and on his acquiescence suggested "The Progress of Error," to be made the subject of a moral satire. He found the new occupation so congenial to his taste, and so successful in dispelling his melancholy, that he worked at it incessantly. When that was finished, he wrote "Truth," "Table-Talk," "Expostulation," all in such rapid succession, that these four poems, begun in December 1780, were finished in the following March. He had acquainted Newton with what he was doing, and now requested him to find a publisher. His intention was to added a few of his smaller pieces to these large ones, and so to make a moderate-sized volume. Newton went to his own publisher, Joseph Johnson, who at once consented, and took all the risk. The volume was sent to the publisher in April 1781, and he, on the ground that the publishing season was over, proposed to Cowper to enlarge the volume. He accordingly wrote "Hope," and soon afterwards "Charity." The latter occupied him about a fortnight; it was finished on the 12th of July. Whilst the book was being printed, he began once more, and wrote "Conversation," and "Retirement." He also called upon Newton to assist him further by writing a preface. After some demur, Newton consented. When it was written, Johnson was frightened at the serious tone of it, and, though Cowper was still willing to let it appear, both he and Newton agreed to its being withdrawn, though the latter was somewhat displeased. It was first printed in the fifth edition at his request.
On the eve of publication Cowper disclosed it for the first time to Unwin. The latter, who had been the recipient of all his small pieces as they were produced, was hurt at his friend's reticence, and Cowper, evidently conscious that he had ground for annoyance, laboured, not with the best grace, to remove it. He was, however, successful, and friendship continued uninterrupted. A few stanzas were hastily written, and placed at the end of the volume, in order that if this should be the author's last publication, a memorial of his friendship with Unwin might be preserved.
All this while he was very happy, kept so by employment and by hope. It was while he was correcting his proofs, during what he called an African summer, that he hit upon a simple means of comfort. He had previously built himself a greenhouse, which a gardener, he said, would think nothing of carrying away on his back. He now converted it into a summerhouse, hanging mats all round to keep out the sun, and carpeting the floor. Here now most of his time was spent, with myrtles in the window, and birds and rustling foliage making melody all around, and the letter describing it is perhaps the most beautiful of all his beautiful letters. [footnote: To Newton, Aug. 16, 1781.] This summerhouse is now classic ground, and the care of each successive owner has preserved it to this day in its original state.
Cowper says, in one of his letters written at this period, that he has only read one English poet for the last twenty years; a statement sufficient to justify me in not comparing him with other writers of the time. He had nothing to do with them. He may have read Percy's Reliques (published the same year that he removed to Huntingdon), but it is not very likely. The author whose style he imitated was Churchill. But his position was a new one in literature. His foremost idea when he began "The Progress of Error" was to be, not merely a Poet, but a teacher,--a Vates. The title which Hayley gives him, "The Bard of Christianity," expresses what he sought after for himself. "Table Talk" was not the first written of the long poems, but he placed it first, as explaining his aims. As its name implies, it is a somewhat desultory production. A. and B. begin to converse about true and false Glory, then pass on to the duties, difficulties, and shortcomings of kings. A. hints that B. might turn his verse to useful account by propounding therein some plan for paying the national debt, but is told that even the engineering skill of Brindley could not turn Helicon to such a purpose. "Let us, at all events," says A. "have something practical. Why does a Briton love liberty?" This leads to a discussion of the English character, and of the use and abuse of liberty. B. takes a gloomy view of the present position of England, but A. reminds him that a like view was widely prevalent just when Lord Chatham's wonderful successes began. "Yet that view was correct," replies B., "and if Sin get the mastery of the nation the gloomy prognostications will yet come true." The growing passion of the verses excites A.'s notice, and this leads to a descant upon the functions of the Poet, and this again to the present condition of English Poetry. The bard holds that there is one new field into which the Poet may enter, namely, Religion.
It were indeed, he exclaims, a noble aim for one to entrance his hearers by singing the love of Christ. Better even doggrel verse on high topics than flowing numbers on base ones. This is the author's preface, in fact, to the rest. What was the character of the religion which he thus set himself to expound we need hardly say. It was "Evangelicalism," the form which all earnestness took at that period in the history of the Church of England, the reaction against the "Evidential" and "Moral" Theology of the years preceding. Its defects as well as excellences are faithfully reflected in the poems of Cowper. "Experimental" was one of Newton's favourite words, and the religion taught by him was too much based upon experiences and thoughts and feelings, and thus often fell short of the fulness and breadth of the Gospel. The morbid self-consciousness which is often so painful in Cowper is certainly owing, in some degree, to the same cause. The two quiet recluses at Olney, spending half their time in reading Evangelical sermons, and discussing them afterwards [footnote: see page 14.], never brought into contact with active men of the world, became unable to make allowance, or to view charitably opinions which did not coincide with their own. But, on the other hand, Cowper's natural kindliness and generosity caused his narrowness of view to vanish directly he came into contact with good people who thought differently. The indignation which flashes along his lines is directed against an abstract "Mr. Legality;" had he met with him in the flesh, he would have shown more consideration for him. The only personalities in these poems are the attacks upon "Occiduus" and Madan, both in "The Progress of Error." Had he known a live bishop, he might even have shown some mercy to his order. Certainly no man ever disliked bishops more cordially; [footnote: I do not know whether the following expression of opinion has ever appeared in print. I copied it from his MS.: "Bishops are κακα θηρια, γαστερες αργοι." Dated Sept. 24, 1786. It is characteristic of him that on renewing acquaintance, years afterwards, with his old friend Walter Bagot, he went somewhat out of his way to speak a civil word of his brother, who had been made Bishop of Norwich ("Tirocinium" l. 435).] and as one looks over the list of that period there seems little reason why he should have held them in veneration. Thomas Newton and Lowth are the only names which have any claim to be remembered. A curious instance of what we have been saying is furnished by the fact that in his poem of "Expostulation" Cowper spoke severely of the Roman Catholics, but after it was printed off, cancelled the leaf. [footnote: see note on "Expostulation", l. 390] It has been commonly asserted and denied that he did so out of respect to the Throckmortons, who were Roman Catholics, and whose acquaintance he had made in the interval. [footnote: See hereafter, page 35] It is not unlikely that there is some truth in this statement. They came into his neighbourhood just at the time when the poem was being printed, and though there was no intimacy till two years after, there were civilities between them. But it was probably simple good taste which led him to make the cancel. One thing we never lose sight of in reading Cowper--he is a gentleman, well-bred, scholarly, pure-minded, sincere, and without offence. When he exchanged a harsh view for a more charitable one, it was not through policy, but because experience had modified his opinion.
His political views also smack of his retirement. He had no books of his own, and was dependent upon loans from his friends. His knowledge of history was very slight. For example, he thought the Latin element in our language was owing to the Roman conquest. He sat at home and read Mrs. Macaulay and the St. James's Chronicle, and prophesied without a misgiving of error that the moment the Americans gained their independence England would fall to utter destruction.
The titles of his poems are somewhat misleading. "The Progress of Error," for example, leads us to expect a philosophical disquisition, whereas we find that the sum of this poem is that operas, card-playing, intemperance, gluttony, reading of bad novels, are the causes of Error; that they who hate truth shall be the dupe of lies. Quite true, of course; but who supposes that this is an adequate account of the progress of Error? In like manner "Truth" is not an essay upon Truth in the abstract, but an assertion of the sinfulness of man, the perfection of God, and hence the need of the propitiation of Christ.
The author improves in his style by practice. The versification of the "Progress of Error" is harsh, but that of "Expostulation" is highly finished. The latter is throughout a beautiful poem. It is an impassioned address to England to avoid the sin, and the consequent ruin, of the Jews, and is said to have been suggested by a fast-sermon of Newton's. Cowper himself liked it better than those which preceded it. [footnote: "I have written it with tolerable ease to myself, and in my own opinion (for an opinion I am bound to have about what I write whether I will or no), with more emphasis and energy than in either of the others."] So, too, although "Hope" is based on the same idea as that which forms the subject of "Truth," and contains nothing that has not been said before, it is much more pleasing and kindly in expression. "Charity" really concludes this series of Poems; "Conversation" and "Retirement" are quite distinct from it. "Conversation" is the lightest in tone of all; its versification, too, is delightful, while the whole piece is full of wisdom and goodness. "Retirement" has been called the most poetical piece, being rich in illustration, as well as graceful and picturesque. There is less satire in it than in the other pieces. But taken as a whole, the stinging satire is the most telling feature of the whole series of Poems. The sketches of the fox-hunting clergyman and of the travelling youth in the "Progress of Error," of "the ancient prude" in "Truth," of the proser in "Conversation," and, best of all, of Sir Smug in "Hope" are wonderfully pointed and vigorous. The force and severity, joined to good humour and freedom from coarseness and offensiveness, have never been excelled unless by the lamented author of the "Book of Snobs." His language is always well chosen, always the handmaid of the sense. Sometimes he bursts out into impassioned earnestness, as in "Expostulation," and at the end of "Hope." But he falls back into placid smoothness. To use his own simile, he always rides Pegasus with a curb. His rhymes are very frequently indeed inexact, more so than those of any English poet. [footnote: see note on Early Poems.] It would be hard to find a page without a false rhyme or a prosaic line. He intended to produce variety, but when we find him expressing his belief that he has removed all inaccuracies, we can only say that his ear was at fault.
Such was his first volume. It appeared in March 1782; its price was 3s. He sent copies to a few only of his friends. Among them were the Chancellor and Colman, now manager of the Haymarket theatre. The copy to Thurlow was accompanied by the following letter:--
- MY LORD,--I make no apology for what I account a duty; I should offend against the cordiality of our former friendship should I send a volume into the world, and forget how much I am bound to pay my particular respects to your Lordship upon that occasion. When we parted you little thought of hearing from me again; and I as little that I should live to write you, still less that I should wait on you in the capacity of an author.
- Among the pieces I have the honour to send, there is one for which I must entreat your pardon. I mean that of which your Lordship is the subject. The best excuse I can make is, that it flowed almost spontaneously from the affectionate remembrance of a connexion that did me so much honour.
- As to the rest, their merits, if they have any, and their defects, which are probably more than I am aware of, will neither of them escape your notice. But where there is much discernment, there is generally much candour; and I commit myself into your Lordship's hands, with the less anxiety, being well acquainted with yours.
- If my first visit, after so long an interval should prove neither a troublesome nor a dull one, but especially if not altogether an unprofitable one, omne tuli punctum.
- I have the honour to be, though with very different impressions of some subjects, yet with the same sentiments of affection and esteem as ever, your Lordship's faithful and most obedient, humble servant,
Neither Thurlow nor Colman acknowledged the gift; and Hill, who of course was much with Thurlow, and had mentioned Cowper's name to him, never heard a word from him on this subject. Colman, too, on publishing his translation of the Ars Poetica soon after, hurt Cowper's feelings by not sending him a copy. Some months after, the poor Poet, who had hitherto hoped against hope, gave vent to his wounded feelings in his indignant "Valediction."
Striving to be unconcerned, he now watched to see his volume running the gauntlet of the critics. The Critical Review immediately fell foul of the volume. Southey has disinterred and gibbeted the article, which is evidently the work of some pert and ignorant youth--"nothing more nor less than a pompous noodle," as Thackeray said of one of his critics. A few excerpts will suffice:--"Not possessed of any abilities or power of genius;" "weak and languid verses;" "neither novelty, spirit, or animation;" "flat and tedious;" "no better than a dull sermon;" "very indifferent verse;" "coarse, vulgar, and unpoetical." Other magazines, the Gentleman's and the London, spoke in approbation; and Dr. Benjamin Franklin delighted the Poet by writing to Mr. Thornton, who sent him the volume, a discriminating and highly favourable opinion. The Monthly, the chief of the reviews, delayed a long time, but at length spoke in praise. But though the critics admitted him as a poet, they could not make him a popular one. People apparently made up their minds that he was a very good sort of a man, who wrote nice verses on the Evangelical side, and troubled themselves no more about him. The volume did not sell. Another lady became the means of making him popular.
Lady Austen was the widow of a baronet, and sister-in-law of a clergyman named Jones, residing at Clifton, near Olney, with whom Cowper had a slight acquaintance. In the summer of 1781, whilst he was preparing his first volume for press, Cowper saw the two sisters shopping in the street at Olney. He was so struck with Lady Austen's appearance that he persuaded Mrs. Unwin to invite them to tea. They came; then he was so shy that Mrs. Unwin had difficulty in bringing him to meet them. But as soon as they met all reserve vanished, and they were "like old friends together." Lady Austen and he soon came to address each other as "William" and "Sister Ann." For a while all went delightfully. She was lively and full of anecdote, and sang and played well; and she was pleased with him, the well-bred, interesting, thoughtful man. The party dined, walked, pic-nicked together constantly, and Lady Austen announced her intention of taking a house at Olney, as the lease of her town house was nearly out. When she returned to town in October, both Cowper and Mrs. Unwin felt the blank. The "Poetical Epistle" at p. 337 was addressed to her during this absence, and may be read with interest here. It will be seen that he anticipated great results from the new acquaintance, though what they are to be does not exactly appear. It was written in December 1781, yet in the following February a fracas had taken place which nearly brought the acquaintance to an end. The circumstances are unknown, the only account being contained in a letter from Cowper to Unwin. "The lady, in her correspondence," he says, "expressed a sort of romantic idea of our merits, and built such expectations of felicity upon our friendship, as we were sure that nothing human can possibly answer, and I wrote to her not to think more lightly of us than the subject would warrant; and intimating that when we embellish a creature with colours taken from our own fancy, and so adorned, admire and praise it beyond its real merits, we make it an idol, and have nothing to expect in the end but that it will deceive our hopes, and that we shall derive nothing from it but a painful conviction of our error. Your mother heard me read the letter; she read it herself, and honoured it with her warm approbation. But it gave mortal offence. It received, indeed, an answer, but such a one as I could no means reply to." What are we to make of all this? Had Lady Austen fallen in love with him, and been repelled in this letter of his at Mrs. Unwin's instigation? Or was Mrs. Unwin jealous without cause? If so, no wonder that Lady Austen was angry. Probability, considering events which followed, inclines to the former view. That it was a quarrel between the ladies especially, appears from an expression of Hayley, who had seen the correspondence. He calls it "a trifling feminine discord."
Meanwhile Cowper might with advantage have learned from this, that two persons who are not brother and sister had better not call themselves so. However, the breath [sic] was soon healed. She sent him some worked ruffles as a present, got a civil message in return, and soon afterwards they met. After a few minutes' awkwardness they were all as friendly as ever. Before long she had taken up her residence in the vicarage at Olney. And now began the most sunny period in Cowper's life. His letters are full of fun and frolic, and comparatively free from melancholy. The trio were constantly together, engaged in quiet amusements, "Lady Austen playing on the harpsichord," as he says in one letter, "Mrs. Unwin and himself playing battledore and shuttlecock, and the little dog under the chair howling to admiration." "In the morning," says another letter, "I walk with one or other of the ladies, and in the afternoon wind thread. Thus did Hercules, and thus probably did Samson, and thus do I."
When low spirits overtook him, Lady Austen's sprightliness was generally able to exorcise them. One afternoon when he was in this condition, she told him the story of John Gilpin. He lay awake half the night convulsed with laughter, and by the next morning had turned it into a ballad. It was sent to Unwin, who sent it on to the Public Advertiser, where it appeared anonymously. It attracted no special notice, until three years afterwards it came under the eye of Richard Sharp--"Conversation Sharp" as he was commonly known to the literary society of the period. He showed it to Henderson, a first-class actor of the time, who was then giving public readings at Freemason's Hall. He read "John Gilpin," and electrified the audience, Mrs. Siddons among them. The ballad was reprinted again and again, and the famous horseman was seen in all the printshops. Some other smaller pieces were owing to Lady Austen, being written for her to sing. But they were trifles indeed compared with the poem which placed him in the first place among the authors of his time, namely, "THE TASK."
Lady Austen had often begged him to try his hand at blank verse. "I will," he answered one day, "if you will give me a subject." "Oh, you can write upon any subject," said she: "write upon this Sofa." And so he began; hence the great poem, and hence its title. It was begun in the summer of 1783, and completed in about twelve months. But before it was finished another breach had taken place between him and Lady Austen, and this time it was final. Of this separation we have notices from two hands--very slight, it is true, but pointing to a definite conclusion. The first is Cowper's. In a letter to Unwin, dated July 12, 1784, after discussing other topics, he writes:
"You are going to Bristol. A lady, not long since our near neighbor, is probably there; she was there very lately. If you should chance to fall into her company, remember, if you please, that we found the connexion on some accounts an inconvenient one; that we do not wish to renew it; and conduct yourself accordingly. A character with which we spend all our time should be made on purpose for us; too much or too little of any ingredient spoils all. In the instance in question, the dissimilitude was too great not to be felt continually, and consequently made our intercourse unpleasant. We have reason, however, to believe that she has given up all thoughts of a return to Olney."
And eighteen months after, he writes to Lady Hesketh as follows:--
"There came a lady into this country, by name and title Lady Austen, the widow of the late Sir Robert Austen. At first she lived with her sister, about a mile from Olney; but in a few weeks took lodgings at the vicarage here. Between the vicarage and the back of our house are interposed our garden, an orchard, and the garden belonging to the vicarage. She had lived much in France, was very sensible, and had infinite vivacity. She took a great liking to us, and we to her. She had been used to a great deal of company, and we fearing that she would find such a transition into silent retirement irksome, contrived to give her our agreeable company often. Becoming continually more and more intimate, a practice obtained at length of our dining with each other alternately every day, Sundays excepted. In order to facilitate our communication, we made doors in the two garden walls abovesaid, by which means we considerably shortened the way from one house to the other, and could meet when we pleased without entering the town at all; a measure the rather expedient, because the town is abominably dirty, and she kept no carriage. On her first settlement in our neighbourhood, I made it my own particular business (for at that time I was not employed in writing, having published my first volume and not begun my second) to pay my devoirs to her ladyship every morning at eleven. Customs very soon become laws. I began The Task; for she was the lady who gave me the Sofa for a subject. Being once engaged in the work, I began to feel the inconvenience of my morning attendance. We had seldom breakfasted ourselves till ten; and the intervening hour was all the time that I could find in the whole day for writing, and occasionally it would happen that the half of that hour was all that I could secure for the purpose. But there was no remedy. Long usage had made that which was at first optional a point of good manners, and consequently of necessity, and I was forced to neglect The Task, to attend upon the Muse who had inspired the subject. But she had ill health, and before I had quite finished the work was obliged to repair to Bristol. Thus, as I told you, my dear, the cause of the many interruptions that I mentioned was removed, and now, except the Bull that I spoke of [Mr. Bull], we seldom have any company at all. After all that I have said upon this matter, you will not completely understand me, perhaps, unless I account for the remainder of the day. I will add, therefore, that having paid my morning visit, I walked; returning from my walk, I dressed: we then met and dined, and parted not till between ten and eleven at night."
This is Cowper's account of the fracas. The other is by Hayley, and shall be given at full length.
"The year 1784 was a memorable period in the life of the poet, not only as it witnessed the completion of one extensive performance, and the commencement of another (his translation of Homer), but as it terminated his intercourse with that highly pleasing and valuable friend, whose alacrity of attention and advice had induced him to engage in both.
"Delightful and advantageous as his friendship with Lady Austen had proved, he now began to feel that it grew impossible to preserve that triple cord, which his own pure heart had led him to suppose not speedily to be broken. Mrs. Unwin, though by no means destitute of mental accomplishments, was eclipsed by the brilliancy of the Poet's new friend, and naturally became uneasy under the apprehension of being so; for to a woman of sensibility, what evil can be more afflicting than the fear of losing all mental influence over a man of genius and virtue, whom she has been long accustomed to inspirit and to guide?
"Cowper perceived the painful necessity of sacrificing a great portion of his present gratifications. He felt that he must relinquish that ancient friend, whom he regarded as a venerable parent; or the new associate, whom he idolised as a sister, of a heart and mind peculiarly congenial to his own. His gratitude for past services of unexampled magnitude and weight would not allow him to hesitate; with a resolution and delicacy, that do the highest honour to his feelings, he wrote a farewell letter to Lady Austen, explaining and lamenting the circumstances that forced him to renounce the society of a friend, whose enchanting talents and kindness had proved so agreeably instrumental to the revival of his spirits, and to the exercise of his fancy.
"In those very interesting conferences with which I was honoured by Lady Austen, I was irresistibly led to express an anxious desire for the sight of a letter written by Cowper in a situation that must have called forth all the finest powers of his eloquence as a monitor and a friend. The lady confirmed me in my opinion, that a more admirable letter could not be written; and had it existed at that time, I am persuaded, from her noble frankness and zeal for the honour of the departed poet, she would have given me a copy; but she ingenuously confessed that in a moment of natural mortification she burnt this tender, yet resolute letter. I mention the circumstance, because a literary correspondent, whom I have great reason to esteem, has recently expressed to me a wish (which may perhaps be general) that I could introduce into this compilation the letter in question. Had it been confided to my care, I am persuaded I should have thought it very proper for publication, as it displayed both the tenderness and the magnanimity of Cowper; nor could I have deemed it a want of delicacy towards the memory of Lady Austen to exhibit a proof that, animated by the warmest admiration of the great poet, whose fancy she could so successfully call forth, she was willing to devote her life and fortune to her life and fortune to his service and protection. The sentiment is to be regarded as honourable to the lady; it is still more honourable to the Poet, that with such feelings, as rendered him perfectly sensible of all Lady Austen's fascinating powers, he could return her tenderness with innocent gallantry, and yet resolutely preclude himself from her society, when he could no longer enjoy it without appearing deficient in gratitude towards the compassionate and generous guardian of his sequestered life. No person can justly blame Mrs. Unwin for feeling apprehensive that Cowper's intimacy with a lady of such extraordinary talents might lead him into perplexities, of which he was by no means aware. This remark was suggested by a few elegant and tender verses, addressed by the Poet to Lady Austen, and shown to me by that lady.
"Those who were acquainted with the unsuspecting innocence and sportive gaiety of Cowper, would readily allow, if they had seen the verses to which I allude, that they are such as he might have addressed to a real sister; but a lady only called by that endearing name may be easily pardoned, if she was induced by them to hope that they might possibly be a prelude to a still dearer alliance. To me they appeared expressive of that peculiarity in his character, a gay and tender gallantry, perfectly distinct from amorous attachment. If the lady, who was the subject of the verses, had given them to me with a permission to print them, I should have thought the Poet himself might have approved of their appearance, accompanied with such a commentary."
The endeavors to make everything pleasant all round are very characteristic of Hayley, and in this case ludicrous. He softens here and subdues there, and, where this is impossible, makes omissions which leave the matter almost unintelligible. But the substance of the whole apparently is that Lady Austen was in love with Cowper, and believed him to be so with her; that Mrs. Unwin was jealous, and that Cowper thereupon broke off the connexion. Then was Lady Austen's belief right, or had she misunderstood him? That she would gladly have married him is unquestionable, and I cannot doubt that a tender feeling towards her was growing up in his mind also, but that, as he looked back on the past and upon Mrs. Unwin's kindness and tenderness (although his intended marriage with her was probably quite abandoned by this time), he felt that it would be ungrateful on his part to forsake her for another. That he should write of Lady Austen, as we have seen, with something like asperity, is easily intelligible, especially when we remember that his letters were only intended for the sight of William Unwin.
The "elegant and tender verses" of which Hayley speaks are printed for the first time in the present volume; and one is constrained to say that a woman who was not an actual sister could only put one interpretation upon them. And if they were not intended to bear this interpretation upon them. And if they were not intended to bear this interpretation, they seem to me to be a thoughtless sporting with a woman's peace.
The loss of Lady Austen's friendship was a serious one for him. [footnote: Lady Austen afterwards married a Frenchman, M. de Tardiff. She died in 1802, whilst Hayley's first volume was going through the press.] He had need of such friends. Melancholy was increasing upon him again, and this breach seems to have deepened it greatly. "When I was writing 'The Task'" he said afterwards, "I was often supremely unhappy." And in a letter written at the time he said, "The grinners at 'John Gilpin' little think what its writer sometimes suffers. How I hated myself last night for having written it!"
It is greievous to read the quiet matter-of-fact way in which he puts aside all attempts at consolation. "Your arguments [against his belief in his final perdition] are quite reasonable," he says quietly to Newton, "but the event will prove them false." And in the same way he treated Mrs. Unwin's reasonings. Sometimes he would make her no answer, at others would sharply tell her she was wrong. "It was no use reasoning in this case," he said; "reasoning might say one thing, but fact said another." And all this while his letters are expressed as vigourously and strongly as ever, his humour and clearness of thinking are as unclouded. His madness has such method in it that his destruction is clear before his eyes; he contemplates it ab extra as if he were looking at the ruin of a building, or a falling tree. "You will think me mad," he says, in one most gloomy letter; "but I am not mad, most noble Festus, I am only in despair."
Meanwhile he had made fresh acquaintances, not without influence on his life. Bull we have already mentioned. Before "The Task" was begun he had given Cowper the Poems of Madame Guyon, that he might amuse himself in his sad hours with translating them. He did it in a month, copying them into a "Lilliputian book," as he called it, and then gave the little volume to his friend. Bull some time after suggested that he should publish them, and he consented, but the idea was not carried out during his lifetime.
Another acquaintance, made about the time of the separation from Lady Austen, was with the Throckmortons. They lived at Weston Underwood, a village about two miles from Olney. Cowper had always been allowed a key of their park, but no intercourse had taken place with the family, who were Roman Catholics. The possessor dying in 1782, a younger brother came to live at Weston, [footnote: John Throckmorton: he was the son of Sir Robert, who was 84 years old, living in Oxfordshire. The old baronet lived till 1791, and Cowper's friend then succeeded to the title.] and Cowper sent his card and asked for a continuance of the favour, which was readily granted. The Throckmortons had been grossly affronted on account of their religion by some of their neighbours, and were naturally shy of seeking acquaintance. However, in May 1784, they invited Cowper and Mrs. Unwin to see an attempt to send up a balloon from Weston. [footnote: Balloons were all the rage just then. Montgolfier made his in 1783. The first aeronaut in England, Lunardi, ascended from Moorfields, September 15, 1784.] The gentle, refined poet found himself the object of his host's special attention, and acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy. From this time the Throckmortons appear among his correspondents--he addresses them as "Mr. and Mrs. Frog"--and several of his smaller poems relate to incidents connected with them.
We have seen how Cowper, on the publication of his first volume, concealed his intention from his friend Unwin. He acted in the same way with Newton on the publication of his second. Though in constant correspondence with him he avoided even a hint. He sent the volume to Unwin, desiring him to offer it to his former publisher Johnson; if he should refuse, or stroke his chin and look up to the ceiling and cry "Humph!" then to take it to Longman, or to Nichols, the printer of the Gentleman's Magazine. However, Johnson spared Unwin any further trouble, for he accepted it directly. At length [footnote: October 30, 1784] Cowper announced the volume to Newton. He did so in a constrained manner, betraying his feeling that his friend had some ground of complaint. Newton had evidently lost considerable hold of his affections. His letters to him are colder, and he makes no allusion to him in his manifold letters to Unwin at this period. The day following his announcement to Newton, Cowper writes to Unwin: "I wrote to Mr. Newton by the last post to tell him I was gone to press again. He will be surprised, and perhaps not pleased. But I think he cannot complain, for he keeps his own authorly secrets without participating them with me."
Newton was evidently much mortified, though he wrote back a kind answer. He asked to see the proof-sheets, but Cowper, "for many reasons," as he told Unwin, refused them. [footnote: November 29] He sent him, however, a title, list of headings, and specimen extract. [footnote: Lines 729-817 of "The Winter Walk at Noon"] Newton sent back a carping criticism, objecting to title, headings, metre, and phraseology. And Cowper returned answer, verbally civil, but steeped in irony. [December 13 and 24, 1784.]
His publisher, as before, wanted more matter to make up the volume. Cowper accordingly completed "Tirocinium," which he had begun two years previously and laid aside. He also wrote the Epistle to Hill, partly with the hope of giving him an agreeable surprise, partly from the feeling that, having mentioned by name several of his friends, it would be unjustifiable to omit one whose conduct towards him had been so helpful and generous. [footnote: Letter to Hill, Oct. 11, 1785.] It was written at a single sitting. He then proposed to add "John Gilpin." Johnson doubted, and Cowper left it to his judgment, but it was eventually resolved to put it in. THey thought, and rightly, that a poem which had become so famous (for it was while "The Task" was in the press that Henderson made the hit with it that has been previously described), and of which the author's name had not yet transpired, would stimulate curiosity and recommend the volume. It was therefore not only inserted, but put in the title. Besides, Cowper was desirous of showing that, though he wrote seriously, he could be sometimes merry. Above all, it would refute the Critical reviewer, who had charged him with a vain attempt at humour.
The new volume was published in June 1785, and public opinion immediately placed its author at the head of the poets of the age. The first volume had sold so slowly, that it was judged desirable to make no mention of it in the new title-page; but an advertisement of the previous volume, with table of contents, was inserted at the end. People were attracted to the new book solely by the name of "John Gilpin," eager to see the other works of one who had made such a sensation. They were astonished to find a volume of serious poetry, but not the less delightful. When once opened, "The Task" needed no other recommendation, and more than that, it led them to seek out the previously neglected volume. The success was triumphant; a new edition was called for, and next year the two volumes were published together.
The great beauties of "The Task," and its pure and elevated feeling, can hardly be said to make it a poem of the highest class. The very method of its origin was some bar to success. The author began it without a definite purpose; in fact, changed his views as he went along, for he began it to please Lady Austen, and continued in such a way as to please Mrs. Unwin. [footnote: see lines 1006-1011] The graceful address to Mrs. Unwin in the First Book, lines 144-162, may very probably have been inserted as a compliment, to wipe away any unpleasantness after the rupture with Lady Austen, but, on the other hand, it is not impossible that the author's leaving "The Sofa" for other subjects may synchronize with the breach. It is curious to mark his mode of transition. He hopes he shall never have to lie on the sofa through gout, because he likes walking. When he walks, he sees rural scenes. And thereupon he goes off into rural scenes, and the Sofa is quite done with and forgotten. Of course it is the scenery of Olney which occupies him wholly, and the description of his walks is as beautiful as any poetry can make it. Towards the end of the First Book he again changes his subject, for the purpose of moralizing. The country and the life therein are contrasted with the town, and this affords the opening for satire, which is just touched in the end of the First Book, but forms the staple of the Second. And splendid satire it is, full of vigour, and energy, and point, sometimes mere good-humoured badinage, sometimes full of burning indignation. It is satire of a different kind from that of his former poems; it is less bilious, more free from personality. Yet, Antæus-like, the author loses all his power when he ceases to touch his proper sphere. His faculty of keen observation enables him to lash effectively the false pretensions and follies which he sees. But his reflections upon the world without are of the poorest kind. He forsees the end of the world close at hand. He rails at the natural philosopher who attempts to discover the causes of physical calamities, such as earthquakes and diseases; at the historian who takes the trouble to investigate the motives of remarkable men; at the geologist and the astronomer. For the last especially there is nothing but contempt. It would be hard to find a more foolish and mischievous piece of rant than that contained in "The Garden," lines 150-190. But no man ought to sit in judgment as he has done who lives in retirement. We have already spoken of his censoriousness. It came from his want of knowledge of men. The hard and revolting view of religion which he took from his theological friends was not corrected by any experience of those at whom he railed. His indiscriminate abuse of pursuits that did not interest him might just as fairly be applied to his own; fiddling or chess-playing, to say nothing of natural history studies, need not be less innocent than growing cucumbers or making rabbit-hutches. It is strange that he did not see that his vaunted method of securing peace of mind failed in his own case. He mocked at the folly of others for seeking happiness in other pursuits than the simple ones in which he was engaged, and yet he was "supremely unhappy" the whole time. A more charitable method, if he had been taught it, might have wrought a happy change upon him.
It is not until we come to the Third Book, "The Garden," that the plan of the peom becomes definite. As the author expresses it, he has been winding
- ...now this way, and now that,
- His devious course uncertain."
Now, however, he settles quietly down to his subject of domestic happiness. Many flit to and from in vain quest of happiness; he lives at home engaged in simple occupations. And here we come to one of the chief excellencies of the volume, that which was lacking in the first volume, and which now had the chief part in winning popularity. "The Task" is all about himself. He takes you into his confidence, and his artless blank verse seems more like a flowing and melodious conversation with some dear friend than a service of the Muses. His religious thoughts and meditations, his friends, his ill-health, his walks, his tame hares, he tells you all about them in a simple straightforward way, as though he were quiet aware that he is able to interest you in every one of them. There is not a piece of description anywhere ibn which he himself is not in the foreground of the landscape, though he never seems intrusive or egotistical. There are some fine pieces of description in "The Garden," and the satire upon the gaieties and extravagances of London life is pungent and well-deserved. But his attempt to make poetry out of minute directions for the raising of a cucumber is not very successful.
"The Winter Evening" is delightful throughout; the interest never flags at all. It is the best of his poems. The description of the old postman, of the approach of evening, of the Poet's "brown study," of the suffering poor, are all perfect. "The Winter Morning Walk," too, begins with pictures equally good,--the slanting winter sun, the feeding of the cattle, the woodman toiling through the snow, with "pipe in mouth and dog at heels." But the greater part of this poem is occupied with a disquisition on Liberty, which the author brings in oddly. The icicles remind him of the Russian ice-palace, which leads on to the amusements of monarchs, and these to a discussion on monarchy in general, which affords the poet an opportunity of stating his moderate Whig views.
Though necessarily traversing the same subjects as Thomson, and writing in the same metre, Cowper is not at all like him. Thomson is sometimes sublime. But he knows less of his subject than Cowper, and is often vague, indistinct, and untrue. Cowper never is. Every picture is clear and minute. As he says in one of his letters, he describes only what he sees, and takes nothing at second-hand. As he had never seen a mountain or a lake in his life, never listened to the roar of a torrent, nor slept at sea, nor visited at foreign country, and knew next to nothing of his own, it is not to be wondered at that he was wedded to his own haunts as closely as a snail to its shell, and not a trait of beauty escaped his notice. Ignorance of any other language is said to give a great reader unusual command of his own; and Cowper's case was like this. Grand scenery would have weakened his powers; he was not physically capable of enjoying it. Bodily and mental powers alike were best suited by the Buckinghamshire lanes and pastures. One may know what Olney scenery is like by "The Task" better than by a set of photographs. [footnote: It has been said, I forget by whom, that "he is to Buckinghamshire what Cuyp is to Holland."] Nor is this minuteness the work of a mere close observer; he observes as an artist. The description of the flowers in "The Garden," lines 560-595, is very pretty and natural; but that in "The Winter Walk at Noon," lines 141-180, is far more than this. The author is not there describing what is before him, but his imagination sees the flowers as they well be in the coming summer, and the group of colours is as rich and warm as ever was painted by artist. Towards the end of the poem he aims at a higher flight than he has ever aimed at before, and foretells the final victory of the Kingdom of God (pp. 280-282). Herein he reaches, for the first and only time, sublimity.
One of the first results of the success of "The Task" was the renewal of intimacy between the Poet and his relations. He had said to Unwin at the time of publication, "I have had more comfort in the connexions that I have formed within the last twenty years, than in the more numerous ones that I had before. Memorandum, the latter are almost all Unwins or Unwinisms." Several causes had concurred to break off the intimacy between him and his relatives. Lady Hesketh had been repelled by the religious tone of his letters at Huntingdon, and although she retained an unwavering feeling of kindness towards him, she suffered the correspondence to drop when she left England with her husband in 1767. She was now a widow, Sir Thomas having died in 1782. Her father and General Cowper had continued their allowance to him with kindly feeling enough, but with pity, as for one who was useless in the world. He did not send any of them his first volume. But "The Task" and "John Gilpin" soon found its way to them, and Cowper was nearly wild with delight when, on coming down to breakfast one morning, he found a letter in the well-remembered hand of Lady Hesketh, franked by his uncle Ashley. It broke a silence of nineteen years. Her letter is not in existence; scarcely any addressed to Cowper are. In his answer he declares that she has made them all young again, and brought back their happy days as freshly as ever. But he rejoices in her letter most of all because it gives him an opportunity of telling her that neither years nor interrupted intercourse have abated his affection for her. He does not mention Theodora, but says that any father is happy who has three such daughters as his uncle has. [footnote: October 12, 1785.]
The correspondence thus begun was continued busily. Lady Hesketh soon inquired into his money matters, and offered him assistance. He replied with frankness. He had always been poor, he said, but Mrs. Unwin, whose income had been double his, had shared alike with him. But latterly her income had become reduced, and they had been obliged to forego some of their wonted comforts. He therefore freely accepted her proffered kindness. "I know you thoroughly, and have that consummate confidence in the sincerety of your wish to serve me, that delivers me from all awkward restraint, and from all fear of trespassing by acceptance. To you, therefore, I reply, yes. Whensoever, and whatsoever, and in what manner soever you please; and add, moreover, that my affedction for the giver is such as will increase to tenfold the satisfaction that I shall have in receiving. . . . . . Strain no points to your own inconvenience or hurt, for there is no need of it, but indulge yourself in communicating (no matter what) that you can spare without missing it." [footnote: November 9, 1785] How liberally she responded to this will presently appear; and she gave him additional pleasure by causing him to renew his correspondence with the General.
Very soon he entrusts to her "a great secret, so great that she must not even whisper it to her cat." He is engaged in translating Homer, and has done twenty-one books of the Iliad.
He had always been fond of Homer. In the Temple he had gone all through it with Pope's translation, and had been thoroughly dissatisfied, discovering, as he said, that there was nothing in the world of which Pope was so destitute as a taste for Homer. Homer and a Clavis were the only Greek books he had kept since. Three or four days after finishing "Tirocinium," [footnote: November 12, 1784] whilst suffering from an insupportable attack of melancholy, he took up the "Iliad" as a diversion. With no other thought than this he translated the first twelve lines, and on the next attack did some more. Finding the work pleasant, he soon took it up as a regular employment, and worked at it assiduously. He had been engaged just twelve months with it when he made the announcement to Lady Hesketh. He soon after removed his injunction of secresy, and asked her to get him subscribers. He also communicated his design to Newton, not without apprehension of objections, but determined not to heed them if any came. However, Newton approved. Cowper, moreover, inserted a long letter, signed "Alethes," in the Gentleman's Magazine, pulling Pope's translation to pieces, and maintaining that a translation ought to be in blank verse, because otherwise the translator must be coninually obliged to depart from the meaning of the original in order to bring in his rhymes. He ended by saying, that while Homer is grand and sublime, Pope is only stiff and pompous, and that while scholars delight in the original, English readers have found the translation turgid, wearisome, and intolerable.
Having thus prepared the way for himself he wrote to his publisher, announcing his intention of publishing by subscription. Johnson endeavored to dissuade him from this, adding that he would make him liberal offers. But Cowper held to his purpose, finding that friends to whom he began to communicate his design entered into it warmly. One of these was the Rev. Walter Bagot, and old schoolfellow, whom he had scarcely seen since leaving Westminster, but who had recently taken an opportunity of renewing the acquaintance. He now sent him £20 beforehand, and asked for a parcel of the subscription papers. At the same time a correspondence was renewed with his old friends Colman and Thurlow. His angry feelings had passed away after writing the "Valediction," and he seized at a kind expression of Colman's repeated to him by Hill to write him a warm and affectionate letter, which received a like response.
Colman proved useful at this moment. He had won much credit by his translation of Terence, and his criticism was therefore valuable. His encouraging remarks on the speciment which Cowper sent him comforted him for many of a contrary kind which he had received. Another favourable judge, for a long time unknown to him, proved to be the painter Fuseli, to whom Johnson had shown a portion.
And now, for a while, his peace of mind in great measure returned to him. In a letter to his cousin, written in January 1786, after giving an account of his late malady, he adds: "Methinks I hear you ask--your affection for me will, I know, make you wish to do so,--Is it quite removed? I reply, In great measure, but not quite. Occasionally I am much distressed, but that distress becomes continually less frequent, and I think less violent. I find writing, and especially poetry, my best remedy. Perhaps, had I understood music, I had never written verse, but had lived on fiddle strings instead. It is better, however, as it is." And here again: "He who hath preseved me hitherto, will still preserve me. All the dangers that I have escaped are so many pillars of remembrance, to which I shall hereafter look back with comfort. . . My life has been a life of wonders for many years, and a life of wonders I believe in my heart it will be to the end. Wonders I have seen in the great deep, and wonders I shall see in the paths of mercy also." [footnote: January 28, 1786]
Yet this was the time that Newton thought that he was growing worldly, and thought proper to warn him about renewing his intercourse with his family! Cowper answered him with warmth, not to say bitterness. The following words are significant: "I could show you among them two men, whose lives, though they have but little of what we call evangelical light, are ornaments to a Christian country--men who fear God more than some who profess to love Him."
In the spring of this year Lady Hesketh wrote, proposing to visit him in June. His delight knew no bounds; he could talk, write, think of nothing else: "June," he said, "was never so wished for before since June was made." And at the same time he received an anonymous letter, beseeching him not to overstrain his powers, nor be distressed if Homer did not sell to his expectations, and announcing the intention of sending him £50 a year. He poured out his feelings in a letter to Lady Hesketh. He had spent hours and hours examining the handwriting. First he thought it hers; then he was confident, from the method of underscoring, and the forms of the letters, that it was her father's disguised. The writer has never been made known. Lady Hesketh knew, and she seems to have told him that it was neither she nor her father. He responded gratefully and touchingly, and added that he would not attempt further to penetrate the secret. Though he made pretence to talk of his benefactor as he, he must have felt sure, as every one else must, that it was Theodora, faithful to her young love. All this will explain the following extract from a letter to Unwin, dated "Olney, July 10, 1786:"--
"Within this twelvemonth my income has received an addition of a clear £100 per annum. For a considerable part of it I am indebted to my dear cousin now on the other side of the Orchard. At Florence she obtained me £20 a year from Lord Cowper; since he came home she has recommended me with such good effect to his notice that he has added twenty more; twenty she has added herself, and ten she has procured me from the William of my name whom you saw at Hertingfordbury. From my anonymous friend who insists on not being known or guessed at, and never shall by me, I have an annuity of £50. All these sums have accrued within this year, except the first, making together, as you perceive, an exact century of pounds annually poured into the replenished purse of your once poor poet of Olney."
The "dear cousin" is, of course, Lady Hesketh. She had come in June, according to appointment, and taken lodgings at the vicarage, now occupied by a bachelor, who only wanted two rooms. The first meeting was too much for Cowper, and he fell into an alarming fit of melancholy. But it did not last, and they were soon all happy together. She was pleased with Mrs. Unwin, and it is to this period that her letters to her sister belong. He wrote to Hill that he was happier than he had ever been since he had come to Olney. He even wrote cheerfully to Newton, once or twice; but as time went on his brighter hopes faded, and he again spoke of himself as vainly seeking communion with God. He had hoped, he said, that he was coming out of the Red Sea, and was preparing to sing the song of Moses, but the comfort had once more been wrested from him. Still, he was hopeful that it might yet come, and embraced every promise of it with alacrity. Especially he took hold of a thought which Lady Hesketh's liveliness inspired,--Olney was dull! The floods and the mud kept him a prisoner; both he and Mrs. Unwin were feeling the want of exercise tell upon their health and spirits,--their house was not very convenient, and it was tumbling down, and Lady Hesketh urged them to change. A house at Weston Underwood, belonging to Mr. Throckmorton, was vacant; there would be pleasant society in their friends; the house was offered to them on very liberal terms, and Lady Hesketh furnished the means of removal. In November 1786 they left Olney, after a residence of nineteen years.
Will it be believed that Newton again interfered in a most intolerable manner, accusing him of deviating into forbidden paths, and leading a life so unbecoming the Gospel as to grieve his London friends and amaze the people of Olney? He doubted more than ever, he said, whether he would ever be restored to Christian privileges again, and added that there was still intercourse between London and Olney, and that he should be sure to hear of any fresh evil doings. The sins which called forth this solemn warning were that he was, of course, more intimate with the Throckmortons, and that he sometimes even took a walk with Lady Hesketh, or by himself, on Sunday evenings. [footnote: Cowper to Unwin, September 24, 1786.] It is only fair to Newton to suppose that some slanderous tongue had spread false reports; but he might at least have inquired before writing. Even Mr. Bull thinks that in this he "might have been a little precipitate." [footnote: Memorials, p. 285]
They had only been a fortnight at Weston when a sore trial fell upon them. William Unwin, while on a tour through the southern counties with Henry Thornton, the son of their kind friend, sickened and died of typhus fever at Winchester. Of all Cowper's friends he had been the dearest. Of all the affectionate letters which Cowper wrote, those to Unwin are the most affectionate. He deserved to be loved. From the day that they met under the trees at Huntingdon, his affection had never known change. He is buried in the south aisle of Winchester Cathedral.
Cowper's grief was great, not only for his own loss, but for the mother, the widow, and the orphans. But he was perfectly assured of his friend's gain, and the habitual composure of Mrs. Unwin also taught him to control his sorrow. His letters to his cousin, after the first outburst of sorrow, were as playful as ever, and he worked at Homer with unabated zeal. But the clouds were gathering again. A month later he had "had a little nervous feeling lately." In two months he had only done thirty lines of Homer. He fought had against his terror, as his letters show, but in vain; and for a while--from January to June 1787--he was again in a terrible state. He again attempted self-destruction, and very nearly succeeded. He would see no one, nor have any one near him but Mrs. Unwin. He recovered almost suddenly, and immediately resumed his correspondence. His first letter was to a new friend, from that time onward a regular and valued one. This was Samuel Rose, a young man of twenty, who, being on his way from Glasgow University to London, turned aside to Olney, partly to gratify his curiosity, partly to bring him the thanks of some Scotch professors. This was on the very eve of his mental attack. On his recovery, Cowper hastened to acknowledge the attention. This visit is noteworthy, because Rose took occasion of it to present him with the Poems of Burns. When he wrote to Rose he had read them all twice, and though the Scotch tongue had been somewhat troublesome to him, he was satisfied that the work was "a very extraordinary production." [footnote: July 24, 1787.] Rose was invited to Weston, and the more Cowper saw of him the better he liked him, and the feeling was entirely reciprocated, as is shown by Rose's own letters to his sister, still in existence. He proved very useful, for he was never better pleased than in transcribing the translation of Homer from Cowper's rough copy. Cowper's mind seemed now at ease again. He still suffered a good deal from headache and giddiness, [footnote: "The jarrings make my skull feel like a broken egg-shell. . . . I have a perpetual din in my head, and though I am not deaf, hear nothing aright, neither my own voice, nor that of others. I am under a tub, from which tub accept my best love.--Yours, W.C."--To Lady Hesketh, Sept. 29. 1787.] but was in great hopes of ultimate recovery. He stood godfather to one of Rose's children, who was accordingly christened "William Cowper." Another point which was noticed by Lady Hesketh was that he said grace at his dinner. In his darkest moods he used, while grace was being said, to play with his knife and fork ostentatiously, as proving that he had no part nor lot in worshipping God. Mr. Throckmorton gave him the run of his library, and seeing, as he often said, that he had no books of his own, [footnote: He says in one letter that he has bought a Latin dictionary, and now perhaps, will buy more Latin books to make it useful, for that at present he has only a Virgil.] this was a great benefaction. It is remarkable that the only letters of his at this time which are dark and sad are those to Newton. Though he esteemed him as highly as ever, many of his former illusions had been connected with him, and, conscious of that, Cowper always dreaded the time when friendship required him to write.
Lady Hesketh was to visit him in the spring of 1788, but the continued illness of her father, now eighty-six years old, forced her to put off the visit from time to time. In one of his letters to her Cowper enclosed a poem, which he entitled "Benefactions; a poem in Shenstone's manner. Addressed to my dearest Coz, April 14, 1788." This poem he afterwards altered into the form in which it will be found in p. 357 of this volume. But the two last stanzas as they stood originally, bearing so entirely on his present condition, ought not to be lost. They ran thus:--
- "These items endear my abode,
- Disposing me oft to reflect
- By whom they were kindly bestowed,
- Whom here I impatient expect.
- But hush! She a parent attends,
- Whose dial hand points to eleven,
- Who, oldest and dearest of friends,
- Waits only a passage to heaven.
- "Then willingly want her awhile,
- And, sweeping the cords of your lyre,
- The gloom of her absence beguile,
- As now, with poetical fire.
- 'Tis yours, for true glory athirst,
- In high-flying ditty to rise
- On feathers renown'd from the first
- For bearing a goose to the skies."
The old man died in the following June. The letters of consolation which Cowper wrote to Lady Hesketh are very beautiful. He says in one: "I often think what a joyful interview there has been between him and some of his contemporaries who went before him. The truth of the matter is, my dear, that they are the happy ones, and that we shall never be such ourselves until we have joined the party." It is sad after reading this to come upon a letter to Mr. Newton, written after a visit from him in the following August, marked by the old despair.
The beginning of 1790 found him still renewing old acquaintances and making fresh ones. This time it was his mother's relatives, of whom he had heard nothing since his childhood. John Johnson was the grandson of his mother's brother, Roger Donne, rector of Catfield, in Norfolk. He was a Cambridge undergraduate, who had written a poem, and brought it to his relative for his opinion. It was not very favourable, [footnote: Cowper's advice to him is worth repeating, whether sound or not: "Remember that in writing, perspicuity is always more than half the battle. The want of it is the ruin of more than half the poetry that is published. A meaning that does not stare you in the face is as bad as no meaning, because nobody will take the pains to poke for it."] but the youth still rejoiced in his visit, for Cowper's heart yearned towards him. He went back quite delighted, with an introduction to Lady Hesketh, and much Homer to transcribe. On telling his aunt, Mrs. Bodham, how Cowper had received him, and how warmly he had expressed his affection for her (for they had been playfellows as children), she sent him an affectionate letter, and with it a portrait of his mother. He acknowledged the gift in one of the most charming of his letters, and wrote upon it the beautiful elegy of which we have already spoken. We see in it how the memory of the touch of her vanished hand, of the sound of her stilled voice, almost gave him peace of mind. Had anything earthly been able to do so, it would have been the memory of his mother's love. But his desire was unto that which is eternal and immortal, and until this desire was fulfilled, even until mortality was swallowed up of life, darkness rested upon his soul. This poem will always testify, not only the earnestness of his love and the strength of his faith in God, but also the truth that--
- "Nor man, nor nature, satisfy whom only God created."
Another correspondent was Clotworthy Rowley, of Stoke-by-Nayland, with whom he had been intimate in the Temple, but whom he had not seen since. Rowley opened correspondence on the occasion of returning half a dozen books, which Cowper had lent him twenty-five years before. A Mrs. King also, wife of a friend of his brother, introduced herself on the strength of that, and was kindly received. Last, not least, Thurlow, whom Lady Hesketh had found means to reach, interested himself in the subscription to his Homer (August 1788), and they exchanged some letters on the relative merits of rhyme and blank verse. It is noticeable that Cowper, who wrote the first letter, begins "My Lord," and Thurlow with "Dear Cowper." But Cowper sticks to his original form of address.
Whilst engaged busily on Homer, he was constantly throwing off small pieces, as relaxations. Amongst them were the poems on the slave trade, [footnote: Pp. 363-365] which Lady Hesketh asked him to write. He also composed a few review articles. The poem on the Queen's visit to London (p. 370) was written at Lady Hesketh's request, she probably hoping that he would succeed Warton as Poet Laureate. But when the latter died in the following year Cowper begged her not to think of it. "He should never," he said, "write anything more worth reading if he were appointed." So the honour was not asked for, and Pye was appointed. [footnote: I cannot resist the temptation of laying a specimen of his productions before the reader:--
"AN ODE ON HER MAJESTY'S BIRTHDAY.
- "Britannia hail the blessed day,
- Ye smiling seasons sing the same,
- The birth of Albion's Queen proclaim,
- Great Cæsar's fame and regal sway,
- Ye gentle tides and gales convey
- To foreign lands, that sink with fear;
- While victories and laurels come
- To heighten joy and love at home:
- Can Heaven greater gifts confer?
- Can more success a monarch share?
- Ye songsters of the ærial tribe,
- Break forth in sweet melodious sounds;
- Ye flowery fields and fertile grounds,
- Rich treasures yield for Cæsar's bride.
- Ye autumns and ye winters sing,
- Due praise and honour to our king.
A I R.
- "The heavens to ease a monarch's care,
- Benignly gave Charlotte the fair;
- Who adds such lustre to the crown,
- Such strong alliance, great renown,
- By royal birth and noble mind,
- As claim no wonder from mankind,
- That so much worth and goodness prove,
- An object fit for Cæsar's love.
R E C I T A T I V O.
- "Britons, with heart-felt joy, with decent mirth,
- Hail now your Queen, hail now the day of birth;
- Send voice for blessings, send wishes to the sky,
- For peace, long life, and numerous progeny.
A I R.
- "See envy's self is fain to own
- Those virtues which adorn the throne;
- While home-bred faction droops her head,
- See liberty and justice spread
- Their happy influence around,
- The land where plenteous stores abound,
- Of wealth and grain, where arts and science
- To every nation bid defiance.
R E C I T A T I V O.
- "Fly hence, ye gloomy cares,
- For you here's no employ;
- Here sweetest ease appears,
- With real love and joy.
C H O R U S.
- "While George and Charlotte rule the land,
- Nor storms nor threats we'll fear,
- Their names our seas and coasts defend,
- And drive our foes afar;
- Each season, and each year, shall roll
- Their fame and power from pole to pole."]
The Homer was published in the summer of 1791. His illness and long-continued intervals of incapacity for work had occasioned the delay. Johnson took all expenses, and paid him £1,000, the copyright remaining Cowper's. It was published in two volumes, quarto, at three guineas. I do not feel competent to criticize it. It seems to me dreary and dull, but not more so than other translations of Homer. He was qualified by his scholarship, which Pope was not. The translation, therefore, is probably as accurate as any translation can be. But he had no sympathy for the wars and battles. Arthur Clough's commentary on it is, after all, the most exhaustive--"Where is the man who has ever read it?" His undertaking it at all seems to me one of the misfortunes arising from the breach with Lady Austen. She might have suggested something better than the wasting of five years in such profitless labour.
What next? For both he and his friends had learned that continual occupation was necessary to his well-being. Lady Hesketh was for another long poem, and proposed to him "The Mediterranean" as a subject. He replied, truly, that he did not know history enough, and that, moreover, it seemed a subject not for one poem, but for twenty. A neighboring clergyman, Mr. Buchanan, proposed "The Four Ages of Man." He liked the idea extremely, and began upon it. He began also "Yardley Oak," keeping it apparently a secret with which to surprise his friends when it was finished. But Johnson invited him to undertake an edition of Milton, as a match for Boydell's Shakespeare, Cowper to write notes and translate the Latin and Italian poems, and Fuseli to do the illustrations. He undertook this, and did the work of translation with great pleasure, as well as success. But the notes were irksome to him; oftentimes he would sit down and be unable to write anything, and it became clear, after long effort, that the engagement must be given up.
For not only was his spirit becoming darkened again, but another great sorrow was impending over him. Mrs. Unwin, who had never recovered a fall on some ice in the winter of 1788-9, was seized with paralysis in December 1791. She recovered slowly as the spring came on, but the effect upon Cowper's spirits could not but be severe.
He had taken the fancy that he heard voices speaking to him on waking in the morning. Sometimes he understood them, but more often they were unintelligible. A schoolmaster at Olney, Samuel Teedon (whether knave or fool may be doubtful), whose uncouth compliments and heavy-witted opinions Cowper had often quizzed, undertook to interpret these voices. Mrs. Unwin at first appears to have humoured his fancy, but as her disease grew upon her, she too fell in with the insanity, and now nothing was done until the voices had spoken, and Teedon had interpreted. The balderdash was all written down, and volumes were filled with it. No one but themselves were made acquainted with these miserable proceedings. Sir John Throckmorton too, on succeeding to the baronetcy, left the neighbourhood for his late father's residence in Oxfordshire, and this must have been a great loss at such a trying time, though his successor afterwards proved equally kind to them. He was Sir John's younger brother, George, but had taken the name of Courtenay. [footnote: He had, on previous visits to his brother, been one of the most ardent transcribers of Homer, and his wife had been dubbed "my lady of the ink-bottle."]
The Milton engagement brought Cowper one pleasure before it came to an end. It was the cause of his friendship with Hayley. The latter had been engaged by Boydell to write a life for a sumptuous edition of Milton, and the public were thus led to believe that Hayley and Cowper were engaged as rivals. Hayley was much distressed, and wrote to Cowper, hitherto a stranger to him, to assure him that he had no idea that the latter was so engaged, and pointing out that their two works would be so different in character that they would not clash. He added the warmest expressions of respect and admiration, and enclosed also a sonnet to him. Cowper responded in a like spirit; the correspondence thus begun was carried on with energy, and in May 1791 Hayley visited him at Weston. But before he had been there long Mrs. Unwin had a second and more severe attack of paralysis. Hayley's kindness and usefulness under this trial endeared him to Cowper for life; and on Mrs. Unwin's partial recovery, the two recluses, in the following July, returned his visit at his residence at Eartham in Sussex. Cowper might well call such a journey a "tremendous exploit" for them, considering what their life for twenty years had been.
No one reads Hayley's plays or poems now, but he was an amiable and remarkable man. His domestic life was unhappy and irregular, and some of his writings are prurient, but he was most unselfish and generous towards his friends; his reading was extensive, and his critical power considerable. Gibbon visited Eartham, and called it a little paradise, but declared that its owner's mind was even more elegant than it. Thurlow, Flaxman, Warton, all loved and admired him, and Miss Seward poured forth admiring verses upon him.
Cowper, who had hardly ever seen a hill in his life, was of course delighted with the South Downs, the wide landscape, the sea, and the Isle of Wight. He could not write, however; all was so strange to him. "I am like the man in the fable," he said, "who could leap nowhere but at Rhodes." He gave some help to Hayley in translating "Adam," an Italian dramatic poem, a wretchedly poor work, not worth reprinting. Poor Charlotte Smith was staying there, writing "The Old Manor House." She was wonderfully rapid, and used each evening to read to them what she had written in the day. On this occasion, too, Romney, who was Hayley's dearest friend, took the portrait by which Cowper is so well known to us. The portrait by Abbot had been taken just before starting for Eartham.
Six weeks were spent here--happy weeks; but Cowper began to pine for quiet Weston again. Repose and seclusion had always suited him best; he felt them indispensable to him now. Mrs. Unwin's continued infirmities, and the declining season of the year, concurred in making him anxious to be gone, and they returned to Weston in September. How he wrote to Teedon day after day, and week after week, we pause not to relate; it is most distressing to read the letters. Newton never exercised a greater power over him than this man, who received all his confidences, prescribed to him what prayers to use, and how long a time to spend in them, and prognosticated his future. Cowper paid him from time to time much more money than he could afford, even while, sound in all respects but one, he was making hearty fun of his absurdity and vanity. Mrs. Unwin, too, got worse; and he who had been the object of her care so long now became her tender and attentive nurse. The poor woman became so irritable and exacting that his health, comfort, and peace of mind were sacrificed to her fancies. She sat silent, looking into the fire, unable to work or to read; under such circumstances he had little heart to write. His state became more wretched and dark than ever. Small doses of James' powders, or a small quantity of laudanum taken at night, were the best remedies that he had found, he says. "I seem to myself," he wrote to Newton, [footnote: Nov. 11, 1792.] "to be scrambling always in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide, but with an enemy ever at my heels, prepared to push me headlong. Thus I have spent twenty years, but thus I shall not spend twenty years more. Long ere that period arrives, the grand question concerning everlasting weal or woe will be decided." Lady Hesketh might have wrought him good, perhaps, but she had fallen out of health and was ordered to Bath. Besides, she knew nothing of the Teedon delusion, and was quite abroad in her thoughts of the doings at Weston. The schoolmaster's promises of relief within a specified period failed, and, as a matter of course, Cowper, who had trusted to them implicitly, came to the conclusion that God had finally forsaken him and cast him off.
But what is so especially touching in the history of this sad period is that he fought so hard against hi insanity. His letters to his friends are still playful and witty, and a great number of his smaller poems belong to this year. He worked at Milton as long as it was possible, and he studied the old commentaries on Homer, with a view of improving his second edition when it should be called for. There are passages in his letters which lead one to believe that if he had only had a fair chance his mind would have recovered itself. But what chance was there, with Teedon on one side and poor Mrs. Unwin on the other? In one of his letters he says that while he is writing it, she is sitting in her corner, sometimes bursting into a laugh at nothing, sometimes talking nonsense, to which no one thinks of paying attention. And yet this was, for months, the only "conversation" that he had; and she would not even let him read, except aloud to her. The only way by which he could gain any leisure was to rise at six, begin work at once, and breakfast at eleven; and this he did in winter as well as in summer. In the autumn of 1793 Lord Spencer invited him to Althorpe to meet Gibbon, who was making a long stay there, and he was much tempted to go. But the state of his spirits, as well as Mrs. Unwin's infirm condition, unhappily compelled him to decline the invitation.
Towards the end of the year 1793, just after he had dropped the Miltonic engagement, Lady Hesketh came to Weston. Hayley had been there a few weeks before; but in April 1794 received a message from her entreating him to come again, for that the unhappy patient had become much worse. He came at once. It was evidently a terrible sight to them; Hayley's unaffected description is most pathetic. The poor sufferer would hardly eat anything, and refused all medicine, walking backwards and forwards incessantly in his bedroom, believing from hour to hour that the devil was coming to carry him away. At Thurlow's request, Dr. Willis, whose success in the king's insanity had made his name renowned, came to Weston, but found the case past his skill. A letter came from Lord Spencer, announcing that the king granted Mr. Cowper a pension of £300 a year, but he was not in a condition to receive the announcement. Whilst he was worn out with fatigue, anguish, and fasting, Mrs. Unwin would insist on his dragging her round the garden. She persisted too in keeping the management of the household, and the reckless extravagance below stairs amazed and horrified Lady Hesketh, who, however, bravely struggled on for more than a year, vainly hoping to relieve him. She then wrote to his cousin Johnson, who had been recently ordained, urging the necessity of removal, and he came and succeeded in persuading Cowper to consent to it. It was spoken of as temporary, otherwise the consent would never have been given; but when it came to the last Cowper felt that he should never return. He wrote, unseen by any one, these lines on a window-shutter:--
- "Farewell dear scenes, for ever closed to me;
- Oh! for what sorrows must I now exchange ye."
It was the 30th of July, 1795. He saw the Ouse once more, at St. Neots, on his journey. And as he walked with Johnson through the churchyard in the moonlight, he talked with cheerfulness. It was the last time that he was ever to do so. They went first to North Tuddenham, then to Mundsley, on the coast, where Johnson noticed that the monotonous sound of the breakers seemed to soothe him, and finally they settled at Dunham Lodge, near Swaffham. Johnson tried to coax him into composition or correspondence, but without avail. The only thing that seemed to please him was being read to, and they read Richardson's novels to him. This was evidently successful, and novel-reading was accordingly persisted in. Presently Johnson spoke in his hearing of some criticisms on his Homer, and laid the volumes where he could see them. They sooon found that he had sought out the passages, and had made some corrections in his translation in consequence. But Dunham proving inconvenient, they moved to a house in the little town of East Dereham in October 1796. Two months afterwards (Dec. 17) Mrs. Unwin was released from her sufferings. Johnson took Cowper to see her corpse. He gazed for a minute or two, then uttered some half-finished exclamation of sorrow, and was led away. He regained his calmness down-stairs, asked for a glass of wine, [footnote: "He is wonderfully calm now, and made me give him a glass of wine the moment he got down, and took two pinches of snuff, which he had not done for nearly a week."--Extract from Johnson's letter announcing the death.] and from that time never alluded to her again. She was buried by torchlight, that he might not know the time of the funeral.
His friends hoped that Mrs. Unwin's release might allow of Cowper's restoration. But the hope was vain. The gloom which rested upon him was dark as ever. Means, wise and unwise, were tried to dispel it [footnote: One of them was the clandestine insertion of tubes into his bedroom, through which messages were spoken, professing to be supernatural, and intended to nullify the Teedon "voices"!]--the only one which at all succeeded being the attempt to interest him in his Homer. In September 1797 Johnson placed the revised copy open before him at the place where he had left it off twelve months before, and opened all the commentaries at the same place. Then after talking upon other subjects to him he led up to this. After a while the Poet took up one of the books and sat down on the sofa, saying in a low and plaintive voice, "I may as well do this, for I can do nothing else." And from that time he continued steadily at the work. There were few outward signs of any alleviation of his misery, but he was always more composed when thus engaged; and his letters to Lady Hesketh, though appalling in their fixed despair, occasionally contain "dear cousin," and "yours affectionately," both of which expressions he had quite dropped. Old friends who came to see him, though he would not speak to them, nor appear to notice them, evidently were of some comfort to him, for he spoke of them afterwards. In March 1799 he finished with Homer. Johnson then put the unfinished "Four Ages of Man" before him. He altered a few lines, and added two or three more. But he was evidently past this. Easier subjects were mentioned. At length he said that he had thought of some Latin verses which he thought he might do, and next day he wrote "Montes Glaciales." The story had been read to him at Dunham Lodge, but he had not appeared to take any notice. A few days afterwards he translated it into English, and the next day wrote "The Castaway," founded upon a story in "Anson's Voyages," which he had heard read some months before. This was his last original poem. He still seemed to like being read to, and he listened to Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works and to his own poems, except "John Gilpin," which he forbade. Vincent Bourne was brought to him again, and he translated a few more of the poems, as well as some Fables from Gay. This was in Jan. 1800. The last words which he ever wrote were a correction of a mistranslation in Homer, which Haley in a letter had pointed out. Two days afterwards (Feb. 1) signs of dropsy appeared in his feet, and a physician was called in. On his asking him how he felt, "I feel unutterable despair," was the answer. The last visitor who came to see him was Rose. Cowper showed evident regret at his departure.
There was a Miss Perowne, a friend of Miss Johnson, who was staying with them, who had more influence with him than any one. She only, and she not always, could persuade him to take any medecine. Mr. Johnson took courage, on one occasion, to speak to him of death as the deliverance from misery. He seemed to listen, but made no answer. Then Johnson spoke yet more encouragingly--spoke of the unutterable blessedness which God has prepared for those who love Him, and therefore for him. He was quiet until the last four words, then he passionately entreated that no such words should be spoken more. And so the sad days passed on, and no comfort appeared. So near was he to the eternal sunrise now, and yet not a ray of its light appeared to herald the day-dawn. Not an echo reached the dying man's ear of the voice of the Good Shepherd who walked by his side through that horrible valley. The ship was in the midst of the sea, all the waves and storms of despair beating and surging over it, and the Saviour was not yet visible, though He was walking on the waters.
Miss Perowne offered the sufferer a cordial. He refused it, saying, "What can it signify?" Those were his last words. Soon after, the tranquillity of unconsciousness came on, and lasted for some hours. It was five o'clock in the evening of St. Mark's Day, 1800, when the happy change came. Even so we must all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Thank God.
"From that moment," says the relative who loved him so well, "until the coffin was closed, the expression into which his countenance had settled was that of calmness and composure, mingled as it were with holy surprise." A pretty fancy we may call this; but who can doubt that it symbolized the simple truth? All who had ever known him loved him; but the love of the best of us grows cold before the might of Thine, O most merciful Father of us all. Thy judgments are like the great deep; but Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains.
- O poets! from a maniac's tongue, was poured the deathless singing!
- O Christians! at your cross of hope, a hopeless hand was clinging!
- O men! this man, in brotherhood, your weary paths beguiling,
- Groaned inly while he taught you peace, and died while ye were smiling!
- And now, what time ye all may read through dimming tears his story,
- How discord on the music fell, and darkness on the glory,
- And how, when one by one, sweet sounds and wandering lights departed,
- He bore no less a loving face because so broken-hearted;
- He shall be strong to sanctify the poet's high vocation,
- And bow the meekest Christian down in meeker adoration:
- Nor ever shall he be, in praise, by wise or good forsaken;
- Named softly, as the household name of one whom God hath taken.
He was buried on Saturday, May 2, in Dereham Church, in St. Edmund's Chapel: Mrs. Unwin is buried in the north aisle. Lady Hesketh had a monument erected to him, for which Hayley wrote the following inscription:--
- Ye, who with warmth the public triumph feel
- Of talents, dignified by sacred zeal,
- Here, to devotion's bard devoutly just,
- Pay your fond tribute due to Cowper's dust!
- England, exulting in his spotless fame,
- Ranks with her dearest sons his favourite name:
- Sense, fancy, wit, suffice not all to raise
- So clear a title to affection's praise:
- His highest honours to the heart belong;
- His virtues form'd the magic of his song.
|This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.|