Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cotton, Nathaniel

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COTTON, NATHANIEL (1705–1788), poet and physician, was born in London in 1705, the youngest son of Samuel Cotton, a Levant merchant. His biographer in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (from which all other accounts are taken) describes him as ἀγενεαλογητός. He never put his name to his own published writings; his tombstone gives neither date nor description; and his son, when editing his collected works, gives no life of the author. There is reason to believe that the family came from Northamptonshire, where Cotton or Coton is a not uncommon place name. A Nathaniel Cotton was rector of Everdon in that county from 1646 to 1683. Of the poet himself we only know that he studied medicine under Boerhaave at Leyden, where his name appears in Peacock's ‘List of English Students at Leyden’ under the date 23 Sept. 1729. He settled at St. Albans as a physician about the year 1740, and remained there until his death. Besides his general practice he kept a private madhouse, which he dignified with the title of ‘Collegium Insanorum.’ It was at this madhouse that the poet Cowper was confined during his first period of insanity, from December 1763 to June 1765; and perhaps, now that his own poems are forgotten, this association with a greater poet is Dr. Cotton's chief claim to distinction. For Cowper thus writes of him: ‘I was not only treated with kindness by him while I was ill, and attended with the utmost diligence; but when my reason was restored to me, and I had so much need of a religious friend to converse with, to whom I could open my mind upon the subject without reserve, I could hardly have found a fitter person for the purpose. The doctor was as ready to administer relief to me in this article likewise, and as well qualified to do it, as in that which was more immediately his province.’ And again: ‘He is truly a philosopher, according to my judgment of his character, every tittle of his knowledge in natural subjects being connected in his mind with the firm belief of an omnipotent agent.’ Dr. Cotton was also the friend of another poet. Dr. Edward Young, whom he attended in his last illness, and of whose deathbed he has left an interesting account.

In his own day Dr. Cotton was himself a popular poet. He contributed to Dodsley's ‘Collection.’ His best known volume of poems, ‘Visions in Verse, for the Entertainment and Instruction of Younger Minds,’ was published anonymously in 1751; and a seventh edition, revised and enlarged, appeared in 1767. After his death his eldest surviving son, the Rev. Nathaniel Cotton, rector of Thurnby in Northamptonshire, brought out a collected edition of his works in two volumes, entitled ‘Various Pieces in Prose and Verse, many of which were never before published’ (1791). This book is dedicated to the Dowager Countess Spencer, ‘the author being well known to her ladyship for many years.’ For some time afterwards Dr. Cotton's poems were included in most collections of English poets; and two of his shorter pieces, ‘The Fireside’ and ‘To a Child of Five Years Old,’ may yet be found in anthologies. It must be confessed that Dr. Cotton was emphatically a poet of his century—cultivated, didactic, and pious. His ‘Visions in Verse’ are an attempt, both in metre and subject, to moralise for children the fables of Gay. His ‘Fables’ are less overweighted with allegory, and some of his occasional verses still preserve their power to please. The second volume of the collected works consists entirely of prose. They comprise five sermons in regular form, besides several essays on the duties of life, scarcely to be distinguished from sermons, some allegorical stories, and sixty pages of extracts from letters. These last show the writer in an agreeable light, as the adviser and consoler of his correspondents, and by no means without cheerfulness and humour.

Dr. Cotton was twice married, and left a numerous family, including Joseph Cotton, who is separately noticed. He died at St. Albans on 2 Aug. 1788, and he lies buried in the churchyard of St. Peter's, beneath an altar tombstone which bears the plain inscription, ‘Here are deposited the remains of Anne, Hannah, and Nathaniel Cotton.’ He is credited with one publication on a professional subject, ‘Observations on a particular kind of Scarlet Fever that lately prevailed in and about St. Albans’ (1749).

[Gent. Mag. Iviii. 756, lxxvii. 500–1; personal information.]

J. S. C.