Of the connections and early life of Nathaniel Cotton, we have no written memorials. He was bred to the practice of physic, in which he took the degree of doctor, but at what university is unknown. He settled, however, at St. Alban's, where he acquired great reputation in his profession, and continued to reside there, during a long and active life.
It appears, that he early exerted his poetical talents; but as he was little ambitious of fame, he did not give his name even to his celebrated Visions in Verse, which have run through so many editions, and will render him immortal. In his epistle to the reader, he says,
All my ambition is, I own,
To profit and to please, unknown.
On these principles he seems to have acted through life; and the esteem of the good, and the friendship of the learned, accompanied him, without any efforts of his own. He was intimate with Young whom he attended in his last illness, and gives an interesting account of that event.
From some letters of Dr. Cotton's, which have been preserved, it seems the latter part of his life was marked by domestic distress and personal suffering. "My bed," writes he to a friend, "is often strewed with thorns; but I must journey through life upon the same terms that many wise and better men than myself have done; and must reflect with some degree of comfort, that I am making hasty advances to that sanctuary, where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary shall be at rest. Oh! my heart-strings, break not yet; out of pity to the worthier part of my family, who cannot lose me without suffering the greatest inconveniencies."
He died in 1788, at an advanced age; and his works were collected and published by his son, but furnish no information relative to the personal history of the man.
Exclusive of his poetry, he wrote several sermons, and other pieces in prose; the former, as the compositions of a layman, merit particular attention, they are plain, rational, and instructive; and as he had no temporal interests relative to religion, his influence in support of it will have its due effect; since every instance of firm faith in a mind far removed from all suspicion, will be acceptable to the lovers of christianity.
The moral and intellectual character of Cotton appears to have been in the highest degree amiable and respectable. His piety is truly venerable and edifying His writings are distinguished by the strongest marks of goodness, learning, taste, and benevolence. They are the productions of an enlightened mind, fraught with the purest principles of morality and religion. They are characterized by an elegant simplicity, derived from a diligent study of the best classical models.
As a poet, his compositions are distinguished by a refined elegance of sentiment, and a correspondent simplicity of expression. He writes with ease and correctness, frequently with elevation and spirit. His thoughts are always just, and religiously pure, and his lines are commonly smooth and easy; but the rhymes are not always sufficiently correspondent: the words "dawn" and "morn," among others, disappoint the ear. His Fables approach nearer to the manner of Gay than his other productions; and though they have less poignancy of satire, they have great merit of the moral kind, and are properly adapted, as well as the Visions, for the entertainment and instruction of younger minds. Of his miscellaneous poems, the Fire-side is the most agreeable. The subject is universally interesting, the sentiments pleasing and pathetic, and the versification elegant and harmonious. The Night-piece is distinguished by dignity, variety, and originality of sentiment, in a superior degree; and as piety predominates in his mind, it is diffused over his compositions. Under his direction, poetry may be truly said to be subservient to religious and moral instruction.