This celebrated poet was the third in descent from the great earl Cowper, lord chancellor of England. He was born at Berkhamstead, in Hertfordshire, in 1722, and educated at Westminster school; but the place of clerk of the house of lords, being reserved for him, he was not sent to complete his studies at the university, but finished them at the Temple. He had, however, an insuperable aversion to the drudgery of the law, and indeed to all manner of public business. He wholly gave himself up to this propensity; and "Otia nostra" has appeared to have been his motto all his life. The profound reflections which frequent retirement into the country, occasioned him to indulge in, begat a seriousness of manners and aspect which alarmed his friends, and excited their united endeavours to avert the apprehended consequences. But notwithstanding these kind and affectionate precautions in those about him, he contracted a morbid melancholy, which at times deprived him of reason. He resided at Huntingdon, for several years, in the closest friendship with the Rev. Mr. Unwin, a most worthy clergyman; after whose death, he retired to Olney, in Buckinghamshire, with the widow of that friend. At this village he wrote the principal part of his Poems.
Here the habitual gloominess which had so long preyed upon his mind, was attempered at least, if not wholly removed, by an intercourse with the pious and Rev. Mr. Newton, then minister of that place, and now rector of St. Mary Woolnoth's, London. The mind of Mr. Cowper, long perplexed by scruples of a religious nature, long bewildered on the subject of revelation itself, and harassed by new dogmas and metaphysical objections, thus at last became settled and composed. It is not to be wondered, therefore, that between him and his new friend and guide, Mr. Newton, the most endearing friendship should have been formed. When Mr. Newton published his volume of Hymns, called The Olney Hymns, it was enriched with some compositions from the pen of Mr. Cowper, which have been since adopted into other collections. They bear internal evidence, in addition to their pious fervour, of a cultivated understanding, and an original genius. His time was now wholly dedicated to that literary leisure, in which the mind, left to its own operations, follows up that line of pursuit, which is the most congenial to its taste, and the most adapted to its powers. In his garden, in his library, and in his daily walks, he seems to have disciplined his muse to the picturesque and vivid habits of description which will always distinguish Cowper among our national poets.
No writer, with the exception of Thomson, seems to have studied nature with more diligence, and to have copied her with more fidelity; an advantage which he has gained over other men, by his disdaining to study her, "through the spectacles of books," as Dryden calls it; and by his pursuing her through her haunts, and watching her in all her attitudes, with the eye of a philosopher as well as of a poet. As Mr. Cowper had no relish for public concerns it was not singular that he should have neglected the study of the law, on which he had entered. That knowledge of active life, which is so requisite for the legal profession, would hardly be acquired on the bank of the Ouse, and in silent contemplations on the beauties of nature. In this retreat, he exchanged for the society and converse of the muses, the ambition and tumult of a forensic occupation; dedicating his mind to the cultivation of poetry, and storing it with those images which he derived from the inexhaustible treasury of a rich and varied scenery, in a most beautiful and romantic country.
The first volume of his poems, which was published by Mr. Newton, in 1782, consists, of various pieces on various subjects. It appears that he had been assiduous in cultivating a turn for grave and argumentative versification on moral and ethical topics. Of this kind is the Table Talk, and several other pieces in the collection. He who objects to those poems as containing too great a neglect of harmony in the arrangement of his words, and the use of expressions too prosaic, will condemn him on principles of criticism, which are by no means just, if the object and style of the subject be considered. Horace apologized for the style of his own satires, which are, strictly speaking, only ethical and moral discourses, by observing, that those topics require the pedestrian and familiar diction, and a form of expression, not carried to the heights of poetry. But if the reader will forego the delight of smooth versification, and recollect that poetry does not altogether consist in even and polished metre; he will remark in these productions, no ordinary depth of thinking and of judgment, upon the most important subjects of human intercourse; and he will be occasionally struck with lines, not unworthy of Dryden, for their strength and dignity. His lighter poems are well known, particularly the verses supposed to have been written by Alexander Selkirk, or Robinson Crusoe, on his desert island.
It would he absurd to give one general character of the pieces that were published in this volume; yet this is true concerning Mr. Cowper's production, that in all the varieties of his style, there may still be discerned the likeness and impression of the same mind; the same unaffected modesty, which always rejects unseasonable ambitions, and ornaments of language; the same easy vigour; the same serene and cheerful hope, derived from a steady and unshaken faith in the doctrines of Christianity. Mr. Cowper, perhaps, does not derive praise from the choice and elegance of his words; but he has the higher praise of having chosen them without affectation. He appears to have used them as he found them; neither introducing, fastidious refinements, nor adhering to obsolete barbarisms. He understood the whole science of numbers, and he has practised their different kinds with considerable happiness; and if his verses do not flow so softly as the delicacy of a modern ear requires, that roughness, which is objected to in his poetry, is his choice, not his defect. But this sort of critics, who admire only what is exquisitely polished, ought to take into their estimate, that vast effusion of thought, which is so abundantly poured over the writings of Cowper, without which human discourse is only a combination of sounds and syllables. The favourable reception which this volume experienced, produced another of superior merit.
The Task, is, indeed, unquestionably his principal performance. The occasion that gave birth to it was trivial. A lady had requested him to write a piece in blank verse, and give him for its subject a thing next to her at the time, a sofa. This he expanded into one of the finest moral poems our language has produced. It is written in blank verse, as desired; and though in that respect it resembles Milton's, it is nevertheless original and characteristic. It is not too stately for familiar description, nor too depressed for sublime and elevated imagery. If it has any fault, it is that of being too much laden with idiomatic expression; a fault which the author, in the rapidity with which his ideas and his utterance seem to have flowed, very naturally incurred. In this poem, his fancy ran with the most excursive freedom. The poet enlarges upon his topics, and confirms his argument by every variety of illustration. He never, however, dwells upon them too long, and leaves off in such a manner, that it seems in his power to have said more.
The arguments of the poem are various. The works of nature, the associations with which they exhibit themselves, the designs of providence, and the passions of men. Of one advantage the writer has amply availed himself. The work not being rigidly confined to any precise subject, he has indulged himself in all the freedom of a miscellaneous poem. Yet he has still adhered so faithfully to the general laws of congruity, that whether he inspires the softer affections into his reader, or delights him with keen and playful raillery, or discourses on the ordinary manners of human nature, or holds up the bright pictures of religious consolation to his mind, he adopts, at pleasure, a diction just and appropriate, equal in elevation to the sacred effusions of pious rapture, and sufficiently easy and familiar for descriptions of domestic life; skilful alike in soaring without effort, and descending without meanness. He who desires to put into the hands of youth a poem, which, not destitute of poetical embellishments, is free from all matter of a licentious tendency, will find in the Task, a book adapted to his purpose. All is grave, majestic, and moral. A vein of sober thinking pervades every page, and, in finished poetry, describes the insufficiency and vanity of human pursuits. Not that he is always severe. He frequently enlivens the mind of his reader by sportive descriptions, and by representing, in elevated measures, ludicrous objects and circumstances. The historical account he has given of chairs, in the first book of the Task, is a striking specimen of his powers of versification, and of his talent for humour. The attention, however, is the most detained by those passages in which the charms of rural life, and the endearments of domestic retirement are described. The Task abounds with incidents, introduced as Episodes, and interposing an agreeable relief to the grave and serious part of the poetry.
His John Gilpin is universally known, and is a sportive piece of humour, of which any author may be proud. But his next great work was a translation of the Iliad and Odyssey into Miltonic verse, in 2 vol. quarto, about the merits of which critics have been divided, principally from instituting, very absurdly, a comparison between it, and Pope's translation. The merits of each are distinct and appropriate.
From his works, now so well known, and so generally read, we pass to the melancholy termination of his life, a subject which cannot be contemplated without compassion and astonishment. It is with pain we relate, that the melancholy, which had in former years oppressed his mind, returned in his latter days with redoubled force, and was incurable by all human efforts. That so pious a man as Mr. Cowper, should have been left to the horrors of despair as to his future happiness, would be a mystery, if we did not hope and believe that it was a disease. The circumstances of his death have been very minutely related by Mr. Greatheed, of Olney, in a sermon preached after his decease. Mr. Greatheed has been censured for this, we know not why. But the sermon is before the public, and each reader will judge for himself. As we have enlarge this article beyond the usual limits of our Biographical Register, for which we trust no apology is due in the case of such an ornament to our country. as Mr. Cowper, we shall conclude with a very short extract from Mr. Greatheed's sermon, near the close of it.
"His sympathizing and admiring friends," says Mr. Greatheed, "were fondly cherishing a hope, that the diminution of his sufferings, which was apparent for several successive years, would, at length result in his restoration to spiritual peace and joy. Although advanced in years, his health, by means of regular exercise and additional society, was not only preserved, but even seemed to improve, notwithstanding the root of his bitterness evidently still remained. Amid flattering expectations, the Lord permitted some afflicting events to revive his distress in all its force, and to plunge him again into distraction and desperation. He declined all mental or bodily exertion, and rejected all attempts at friendly consolation; nay, he conceived his tenderest friends to be transformed by the powers of darkness into conspirators against his welfare. Expecting every hour to be his last out of endless torments, nothing short of that horrible prospect could attract his notice for an instant. He refused, day after day, his necessary food; and imminent danger appeared of his speedy departure out of life, in so dreadful a state of mind. But the Lord, who had dashed the rising hopes of his friends, now mercifully disappointed their fears. His period of mortality was extended; and means were unexpectedly afforded from his removal from this neighbourhood to a distant situation, (East Dereham) where he could remain under the continual care of an amiable young kinsman, who, with a tenderness beyond the common limits of filial affection, watched over the precious remnant of his life. Much of it elapsed without a probability of his restoration to the state from which he had last fallen. His intellectual powers were so much affected by this relapse, that he was only capable of attending to the most trivial subjects, even when willing to have his thoughts diverted from despair. Local advantages, the solicitous attention of affectionate friends, and the indefatigable assiduity of his only remaining companion, were at length rendered so far useful, that he was enabled to resume his literary occupations, which were always, when pursued, a considerable, though partial, alluration of his distress.
"During the last year, or two, of Mr. Cowper's life, his health and his state of mind appeared to be as much restored, as for an equal time at any period during his long afflictions. Toward the close of the past winter, he was however attacked by a bodily disorder, which brought on a rapid decay. His young friend and relative, convinced that he would shortly exchange a world of infirmity and sorrow for a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, repeatedly endeavoured to cheer him with the prospect, and to assure him of the happiness which awaited him. Still he refused to be comforted. "Oh spare me! Spare me! you know, you know it to be false!" was his only reply, with the same invincible despair to which he had so long been a prey. Early on the 25th of April, (1800) he sunk into a state of apparent insensibility, which might have been mistaken for a tranquil slumber, but that his eyes remained half open. His breath was regular, though feeble; and his countenance and animal frame were perfectly serene. In this state he continued for twelve hours, and then expired, without heaving his breath."