This very ingenious poet was the descendant of an ancient and honourable family. His father was the second son of Spenser Cowper (a younger brother of the lord chancellor Cowper) who was appointed chief justice of Chester in 1717, and afterwards a judge in the court of Common Pleas. He died in 1728, leaving a daughter, Judith, a young lady who had a striking taste for poetry, and who married colonel Madan, and transmitted her poetical taste and devotional spirit to a daughter. This daughter was married to her cousin major Cowper, and was afterwards the friend and correspondent of our poet. His father, John Cowper, entered into the church and became rector of Great Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. He married Anne, the daughter of Roger Donne, esq. of Ludlam Hall in Norfolk, by whom he had several children, who died in their infancy, and two sons, William and John, who survived their mother. William was born at Berkhamstead Nov. 26, 1731, and from his infancy appears to have been of a very delicate habit both of mind and body.
To such a child the loss of a mother is an incalculable misfortune, and must have been particularly so to young Cowper. In his biographer's opinion, it contributed in the highest degree to the dark colouring of his subsequent life. Undoubtedly when a child requires a more than ordinary share of attention, the task can seldom be expected to he performed with so much success as by a mother, who to her natural affection joins that patience and undisturbed care which are rarely to he found in a father: but at the same time, it may be remarked that Cowper's very peculiar frame of mind appears to have been independent of any advantages or misfortunes in education.
In 1737, the year of his mother's death, he was sent to a school at Market-Street in Hertfordshire, under the conduct of Dr. Pitman, but was removed from it, at what time is uncertain, on account of a complaint in his eyes, for which he was consigned to the care of a female oculist for the space of two years. It does not, however, appear that he profited so much from her aid, as from the small-pox, which seized him at the age of fourteen, and removed the complaint for the present, but left a disposition to inflammation, to which he was subject nearly the whole of his life.
At Market-Street as well as at Westminster-school, to which he was now removed, he is reported to have suffered much from the wanton tyranny of his school-fellows, who, with the usual unthinking cruelty of youth, triumphed over the gentleness and timidity of his spirit. As he informs us, however, that he "excelled at cricket and football," he could not have been wholly averse from joining in youthful sports, yet a preponderance of uneasiness from the behaviour of his companions was such, that in his advanced years he retained none but painful recollections of what men in general remember with more pleasure than any other period of their lives. These recollections no doubt animated his pen with more than his usual severity in exposing the abuses of public schools, to which he uniformly prefers a domestic education. This subject has since been discussed by various pens, and the conclusion seems to be, that the few instances which occur of domestic education successfully pursued are strongly in its favour where it is practicable, but that from the occupations and general state of talents in parents it can seldom be adopted, and is continually liable to be interrupted by accidents to which public schools are riot exposed. In the case of Cowper, the public school might have been judiciously recommended to conquer his constitutional diffidence and shyness which, it was natural to suppose, would have been increased by a seclusion from boys of his own age, but the effect disappointed the expectations of his friends.
He left Westminster school in 1749, at the age of eighteen, and was articled to Mr. Chapman, an attorney, for the space of three years. This period he professed to employ in acquiring a species of knowledge which he was never to bring into use, and to which his peculiarity of disposition must have been averse. We are not told whether he had been consulted in this arrangement, but it was probably suggested as that in which his family interest might avail him. His own account may be relied on. "I did actually live three years with Mr. Chapman, a solicitor, that is to say, I slept three years in his house, but I lived, that is to say, I spent my days in Southampton-Row, as you very well remember. There was I, and the future lord chancellor (Thurlow) constantly employed from morning to night in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law." Yet with this apparent "gaiete de coeur," and with every advantage, natural and acquired, that bade fair for his advancement in public life, he was kept back by an extreme degree of modesty and shyness from all intercourse with the world, except the society of a few friends, who knew how to appreciate his character, and among whom he found himself without restraint. The loss of a friend and of a mistress appear, among other adversities, to have aggravated his sufferings at this time, and to have strengthened that constitutional melancholy which he delighted to paint, and which, it is to be feared, he loved to indulge.
When he had fulfilled the terms of his engagement in Mr. Chapman's office, he entered the Temple with a view to the further study of the law, a profession that has been more frequently deserted than any other by men of lively genius. Cowper was destined to add another instance to the number of those who, under the appearance of applying to an arduous and important public study, have employed their time in the cultivation of wit and poetry. He is known to have assisted some contemporary publications with essays in prose and verse, and what is rather more extraordinary, in a man of his purity of conduct, cultivated the acquaintance of Churchill, Thornton, Lloyd, and Colman, who had been his school-fellows at Westminster. It is undoubtedly to Churchill and Lloyd, that he alludes in a letter to lady Hesketh, dated Sept. 4, 1765. "Two of my friends have been cut off during my illness, in the midst of such a life, as it is frightful to reflect upon, and here am I, in better health and spirits, than I can almost remember to have enjoyed before, after having spent months in the apprehension of instant death. How mysterious are the ways of Providence! Why did I receive grace and mercy? Why was I preserved, afflicted for my good, received, as I trust, into favour, and blessed with the greatest happiness, I can ever know, or hope for, in this life, while these were overtaken by the great arrest, unawakened, unrepenting, and every way unprepared for it?"
About the period alluded to, he assisted Colman with some papers for the Connoisseur, and probably Thornton and Lloyd, who then carried on various periodical undertakings, but the amount of what he wrote cannot now be ascertained, and was always so little known, that on the appearance of his first volume of poems when he had reached his fiftieth year (1782), he was considered as a new writer. But his general occupations will best appear in an extract from one of his letters to Mr. Park, in 1792. "From the age of twenty to thirty-three" (when he left the Temple) "I was occupied, or ought to have been, in the study of the law: from thirty-three to sixty, I have spent my time in the country, where my reading has been only an apology for idleness, and where, when I had not either a magazine or a review, I was sometimes a carpenter, at others a bird-cage maker, or a gardener, or a drawer of landscapes. At fifty years of age I commenced an author: — it is a whim that has served me longest, and best, and will probably be my last." His first poetical effort was a translation of an elegy of Tibullus made at the age of fourteen: at eighteen he wrote the beautiful verses On finding the Heel of a Shoe, but as little more of his juvenile poetry has been preserved, all the steps of his progress to that perfection which produced the Task, cannot now be traced.
Unfit as he was from extreme diffidence to advance in his profession, his family interest procured him a situation which seemed not ill adapted to gratify his very moderate ambition, while it did not much interfere with his reluctance to public life. In his thirty-fourth year, he was nominated to the offices of reading clerk, and clerk of the private committees of the house of lords. But in this arrangement his friends were disappointed. It presented to his mind the formidable danger of reading in public, which was next to speaking in public; his native modesty therefore recoiled at the thought, and he resigned the office. On this, his friends procured him the place of clerk of the journals to the house of lords, the consequence of which is thus related by Mr. Hayley.
"It was hoped from the change of his station that his personal appearance in parliament might not be required, but a parliamentary dispute made it necessary for him to appear it the bar of the house of lords, to entitle himself publicly to the office.
"Speaking of this important incident in a sketch, which he once formed himself of passages in his early life, he expresses what he endured at the time, in these remarkable words: 'They, whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horrours of my situation — others can have none.'
"His terrours on this occasion arose to such an astonishing height, that they utterly overwhelmed his reason: for although he had endeavoured to prepare himself for his public duty, by attending closely at the office for several months, to examine the parliamentary journals, his application was rendered useless by that excess of diffidence, which made him conceive, that, whatever knowledge he might previously acquire, it would all forsake him at the bar of the house. This distressing apprehension encreased to such a degree, as the time for his appearance approached, that when the day, so anxiously dreaded, arrived, he was unable to make the experiment. The very friends, who called on him for the purpose of attending him to the house of lords, acquiesced in the cruel necessity of his relinquishing the prospect of a station so severely formidable to a frame of such singular sensibility.
"The conflict between the wishes of just affectionate ambition and the terrours of diffidence, so entirely overwhelmed his health and faculties, that after two learned and benevolent divines (Mr. John Cowper, his brother, and the celebrated Mr. Martin Madan, his first cousin) had vainly endeavoured to establish a lasting tranquillity in his mind, by friendly and religious conversation; it was found necessary to remove him to St. Alban's, where he resided a considerable time, under the care of that eminent physician, Dr. Cotton."
The period of his residence here was from Dec. 1763 to July 1764, and the mode of his insanity appears to have been that of religious despondency; but this, about the last mentioned date, gave way to more cheering views, which first presented themselves to his mind during a perusal of the third chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
After his recovery from this awful visitation, he determined to retire from the busy world altogether, finding his mind alienated from the conversation and company, however select, in which he had hitherto delighted, and looking back with particular horrour on some of his former associations: and by the advice of his brother the rev. John Cowper of Bennet College, Cambridge, he removed to a private lodging in Huntingdon. He had not, however, resided long in this place, before he was introduced into a family that had the honour for many years of administering to his happiness, and of evincing a warmth of friendship of which there are few examples. This intercourse was begun by Mr. Cawthorn Unwin, a young man then a student at Cambridge and son to the rev. Mr. Unwin, rector of Grimston, but now a resident at Huntingdon. Mr. Unwin the younger, was one day so attracted by Cowper's uncommon and interesting appearance, that he attempted to solicit his acquaintance, and achieved this purpose with such reciprocity of delight, that Cowper was finally induced to take up his abode with his new friend's amiable family, which then consisted of the rev. Mr. Unwin, Mrs. Unwin, the son just mentioned, and a daughter. It appears to have been about the month of September 1765, that he formed this acquaintance, and about February 1766, he became an inmate in the family. In July 1767, Mr. Unwin senior was killed by a fall from his horse. The letters which Mr. Hayley has published, "describe in the clearest light, the singularly peaceful and devout life of the amiable writer, during his residence at Huntingdon, and this melancholy accident which occasioned his removal to a distant county."
About this time he added to the number of his friends, the late venerable and pious John Newton, rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, but then curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire, who being consulted by Mr. Cowper as to an eligible residence for Mrs. Unwin, recommended a house at Olney, to which that lady, her daughter, and our poet removed on the 14th of October, 1767. At this residence, endeared to them by the company and public services of a man of congenial sentiments, Cowper for some years continued to enjoy those blessings of a retired and devotional life which had constituted his only happiness since his recovery. His correspondence at this era evinces a placid train of sentiment, mixed with an air of innocent gaiety, that must have afforded the highest satisfaction to his friends. Among other pleasures of the purest kind, he delighted in acts of benevolence, and as he was not rich, he had the additional felicity of being employed as an almoner in the secret benevolences of that most charitable of all human beings, the late John Thornton, esq. an opulent merchant of London, whose name he has immortalized in his poem on Charity, and in some verses on his death which Mr. Hayley first published. Mr. Thornton statedly allowed Mr. Newton the sum of £200 per annum, for the use of the poor of Olney, and it was the joint concern of Mr. Newton and Mr. Cowper to distribute this sum in the most judicious and useful manner. Such a bond of union could not fail to increase their intimacy. "Cowper," says Mr. Newton, "loved the poor; he often visited them in their cottages, conversed with them in the most condescending manner, sympathized with them, counselled and comforted them in their distresses: and those who were seriously disposed, were often cheered and animated by his prayers." Of their intimacy, the same writer speaks in these emphatic terms — "For nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time, when we were awake and at home — the first six I passed in daily admiring, and aiming to imitate him: during the second six, I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death." Among other friendly services about this time, he wrote for Mr. Newton some beautiful, hymns, which the latter introduced in public worship, and published in a collection long before Cowper was known as a poet.
On these employments Mr. Hayley passes the following opinion. "Where the nerves are tender, and the imagination tremblingly alive, any fervid excess in the exercise of the purest piety may be attended with such perils to corporeal and mental health, as men of a more firm and hardy fibre would be far from apprehending. Perhaps the life that Cowper led, on his settling at Olney, had a tendency to increase the morbid propensity of his frame, though it was a life of admirable sanctity." It appears, however, by his letters, that this was the life of his choice, and that it was varied by exercise and rational amusements. How such a life could have a tendency to increase a morbid propensity, or what mode of life could have been contrived more likely to diminish that propensity, it is difficult to imagine.
In 1770, his brother John died at Cambridge, an event which made a lasting, but not unfavourable impression on the tender and affectionate mind of our poet. While the circumstances of this event were recent he committed them to paper, and they were published by Mr. Newton in 1802. Cowper afterwards introduced some lines to his memory in the Task:
—I had a brother once
Peace to the mem'ry of a man of worth,
A man of letters, and of manners too, &c.
For some years this brother withstood, but finally adopted, our author's opinions in religious matters; and severely as the survivor felt the loss of so amiable a relative it produced no other effect on his mind than to increase his confidence in the principles he had adopted, and to rejoice in the consolations he derived from them.
From this period, his life affords little of the narrative kind, until 1773, when, in the language of his biographer, "he sunk into such severe paroxysms of religious despondency, that he required an attendant of the most gentle, vigilant, and inflexible spirit. Such an attendant he found in that faithful guardian (Mrs. Unwin) whom he had professed to love as a mother, and who watched over him, during this long fit of depressive malady, extended through several years, with that perfect mixture of tenderness and fortitude, which constitutes the inestimable influence of maternal protection. I wish to pass rapidly over this calamitous period, and shall only observe, that nothing could surpass the sufferings of the patient, or excell the care of the nurse. That meritorious care received from Heaven the most delightful of all rewards, in seeing the pure and powerful wind, to whose restoration it has contributed so much, not only gradually restored to the common enjoyments of life, but successively endowed with new and marvellous funds of diversified talents, and courageous application."
His recovery was slow, and he knew enough of his malady to abstain from literary employment while his mind was in any degree unsettled. The first amusement which engaged his humane affections was the taming of three hares, a circumstance that would have scarcely deserved notice unless among the memoranda of natural history, if he had not given to it an extraordinary interest in every heart by the animated account he wrote of this singular family. In the mean time, his friends Mrs. Unwin and Mr. Newton redoubled their efforts to promote his happiness, and to reconcile him to the world in which he had yet a very important part to act: but as, in 1780, Mr. Newton was obliged to leave Olney and accept of the living of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, he contrived to introduce Cowper to the friendship of the rev. Mr. Bull of Newport Paguell. This gentleman, who had many excellent qualities to recommend him as a fit successor to Mr. Newton, soon acquired the unreserved confidence of our author. It was at Mr. Bull's request that he translated several spiritual songs from the French of Madame De La Mothe Guion, which have since been published separately. His recovery from this second illness may be dated from the summer of 1778, after which he began to meditate those greater exertions upon which his fame rests.
About this time he was advised to make application to lord Thurlow, who had been one of his juvenile companions, for some situation of emolument, but he declined this from motives of highly justifiable delicacy, intimating that he had hopes from that quarter, and that it would be better not to anticipate his patron's favours by solicitation. He afterwards sent a copy of his first volume of poems to his lordship, accompanied with a very elegant letter, and seems to murmur a little, on more occasions than one, at his lordship's apparent neglect. A correspondence took place between them at a more distant period, but whether from want of a proper representation of his situation, or from forgetfulness, it is to be lamented that this nobleman's interest was employed when too late for the purpose which Cowper's friends hoped to promote. It will be difficult to impute a want of liberality to lord Thurlow, while his voluntary and generous offer to Dr. Johnson remains on record.
In the mean time, our author continued to amuse himself with reading such new books as his friends could procure, with writing short pieces of poetry, tending his tame hares, and birds, and drawing landscapes, a talent which he discovered in himself very late in life, and which he employed with considerable skill. In all this perhaps there was not much labour, but it was not idleness. A short passage in one of his letters to the rev. William Unwin, dated May 1780, will serve to make the distinction. "Excellence is providentially placed beyond the reach of indolence, that success may he the reward of industry, and that idleness may be punished with obscurity and disgrace. So long as I am pleased with an employment I am capable of unwearied application, because my feelings are all of the intense kind: I never received a little pleasure front any thing in my life: if I am delighted, it is in the extreme. The unhappy consequence of this temperature is, that my attachment to any occupation, seldom outlives the novelty of it."
Urged, however, by his amiable friend and companion, Mrs. Unwin, he employed the winter of 1780-1, in preparing his first volume of poems for the press, consisting of the Table-Talk, Hope, the Progress of Errour, Charity, &c. But such was his diffidence in their success, that he appears to have been in doubt whether any bookseller would be willing to print them on his own account. He was fortunate enough, however, to find in Mr. Johnson of St. Paul's Church Yard, (his friend Mr. Newton's publisher,) one whose spirit and liberality immediately set his mind at rest. The volume was accordingly completed, and Mr. Newton furnished the preface, a circumstance which his biographer attributes to "his extreme diffidence in regard to himself, and his kind eagerness to gratify the affectionate ambition of a friend whom he tenderly esteemed." It was published in 1782.
The success of this volume was undoubtedly not equal to its merit, for, as his biographer has justly observed, "it exhibits such a diversity of poetical powers, as have been given very rarely, indeed, to any individual of the modern, or of the ancient world." As an apology for the inattention of the public to a present of such value, Mr. Hayley has supposed that he gave offence by his bold eulogy on Whitfield, "whom the dramatic satire of Foote, in his comedy of the Minor, had taught the nation to deride as a mischievous fanatic;" and that he hazarded sentiments too precise and strict for public opinion. The character of Whitfield, however, had been long rescued front the impious buffooneries of Foote, and the public could now bear his eulogium with tolerable patience, but that there are austerities in these poems, which indicate the moroseness of a recluse, Cowper was not unwilling to allow. Whether he softened them in the subsequent editions, his biographer has not informed us. It may be added that the volume was introduced into the world without any of the quackish parade so frequently adopted, and had none of those embellishments by which the eye of the purchaser is caught at the expence of his pocket. The periodical critics, whose opinions Cowper watched with more anxiety than could have been wished in a man so superior to the common candidates for poetic fame, were divided, and even those who were most favourable, betrayed no extraordinary raptures. In the mean time the work crept slowly into notice, and acquired the praise of those who knew the value of such an addition to our stock of English poetry.
Some time before the publication of this volume, Mr. Cowper made a most important acquisition in the friendship and conversation of lady Austen (widow of sir Robert Austen) whom he found a woman of elegant taste, and such critical powers as enabled her to direct his studies by her judgment and encourage them by her praise. An accidental visit which this lady made to Olney served to introduce her to the poet, whose shyness generally gave way to a display of mental excellence and polished manners. In a short time, lady Austen shared his esteem with his older friend Mrs. Unwin, although not without exciting some little degree of jealousy, which Mr. Hayley has noticed with his usual delicacy. Cowper, without at first suspecting that the feelings of Mrs. Unwin could be hurt, "considered the cheerful and animating society of his new accomplished friend, as a blessing conferred on him by the signal favour of Providence." Some months after their first interview, lady Austen quitted her house in London, and having taken up her residence in the parsonage house of Olney, Cowper, Mrs. Unwin, and she, became almost one family, dining always together alternately in the houses of the two ladies.
Among other small pieces which he composed at the suggestion of lady Austen, was the celebrated ballad of John Gilpin, the origin of which Mr. Hayley thus relates: "It happened one afternoon, that lady Austen observed him sinking into increasing dejection: it was her custom, on these occasions, to try all the resources of her sprightly powers for his immediate relief. She told him the story of John Gilpin (which had been treasured in her memory from her childhood) to dissipate the gloom of the passing hour. Its effect on the fancy of Cowper had the air of enchantment: he informed her the next morning, that convulsions of laughter brought on by his recollection of her story, had kept him waking during the greatest part of the night, and that he had turned it into a ballad." Mrs. Unwin sent it to the Public Advertiser, where the late Mr. Henderson, the player, first saw it, and conceiving it might serve to display his comic powers, read it at Free-Mason's-hall, in a course of similar entertainments given by himself and Mr. Thomas Sheridan. It became afterwards extremely popular among all classes of readers, but was not generally known to he Cowper's, until it was added to his second volume.
The public was soon laid under a far higher obligation to lady Austen for having suggested our author's principal poem, The Task, "a poem," says Mr. Hayley, "of such infinite variety, that it seems to include every subject, and every style, without any dissonance or disorder: and to have flowed without effort, from inspired philanthropy, eager to impress upon the hearts of all readers, whatever may lead them, most happily, to the full enjoyment of human life, and to the final attainment of heaven."
This admirable poem appears to have been written in the years 1783 and 1784, but underwent many careful revisions. The public had done much for Cowper, but he had too much regard for it and for his own character, to obtrude what was incorrect, or might be made better. It was his opinion, an opinion of great weight from such a critic, that poetry, in order to attain excellence, must be indebted to labour; and it was his correspondent practice to revise his poems with scrupulous care and severity. In a letter to his friend Mr. Bull, on this poem, he says "I find it severe exercise, to mould and fashion it to my mind." Much of it was written in the winter, a season generally unfavourable to the author's health, but there is reason to think that the encouragement and attention of his amiable and judicious friends animated him to proceed, and that the regularity of his progress was favourable to his health and spirits. Disorders, like his, have been known to give way to some species of mental labour, if voluntarily undertaken, and pursued with steadiness. The Task filled up many of those leisure hours, for which rural walks and employments would have amply provided at a more favourable season. It may be added, likewise, that no man appears to have had a more keen relish for the snugness of a winter fire-side, and that, free from ambition or the love of grand and tumultuous enjoyments, his heart was elated with gratitude for those humbler comforts which a mind like his would be apt to magnify by reflecting on the misery of those who want them.
In November 1784, The Task was sent to the press, and he began the Tirocinium, the purport of which, in his own words, was, "to censure the want of discipline, and the scandalous inattention to morals, that obtain in public schools; especially in the largest: and to recommend private tuition as a mode of education preferable on all accounts; to call upon fathers to become tutors of their own sons, where that is practicable; to take home a domestic tutor where it is not: and if neither can be done, to place them udder the care of some rural clergyman whose attention is limited to a few."
In this year, when he was beginning his translation of Homer, the quiet and even tenour of his life was disturbed by the necessity he felt of parting with lady Austen. A short extract from Mr. Hayley will give this matter as clear explanation as delicacy can permit. They who cannot apologize for the feelings of both ladies on this occasion, know but little of the human heart.
"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 long been 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 idolized, 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 fittest 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 front 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 very tender, yet resolute letter. 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 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 power, 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 shewn 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."
Notwithstanding this interruption to his tranquillity, for such it certainly proved, although he was conscious that he had acted the part which was most honourable to him, he proceeded with the Tirocinium, and the other pieces which composed his second volume. These were published in 1785, and soon engaged the attention and admiration of the public in a way that left him no regret for the cool reception and slow progress of his first volume. Its success also obtained for him another female friend and associate, lady Hesketh, his cousin, who had long been separated from him. Their intercourse was first revived by a correspondence, of which Mr. Hayley has published many interesting specimens, and says, with great truth, that Cowper's letters "are rivals to his poems in the rare excellence of representing life and nature with graceful and endearing fidelity." In explaining the nature of his situation to lady Hesketh, who came to reside at Olney in the month of June 1786, he informs her, that he had lived twenty years with Mrs. Unwin, to whose affectionate care it was owing that he lived at all, but that for thirteen of those years he had been in a state of mind which made all her care and attention necessary. He informs her at the same time that dejection of spirits, which may have prevented many a man from becoming an author, made him one. He found employment necessary, and therefore took care to be constantly employed. Manual occupations do not engage the mind sufficiently, as he knew by experience, having tried many. But composition, especially of verse, absorbs it wholly. It was his practice, therefore, to write generally three hours in a morning, and in an evening he transcribed. He read also, but less than he wrote, for bodily exercise was necessary, and he never passed a day without it. All this shows that Cowper understood his own case most exactly, and that he was not one of those melancholics who are said to give way to their disorder. No man could have discussed the subject with more perspicuity, or treated himself with more judgment. The returns of his malady, therefore, appear to have been wholly unavoidable, and wholly independent of his employment, whether of a religious or literary kind.
In October 1785, he had reached the twentieth book of his translation of Homer, although probably no part was finished as he could have wished. His stated number was forty lines each day, with transcription and revision. His immediate object was to publish the Homer by subscription, in order to add something to his income, which appears to have been always scanty, and in this resolution he persisted, notwithstanding offers from his liberal bookseller far more advantageous than a subscription was then likely to have produced. He seems to have felt a certain degree of pleasure, not wholly unmixed, in watching the progress of his subscription, and the gradual accession of names known to the learned world, or dear to himself by past recollections.
During the composition of this work, he at first declined what he had done before, shewing specimens to his friends, and on this subject, indeed, his opinion seems to have undergone a complete change. To his friend Mr. Unwin, who informed him that a gentleman wanted a sample, he says with some humour, "When I deal in wine, cloth, or cheese, I will give samples, but of verse, never. No consideration would have induced me to comply with the gentleman's demand, unless he could have assured me that his wife had longed." From this resolution he afterwards departed in a variety of instances. He first sent a specimen, with the proposals, to his relation general Cowper: it consisted of one hundred and seven lines, taken from the interview between Priam and Achilles in the last book. This specimen fell into the bands of Mr. Fuseli, the celebrated painter, whose critical knowledge of Homer is universally acknowledged, and Cowper likewise agreed that if Mr. Maty, who then published a Review, wished to see a book of Homer, he should be welcome; and the first book and a part of the second were accordingly sent. Mr. Fuseli afterwards was permitted to revise the whole of the manuscript, and how well Cowper was satisfied in falling in with such a critic, appears (among other proofs of his high esteem) from the short character he gives of him in one of his letters. "For his knowledge of Homer, he has, I verily believe, no fellow." Colman, likewise, his old companion, with whom he had renewed all epistolary intimacy, revised some parts in a manner which afforded the author much satisfaction, and appears to have corrected the sheets for the press. With Maty he was less pleased, as his criticisms appeared "unjust and in part illiberal."
While thus intent on his Homer, he was enabled, by the kindness of lady Hesketh, to remove in November 1796, from Olney to Weston, about two miles distant, where the house provided for him was more sequestered and commodious. Here too he had access to the society of Mr. Throckmorton, a gentleman of fortune in that neighbourhood, whose family had for some time studied to add to his comforts in a manner the most delicate and affectionate. It is, indeed, not easy to speak of the conduct of Cowper's friends in terms adequate to their merit, their kindness, sensibility and judgment. Their attentions exceeded much of what we read, and perhaps all that we commonly meet with under the name of friendship. In the midst of these fair prospects, however, he lost his steady and beloved friend Mr. Unwin, who died in December of this year.
The translation of Homer, after innumerable interruptions, was sent to press about November 1790, and published on the first of July 1791, in two quarto volumes, the Iliad being inscribed to earl Cowper, his young kinsman, and the Odyssey to the dowager lady Spencer. Such was its success with the subscribers and non-subscribers that the edition was nearly out of print in less than six mouths. Yet after all the labour he had employed, and all the anxiety he felt for this work, it fell so short of the expectation formed by the public, and of the perfection which he hoped he had attained, that instead of a second edition, he began, at no long distance of time, what may be termed a new translation. To himself, however, his first attempt had been of great advantage, nor were any number of his years spent in more general tranquillity, than the five which he had dedicated to Homer.
One of the greatest benefits he derived from his attention to this translation, was the renewed conviction that labour of this kind, although with intermissions sometimes of relaxation and sometimes of anxiety, was necessary to his health and happiness; and this conviction led him very soon to accede to a proposal made by his bookseller, to undertake a magnificent edition of Milton's poetical works, the beauties of which had engaged his wonder at a very early period of life. These he was now to illustrate by notes, original and selected, and to translate the Latin and Italian poems, while Mr. Fuseli was to paint a series of pictures to be engraven by the first artists. To this scheme, when yet in its infancy, the public is indebted for the friendship which Mr. Hayley contracted with Cowper, and one of its happiest consequences, such a specimen of biography, minute, elegant and highly instructive, as call seldom be expected.
Mr. Hayley about this time had written a life of Milton to accompany the splendid edition published by Messrs. Boydells: and having been represented, in a newspaper, as the rival of Cowper, he immediately wrote to him on the subject. Cowper answered him in such a manner as drew on a closer correspondence, which soon terminated in mutual esteem and cordial friendship. Personal interviews followed, and Mr. Hayley has gratified his readers with a very interesting account of his first visit to Weston, and of the return by Cowper and Mrs. Unwin at his seat Eartham, in Sussex, but in a style so peculiarly affectionate as to be wholly incapable of abridgment. On Cowper's Journey to Eartham, he passed through London, but without stopping, the only time he had seen it for nearly thirty years; thirty such years! What his feelings were on this occasion, who would not wish to be informed?
The edition of Milton went on but slowly. A revisal of Homer presented itself in the mean time, as a more urgent as well as pleasing undertaking, and from 1792 we find our author employed in correcting, re-writing and adding notes. In 1793 he appears to have been solely occupied in these labours, and wished to engage Mr. Hayley with him in a regular and complete revisal of his Homer. Mr. Hayley, with every inclination for an office so agreeable, and a partnership so honourable, still imagined that at this time he might render more essential service to the poet by an application to his more powerful friends. This delicate office was undertaken in consequence of what he had observed in Cowper on a late visit to Weston. "He possessed completely at this period," says his biographer, "all the admirable faculties of his mind, and all the native tenderness of his heart; but there was something indescribable in his appearance, which led me to apprehend, that without some signal event in his favour, to re-animate his spirits, they would gradually sink into hopeless dejection. The state of his aged and infirm companion (Mrs. Unwin) afforded additional ground for increasing solicitude. Her cheerful and beneficent spirit could hardly resist her own accumulated maladies, so far as to preserve ability sufficient to watch over the tender health of him, whom she had watched and guarded so long. Imbecility of body and mind must gradually render this tender and heroic woman unfit for the charge which she had so laudably sustained. The signs of such imbecility were beginning to be painfully visible: nor can nature present a spectacle more truly pitiable than imbecility in such a shape eagerly grasping for dominion, which it knows neither how to retain, or how to relinquish."
For some time, however, the fears of Mr. Cowper's affectionate friend, appeared to be groundless. His correspondence after the departure of Mr. Hayley, in November 1793, bespoke a mind considerably at case, and even cheerful and active. From various circumstances, the scheme of publishing an edition of Milton appears to have been totally relinquished, and as his enthusiasm for this undertaking had abated, he expresses considerable satisfaction that he could devote the whole of his time to the improvement of his translation of Homer. A new scheme, more suitable to his original talents, had been suggested in 1791, by the rev. Mr. Buchanan, curate of Ravenstone, a man of worth and genius. This was a poem to he entitled The Four Ages, or the four distinct periods of Infancy, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age. For some time our poet meditated with great satisfaction on this design, and probably revolved many of the subordinate subjects in his mind. It seems to have been particularly calculated for his powers of reflection, his knowledge of the human heart, and his exquisite talent for depicting life and manners, and it was intended likewise to unite the fascinations of the graphic art. Mr. Hayley has published a fragment of this work, imperfect as the author left it, but more than enough to make its regret that his situation and the situation of his aged companion soon forbade all hopes of its being executed.
In January 1794, he informed his friend Mr. Rose, that he had just ability enough to transcribe, and that he wrote at that moment under the pressure of sadness not to he described. In the expressive language of his biographer, "his health, his comfort, and his little fortune, were perishing most deplorably." Mrs. Unwin had passed into a state of second childhood, and something seemed wanting to cheer the mind of Cowper, if possible, against the prospect of decaying comforts and competence. Application was accordingly made to those who had it in their power to procure, what so much merit must have dignified, a pension; but many months elapsed before effectual attention could be obtained. What power refused, however, was in some degree performed by friendship; lady Hesketh, with her accustomed benevolence of character, and with an affection of which the instances are very rare, removed to Weston, and became the tender nurse of the two drooping invalids, of Mrs. Unwin, who was declining by years and infirmities, and of Cowper, who, in April 1794, had relapsed into his worst state of mental inquietude.
At this time, in consequence of a humane and judicious letter from the rev. Mr. Greathead of Newport Pagnell, Mr. Hayley paid a visit to this house of mourning, but found his poor friend, "too much overwhelmed by his oppressive malady to shew even the least glimmering of satisfaction at the appearance of a guest, whom he used to receive with the most lively expressions of affectionate delight." In this deplorable state he continued during Mr. Hayley's visit of some weeks, and the only circumstance which contributed in any degree to cheer the hearts of the friends who were now watching over him, was the intelligence that his majesty had been pleased to confer upon him such a pension as would insure an honourable competence for his life. Earl Spencer was the immediate agent in procuring this favour, and it would no doubt have added to its value, had the object of it known that he was indebted to one, who of all his noble friends, stood the highest in his esteem. But he was now, and for the remainder of his unhappy life, beyond the power of knowing or acknowledging the benevolence in which his heart delighted. Mr. Hayley left him for the last time, in the spring of 1794, and from that period till the latter end of July 1795, Cowper remained in a state of the deepest melancholy.
His removal from Weston now appeared to his friends a necessary experiment, to try what change of air and of objects might produce: and his young kinsman, the rev. Mr. Johnson, undertook to convey him and Mrs. Unwin front that place to North Tuddenham in Norfolk, where they arrived in the beginning of August 1795, and resided till the nineteenth. Of Cowper's state during this time, all that we are told is, that he exhibited some regret on leaving Weston, and some composure of mind during a conversation of which the poet Thomson was the subject. He was able also to bear considerable exercise, and on one occasion walked with Mr. Johnson to the neighbouring village of Mattishall, on a visit to his cousin Mrs. Bodham. "On surveying his own portrait by Abbot, in the house of that lady, he clasped his hands in a paroxysm of pain, and uttered a vehement wish, that his present sensations might be such as they were when that picture was painted."
After this short residence at Tuddenham, Mr. Johnson conducted his two invalids to Mundsley, a village on the Norfolk coast, where they continued till October, but without deriving any apparent benefit from the sea air. Some calm recollection of past scenes, however, returned, enough to prompt him to write a letter to Mr. Buchanan, enquiring after matters at Weston. But this was almost the last of his correspondence. In October, Mr. Johnson removed him and Mrs. Unwin to Dereham, which they left in November for Dunham Lodge, a house situated on high ground in a park about four miles from Swaffam.
Here his affectionate kinsman endeavoured by various means to rouse in him an attention to literary or common subjects, such as might prevent his mind from preying on itself, and on some occasions he appears to have succeeded in a small degree; but the recurrence of fixed melancholy was so frequent as to destroy the transient hopes which these promising appearances excited. In the following year, change of scene was again adopted, and not without such effect as justified the measure, even when all prospect of permanent advantage had vanished. In December 1796, death removed Mrs. Unwin by a change as tranquil as her decayed body and mind promised. Cowper, about an hour after her departure, looked at the corpse, but started suddenly away with a broken sentence of passionate sorrow, and spoke of her no more. He was now in that state and at that age, when grief is neither exasperated by memory, nor relieved by consolation, and was mercifully relieved from feelings which neither religion nor reason could any longer regulate.
His subsequent intervals of bodily health, few as they were, appear to have been attended with some return of attention to his favourite pursuits. His anxious and tender friend Mr. Johnson embraced such opportunities to lead him to take delight in the revision of his Homer, and from September 1797, to March 1799, he completed, by snatches, the revisal of the Odyssey. Of the returns of his disorder, he appears to have been sensible, and could describe it on its commencement, and before it totally overpowered his faculties. In a letter to lady Hesketh, dated Oct. 13, 1798, which Mr. Hayley has preserved, he describes himself as one to whom nature "in one day, in one minute, became all universal blank." On this his biographer notices the opinion of some of his friends, that his disorder arose from a scorbutic habit, which, when perspiration was obstructed, occasioned an unsearchable obstruction in the fine parts of his frame.
At intervals he still wrote a few original verses, of which The Cast-away, his too favourite subject, was the last that came from his pen, but he amused himself occasionally with translations from Latin and Greek epigrams. His last effort of the literary kind, was an improved version of a passage in Homer, which he wrote at Mr. Hayley's suggestion, and which that gentleman received on the thirty-first of January 1800. In the following month he exhibited all the symptoms of dropsy, which soon made a rapid progress. On April 25, about five in the afternoon, he expired so quietly that not one of his friends who were present perceived his departure, but from the awful stillness which succeeded.
On Saturday, May 3, he was buried in St. Edmund's chapel in Dereham church, where lady Hesketh caused a marble tablet to be erected, with the following inscription:
WILLIAM COWPER, Esq.
Born in Hertfordshire
Buried in this church
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.
That such a man should have been doomed to endure a life of mental distraction, relieved by few intervals, will probably ever be the subject of wonder; but that wonder will not be removed by curious inquiries into the state of Cowper's mind, as displaying circumstances that have never occurred before. Awful as his case was, and most deeply as it ever must be deplored, there was nothing singular in the dispensation, unless that it befel one of more than common powers of genius, and consequently excited more general sympathy. Mr. Hayley, who has often endeavoured to reason on the subject, seems to resolve it at last into a bodily disorder, a sort of scorbutic affection which, when repelled, brought on derangement of more or less duration. It appears to the present writer, from a careful perusal of that instructive piece of biography published by Mr. Hayley, that Cowper, from his infancy, had a tendency to errations of mind; and without admitting this fact in some degree, it must seem extremely improbable that the mere dread of appearing as a reader in the house of lords should have brought on his first settled fit of lunacy. Much, indeed, has been said of his uncommon shyness and diffidence, and more, perhaps, than the history of his early life will justify. Shyness and diffidence are common to all young persons who have not been early introduced into company, and Cowper, who had not, perhaps, that advantage at home, might have continued to be shy when other boys are forward. But had his mind been, even in this early period, in a healthful state, he must have gradually assumed the free manners of an ingenuous youth, conscious of no unusual imperfection that should keep him back. At school, we are told, he was trampled upon by ruder boys who took advantage of his weakness, yet we find that he mixed in their amusements, which must in some degree have advanced him on a level with them: and what is yet more extraordinary, we find him for some years associating with men of more gaiety than pure morality admits, and sporting with the utmost vivacity and wildness with Thurlow and others, when it was natural to expect that he would have been glad to court solitude for the purposes of study, as well as for the indulgence of his habitual shyness, if, indeed, at this period it was so habitual as we are taught to believe.
Although, therefore, it be inconsistent with the common theories of mania, to ascribe his first attack to his aversion to the situation which was provided for him, or to the operation of delicacy or sensibility on a healthy mind, it is certain that at that time, and when, by his own account, he was an entire stranger to the religious system which he afterwards adopted, he was visited by the first attack of his disorder, which was so violent and of such a length as to put an end to all prospect of advancement in his profession. It is particularly incumbent on all who venerate the sound and amiable mind of Cowper, the clearness of his understanding, and his powers of reasoning, to notice the date and circumstances of this first attack, because it has been the practice with superficial observers, and professed infidels, who are now running down all the important doctrines of revealed religion under the name of methodism, to ascribe Cowper's malady to his religious principles, and his religions principles to the company he kept. But important as it may be to repel insinuations of this kind, it is become less necessary since the publication of Mr. Hayley's Life, which affords the most complete vindication of Mr. Cowper's friends, and decidedly proves that his religious system was no more connected with his malady than with his literary pursuits; that his malady continued to return without any impulse from either, and that no means of the most judicious kind were omitted by himself or his friends to have prevented the attack, if human means could have availed. With respect to his friends, there can be nothing conceived more consolatory to him who wishes to cherish a good opinion of mankind, than to contemplate Cowper in the midst of those friends, men and women exquisitely tender, kind, and disinterested, animated by the most pure benevolence towards the helpless and interesting sufferer, enduring cheerfully every species of fatigue and privation, to administer the least comfort to him, and sensible of no gratification but what arose from their success in prolonging and gladdening the life on which they set so high a value.
To add much to this sketch, respecting the merit of Cowper as a poet, would he superfluous. After passing through the many trials which criticism has instituted, he remains, by universal acknowledgment, one of the first poets of the eighteenth century. Even without awaiting the issue of such trials, he attained a degree of popularity which is almost without a precedent, while the species of popularity which he has acquired is yet move honourable than the extent of it. No man's works ever appeared with less of artificial preparation; no venal heralds proclaimed the approach of a new poet, nor told the world what it was to admire. He emerged from obscurity, the object of no patronage, and the adherent of no party. His fame, great and extensive as it is, arose from gradual conviction, and gratitude for pleasure received. The genius, the scholar, the critic, the man of the world, and the man of piety, each found in Cowper's works something to excite their surprize and their admiration, something congenial with their habits and feelings, something which taste readily selected, and judgment decidedly confirmed. Cowper was found to possess that combination of energies which marks the comprehensive mind of a great and inventive genius, and to furnish examples of the sublime, the pathetic, the descriptive, the moral, and the satirical, so numerous, that nothing seemed beyond his grasp, and so original, that nothing reminds us of any former poet.
If this praise be admitted, it will be needless to inquire in what peculiar charms Cowper's poems consist, or why he, above all poets of recent times, has become the universal favourite of his nation. Yet as he appears to have been formed not only to be an ornament but a model to his brethren, it may not be useless to remind them, that in him the virtues of the man and the genius of the poet were inseparable, that in every thing he respected the highest interests of human kind, the promotion of religion, morality, and benevolence, and that while he enchants the imagination by the decorations of genuine poetry, and even condescends to trifle with innocent gaiety, his serious purposes are all of the nobler kind. He secures the judgment by depth of reflection on morals and manners, and by a vigour of sentiment, and a knowledge of human nature, such as every man's taste and every man's experience must confirm. In description, whether of objects of nature, or of artificial society, he has few equals, and whether he passes from description to reasoning, or illustrates the one by the other, he has found the happy art of administering to the pleasures of the senses, and those of the intellect with equal success. But what adds a peculiar charm to Cowper is, that his language is every where the language of the heart. The pathetic, in which he excels, is exclusively consecrated to subjects worthy of it. He obtrudes none of those assumed feelings by which some have obtained the character of moral, tender, and sympathetic, who in private life are known to be gross, selfish, and unfeeling. In Cowper we have every where the happiness to contemplate not only the most favourite of poets, but the best of men.