1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:330-36.



This great, this amiable, but unfortunate poet, the son of the Rev. John Cowper, D.D. rector of Great Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, was born on the 26th of November, N.S. 1731. He lost his mother when but six years old; an event which, notwithstanding his very early age, made a powerful impression upon him, and most probably led to the unhappy consequences which clouded his future life. On leaving Westminster school, where his timid temper had suffered much from the tyranny of the senior boys, he was articled for three years to Mr. Chapman, an attorney; a situation by no means accordant with his feelings, and which contributed to heighten the pressure of his constitutional melancholy. His clerkship being expired, he entered as a student at the Inner Temple, where he renewed his intimacy with his former schoolfellows at Westminster, Thornton and Colman; a friendship which induced him to assist in the composition of the Connoisseur.

The views of his family in the education of young Cowper were directed towards a public life; and, about the year 1763, he was appointed to the important office of Clerk of the Journals to the House of Lords. His diffidence and timidity however were such, that, being unexpectedly called upon to attend in the House, his alarm was so great that his reason suffered in the conflict, and it became necessary to place him under the care of Dr. Cotton, of St. Alban's, by whose kind management and address he was at length restored to his wonted composure.

Religious apprehensions, however, and the dread of eternal vengeance, which had always mingled with his intellectual aberrations, occasionally haunted his mind; but having been so fortunate, in the year 1765, as to form an intimacy at Huntingdon with the family of the Rev. Mr. Unwin, he became an inmate of their house; and to their attachment and affectionate attentions, he was indebted for the happiest hours of his life. On the death of Mr. Unwin, which occurred about two years after Cowper's residence at Huntingdon, he retired with his widow to Olney, in Buckinghamshire, whither they had been invited by the Rev. Mr. Newton, the curate of the place; a gentleman whose theological ideas assimilating with those of Mr. Cowper, a mutual and permanent friendship was the result.

In a society thus pure, consolatory, and intellectual, our amiable poet had passed but a short period, when the death of his beloved brother, the Rev. John Cowper, gave such a shock to his feelings, that from this event may be dated the gradual return of his despondency, which at length deepened into a state of absolute despair, that neither art nor reason could for a long period mitigate. In this dreadful situation he remained about ten years; during which Mrs. Unwin, with the most exemplary and unwearied assiduity and kindness, ministered to all his wants, and watched with undiminished hope the approach of dawning reason. This happy issue at last blessed her efforts, and to her exertions the world is probably indebted for some of the most valuable productions of human genius.

Perceiving the absolute necessity of occupying his mind, in order to prevent the return of morbid association, she induced him to compose the pieces which form the first volume of his poems, published in 1782, with a Preface by Mr. Newton. This collection was not at first received with the approbation to which it is entitled; it gradually, however, gained upon the public, and at length its great and original merits were acknowledged. The religious enthusiasm of the poet, and the structure of the versification, repelled many fastidious and superficial readers; the former was, however, soon found to be connected with a heart woe-stricken, and at the same time sincere and amiable in the most exalted degree; and if the latter had not the uniform polish of Pope, it had infinitely more energy and variety; possessed all the vigour of Churchill, without his carelessness; and, where the subject demanded it, was peculiarly sweet, harmonious, and rich.

From the period of this publication the Muse of Cowper was, through the solicitation of his friends, seldom unemployed. To the suggestion of Lady Austin, we owe the Task, a poem which appeared in 1785, and, at once, carried the reputation of its author to an unprecedented height in modern English poetry. In the Task are to be found descriptive powers not inferior to those of Thomson, mingled with a strain of the happiest satiric humour, and interspersed with touches of the most exquisite pathos and sublimity; while the whole inculcates, in versification of unparalleled Sweetness and simplicity, the noblest lessons of morality and religion.

In the year 1791, he published by subscription, in 2 vols. 4to. a translation, in blank-verse, of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, the unremitting labour of five years. With parts of this version, however, he was so much dissatisfied, that he spent the remainder of his life in a revision of it, so copious, that it may almost be considered as a new translation. In this amended state, it is, by many degrees, the best version of Homer which we possess; and every year, there is little doubt, will add to its value in the public estimation.

He likewise engaged with Mr. Johnson, the Bookseller, in 1792, to produce, for a splendid edition of Milton, a translation of the Latin and Italian poetry of that bard, and a commentary en his works. The edition was dropped; but the translation and a part of the commentary were executed, and have since been published in a quarto volume, edited by Mr. Hayley; they are such as do honour to the memory of the poet.

All his literary occupations, however, although they might retard, could not prevent, the recurrence of his dreadful malady. The decline of Mrs. Unwin in 1792, and her death in 1796, were shocks which again reduced the mind of Cowper to extreme dejection; and notwithstanding the affectionate and judicious attentions of Lady Hesketh, and his relation, the Rev. Mr. Johnson, he never again perfectly recovered the unclouded use of his faculties. In the year 1794, at a period when, unhappily, he was disabled from feeling the favour which was accorded him, a pension of three hundred a year was conferred upon him by his Majesty; a tribute justly due to the genius and declining years of the poet. Exhausted by the pressure of sufferings mental and corporeal, he expired on the 27th of April 1800; leaving to his country pro auctions that will perpetuate his name, as long as the language in which they are written shall exist.

Of the papers which our author contributed to the Connoisseur three have been acknowledged on his own authority. "During his visit to Eartham" says Mr. Hayley, "he kindly pointed out to me three of his papers in the last volume of the Connoisseur. — I find other numbers of that work ascribed to him; but the three following I print as his, on his own explicit authority. No. 119. Thursday, May 6, 1756. — No. 134, Thursday, August 19, 1756. — No. 138, Thursday, Sept. 16, 1756." The first of these papers is on the subject of Keeping a Secret, and contains several sketches of faithless Confidantes; the second gives in a letter a curious, but too faithful an, account of the present state of Country Churches, their Clergy, and their Congregations; and the third is an essay on Conversation and its abuses. These numbers are among the best in the collection, and the last of them embraces a topic which he afterwards selected as the subject of one of his most instructive poems. It is highly probable, that Nos. 111 and 115 were likewise written by Mr. Cowper; for in the concluding number of the Connoisseur they are attributed to the author of No. 119, nor will they reflect any discredit on his memory.