There is scarcely any ground in England so well known in imagination as the haunts of Cowper at Olney and Weston; there is little that is so interesting to the lover of moral and religious poetry. There the beautiful but unhappy poet seemed to have created a new world out of unknown ground, in which himself and his friends, the Unwins, Lady Austen and Lady Hesketh, the Throckmortons, and the rest, played a part of the simplest and most natural character, and which fascinated the whole public mind. The life, the spirit, and the poetry of Cowper present, when taken together, a most singular combination. He was timid in his habit, yet bold in his writing; melancholy in the tone of his mind, but full of fun, and playfulness in his correspondence; wretched to an extraordinary degree, he yet made the whole nation merry with his John Gilpin and other humorous writings; despairing even of God's mercy and of salvation, his religious poetry is of the most cheerful and even triumphantly glad kind;
His soul exults, hope animates his lays,
The sense of mercy kindles into praise.
Filled with this joyous assurance, wherever he turns his eye on the magnificent spectacle of creation, he finds themes of noblest gratulation. He looks into the heavens, and exclaims;—
Tell Tell me, ye shining host,
That navigate a sea that knows no storm,
Beneath a vault unsullied with a cloud,
If from your elevation, whence ye view
Distinctly scenes invisible to man,
And systems, of whose birth no tidings yet
Have reached this nether world, ye spy a race
Favoured as ours, transgressors from the womb,
And hastening to a grave, yet doomed to rise,
And to possess a brighter heaven than yours?
As one, who long detained on foreign shores
Pants to return, and when he sees afar
His country's weather-bleached and battered rocks
From the green wave emerging, darts an eye
Radiant with joy towards the happy land;
So I with animated hopes behold
And many an aching wish, your beamy fires,
That show like beacons in the blue abyss,
Ordained to guide the embodied spirit home
From toilsome life to never-ending rest.
Love kindles as I gaze. I feel desires,
That give assurance of their own success
And that, infused from heaven, must the other tend.
The Task, book v.
Such is the buoyant and cordial tone of Cowper's poetry; how unlike that iron deadness that dared not and could not soften into prayer, which so often and so long oppressed him. Nay, it is not for himself that he rejoices only, but he feels in his glowing heart the gladness and the coming glory of the whole universe.
All creatures worship man, and all mankind
One Lord, one Father. Error has no place;
That creeping pestilence is driven away;
The breath of Heaven has chased it. In the heart
No passion touches a discordant string,
But all is harmony and love. Disease
Is not, the pure and uncontaminate blood
Holds its due course, nor fears the frost of age.
One song employs all nations, and all cry,
Worthy the Lamb, for he was slain for us!
The dwellers in the vales and on the rocks
Shout to each other, and the mountain tops
From distant mountains catch the flying joy:
Till nation after nation taught the strain,
Earth rolls the rapturous Hosanna round.
Behold the measure of the promise filled;
See Salem built, the labour of a God!
Bright as a sun the sacred city shines;
All kingdoms, and all princes of the earth
Flock to that light; the glory of all lands
Flows into her; unbounded is her joy,
And endless her increase. Thy rains are there,
Nebaioth, and the flocks of Kedar there;
Praise is in all her gates: upon her walls
And in her streets, and in her spacious courts,
Is heard salvation. Eastern Java there
Kneels with the native of the farthest West;
And Ethiopia spreads abroad the hand,
And worships. Her report has travelled forth
Into all lands. From every clime they come
To see thy beauty, and to share thy joy,
O Sion! an assembly such as earth
Saw never, such as Heaven stoops down to see.
Thus heavenward all things tend. For all were once
Perfect, and all must be at length restored.
So God has greatly purposed.—
The Task, book vi.
Such was the lofty and all-embracing spirit of that man whom hard dogmatists could yet terrify and chill into utterest woe. Shrinking from the world, he yet dared to lash this world from which he shrunk, with the force of a giant, and the justice of more than an Aristides. Of the church, he yet satirized severely its errors, and the follies of its ministers; in political opinion he was free and indignant against oppression. The negro warmed his blood into a sympathy that produced the most effective strains on his behalf — the worm beneath his feet shared in his tenderness. Thus he walked through life, shunning its tumults and its highways, one of its mightiest labourers. In his poetry there was found no fear, no complaining; often thoroughly insane, nothing can surpass the sound mind of his compositions; haunted by delusions even to the attempt at suicide, there is no delusion in his page. All there is bright, clear, and consistent. Like his Divine Master, he may truly be said to have been bruised for our sakes. As a man, nervous terrors could vanquish him, and unfit him for active life; but as a poet he rose above all nerves, all terrors, into the noblest heroism, and fitted and will continue to fit others for life, so long as just and vigorous thought, the most beautiful piety, and the truest human sympathies command the homage of mankind. There is no writer who surpasses. Cowper as a moral and religious poet. Full of power and feeling, he often equals in solemn dignity Milton himself. He is as impressive as Young without his epigrammatic smartness; he is as fervently Christian as Montgomery, and in intense love of nature there is not one of our august band of illustrious writers who surpasses him. He shows the secret of his deep and untiring attachment to nature, in the love of Him who made it.
He is the Freeman, whom the truth makes free,
And all are slaves beside. There's not a chain
That hellish foes, confederate for his harm,
Can wind around him, but he casts it off
With as much ease as Samson his green withes.
He looks abroad into the varied field
Of Nature, and though poor perhaps, compared
With those whose mansions glitter in his sight,
Calls the delightful scenery all his own.
His are the mountains, and the valleys his,
And the resplendent rivers. — His to enjoy
With a propriety that none can feel,
But who with filial confidence inspired
Can lift to heaven an unpresumptuous eye,
And smiling say — "My Father made them all!"
Are they not his by a peculiar right,
And by an emphasis of interest his,
Whose eye they fill with tears of holy joy,
Whose heart with praise, and whose exalted mind
With worthy thought, of that unwearied love
That planned, and built, and still upholds a world
So clothed with beauty, for rebellious man?
Yes — ye may fill your garners, ye that reap
The loaded soil, and ye may waste much good
In senseless riot; but ye will not find
In feast, or in the chase, in song or dance,
A liberty like his, who unimpeached
Of usurpation, and to no man's wrong,
Appropriates nature as his Father's work,
And has a richer use of yours than ye.
He is indeed a Freeman free by birth
Of no mean city, planned or ere the hills
Were built, the fountains opened, or the sea
With all his roaring multitude of waves.—
The Task, book v.
The writings of Cowper testify everywhere to that grand sermon which is eternally preaching in the open air; to that Gospel of the field and the forest, which, like the Gospel of Christ, is the voice of that love which overflows the universe; which puts down all sectarian bitterness in him who listens to it; which being perfect "casts out all fear," against which the gloom of bigots and the terrors of fanatics cannot stand. It was this which healed his wounded spirit beneath the boughs of Yardly Chase, and came fanning his temples with a soothing freshness in the dells of Weston. When we follow his footsteps there, we somewhat wonder that scenes so unambitious could so enrapture him; but the glory came from within, and out of the materials of an ordinary walk, he could raise a brilliant superstructure for eternity.
William Cowper was born in the parsonage of Great Berkhampstead. The Birmingham railway whirls you now past the spot, or you may, if you please, alight, and survey that house hallowed by the love of a mother such as he has described, and by the record of it in those inimitable verses of the son on receiving her picture.
Where once we dwelt our name is heard no more,
Children not thine have trod my nursery floor;
And where the gardener Robin, day by day,
Drew me to school along the public way,
Delighted with my bauble coach, and wrapped
In scarlet mantle warm, and velvet capped.
'Tis now become a history little known,
That once we called the pastoral house our own.
Cowper was at school at Market-Street, Hertfordshire, then at Westminster; after which he was articled for three years to Mr. Chapman, a solicitor. After quitting Mr. Chapman, he entered the Inner Temple, as a regular law student; where his associates were Thurlow, afterwards the well-known Lord Chancellor, Bonnel Thornton, and Colman. Cowper's family was well connected, both on the father's and mother's side, and he had every prospect of advancement; but this the sensitiveness of his nature prevented. Being successively appointed to the offices of Reading Clerk, Clerk of the Private Committees in the House of Lords, and Clerk of the Journals, he was so overwhelmed by being unexpectedly called on to discharge his duty publicly before the House, that it unsettled his mind, his prospects of a worldly nature were for ever over, and in a state of the most settled melancholy he was committed to the care of Dr. Cotton of St. Alban's. In the summer of 1765 he quitted St. Alban's, and retired to private lodgings in the town of Huntingdon. There he was, as by a direct act of Providence, led to the acquaintance of the family of the Rev. Mr. Unwin, one of the clergymen of the place. Cowper had attended his church, and his interesting appearance having attracted the attention of his son William Cawthorne Unwin, he followed him in his solitary walk, and introduced himself to him. This simple fact decided, as by the very finger of heaven, the whole destiny of the poet, and probably secured him as a poet to the world. With this family he catered into the most affectionate intimacy. They were people after his own heart, pious, intelligent, and most amiable. The father was, however, soon after killed by a fall from his horse, the son was himself become a minister, and the widow, the ever-to-be-loved Mary Unwin, retired with the suffering poet to Olney, at the invitation of the Rev. John Newton, the clergyman there, where she watched over him with the tender solicitude of a mother. To her, in all probability, we owe all that we possess in the poetry of Cowper.
With his life here we are made familiar by his poetry and letters, and the biography of Hayley. His long returns of melancholy, the writing of poetry which Mrs. Unwin suggested to him to divert his thoughts, his gardening, his walks, his tame hares, his successive acquaintances with Lady Austen, Lady Hesketh, and the like, all this we know. What now concerns us is, the present state and appearances of his homes and haunts here. To these the access is now easy. From the Wolverton station, on the Northwestern railway, an omnibus sets you down, after a run of nine miles, at the Bull Inn, in the spacious, still, and triangular market-place of Olney. Here again, prints have made us most accurately acquainted with the place. The house occupied by Cowper stands near the eastern corner, loftily overtopping all the rest. There are the other quiet, cottage-like houses stretching away right and left, the tall elm tree, the pump, the old octagon stone lock-up house. The house which was Cowper's makes an imposing appearance in a picture, and in reality is a building of considerable size. But it must always have been internally an ill finished house. He himself, and his friends, compared it to a prison. It had no charms whatever of location. Opposite to it came crowding up some common dwellings, behind lay the garden, on a dead flat, and therefore with no attractions but such as art and a poet's imagination gave it. It was, for some years after he quitted it, inhabited by a surgeon. He has, in his turn, long left it; and it now is divided into three tenements. One is a little grocer's shop, the other part in front is an infant school, and the back part is a workshop of some kind. The house is altogether dingy and desolate, and bears no marks of having at any time been finished in any superior style. That which was once the garden is now divided into a back yard and a small garden surrounded by a high stone wall. They show an apple-tree in it which they say Cowper planted. The other and main portion of the garden is cut off by the stone wall, and the access to it is from a distant part of the town. This garden is now in the possession of Mr. Morris, a master bootmaker, who, with a genuine feeling of respect for the poet's memory, not only retains it as much as possible in the state in which it was in Cowper's time, but has the most good-natured pleasure in allowing strangers to see it. The moment I presented myself at his door, he came out, anticipating my object, with the key, and proffered his own guidance. In the garden, about the centre, still stands Cowper's summer-house. It is a little square tenement, as Cowper describes it himself, in one of his letters, not much bigger than a sedan chair. It is of timber, framed, and plastered, and the roof of old red tiles. It has a wooden door on the side next to his own house, and a glass one, serving as window, exactly opposite, and looking across the next orchard to the parsonage. There is a bench on each side, and the ceiling is so low, that a man of moderate stature cannot stand upright in it. Except in hot weather, it must have been a regular wind-trap. It is all over, of course, written with verses, and inscribed with names. Around it stand evergreens, and in the garden remain various old fruit trees, which were there in Cowper's time, and some of them, no doubt, planted by him. The back of some low cottages, with their windows level with the very earth, forms part of the boundary wall; and the orchard, in front of the summer-house, remains as in Cowper's time. It will be recollected that, in order to save himself the trouble of going round through the town, Cowper had a gate put out into this orchard, and another into the orchard of the Rectory, in which lived his friend Mr. Newton. He paid a pound a year for thus crossing his neighbour's orchard, but had, by this means, not only a very near cut to the parsonage opened to him, but a whole quiet territory of orchards. This still remains. A considerable extent of orchards, bounded, for the most part, by the backs of the town houses, presents a little quiet region in which the poet could ramble and muse at his own pleasure. The parsonage, a plain, modern, and not large building, is not very distant from the front of the summer-house, and over it peeps the church spire. One cannot help reflecting how often the poet and his friends used to go to and fro there. Newton, with his genuine friendship for Cowper, but with his severe and predestinarian religion, which to Cowper's grieving spirit was terrifying and prostrating; then, a happy change, the lively and affectionate and witty Lady Austen, to whom we owe John Gilpin and the Task. Too lively, indeed, was this lady, charming as she was, for the nerves and the occupations of the poet. She went, and then came that delightful and true-souled cousin, Lady Hesketh, a sister, as Mary Unwin was a mother to the poet. She had lived much abroad, from the days in which Cowper and herself, merry companions, had laughed and loved each other dearly as cousins. The fame of him whom she had gone away deploring as blighted and lost for ever, met her on her return to her native land, a widow; and with a heart and a purse equally open, she hastened. to renew the intercourse of her youth, and to make the poet's life as happy as such hearts only could make him. There is nothing more delightful than to see how the bursting-forth fame of Cowper brought around him at once all his oldest and best friends — his kith and kin who had deemed him a wreck, and found him a gallant bark, sailing on the brightest sea of glory to a sacred immortality.
Lady Hesketh, active in her kindness as she was beautiful in person and in spirit, a true sisterly soul, lost no time in removing Cowper to a more suitable house and neighbourhood. Of the house we have spoken. The situation of Olney is on the flat, near the river Ouse, and subject to its fogs. The town was dull. It is much now as it was then; one of those places that are the links between towns and villages. Its present population is only 2,300. In such a place, therefore, every man knew all his neighbours' concerns. It was too exposed a sort of place for a man of Cowper's shy disposition, and yet had none of that bustle which gives a stimulus to get out of it into the country. Removing from it to the country was but passing from stillness to stillness. The country around Olney, moreover, is by no means striking in its features. It is like a thousand other parts of England, somewhat flat, yet somewhat undulating, and rather naked of trees. Weston, to which he now removed, was about a mile westward of Olney. It lies on higher ground, overlooking the valley of the Ouse. It is a small village, consisting of a few detached houses on each side of the road. The Hall stood at this end, and the neat little church at the other. Trees grew along the street, and Cowper pronounced it one of the prettiest villages of England. Luckily he had neither seen all the villages of England, nor the finest scenery of this or other countries. To him, therefore, the country was all that he imagined of lovely, and all that he desired. It never tired, it never lost its hold upon his fancy and his heart.
Scenes must be beautiful, which daily viewed
Please daily, and where novelty survives
Long knowledge, and the scrutiny of years.
Praise justly due to those that I describe.
This he said of this scenery around Weston; and in setting out for that village from Olney, we take the track which, even before he went to live there, was his daily and peculiarly favourite walk. Advancing out of Olney street we are at once on an open ascent on the highway. At a mile's distance before us lies Weston and its woods; its little church tower overlooking the valley of the Ouse. Behind us lies Olney, its tall church spire rising nobly into the sky; and close beneath it the Ouse emerges into sight, sweeping round the water-mills which figure in the poet's works, and then goes in several different streams, as he says, lazily along a fine stretch of green meadows, in which the scenes of The Dog and Water-lily, and The Poplar Field occur. On this eminence stood Cowper often, with Mary Unwin on his arm, and thus he addresses her, as he describes most vividly the view:—
And witness, dear companion of my walks,
Whose arm, this twentieth winter I perceive
Fast locked in mine, with pleasure such as love,
Confirmed by long experience of thy worth
And well-tried virtues could alone inspire—
Witness a joy that thou hast doubled long.
Thou knowest my praise of nature most sincere,
And that my raptures are not conjured up
To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
But genuine, and art partner of them all.
How oft upon yon eminence our pace
Has slackened to a pause, and we have borne
The ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew,
While admiration, feeding at the eye,
And still unsated dwelt upon the scene.
Thence with what pleasure we have just discerned
The distant plough slow moving, and beside
His labouring team, that swerved not from the track,
The sturdy swain diminished to a boy;
Here Ouse slow winding through a level plain
Of spacious mead, with cattle sprinkled o'er,
Conducts the eye along his sinuous course
Delighted. There, fast rooted in their bank,
Stand, ne'er overlooked, our favourite elms,
That screen the herdsman's solitary hut
While far beyond, and overthwart the stream,
That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,
The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
Displaying on its varied side the grace
Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tower,
Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
Just undulates upon the listening ear,
Groves, heaths, and smoking villages remote.
We should not omit to notice that behind us, over Olney, shows itself the church tower and hail of Clifton, the attempt to walk to which forms the subject of Cowper's very humorous poem, The Distressed Travellers. Before us, as we advance, — the Ouse meadows below on our left, and plain, naked farm-lands, on our right, — the park of Weston displays its lawns, and slopes, and fine masses of trees. It will be recollected by all lovers of Cowper that here lived Sir John and Lady Throckmorton, Cowper's kind and cordial friends, who, even before they knew him, threw open their park and all their domains to him; and who, when they did know him, did all that generous people of wealth and intelligence could do to contribute to his happiness. The village and estate here wholly belonged to them, and the hall was a second home to Cowper, always open to him with a warm welcome, and an easy, unassuming spirit of genuine friendship; — Lady Throckmorton herself voluntarily becoming the transcriber of his Homer, when his young friend, Rose, left him. In the whole of our literature there is no more beautiful instance of the intercourse of the literary man and his wealthy neighbours, than that of Cowper and the Throckmortons. Their reward was the pleasure they conferred; and still more, the fame they have thus won.
The Throckmortons having other and extensive estates, the successors of Cowper's friends have deserted this. The house is pulled down, a wall is built across the bottom of the court-yard, which cuts off from view what was the garden. Grass grows thickly in the court, the entrance to which is still marked by the pillars of a gateway bearing vases. Across the court are erected a priest's house and Catholic chapel, — the Throckmortons were and are Catholic, — and beyond these still stand the stables, coach-house, etc., bearing a clock-tower, and showing that this was once a gentleman's residence. At the end of the old thatched outbuilding you see the word SCHOOL painted; — it is the village school, Catholic of course, as are all, or nearly all, the inhabitants. A pair of gateway pillars, like those which led to the house, mark the entrance to the village a little beyond the house. On the opposite side of the road to the house is the park, and, directly opposite to the house, being taken out of the park, is the woodland wilderness in which Cowper so much delighted to ramble.
The village of Weston is a pretty village. The house of Cowper, Weston Lodge, stands on the right-hand, about the centre of it, forming a picturesque old orchard. The trees, which in his time stood in the street opposite, however, have been felled. A few doors on this side of the lodge is a public-house, with the Yardly Oak upon its sign, and bearing the name of Cowper's Oak. The lodge, now inhabited by Mr. Swanwell, the steward, who very courteously allows the public to see it, is a good and pleasant, but not large house, it is well known by engravings. The vignette at the head of this article represents the tree opposite as still standing, which is not the fact, and the house wants shrubbery round it, by which its present aspect is much improved. The room on the right-hand was Cowper's study. In his bedroom, which is at the back of the house overlooking the garden, there still remain two lines which he wrote when about to leave Weston for Norfolk, where he died. As his farewell to this place, the happiest of his life, when his own health, and that of his dear and venerable friend, Mrs. Unwin, were both failing, and gloomy feelings haunted him, these lines possess a deep interest. They are written on the bevel of a panel of one of the window shutters, near the top right-hand corner; and when the shutter has been repainted, this part has been carefully excepted.
Farewell, dear scenes, for ever closed to me
Oh for what sorrow must I now exchange you
—even here July 28, 1795
—July 22, 1795.
The words and dates stand just as here given, and mark his recurrence to these lines, and his restless state of mind, repeating the date of both month and year.
From this room Cowper used to have a view of his favourite shrubbery, and beyond it, up the hill, pleasant crofts. The shrubbery was generally admired, being a delightful little labyrinth, composed of flowering shrubs, with gravel walks, and seats placed at appropriate distances. He gave a humorous account to Hayley of the erection of one of these arbours; — "I said to Sam, 'Sam, build me a shed in the garden with anything you can find, and make it rude and rough, like one of those at Eartham.' 'Yes, Sir,' says Sam, and straightway laying his own noddle and the carpenter's together, has built me a thing fit for Stowe gardens. Is not this vexatious? I threaten to inscribe it thus:—
Beware of building! I intended
Rough logs and thatch, and thus it ended."
All this garden has now been altered. A yard has been made behind, with outbuildings, and the garden cut off with a brick-wall.
Not far from this house a narrow lane turns up, enclosed on one side by the park wall. Through this old stone wall, now well crowned with masses of ivy, there used to be a door, of which Cowper had a key, which let him at once into the wilderness. In this wilderness, which is a wood grown full of underwood, through which walks are cut winding in all directions, you come upon what is called the Temple. This is an open Gothic alcove, having in front an open space, scattered with some trees, amongst them a fine old acacia, and closed in by the thick wood. Here Cowper used to sit much, delighted with the perfect and deep seclusion. The temple is now fast falling to decay. Through a short winding walk to the left you came out to the park, which is separated from the wilderness by a sunk fence. A broad grass walk runs along the head of this fosse, between it and the wilderness, and here you find the two urns under the trees, which mark the grave of two favourite dogs of the Throckmortons', for which Cowper condescended to write epitaphs, which still remain, and may be found in his poems. There is also a figure of a lion, couchant, on a pedestal, bearing this inscription: "Mortuo Leone etiam Lepores insultant, 1815."
From this point also runs out the fine lime avenue, of at least a quarter of a mile long, terminated by the alcove. Every scene, and every spot of ground which presents itself here, is to be found in Cowper's poetry, particularly in the first book of his Task — The Sofa. The Sofa was but a hook to hang his theme upon; his real theme is his walk all through this park and its neighbourhood, particularly this fine avenue, closing its boughs above with all the solemn and inspiring grace of a Gothic cathedral aisle. To the right the park descends in a verdant slope, scattered with noble trees. There, in the valley, near the road to Olney, is the Spinny, with its rustic moss-house, haunted by Cowper; and where he wrote those verses full of the deepest, saddest melancholy which ever oppressed a guiltless heart, beginning,—
Oh, happy shades, to me unblest!
Friendly to peace, but not to me!
How ill the scene that offers rest,
And heart, that cannot rest, agree.
There, too, in the valley, but where it has freed itself from the wood, is the Rustic Bridge, equally celebrated by him; and beyond it in the fields, the Peasant's Nest, now grown from a labourer's cottage, shrouded in trees, to a considerable farm-house, with its ricks and buildings, conspicuous on an open eminence. Still beyond are the woods of Yardly Chase, including those of Kilwick and Dinglebury, well known to the readers of Cowper; and this old chase stretches away for four or five miles towards Castle Ashby. In traversing the park to reach the woods, and Yardly Oak, we come into a genuinely agricultural region, where a sort of peopled solitude is enjoyed. Swelling, rounded eminences, with little valleys winding between them; here and there a farm-house of the most rustic description; the plough and its whistling follower turning up the ruddy soil; and the park, displaying from its hills and dells its contrast of nobly umbrageous trees, showed where Cowper had often delighted himself, and whence he had drawn much of his imagery.
Now roves the eye;
And posted on this speculative height
Exults in its command. The sheepfold here
Pours out its fleecy tenants o'er the glebe.
At first, progressive as a stream, they seek
The middle field; but scattered by degrees,
Each to his choice, soon whitens all the land.
There from the sun-burnt hay field homeward creeps
The loaded wain; while, lightened of its charge,
The wain that meets it passes swiftly by;
The boorish driver leaning o'er his team,
Vociferous, and impatient of delay.
Nor less attractive is the woodland scene,
Diversified with trees of every growth,
Alike, yet various. How the grey, smooth trunks
Of ash, or lime, or beech, distinctly shine
Within the twilight of their distant shades
There, lost behind a rising ground, the wood
Seems sunk, and shortened to its topmost boughs.
The Task, book i.
At this point of view you find the poet's praises of the scenery more fully justified than anywhere else. The park here has a solemn, solitary, splendidly wooded air, and spreads its green slopes, and gives hints of its secluded dells, that are piquant to the imagination. And still the walk, of a mile or more, to the ancient chase is equally impressive. The vast extent of the forest which stretches before you, gives a deep feeling of silence and ancient repose. You descend into a valley, and Kilwick's echoing wood spreads itself before you on the upland. You pass through it, and come out opposite to a lonely farm-house, where, in the opening of the forest, you see the remains of very ancient oaks standing here and there. You feel that you are on a spot that has maintained its connexion with the world of a thousand years ago; and amid these venerable trees, you soon see the one which by its bulk, its hollow trunk, and its lopped and dilapidated crown, needs not to be pointed out as the YARDLY OAK. Here Cowper was fond of coming, and sitting within the hollow boll for hours; around him stretching the old woods, with their solitude and the cries of woodland birds. The fame which he has conferred on this tree has nearly proved its destruction. Whole arms and great pieces of its trunk have been cut away with knife, and axe, and saw, to prepare different articles from. The Marquis of Northampton, to whom the chase belongs, has had multitudes of nails driven in to stop the progress of this destruction, but finding that not sufficient, has affixed a board bearing this inscription: — "Out of respect to the memory of the poet Cowper, the Marquis of Northampton is particularly desirous of preserving this oak. Notice is hereby given, that any person defacing, or otherwise injuring it, will be prosecuted according to law." In stepping round the Yardly oak, it appeared to me to be, at the foot, about thirteen yards in circumference.
Every step here shows you some picture sketched by Cowper.
I see a column of slow rising smoke
O'ertop the lofty wood that skirts the wild.
A vagabond and useless tribe there eat
Their miserable meal. A kettle slung
Between two poles upon a stick transverse,
Receives the morsel — flesh obscene of dog,
Or vermin, or at best, of cock purloined
From his accustomed perch. Hard-faring race
They pick their fuel out of every hedge,
Which kindled with dry leaves just saves unquenched
The spark of life. The sportive wind blows wide
Their fluttering rags, and shows a tawny skin,
The vellum of the pedigree they claim.
We are now upon
The grassy sward, close cropped by nibbling sheep,
And skirted thick with intermixture firm
Of thorny boughs.
The old wild chase opens its glades, discovers its heaths, startles us with its abrupt cries of birds, or plunges us into the gloom of thick overshadowing oaks. It is a fit haunt of the poet. Such are the haunts of Cowper in this neighbourhood. Amid these he led a secluded but an active and most important life. How many of those who bustle along in the front of public life, can boast of a ten-thousandth part of the benefit to their fellow-men which was conferred, and for ages will be conferred, by the loiterer of these woods and fields? In no man was his own doctrine ever made more manifest, that
God gives to every man
The virtue, temper, understanding, taste,
That lifts him into life, and lets him fall
Just in the niche he was ordained to fill.
He says of himself—
I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since. With many an arrow deep infixed
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I joined by one, who had himself
Been hurt by the archers. In his side be bore,
And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and healed, and bade me live.
Since then, with few associates, in remote
And silent woods I wander, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene,
With few associates, and not wishing more.
Thus he began; but soothed by the sweet freshness of nature, strengthened by her peace, enlightened to the pitch of true wisdom by her daily converse, spite of all his griefs and fears, he ended by describing himself, in one of the noblest passages of modern poetry, as the happy man.
He is the happy man whose life e'en now
Shows somewhat of that happier life to come;
Who, doomed to an obscure but tranquil state,
Is pleased with it; and, were he free to choose,
Would make his fate his choice; whom peace, the fruit
Of virtue, and whom virtue, fruit of faith,
Prepare for happiness; bespeak him one
Content indeed to sojourn while be must
Below the skies, but having there his home.
The world o'erlooks him in her busy search
Of objects, more illustrious in her view;
And, occupied as earnestly as she,
Though more sublimely, he o'erlooks the world.
She scorns his pleasures, for she knows them not;
He seeks not hers, for he has proved them vain.
He cannot skim the ground, like summer birds
Pursuing gilded flies; and such he deems
Her honours, her emoluments, her joys.
Therefore in contemplation is his bliss,
Whose power is such, that whom she lifts from earth
She makes familiar with a heaven unseen,
And shows him glories yet to he revealed.
Not slothful he, though seeming unemployed,
And censured oft as useless. Silent streams
Oft water fairest meadows, and the bird
That flutters least is longest on the wing.—
The Task, book vi.
Quitting these scenes in quest of health, both the poet and his dear friend Mary Unwin died at Dereham, in Suffolk; she in 1796, and he in 1800. "They were lovely in their lives, and in death they are not divided."