William Cowper

Anonymous, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 79:5-20.

The Life of the virtuous and the unhappy WILLIAM COWPER has employed the pen of more than one of his immediate friends; and the narrative has been enlarged by the minuteness of its details beyond the just claims and the proper interest of its subject. The days of Cowper were those of a melancholy recluse, suffering generally under the infliction of a disordered imagination; and the display of the smaller incidents of these days cannot surely he of any moment to the public either as instruction or entertainment. It is our purpose, therefore, to satisfy the reasonable curiosity of our readers with respect to the author of The Task, without making any exhausting demand upon their patience or their time.

The family of William Cowper was of distinguished eminence, for by his father (who was the son of Spencer Cowper, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and brother to the first Earl Cowper, the Chancellor of England) he was connected with the peerage of Britain, and from his mother (a descendant of the celebrated Doctor Donne's) he derived a still prouder pedigree, and the blood which had once flowed in the veins of our third Henry, and consequently in those of the first haughty Norman, who established himself on the throne of our old Saxon monarchs. Our poet was the eldest son of the Reverend Doctor John Cowper, and was born at Great Birkhampstead in Hertfordshire, of which place his fattier was the rector, on the 15th of November, 1731. When he had just entered on his seventh year, he was deprived by death of his mother; and in his ninth he was placed by bit father in the school of Westminster. To the roughness of a public school he was ill adapted by the delicate constitution of his mind; and it has been suggested that the first causes of that lamentable malady, which afflicted him through the several periods of his maturer life, might be traced to his treatment by his hardier and less feeling school-fellows in this distinguished seminary of learning. At the age of eighteen he was articled to an attorney; and, three year afterwards, he was entered at the Inner Temple. But to the study of the law he was strongly opposed by inclination; and for the active prosecution of it at the bar he was disqualified by the feebleness of his nerves. He indulged, therefore, in the fashionable dissipation of the town; and became the associate of his old schoolfellows, Colman, Bonnel Thornton, and Lloyd, in their pleasures and in some of their literary undertakings. At this season of his life also, it is said that he contemplated marriage: but that the lady, who was the object of his love, after a long encouragement of his addresses, finally disappointed them.

By the death of his father (in 1756) he came into the possession of very little if of any fortune; and, as he could not hope for an income from the bar, it was necessary that his friends' interest should be exerted to obtain a subsistence for him. His friends were powerful, and they succeeded in procuring for him the lucrative offices of Reading Clerk and Clerk of the Private Committees in the House of Lords. But his insuperable timidity disqualified him for the discharge of the duties attached to these places; and he did not hesitate to resign them. Indulgent to his weakness, the kindness of his powerful friends was still active in his favour; and they soon stationed him as Clerk of the Journals, in the same House of the Legislature; an office in which it was supposed that his personal appearance before the assembled lords would not be required. This supposition, however, accidentally proving erroneous; and his presence being demanded that his fitness for his new duties might be ascertained, poor Cowper shrank from the trial; and, after a most painful struggle, which affected the sanity of his mind, he relinquished his place, and, with it, his last hope of worldly affluence. The state of disordered intellect, into which he now immediately fell, was of so decided a character as to make his removal to the care of Doctor Cotton, a scientific and benevolent physician resident at St. Albans, a measure of paramount necessity. By the skilful and tender management, which he experienced during eighteen months under the roof of this worthy man, our poet was sufficiently recovered to be reinstated in the community of social life. For general society, however, he felt himself to be unfit; and he retired to Huntingdon, without, as it would appear, any particular motives to determine his preference, for privacy and quiet. Here he soon became acquainted with the amiable family of the Unwins; and, the acquaintance growing into mutual attachment, he was admitted, about the close of 1765, as a boarder into their house; in which situation he found all the tranquillity which his diseased mind required, and all the enjoyment of which it was susceptible. If the intellectual malady of Cowper were not originally induced, it was certainly exasperated by the influence of perverted religion; and the heavenly balm of the wounded spirit, the great solace and the sole support of human wretchedness, became, with an altered nature, to our afflicted poet his torment and his bane. His disorder, however, admitted of frequent and long intermissions; and, for a considerable time after his departure from the college (as Dr. Cotton's house at St. Alban's was usually called), the vision of his mind seems to have been correct, and peace — the peace of God to have resided in his bosom. During this happy season, religion was in her proper office with him, pouring nectar into his cup, and making it to sparkle with life. But the religion of Cowper most unhappily was Calvinistic: and if the Christian faith be ever dangerous to the weakness of the human intellect, it is when this pure and kind faith is arrayed in darkness and in terrors not its own by the spirit of the gloomy Calvin.

The little family, in which our poet was now sheltered, consisted of Mr. Unwin, a clergyman, who received pupils into his house, his wife, Mrs. Unwin, an excellent and intelligent woman, an unmarried daughter, and a son, who was a student at Cambridge; and who, by soliciting and meriting the intimacy of Cowper, had first attracted him to the house of the Unwins. In the society of these amiable persons, into which Mr. Newton, a Calvinistic clergyman, the curate of the neighbouring parish of Olney, was received as a daily visitor and a confidential friend, our poet passed the brightest days of his sad and overshadowed life.

In 1767, the death of Mr. Unwin, in consequence of a fall from his horse, brought affliction into this little party; and, soon after this melancholy occurrence, Mrs. Unwin removed to Olney with her family and with Cowper, who now constituted one of its inseparable members. Here his religious passion was fed by Mr. Newton, and here the friendship between these two zealous Christians became the more closely cemented. Here also did the unremitted and affectionate attentions of Mrs. Unwin to her interesting invalid gain a firmer hold upon his esteem, till he gave to her peculiar worth its full claim to the gratitude and the homage of his heart.

In the February of 1770 he was summoned to Cambridge to attend the death-bed of his beloved brother, the Rev. John Cowper, who expired in his arms on the twentieth of the succeeding month; and from the shock of this impressive scene he returned immediately to the consoling friendships and devotions of Olney.

Young Unwin was now ordained and had given himself to the church and his sister had passed by marriage from her mother's into another family. The domestic party of Mrs. Unwin was, consequently, reduced to Cowper and herself; and it cannot surprise us that, under these circumstances, the attachment between these worthy characters, strengthened as it had been by a long mutuality of kind offices, should induce an offer of marriage from one of the parties and an acceptance of it from the other. But the completion of their union was disappointed by the relapse of the unhappy Cowper into that dreadful Mate of diseased mind from which he had in a great degree emerged during his residence with the Unwins. The attack of the malady, in the present instance, was fearfully severe; and, during seven years, it pressed upon the wretched man with unmitigated force. If it subsequently relented, it never wholly withdrew; but continued to depress and harass its victim to the last moment of his mortal existence. Throughout this weary and afflictive period, the virtuous and the devout Cowper conceived himself to he under the Divine wrath, and to be the destined subject of everlasting punishment. To his diseased vision the heavens seemed to be clothed in perpetual black; and the Sovereign throne of Mercy to be filled by an implacable tyrant, inaccessible to prayer, and to whom it was even impious to lift the voice or the soul in supplication for pardon. In this most disastrous condition the miserable Cowper was incessantly tended by the faithful affection of Mrs. Unwin; and all the assistance and consolation, of which his case would admit, were supplied by the tender dares of this admirable woman. When the paroxysm of his disorder remitted, she strongly importuned him to exert his talents in compositions, for the purpose of diverting the melancholy of his mind; and, yielding to her persuasions, be produced in succession the poems which are severally entitled The Progress of Error, Truth, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, Conversation, and Retirement. From the period of his retiring to Huntingdon his pen had hitherto been exercised only in the writing of hymns: but it was now discovered to be equal to higher efforts; and in 1781 its productions, united in a volume, were communicated to the public. In the autumn of the same year commenced his acquaintance and friendship with Lady Austen, the widow of Sir Robert Austen; who came at this time to reside with a sister of hers, at Clifton in the neighbourhood of Olney. From the conversation and cheerfulness of this accomplished and fascinating woman, the melancholy of our afflicted poet experienced much alleviation — more certainly than it had previously derived from all the theology of his Calvinistic friends. On a story supplied by her, he wrote his humorous and popular ballad of John Gilpin; and it was on her suggestion that he undertook and executed his principal poem, The Task. She, also, induced him, for the more durable, if not the more strenuous, occupation of his mind, to engage in the translation of Homer. But his beneficial intercourse with this lady was too soon interrupted by the very natural jealousy of Mrs. Unwin; and, in rigid accommodation to the feelings of his old faithful friend and tender nurse, he declined at once and for ever the visits of Lady Austen. The sacrifice, however, which he thus made to principle, was of great price; and it proved, in no small degree, injurious to his mental health. Happily, indeed, he still applied himself to the translation of Homer, on which he had begun in the November of 1784; and, from this resolute exertion of his faculties, his spirits acquired so much strength as to enable him to admit the society of a select few, and to blend freely in their conversation. But "haesit lateri fatalis arundo" — the death of his enjoyments still fatally adhered to him, and exhausted the life-spring of his heart.

In the June of 1785 the publication of the second volume of his poems, including The Task, greatly extended his poetic reputation; and it excited, also, the attention of his family, from which he seems to have been withdrawn since the first occurrence of his deplorable disorder. The following year was distinguished among the uneventful years of our poor recluse's life, by the meeting, after a separation of three and twenty years, between him and his affectionate relation, Lady Hesketh. She was the daughter of his uncle, Mr. Ashley Cowper, and the widow of Sir Thomas Hesketh; and she alone of all our poet's kindred appears uniformly to have retained him in her friendly recollection. She had occasionally corresponded with him; and she had lately resigned a portion of her own income for the enlargement of his comforts. She now came to him at Olney; and, as she determined on residing with him, Mrs. Unwin provided for the accommodation of her augmented family by removing it to a larger house in the neighbouring village of Weston.

In the November of this year (1786) the death of Mr. Unwin, the Rector of Stock, overwhelmed Mrs. Unwin and Cowper with affliction, as it deprived the former of an only son and the latter of a beloved friend.

The shock from this incident was of stunning severity to our author's spirits; and they did not recover from its effects till the autumn of 1787; when they were so far restored as to allow him to resume his translation of Homer. In the execution of this arduous task, his industry was now as steady as his facility of composition was great; and, in the September of 1788, he had not only completed the first sketch of his version of the Ilias, but had brought that of the Odyssey to the close of the seventeenth book. His young maternal relation, Mr. Johnson of Norfolk, who had recently introduced himself at Weston, where he now usually passed his Cambridge vacations, assisted our poet in the transcription of his long work; and on its accomplishment, in the autumn of 1790, conveyed it to the London bookseller for publication. It issued from the press in the July of the following year; and the friends of the translator were gratified by finding that his assiduous application to this great labour of composition had proved beneficial rather than injurious to the health of his mind. Though weakened, however, his afflicting malady was not overcome. During some of its intermissions, indeed, he could be present at domestic prayer: but it does not appear that, since the last access of his disorder, he ever offered up his solitary supplications, and it is certain that he never so far recovered as to join in the public devotions of the church.

In the close of the year 1791 his affectionately attached friend, Mrs. Unwin, became the subject of a paralytic attack. But she was soon apparently relieved from its effects; and the alarm of Cowper, in the present instance, was happily of very short duration.

In the March of 1792 commenced his acquaintance and friendship with Hayley, the author of several poems which had acquired much temporary celebrity. On the suggestion of his London bookseller, Cowper had undertaken to prepare a complete edition of Milton's poetic works, and to supply the translations of all this great author's Latin and Italian poems. As soon as he was informed of this engagement of our poet's, Hayley, who was then similarly employed, immediately suspended his own work in submission to the bard of Weston; and accompanied the communication of his relinquished design with a sonnet of compliment, and with the offer of some rare books which had reference to the life and the studies of Milton. These attentions, on the part of Hayley, excited correspondent kindness on that of Cowper; and, after mutual invitations, the two poets met, in the following May, at Weston, where a friendship was confirmed between them which continued in warm efficiency till they were separated by death. During this visit of Hayley's for a fortnight at Weston, Mrs. Unwin experienced a second attack of paralysis of a more alarming character than the first; and the affecting circumstance very forcibly excited the sensibilities of Cowper. She so far, however, recovered her bodily and her mental faculties as to be able, in the succeeding August, to accompany her friend and his young relation, Mr. Johnson, on a visit to Hayley at Eartham in Sussex. This was the first absence of any continuance from his home, to which our author had submitted during the last two and twenty years of his life; and the requisite exertion, together with the pleasures of his friend's society and place, proved to be salutary to his spirits. On his return, however, to Weston, whence the hospitality of Eartham had detained him for seven weeks, he found himself unable to proceed with his Milton engagement, and he confined the efforts of his intellect to the revision of his Homer. The greater part of his day was occupied, indeed, by his attentions to Mrs. Unwin; for she was now reduced to a state of total imbecility of body and of mind; and her place, as manager of the little family of Weston, was supplied by the kindness of Lady Hesketh.

In the beginning of 1794, poor Cowper's disease increased in intensity, and baffled all the exertions of his friends for its mitigation. By the interest of Earl Spencer, importuned and urged into effect by the friendly Hayley, our suffering author now became the subject of the royal bounty, and obtained from it the grant of a pension of three hundred pounds a year. But this accession of income brought no comfort with it to his afflicted mind, which was as insusceptible of impression from any of the circumstances of external fortune, as it was unrelenting to the arguments and consolations that were offered to it by those who were the most zealous for the alleviation of its pains. Hayley, who at this juncture was at Weston, left it in despair; and Lady Hesketh, under the compulsion of impaired health, was forced also in the course of a few subsequent months, to retire from the melancholy scene. The wretched invalid was now left to the sole care of his kinsman, Mr. Johnson; from whose tender and affectionate hands he received whatever could contribute to the promotion of his comforts. For the purpose of keeping the object of his pious regard more immediately and constantly within his view, Mr. Johnson, who had entered the church about two years before, and had the charge of the parish of East Dercham in Norfolk, undertook to remove the two distressed friends from Weston to some place in his own neighbourhood; and he happily succeeded in the execution of his benevolent purpose. After some removals from North Tuddenham, where they were accommodated with the parsonage house, to Mundsley, a village contiguous to the sea, and from thence to Dunham Lodge in the vicinity of Shaffham, they were finally settled by Mr. Johnson in his own mansion at Dereham.

On the 17th of December, 1796, the infirmities of Mrs. Unwin were terminated by death; and an event, which in a preceding period would have overwhelmed Cowper with wretchedness, was now witnessed by him with calmness, and even with apparent insensibility. His attentions to her, while she yet breathed, were not ever remitted. He was with her just before she expired. He subsequently looked upon her corpse. He passed from the spectacle in silence, and never afterwards gave utterance to her name.

In the June of the following year he relieved the despair of his friends by appearing to revive. He could now attend to the correction of his Homer, and he perseveringly applied to it till he brought his work to its completion in the March of 1799. During this relatively tranquil and unclouded interval, he corresponded also with some of his friends; and, besides a few short translations, he composed two original poems, one in English, with the title of The Castaway; and one in Latin, on the appearance of some ice-islands in the German sea, which he called Montes Glaciales.

In the January of 1800, he began to suffer from symptoms of dropsy; and under the increase of this disorder, with a gradual diminution of his strength, be faded, as it were, from mortality; and, on the 25th of the following April, concluded his virtuous and afflicted life, without the least bodily pain, but amid gloom and terrors, with a mind barred against the consolations of religion, and in the full, though still, agony of despair.

As we are informed by his biographer Mr. Greatheed, the person of the amiable and unhappy Cowper, whose mind united the weakness of infancy with the power of genius, was of the middle height, with a well proportioned form rather strongly than delicately fashioned; his hair was light brown; his eyes bluish gray; his complexion ruddy, and his countenance full of expression and sensibility.

The poems of this excellent man have so frequently been made the subjects of critical remark, and the judgment, passed on them by their different readers, has been of so opposite a character, that it is difficult to speak of them with any semblance of novelty, or with any chance of obtaining, for the opinions which we may express of their proportion of merit, the general concurrence of the public to whom we address ourselves. Cowper is at the head of a particular school of poetry which yet lingers in existence; and the ardent spirit of devotion, which pervades his compositions, has conciliated the peculiar regard of that sect of religionists which, at this moment, embraces a large part of the population of our island. The circulation of these works has consequently been great; and the voice of praise has loudly been reechoed in their favour from every point of a very wide circumference. By the host of their partizans they have been exalted much beyond the warranty of sound criticism, and their author has been stationed, where it is impossible that he should stand, in the first class and by the side of the foremost of our poets. But let us inquire dispassionately into the fact; and, with the poems of Cowper in our hand, let us determine from their genuine merits, which we admit to be considerable, where among the poetry of Britain they are to be placed, and where, of course, among her poets they can justly claim a seat for their writer.

If we examine the longer rhymed poems of our author (and his shorter pieces cannot be brought into the question), where shall we find in them the rich harmony of Dryden? the tuneful and compressed vigor of Pope? the sweet and ornamented nature, the "simplicitas munditiis" of Goldsmith? Through all these productions of Cowper we can distinguish a flow of original thought, and we are occasionally entertained with the play of fancy, and with a few flashes of eruptive poetry. But their general character is that of prosaic humility. They may sometimes rise for a moment on the wing, but their proper abode is on the earth. They may disclose the fancy that paints; but never the imagination that creates. They are simple in their dress and language: but it is the simplicity of a country maiden, and not that of an Aonian divinity. They suggest not the idea of sterility: but their abundant growth is not the line vegetation of Helicon. In the preface, if we recollect rightly, to his translation of Homer, Cowper prefers as a charge against rhyme, that it will cover the poverty of prosaic expression. Acknowledging the truth of the charge, we feel confident that of all our more eminent poets Cowper has availed himself the most liberally of this virtuous efficiency of rhyme. In his rhymed compositions we may incidentally, from a few happier passages, discover him to be a poet: but in these productions he generally and on the whole, appears to us to be nothing more than a Christian moralist and divine.

As a writer of blank verse, Cowper rises in our estimation with respect to his poetic power; and, whilst we behold him taking loftier flights, we less frequently see him on the ground. It would seem that, when removed from the safeguard of rhyme, he struggled with the more effect to defend himself against prose. Certain it is that The Task is the most poetic of his works, and that from which alone he can properly demand the immortality of his flame. Unquestionably it is the offspring of superior power, and may justly plant a wreath of durable green upon the head of its parent. But The Task, as we must recollect, is one of those planless and random poems in which some of the higher and more uncommon energies of the human mind, those we mean of comprehension and combination, are not called into act. It is one of those anomalous productions, unknown to the accuracy and the pride of classic taste, in which the poet, unshackled by any law, may indulge his fancy without controll: in which he may pursue the topic of his choice till it be hunted down, or till another be started in his path to become in its turn a new subject of his chase. The epic and the dramatic poet are subjected to heavy and severe restraint by their exacted attention to arrangement, proportion, and subordination. In their works every part must have reference to the whole; and none must be enlarged and none even embellished beyond the demand of the place, which it is intended to supply, in the unity of the entire composition. But in such lawless and vagrant productions as The Task, which may begin with tar-water and end with the Trinity, the poet is liberated from all regard to symmetry and order; he may seize the thought of first occurrence; may dismiss or retain, may amplify or curtail, may ornament or throw naked from his hand as his inclination may prompt or his convenience may require. His work, in short is not a piece of regular architecture in which the column, the pilaster, the arch, and the dome, each in its precise station, are blended in one great design; but a heap of uncemented marble blocks, to be admired, possibly, for their individual beauty, but incapable of lending or of borrowing effect in consequence of their accidental contiguity. It must be obvious, therefore, to all who will reflect upon the subject, that the production of The Task, how ever fine may be many of its descriptions, or however excellent may be the sentiments which are scattered over its pages, or however happy may be certain portions of its diction, cannot elevate its author to any very high rank among the mighty sons of the poetic mind. Unless, indeed, the making a chaos can be regarded as an effort of equal intellect with that required for the forming of a world Cowper must necessarily see the great masters of song on an elevation very high above him; and, stationed at the foot of the Parnassian hill, must do homage to Homer, Virgil, Milton, Tasso, and Spenser enthroned in majestic superiority on its summit.

The Task, however, will be read with instruction and entertainment by successive generations; and will for ever maintain a respectable, though subordinate, rank among the greater works of the British Muse.

Of the minor poems of Cowper it is scarcely necessary to speak. Many of them are unworthy of publication: some of them are elegant: a few of them are happy; and two of them are exquisitely pathetic. His great translation of Homer is now generally admitted to be a failure; and of his smaller translations of Milton's Latin and Italian poetry, not more than two or three can be contemplated as rising above mediocrity.

Through all his original compositions, as we may add, there prevails an actuating spirit of devotion towards God, and of benevolence towards man, that seizes irresistibly upon our hearts and makes them captive to the bard. We may frequently disapprove of the writer, but we must always reverence and love the man.