1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah Cowley

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 79 (April 1809) 377-78.



On the 11th of March died, at Tiverton, in Devonshire, in the 66th year of her age, Mrs. COWLEY, the elegant Authoress of so many Dramas, and so much Poetry. Neither she herself, nor the family with which she was connected by marriage, were descended from the Poet COWLEY; but with the Poet GAY she had some degree of consanguinity — her father's mother was Gay's first cousin. — Never having been previously fond of theatrical entertainments, the fancy she conceived for writing was accidental. Being present at a successful Comedy, her imagination was caught; "and I too can write!" said she to her husband, who was in the box with her. She was rallied by him for her presumption. "You shall see," said she; and produced, before dinner the next day, the first act of "The Runaway," verbatim as it was afterwards performed, many will recollect with how great success. In quick succession came "The Belle's Stratagem;" the farce of "Who's the Dupe?" (the Greek introduced therein she had from her father); "Albina," a Tragedy; "Which is the Man?" "A Bold Stroke for a Husband;" "More Ways than One;" "The School for Grey Beards;" Comedies — "The Fate of Sparta," a Tragedy; " A Day in Turkey," and "The Town before You," Comedies. "The Runaway" was written in a fortnight; and "The Belle's Stratagem" in three weeks. The first produced 800 guineas, the latter 1200. Nothing was laboured; all was spontaneous effusion; she had none of the "drudge" of Literature; Fame was not half so much her object, as the pleasure of composition. They were brought out under the superintendance of her husband, except the one or two last, he having then joined his regiment, in which he had the commission of Captain, in the East Indies. He died there, about ten years since. This Gentleman, who was brother to the Merchant of the same name, possessed considerable powers of mind, and would sometimes slide in a sentence which was pleasing to the Authoress; but would now and then insert a speech which she thought became not her. Three Epic Poems were published, at intervals between these: "The Maid of Arragon," the Scene of which is laid in Spain during the incursions of the Moors; her imagination therein sends out the Christian Bishops, at the head of the Troops, the Cross in one hand and the Sword in the other, as in reality they have been seen in the present day; "The Scottish Village," and "The Siege of Acre." — In the different characters of daughter, wife, and mother, Mrs. Cowley's conduct was indeed most exemplary. Her manners were lively and unassuming; her countenance was peculiarly animated and expressive; but there was nothing about her of that style which sometimes indicates the Writer. The most incontrovertible proof that her manners were pleasing is, the estimation in which her memory is held by all who had, in so many directions, the happiness of her acquaintance. This remembrance will draw tears from the eyes of many; young women in particular, amongst whom she had many fervent attachments. The general tenor of her life was by no means theatrical; at the Theatres, but to oblige others, by accompanying them, she was never seen; frequently, for years together, she was not there at all. Though public as a GENIUS, yet, private as a WOMAN, she wore her laurels gracefully veiled. In the course of the last ten years, she wrote two or three slight Poems, in friendship with the families of Lady Carew, Lady Duntze, Mrs. Wood, and other Ladies in her neighbourhood, which probably are yet extant. Nothing remained with her but two MSS.; the first, written in the close of the last year, without rising from the table, at which she had received an "Elegy on Lord Nelson," by a Clergyman of her neighbourhood.

Her Poem thus commenced:

Mercy! what NELSON'S Ghost again!
Why not run back to BLENHEIM'S Plain,
And dig a Hero from its turf;
Or call brave HOSIER from the surf;
Or JOHN o' GAUNT raise up once more,
Or our Third EDWARD'S name restore?

And then, telling him that the creative POET should lead public attention, directs it to the Family of Braganza, on its voyage to the Brazils; draws a picture of probable progress there of European arts, of Christian knowledge. The compliment paid Nelson in these six lines, which but appear to pass him over, the Reader's taste will perceive more than equals the result of many a long poem published to celebrate him. He is at once placed above all praise, amidst our Country's acknowledged Heroes. The other, signed "A School Boy," on pretence of its being composed by one, was written but s few weeks before her death, and given to the Sexton of the Parish, whose little property was destroyed in the late floods. It describes the man's efforts, whilst his cottage was overwhelmed; its consequences, &c.; and claims a subscription for one he would not directly beg. The List of Subscriptions begins with that of "The School Boy;" and quickly more than restored his property who was so soon to assist in the funeral of his Benefactress. — Mrs. Cowley latterly declined visits, except those of at her own house, on Monday mornings; it was a working party (at which sometimes forty were present), for the benefit of distressed married women. Though not actually ill she had, for a considerable time, been conscious of rather quickly approaching death; she looked forward to it with a cheerfulness that can never have been surpassed. She had, through every part of her life, without cant, been deeply religious; Prayers, written by her at twelve years of age, were many years kept, by those whose preservation was praise. She had never in her life been seriously ill, but had considerable dread of a long-continued death-bed sickness and had frequently wished even for sudden death, rather than be sensible of gradual decay. She expired, without a struggle, in the fullest possession of her mental powers, after having been only one day confined to her room.