Of the family, birth-place, and education of NATHANIEL COTTON, there are no written records. A collection of his Various Pieces in Prose and Verse, was printed in 1791; but, by an unpardonable neglect in the editor, without any information concerning his life, family connections, or even the times and places of his birth and death. For the sake of posterity, as well as the present time, it is to be wished that those who are acquainted with any particulars concerning him, would communicate them to some repository, where they might be reserved fro future biographers.
He was bred to the profession of physic, in which he took the degree of Doctor; but whether he was indebted to either of the English Universities for any part of the literature he possessed, or his academical degree, is uncertain.
He settled as a physician at St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, where he acquired great reputation in his profession, and continued to reside till his death. In the latter part of his life, he kept a house for the reception of lunatics.
He very early exerted his poetical talents, as may be seen by the dates of several of his performances; the Epitaphs on Miss Gee and Mr. Strong, 1736, Epitaph on Colonel Gardiner, 1745, Epitaph on John Duke of Bridgewater, 1747-8, and the verses to the Rev. James Hervey, on his Meditations, by a Physician, 1748.
In 1749, he had the affliction to lose his wife; as appears from his letter to Dr. Doddridge, dated St. Albans, April 29, 1749, published by the Rev. Mr. Stedman among the "Letters to and from Philip Doddridge, D.D." 8vo. 1790.
"I am very much obliged to you for your late tender instances of condescension and friendship. The comfort and advice which you most kindly administer, are extremely acceptable; and I heartily pray to God to give them their due weight. For my own part, I am, and have long been abundantly persuaded, that no system, but that of Christianity, is able to sustain the soul amidst all the difficulties and distresses of life. The consolations of philosophy only are specious trifles at best; all cold and impotent applications to the bleeding heart! But the religion of Jesus, like its gracious and benevolent author, is an inexhaustible source of comfort in this world, and gives us the hopes of everlasting enjoyment in the next.
"I presume humbly to hope that the Supreme Being will support me under my affliction; and I most earnestly entreat that he will satisfy my sorrows to every gracious and good purpose.
"What the mind feels upon such a painful divorce, none can adequately know, but they who have had the bitter experience of this sad solemnity. However, delicate and worthy minds will readily paint out to themselves something unutterably soft and moving upon the separation of two hearts, whose only division was their lodgment in two breasts.
"I am extremely indebted to your lady for her kind sympathy with me in my sorrows; and the only return that I can make, either to herself or her consort, is my hearty prayer, that the dissolution of their happy union may be at a very distant period."
In 1751, he published his Visions in Verse, for the Entertainment and Instruction of Younger Minds, 8vo, without his name; nor is it prefixed to any of the subsequent editions, in conformity with the modest ambition he professes in the following lines of his Epistle to the Reader.
All my ambition is, I own
To profit and to please unknown.
This publication was favourably received by the polite and religious world, and probably obtained him the friendship of Young, who resided at Welwyn, in the neighbourhood of St. Albans.
He attended Young in his last illness, April 1765. Among the Extracts from his Letters, is the following account of the last moments of that excellent poet, without superscription or date.
"In my last, I acquainted you that I was called to Welwyn. When I arrived there, I found Dr. Yate waiting for me. It seems he had been sent for three or four days before my assistance was desired. Dr. Young's disorder was attended with some obscurity. But on Tuesday, matters wore a very discouraging aspect; and on Wednesday, Yate and myself gave up the case as lost. From that period to the present, Dr. Young hath been dying. Whether the scene be closed this evening I cannot take upon me to say; but this day at noon, the physicians took their leave. Dr. Young, although in his eighty-sixth year, has disputed every inch of ground with death, from the strength of his constitution, never impaired in early life by riot and debauchery. As I sat by his bed side, how earnestly did I wish the vital knot untied! I humbly pray God, that myself and all who are connected with me, either by blood or friendship, may be favoured with an easy transition out of this world into a better — Your friendship will excuse the melancholy reflections, for the sake of the object which suggested them. I was very fond of Dr. Young's company, and greatly venerated his mental abilities.
"It is past all doubt with me, that Dr. Young's "Night Thoughts" have advanced the interest of religion. For, whatever imperfections there may be in that performance, there are indisputably some of the most serious, most important, and most elevated sentiments (expressed in most nervous, striking, and animated language), which have ever dropped from the pen of man. It is said (and perhaps with truth), that there were oddities in Dr. Young's conduct. But these will moulder away from our remembrance faster than his ashes; while the more excellent part of his character, like the colourings of a picture, will brighten by time, and improve every year in their valuation. Infidels and sensualists regard the deceased as an enthusiast or melancholic. But that period is approaching, when wisdom will be justified of her children, and when intrinsic worth shall shine forth as the stars in the firmament.
"I have sometimes thought, when I have heard men of literature speak with indifference of Dr. Young's abilities, that their strictures have proceeded from a secret principle of envy. But when this generation is passed away, I dare say the Doctor's works will be universally held in great esteem.
Virtutem incolumem odimus,
Sublatem ex oculis quaerimus invidi."
The following Extracts exhibit an advantageous specimen of his temper and disposition, and an interesting picture of the infirmities of age.
"My bed is often strewed with thorns; but I must journey through life upon the same terms that many wiser and better men than myself have done; and must reflect with some degree of comfort, that I am making hasty advances to that sanctuary, 'where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary shall be at rest.' Oh! my heart strings, break not yet, out of pity to the worthier part of my family, who cannot lose me without suffering the greatest inconveniences.
"I have passed almost three winters beyond the usual boundary appropriated to human life; and having thus transcended the longevity of a septuagenarian, I now labour under the inconveniences and evils of advanced years. I am emaciated to a very great degree, and my trembling limbs are so weak, as to feel insufficient to support my weight. The languors likewise which I suffer are so frequent and severe, as to threaten an entire stop to the circulation, and are sometimes accompanied with that most distressful of all sensations, an anxiety 'circa praecordia.' I sleep so little during the night, that, in general, I can rise up at the voice of the bird; be that period ever so early. Nor are my mental powers less deficient than my bodily strength; for my memory is notoriously impaired; and a subject which requires a little thought, becomes a burden hardly supportable. Are not all the particulars which I have communicated, proofs of their being the concluding page of Shakspeare's 'strange eventful history?' Yes, surely, my dear friend, when an inspired author announces the same truth. Nor are you and I to wonder, that in our passage through this world, the weather and the ways grow the worse, the longer we travel, and the nearer we approach to our journey's end. The sacred writer just now mentioned affirms, that when those comfortless days arrive, which are attended with satiety, disgust, and inquietude, we must expect the clouds to be often returning after the rain. Amid these melancholy scenes, it hath lately pleased Divine Providence to bereave me of one of the best of daughters, who never gave me a moment's uneasiness, but at her death, and in that illness which led to it; I mean my daughter Kitty. 'Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus tam chari capitis?' But no more of this awful occurence."
He died at St. Albans, in advanced age, August 2, 1788.
Of his Visions in Verse, the seventh edition, revised and enlarged, was printed in 1767. The subsequent editions are too numerous to be specified. In 1791, his Various Pieces in Prose and Verse, many of which were never before published, were printed in 2 vols, 8vo. The first volume contains his Mirza to Hehertolla; Musculus's Letters; five Sermons; Health, an Allegory; on Husbandry; on Zeal; Detraction, a Vision; on Marriage; History of an Innkeeper in Normandy; on the XIIth Psalm; on the XLIId Psalm; Extracts from Letters. They are "inscribed, by permission, to the Dowager Countess Spencer," by Nathaniel Cotton, probably his son, in the following "dedication."
"The author being well known to her Ladyship for many years, the public testimony of approbation of his life and works, given by her whose high station and rank preclude her not from a laudable and pre-eminent zeal in the cause of religion and goodness, is particularly acknowledged by," &c.
The "dedication" is succeeded by the following short "preface," by the editor.
"As the Visions in Verse, and other pieces of the late Dr. Cotton which have made their appearance, have given general satisfaction, the editor flatters himself that the present volumes, some pieces in which have not yet been published, will be agreeable to the public.
"It may not be improper to observe, in regard to the Sermons here offered, that as Mr. Boyle, Mr. Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Mr. Addison, were firm believers in Christianity, that being laymen, and having no temporal interests relative to religion, their influence in the support of it has been extensive and effectual; So every fresh instance of firm faith in a mind far removed from all suspicion, will be acceptable to the lovers of Christianity."
His Visions in Verse, and other uncollected poems, reprinted from the edition 1791, are now, for the first time, received into a collection of classical English poetry.
His moral and intellectual character appears to have have been, in the highest degree, amiable and respectable. His piety is truly venerable and edifying. His writings are distinguished by the strongest marks of piety, learning, taste, and benevolence. They are the productions of an enlightened mind, fraught with the purest principles of morality and religion. They are characterized by an elegant simplicity, derived from a diligent study of the best classical models.
His Sermons, as the compositions of a layman, merit particular attention. They are plain, rational, and instructive. His Letters of Mirza, and Museulus, Health, an Allegory, Detraction a Vision, History of an Innkeeper, discover good sense, observation, and taste, and are very well written.
As a poet, his compositions are distinguished by a refined elegance of sentiment, and a correspondent simplicity of expression. He writes with ease and correctness, frequently with elevation and spirit. His thoughts are always just, and religiously pure, and his lines are commonly smooth and easy; but the rhymes are not always sufficiently correspondent: the words "dawn" and "morn," among others disappoint the ear. As piety predominated in his mind, it is diffused over his compositions: Under his direction, poetry may truly be said to be subservient to religion and moral instruction. Every reader will regard with veneration the writer, who condescended to lay aside the scholar and the philosopher, to compose moral apologues, and little poems of devotion, "for the entertainment and instruction of younger minds."
His Visions, the most popular of his productions, are not inferior to the best compositions of that kind in the English language. They are written in the measure of Gay's Fables, and, like them, each apologue is introduced with solemn reflections which naturally lead to the story; but in forcibleness of moral and poetical spirit, they are unquestionably superior to these popular compositions. With the utility of sentiment, they combine the beauties of personification and allegory, and the elegancies of the higher poetry. The third, seventh, eighth, and ninth visions, have exceeding merit.
His Fables approach nearer to the manner of Gay; but they have less poignancy of satire. They have great merit of the moral kind, and are properly adapted, as well as the Visions, "for the entertainment and instruction of younger minds." The salutary consequences that result from interesting fables and stories, are universally acknowledged. It is been asserted by Horace, that "Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci;" and the lapse of ages has only served to convince mankind of the truth of the assertion. Infancy is soon wearied with the task of encountering difficulties; and it is possible to sow the seeds of lasting disgust even at the tender period. Instruction, therefore, should be conveyed to "younger minds," through the medium of fables or tales, which annex improvement to pleasure, and convey morality, as it were, within the fragrant folds of the rose. No compositions are better adapted to inculcate the practice of some virtue, or to display maxims of practical wisdom, to direct us in the pursuits of life. We love to be instructed while we are amused; and exercise our critical sagacity in applying the characters of the fable to our acquaintance or ourselves, in proportion to our propensity for satire, or our desire of moral information. Rousseau, from an opinion that the former inclination predominates, in his famous critique on the Fox and Crow, of La Fontaine, objects with his usual love of paradox, and his usual spirit, to this class of composition; but it cannot be supposed that he expected his arguments would prevail upon mothers to withhold from their children the only writings that can induce them to read.
Of his miscellaneous poems, The Fire Side is the most agreeable. The subject is universally interesting, the sentiments are pleasing and pathetic, and the versification elegant and harmonious. The Verses to Hervey, which are generally known, as they are prefixed to his Meditations, contain an elegant and merited compliment to that pious and amiable writer. The verses to a Child of five years old are exquisitely beautiful. The Ode on the New Year is pious, animated, and poetical. The Sunday Hymns has exceeding merit, and ranks with the devotional compositions of Addison and Watts. The Night Piece is distinguished by dignity, variety, and originality of sentiment in a superior degree. His Epitaphs are remarkably elegant, characteristic, and pathetic. His lighter pieces are not deficient in ease and sprightliness, and may be read with pleasure; but they require no distinct examination, or particular criticism.