1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Francis William Blagdon, "Biographical Sketches: William Cowper, Esq." Flowers of Literature for 1803 (1804) 23-29.



The person and mind of Cowper seem to have been formed with equal kindness by nature, and it may be questioned if she ever bestowed on any man, with a fonder prodigality, all the requisites to conciliate affection and inspire respect. His countenance expressed all the powers of his mind, and all time sensibility of his heart [Author's note: The following biographical notice of W. Cowper, is abridged from the interesting memoir of that poet, published by Hayley, who has perhaps indulged too much in the luxury of strewing, with an abundant hand, aonian flowers on Cowper's urn].

He was of a middle stature, rather strong than delicate in the form of his limbs; the colour of his hair was a light brown, that of his eyes of a blueish grey, and his complexion ruddy. In his dress he was neat, but not finical; in his diet temperate, and not dainty.

He had an air of pensive reserve in his deportment, and his extreme shyness sometimes produced in his manners an indescribable mixture of awkwardness and dignity; but no being could be more truly graceful, when he was in perfect health, and perfectly pleased with his society. Towards women in particular, his behaviour and conversation were delicate and fascinating in the highest degree.

Nature had given him a warm constitution, and had he been prosperous in early love, it is probable that he might have enjoyed a more uniform and happy tenor of health. But a disappointment of the heart, arising from the cruelty of fortune, threw a cloud on his juvenile spirit. Thwarted in love, the native fire of his temperament turned impetuously into the kindred channel of devotion. The smothered flames of desire uniting with the vapours of constitutional melancholy, and the fervency of religious zeal, produced altogether that irregularity of corporeal sensation, and of mental health, which gave such extraordinary vicissitudes of splendor and of darkness to his mortal career, and made Cowper at times an idol of the purest admiration, and at times an object of the sincerest pity.

As a sufferer, indeed, no man could be more entitled to compassion, for no man was ever more truly compassionate to the sufferings of others. It was that portion of benevolent sensibility in his nature, which endeared him to persona of all ranks who had opportunities of observing him in private life. The great prince of Conde used to say, "No man is a hero to his familiar domestic:" but Cowper was really more; he was beloved and revered with a sort of idolatry in his family; not from any romantic ideas of his magic powers as a poet, but from that evangelical gentleness of manners and purity of conduct which illumed the shade of his sequestered life. As a man, he made the nearest approaches to moral perfection. Cowper greatly resembled his eminent and exemplary brothers of Parnassus, Racine and Metastasio, in the simplicity and tenderness of his domestic character.

His voice conspired with his features to announce, to all who saw and heard him, the extreme sensibility of his heart; and in reading aloud, he furnished the chief delight of social winter evenings. He had been taught by his parents at home to recite English verses, in the early years of his childhood; and acquired considerable applause, as a child, in the recital of Gay's popular fable, The Hare with many Friends. A circumstance that probably had great influence in raising his passion for poetry, and in giving him a peculiar fondness for the wild and persecuted animal, that he converted into a very grateful domestic companion.

Secluded from the world, as Cowper had long been, he yet retained in advanced life uncommon talents for conversation; and his conversation was distinguished by mild and benevolent pleasantry, by delicate humour peculiar to himself, or by a higher tone of serious good sense; in short, by all the united charms of a cultivated mind.

Men, who withdraw themselves from the ordinary forms of society, whether delicacy of health, a passion for study, or both united, occasion their retirement from the world, are generally obliged to pay a heavy tax for the privacy they enjoy, in having their habits of life and their temper very strangely misrepresented by the ignorant malice of offended pride. The sweetness and purity of Cowper's real character did not perfectly preserve him from such misrepresentation. Many persons have been misled so far, as to suppose him a severe and sour sectary, though gentleness and good nature were among his pre-eminent qualities, and though he was deliberately attached to the established religion of his country. He was, however, a most ardent friend to liberty, both civil and religious. Few ministers of the gospel have searched the scripture more diligently than Cowper, and, in his days of health, with a happier effect; for a spirit of evangelical kindness and purity pervaded the whole tenor of his language, and all the conduct of his life.

Cowper was a scholar; he was master of four languages besides his own. He read Greek and Latin, French and Italian; but the extraordinary incidents of his life precluded him from indulging himself in a multiplicity of books, his reading was conformable to the rule of Pliny, "non multa, sed multum."

In describing the social and friendly faculties of Cowper, it would be unjust not to bestow particular notice on a talent that he possessed in perfection, and one that friendship ought especially to honour, as she is indebted to it for a considerable portion of her most valuable delights: viz. the talent of writing letters.

Those of Pope are generally thought deficient in that air of perfect ease, that unstudied flow of affection, which gives the highest charm to epistolary writing: but those unaffected graces may be found abundant and complete in the various correspondence of Cowper. He was indeed a being of such genuine simplicity and tenderness, so absolute a stranger to artifice and disguise, his affections were so ardent and so pure, that, in writing to those he loved, he could not fail to show what really passed in his own bosom, and his letters are most faithful representatives of his heart.

Letters indeed will ever please, when they are frank, confidential conversations on paper, between persons of well principles and highly cultivated minds, of graceful manners, and of tender affections.

The language of such letters must of course have that mixture of ease and elegance, peculiarly suited to such composition, and most happily exemplified in the letters of Cicero and Cowper. These two great masters of a perfect epistolary style have both mentioned their own excellent and simple rule for attaining it to use only the language of familiar conversation.

The very sweet stanzas that Cowper has written on friendship, would be alone sufficient to prove, that his heart and spirit were most tenderly alive to all the delicacy and delight of that inestimable connection. He was indeed such a friend himself, as the voice of wisdom describes, in calling a true friend, "the medicine of life:" and though misfortune precluded him in his early days from the enjoyments of connubial love, and of professional prosperity, he may be esteemed as singularly happy in this very important consolatory privilege of human existence; particularly in his friendships with that finer part of the creation, whose sensibility makes them most able to relish, or to call forth the powers of diffident genius, and to alleviate the pressure of mental affliction. It may be questioned if any poet on the records of Parnassus ever enjoyed a confidential intimacy, as Cowper did, with a variety of accomplished women; maintaining, at the same time, consummate innocence of conduct.

Pre-eminent as he was in warmth and vigour of fancy and affection, the quickness and strength of his understanding were proportioned to the more perilous endowments of his mind. Though he had received from nature lively appetites and passions, his reason held them in the most steady and laudable subjection.

The only internal enemy of his peace and happiness, that his intellect could not subdue, was one tremendous idea, mysteriously impressed on his fervent imagination in a scene of a bodily disorder, and at such periods recurring upon his mind with an overwhelming influence, which not all the admirable powers of his own innocent, upright spirit, nor all the united aids of art and nature, were able to counteract. Though he was sometimes subject to imaginary fears, he maintained, in his season of health, a most magnanimous reliance on the kindness of Heaven.

He also possessed and exerted that becoming fortitude, which teaches a man to support, under various trials, the sober respect which he owes to himself. Praise, however exalted, did not intoxicate him and detraction was unable to poison his pure sense of his own merit. Cowper possessed, in his original motives for appearing in the character of a poet, the best possible preservative against his double infelicity of mind. His predominant desire was to render his poetry an instrument of good to mankind; his love of fame was but a secondary passion.

Accident, idleness, want, spleen, love, and the passion for fame have all, in their turn, had such an occasional influence over the human faculties, as to induce men of considerable mental powers to devote themselves to the composition of verse; but the poetical character of Cowper appears to have had a much noble origin. He was focused a poet by the munificence of Nature and the decrees of Heaven: he seems to have received his rare poetical powers from Providence, to compensate the pressure of much personal calamity, and to enable him to become, though secluded, by irregular health, from the worldly business, and from the ordinary pastime of men, a singular benefactor to mankind. He had cultivated his native talents for poetry in early life, and his mind had been engaged in such studies as form, perhaps the best possible preparation for great poetical achievements, a fervent application to that book, to which Milton and Young were indebted for their poetical sublimity. Cowper, in reading the Bible, admired and studied the eloquence of the Prophets he was particularly charmed with the energy of their language describing the wrath of the Almighty.

By his zealous attention to the Scriptures, he incessantly treasured in his own capacious mind those inexhaustible store of sentiment and expression, which enabled him gradually to ascend the purest heights of poetical renown; which renders him, at last, what he ardently wished to prove, the Poet of Christianity, he Monitor of the World.

Cowper has accomplished, as a poet, the sublimest object of poetical ambition; he has dissipated the general prejudice that held it hardly possible for a modern author to succeed in sacred poetry; he has proved, that verse and devotion are natural allies; he has shown, that true poetical genius cannot be more honourably, or more delightfully, employed, than in diffusing, through the heart and mind of man, a filial affection for his Maker, with a firm and cheerful trust in his word. He has sung, in a strain equal to the subject, the blessed advent of universal peace; and, perhaps, the temperate enthusiasm of friendship may not appear too presumptuous in supposing, that his poetry will have no inconsiderable influence in preparing the world for a consummation so devoutly to be wished.

We will close this memorial, by applying to him those tender and beautiful verses, which Cowley, one of his favourite poets, addressed to a poetical brother, in all points perhaps, and assuredly in genius, by many degrees his inferior.

Long did the Muses' banish'd slaves abide,
And build vain pyramids to mortal pride:
Like Moses, thou, though spells and charms withstand,
Hast brought them nobly home, back to their holy land:
Poet and saint, to thee are justly given,
The two most sacred names of earth and heaven.