William Cowper

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:257-60.

WILLIAM COWPER, "the most popular poet of his generation, and the best of English letter-writers," as Mr Southey has designated him, belonged emphatically to the aristocracy of England. His father, the Rev. Dr. Cowper, chaplain to George II., was the son of Spencer Cowper, one of the judges of the court of common pleas, and a younger brother of the first Earl Cowper, lord chancellor. His mother was allied to some of the noblest families in England, descended by four different lines from King Henry III. This lofty lineage cannot add to the lustre of the poet's fame, but it sheds additional grace on his piety and humility. Dr. Cowper, besides his royal chaplaincy, held the rectory of Great Berkhamstead, in the county of Hertford, and there the poet was born, November 15, 1731. In his sixth year be lost his mother (whom he tenderly and affectionately remembered through all his life), and was placed at a boarding-school, where he continued two years. The tyranny of one of his school-fellows, who held in complete subjection and abject fear the timid and home-sick boy, led to his removal from this seminary, and undoubtedly prejudiced him against the whole system of public education. He was next placed at Westminster school, where, as he says, he served a seven years' apprenticeship to the classics; and at the age of eighteen was removed, in order to be articled to an attorney. Having passed through this training (with the future Lord Chancellor Thurlow for his fellow-clerk), Cowper, in 1754, was called to the bar. He never, however, made the law a study: in the solicitor's office he and Thurlow were "constantly employed from morning to night in giggling and making giggle," and in his chambers in the Temple he wrote gay verses, and associated with Bonnel Thornton, Colman, Lloyd, and other wits. He contributed a few papers to the Connoisseur and to the St James's Chronicle, both conducted by his friends. Darker days were at hand. Cowper's father was now dead, his patrimony was small, and he was in his thirty-second year, almost "unprovided with an aim," for the law was with him a mere nominal profession. In this crisis of his fortunes his kinsman, Major Cowper, presented him to the office of clerk of the journals to time House of Lords — a desirable and lucrative appointment. Cowper accepted it; but the labour of studying the forms of Procedure, and the dread of qualifying himself by appearing at the bar of the House of Lords, plunged him in the deepest misery and distress. The seeds of insanity were then in his frame; and after brooding over his fancied ills till reason had fled, he attempted to commit suicide.

Happily this desperate effort failed; the appointment was given up, and Cowper was removed to a private madhouse at St Albans, kept by Dr. Cotton. The cloud of horror gradually passed away, and on his recovery, he resolved to withdraw entirely from the society and business of the world. He had still a small portion of his funds left, and his friends subscribed a further sum, to enable him to live frugally in retirement. The bright hopes of Cowper's youth seemed thus to have all vanished: his prospects of advancement in the world were gone; and in the new-born zeal of his religious fervour, his friends might well doubt whether his reason had been completely restored. He retired to the town of Huntingdon, near Cambridge, where his brother resided, and there formed an intimacy with the family of the Rev. Morley Unwin, a clergyman resident in the place. He was adopted as one of the family; and when Mr. Unwin himself was suddenly removed, the same connexion was continued with his widow. Death only could sever a tie so strongly knit — cemented by mutual faith and friendship, and by sorrows of which the world knew nothing. To the latest generation the name of Mary Unwin will be united with that of Cowper, partaker of his fame as of his sad decline — "By seraphs writ with beams of heavenly light."

After the death of Mr. Unwin in 1767, the family were advised by the Rev. John Newton — a remarkable man in many respects — to fix their abode at Olney, in the northern division of Buckinghamshire, where Mr. Newton himself officiated as curate. This was accordingly done, and Cowper removed with them to a spot which he has consecrated by his genius. He had still the river Ouse with him, as at Huntingdon, but the scenery is more varied and attractive, and abounds in fine retired walks. His life was that of a religious recluse; he ceased corresponding with his friends, and associated only with Mrs. Unwin and Newton. The latter engaged his assistance in writing a volume of hymns, but his morbid melancholy gained ground, and in 1773 it became a case of decided insanity. About two years were passed in this unhappy state. On his recovery, Cowper took to gardening, rearing hares, drawing landscapes, and composing poetry. The latter was fortunately the most permanent enjoyment; and its fruits appeared in a volume of poems published in 1782. The sale of the work was slow; but his friends were eager in its praise, and it received the approbation of Johnson and Franklin. His correspondence was resumed, and cheerfulness again became an inmate of his retreat at Olney.

This happy change was augmented by the presence of a third party, Lady Austen, a widow, who came to reside in the immediate neighbourhood of Olney, and whose conversation for a time charmed away the melancholy spirit of Cowper. She told him the story of John Gilpin, and "the famous horseman and his feats were an inexhaustible source of merriment." Lady Austen also prevailed upon the poet to try his powers in blank verse, and from her suggestion sprung the noble poem of The Task. This memorable friendship was at length dissolved. The lady exacted too much of the time and attention of the poet — perhaps a shade of jealousy on the part of Mrs. Unwin, with respect to the superior charms and attractions of her rival, intervened to increase the alienation — and before the Task was finished, its fair inspirer had left Olney without any intention of returning to it. In 1785 the new volume was published. Its success was instant and decided. The public were glad to hear the true voice of poetry and of nature, and in the rural descriptions and fireside scenes of the Task, they saw the features of English scenery and domestic life faithfully delineated. "The Task," says Southey, "was at once descriptive, moral, and satirical. The descriptive parts everywhere bore evidence of a thoughtful mind and a gentle spirit, as well as of an observant eye; and the moral sentiment which pervaded them gave a charm in which descriptive poetry is often found wanting. The best didactic poems, when compared with the Task, are like formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery."

As soon as he had completed his labours for the publication of his second volume, Cowper entered upon an undertaking of a still more arduous nature — a translation of Homer. He had gone through the great Grecian at Westminster school, and afterwards read him critically in the Temple, and he was impressed with but a poor opinion of the translation of Pope. Setting himself to a daily task of forty lines, he at length accomplished the forty thousand verses. He published by subscription, in which his friends were generously active. The work appeared in 1791, in two volumes quarto. In the interval the poet and Mrs. Unwin had removed to Weston, a beautiful village about a mile from Obey. His cousin, Lady Hesketh, a woman of refined and fascinating manners, had visited him; he had also formed a friendly intimacy with the family of the Throckmortons, to whom Weston belonged, and his circumstances were comparatively easy. His malady however, returned upon him with full force, and Mrs. Unwin being rendered helpless by palsy, the task of nursing her fell upon the sensitive and dejected, poet. A careful revision of his Homer, and an engagement to edit a new edition of Milton, were the last literary undertakings of Cowper. The former he completed, but without improving the first edition: his second task was newer finished. A deepening gloom settled on his mind, with occasionally bright intervals. A visit to his friend Hayley, at Eartham, produced a short cessation of his mental suffering, and in 1794 a pension of £300 was granted to him from the crown. He was induced, in 1795, to remove with Mrs. Unwin to Norfolk, on a visit to some relations, and there Mrs. Unwin died on the 17th December 1796. The unhappy poet would not believe that his long tried friend was actually dead; he went to see the body, and on witnessing the unaltered placidity of death, flung himself to the other side of the room with a passionate expression of feeling, and from that time he never mentioned her name nor spoke of her again. He lingered on for more than three years, still under the same dark shadow of religious despondency and terror, but occasionally writing, and listening attentively to works read to him by his friends. His last poem was the Castaway, a strain of touching and beautiful verse, which showed no decay of hi, poetical powers: at length death came to his release on the 25th of April 1800.

So sad and strange a destiny has never before or since been that of a man of genius. With wit and humour at will, he was nearly all his life plunged in the darkest melancholy. Innocent, pious, and confiding, he lived in perpetual dread of everlasting punishment: he could only see between him and heaven a high wall which he despaired of ever being able to scale; yet his intellectual vigour was not subdued by affliction. What he wrote for amusement or relief in the midst of "supreme distress," surpasses the elaborate efforts of others made under the most favourable circumstances; and in the very winter of his days, his fancy was as fresh and blooming as in the spring and morning of existence. That he was constitutionally prone to melancholy and insanity, seems undoubted; but the predisposing causes were as surely aggravated by his strict and secluded mode of life. Lady Hesketh was a better guide and companion than John Newton; and no one can read his letters without observing that cheerfulness was inspired by the one, and terror by the other. The iron frame of Newton could stand unmoved amidst shocks that destroyed the shrinking and apprehensive mind of Cowper. All, however, have now gone to their account — the stern yet kind minister, the faithful Mary Unwin, the gentle high-born relations who forsook ease, and luxury, and society to soothe the misery of one wretched being, and that immortal being himself has passed away, scarce conscious that he had bequeathed an imperishable treasure to mankind. We have greater and loftier poets than Cowper, but none so entirely incorporated, as it were, with our daily existence — none so completely a friend — our companion in woodland wanderings, and in moments of serious thought — ever gentle and affectionate, even in his transient fits of ascetic gloom — a pure mirror of affections, regrets, feelings, and desires which we have all felt or would wish to cherish. Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton, are spirits of ethereal kind: Cowper is a steady and valuable friend, whose society we may sometimes neglect for that of more splendid and attractive associates, but whose unwavering principle and purity of character, joined to rich intellectual powers, overflow upon us in secret, and bind us to him for ever.

It is scarcely to be wondered at that Cowper's first volume was coldly received. The subjects of his poems ("Table Talk," the "Progress of Error," "Truth," "Expostulation," "Hope," "Charity," &c.) did not promise much, and his manner of handling them was not calculated to conciliate a fastidious public. He was both too harsh and too spiritual for general readers. Johnson had written moral poems in the same form of verse, but they possessed a rich declamatory grandeur and brilliancy of illustration which Cowper did not attempt, and probably would, from principle, have rejected. There are passages, however, in these evangelical works of Cowper of masterly execution and lively fancy. His character of Chatham has rarely been surpassed, even by Pope or Dryden:—

A. Patriots, alas! the few that have been found
Where most they flourish, upon English ground,
The country's need have scantily supplied;
And the last left the scene when Chatham died.

B. Not so; the virtue still adorns our age,
Though the chief actor died upon the stage.
In him Demosthenes was heard again;
Liberty taught him her Athenian strain;
She clothed him with authority and awe,
Spoke from his lips, and in his looks gave law.
His speech, his form, his action full of grace,
And all his country beaming in his face,
He stood as some inimitable hand
Would strive to make a Paul or Tully stand.
No sycophant or slave that dared oppose
Her sacred cause, but trembled when he rose;
And every venal stickler for the yoke,
Felt himself crushed at the first word he spoke.

Neither has the fine simile with which the following retrospect closes:—

Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
And ages ere the Mantuan swan was heard;
To carry nature lengths unknown before,
To give a Milton birth asked ages more.
Thus genius rose and set at ordered times,
And shot a day-spring into distant climes,
Ennobling every region that he chose.
He sunk in Greece, in Italy he rose;
And, tedious years of Gothic darkness past,
Emerged all splendour in our isle at last.
Thus lovely halcyons dive into the main,
Then show far off their shining plumes again.

The poem of "Conversation" in this volume is rich in Addisonian humour and satire, and formed no unworthy prelude to the Task. In "Hope and Retirement, "we see traces of the descriptive powers and natural pleasantry afterwards so finely developed.

The highest flight in the whole, and the one most characteristic of Cowper, is his sketch of

That sound bespeaks salvation on her way,
The trumpet of a life-restoring day;
'Tis heard where England's eastern glory shines,
And in the gulfs of her Cornubian mines.
And still it spreads. See Germany send forth
Her sons to pour it on the farthest north;
Fired with a zeal peculiar, they defy
The rage and rigour of a polar sky,
And plant successfully sweet Sharon's rose
On icy plains and in eternal snows.

Oh blessed within the enclosure of your rocks,
Nor herds have ye to boast, nor bleating flocks;
No fertilising streams your fields divide,
That show reversed the villas on their side;
No groves have ye; no cheerful sound of bird,
Or voice of turtle in your land is heard;
Nor grateful eglantine regales the smell
Of those that walk at evening where ye dwell;
But Winter, armed with terrors here unknown,
Sits absolute on his unshaken throne,
Piles up his stores amidst the frozen waste,
And bids the mountains he has built stand fast;
Beckons the legions of his storms away
From happier scenes to make your lands a prey;
Proclaims the soil a conquest he has won,
And scorns to share it with the distant sun.
Yet Truth is yours, remote unenvied isle!
And Peace, the genuine offspring of her smile;
The pride of lettered ignorance, that binds
In chains of error our accomplished minds,
That decks with all the splendour of the true,
A false religion, is unknown to you.
Nature indeed vouchsafes for our delight
The sweet vicissitudes of day and night;
Soft airs and genial moisture feed and cheer
Field, fruit, and flower, and every creature here;
But brighter beams than his who fires the skies
Have risen at length on your admiring eyes,
That shoot into your darkest caves the day
From which our nicer optics turn away.

In this mixture of argument and piety, poetry and plain sense, we have the distinctive traits of Cowper's genius. The freedom acquired by composition, and especially the presence of Lady Austen, led to more valuable results; and when he entered upon the Task, he was far more disposed to look at the sunny side of things, and to launch into general description. His versification underwent a similar improvement. This former poems were often rugged in style and expression, and were made so on purpose, to avoid the polished uniformity of Pope and his imitators. He was now sensible that he had erred on the opposite side, and accordingly the Task was made to unite strength and freedom with elegance and harmony. No poet has introduced so much idiomatic expression into a grave poem of blank verse; but the higher passages are all carefully finished, and rise or fall, according to the nature of the subject, with inimitable grace and melody. In this respect Cowper, as already mentioned, has greatly the advantage of Thomson, whose stately march is never relaxed, however trivial be the theme. The variety of the Task in style and manner, no less than in subject, is one of its greatest charms. The mock-heroic opening is a fine specimen of his humour, and from this he slides into rural description and moral reflection so naturally and easily, that the reader is carried along apparently without an effort. The scenery of the Ouse — its level plains and spacious meads — is described with the vividness of painting, and the poet then elevates the character of his picture by a rapid sketch of still nobler features:—

Nor rural sights alone, but rural sounds,
Exhilarate the spirit, and restore
The tone of languid nature. Mighty winds
That sweep the skirt of some far-spreading wood
Of ancient growth, make music not unlike
The dash of ocean on his winding shore,
And lull the spirit while they fill the mind,
Unnumbered branches waving in the blast,
And all their leaves fast fluttering all at once.
Nor less composure waits upon the roar
Of distant floods, or on the softer voice
Of neighbouring fountain, or of rills that slip
Through the cleft rock, and chiming as they fall
Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
In matted grass, that with a livelier green
Betrays the secret of their silent course.
Nature inanimate displays sweet sounds,
But animated nature sweeter still,
To soothe and satisfy the human ear.
Ten thousand warblers cheer the day, and one
The livelong night; nor those alone whose notes
Nice-fingered art must emulate in vain,
But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime
In still-repeated circles, screaming loud,
The jay, the pie, and oven the boding owl
That hails the rising moon, have charms for me.
Sounds inharmonious in themselves and harsh
Yet hoard in scones where peace for ever reigns,
And only there, please highly for their sake.

The freedom of this versification, and the admirable variety of pause and cadence, must strike the most uncritical reader. With the same playful strength and equal power of landscape painting, he describes

The earth was made so various, that the mind
Of desultory man, studious of change
And pleased with novelty, might be indulged.
Prospects, however lovely, may be seen
Till half their beauties fade; the weary sight,
Too well acquainted with their smiles, slides off
Fastidious, seeking less familiar scenes.
Then sung enclosures in the sheltered vale,
Where frequent hedges intercept the eye,
Delight us, happy to renounce a while,
Not senseless of its charms, what still we love,
That such short absence may endear it more.
Then forests, or the savage rock may please
That hides the sea-mew in his hollow clefts
Above the reach of man; his hoary head
Conspicuous many a league, the mariner
Bound homeward, and in hope already there,
Greets with three cheers exulting. At his waist
A girdle of half-withered shrubs he shows,
And at his feet the baffled billows die.
The common overgrown with fern, and rough
With prickly goss, that, shapeless and deform,
And dangerous to the touch, has yet its bloom
And decks itself with ornaments of gold,
Yields no unpleasing ramble; there the turf
Smells fresh, and rich in odoriferous herbs
And fungous fruits of earth, regales the sense
With luxury of unexpected sweets.

From the beginning to the end of the Task we never lose sight of the author. His love of country rambles, when a boy, "O'er hills, through valleys, and by river's brink;" his walks with Mrs. Unwin, when he had exchanged the Thames for the Ouse, and had "grown sober in the vale of years;" his playful satire and tender admonition, his denunciation of slavery, his noble patriotism, his devotional earnestness and sublimity, his warm sympathy with his follow-men, and his exquisite paintings of domestic peace and happiness, are all so much self-portraiture, drawn with the ripe skill and taste of the master, yet with a modesty that shrinks from the least obtrusiveness and display. The very rapidity of his transitions, where things light and sportive are drawn up with the most solemn truths, and satire, pathos, and reproof alternately mingle or repel each other, are characteristic of his mind and temperament in ordinary life. His inimitable ease and colloquial freedom, which lends such a charm to his letters, is never long absent from his poetry; and his peculiar tastes, as seen in that somewhat grandiloquent line, "Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too," are all pictured in the pure and lucid pages of the Task. It cannot be said that Cowper ever abandoned his sectarian religious tenets, yet they are little seen in his great work. His piety is that which all should feel and venerate; and if his sad experience of the world had tinged the prospect of life, "its fluctuations and its vast concerns," with a deeper shade than seems consonant with the general welfare and happiness, it also imparted a higher authority and more impressive wisdom to his earnest and solemn appeals. He was "a stricken deer that left the herd," conscious of the follies and wants of those he left behind, and inspired with power to minister to the delight and instruction of the whole human race.