1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Mary Russell Mitford, in "Fine Single Poems" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 436-39.



In early youth I was well acquainted with two old ladies, Mrs. Theodosia and Frances Hill, sisters to the "Joe Hill," the favorite and constant friend, who figures so frequently in Cowper's correspondence. These excellent persons lived at Reading, and were conspicuous through the town for their peculiarities of dress and appearance. Shortest and smallest of women, they adhered to the costume of fifty years before, and were never seen without the high-lappeted caps, the enormous hoops, brocaded gowns, ruffles, aprons, and furbelows of our grandmothers. They tottered along upon high-heeled shoes, and flirted fans emblazoned with the history of Pamela. Nevertheless, such was the respect commanded by their thorough gentility, their benevolence, and their courtesy, that the very boys in the streets forgot to laugh at women so blameless and so kind. An old housekeeper, who had been their waiting-maid for half a lifetime, partook of their popularity. Their brother and his wife inhabited a beautiful place in the neighborhood (afterward bequeathed to the celebrated Whiggish wit, Joseph Jekyl), and until the sisters approached the age of eighty, nothing could be smoother than the current of their calm and virtuous life. At that period Mrs. Theodosia, the elder, sank into imbecility, and Mrs. Frances, a woman of considerable ability and feeling, broke all at once into incurable madness. Both were pronounced to be harmless, and were left in their own house, with two or three female servants, under the care of the favorite attendant who had lived with them so long. For a considerable time no change took place; but one cold winter day, their faithful nurse left her younger charge sitting quietly by the parlor fire, and had not been gone many minutes before she was recalled by sudden screams, and found the poor maniac enveloped in flames. It was supposed that she had held her cambric handkerchief to air within the fireguard, and had thus ignited her apron and other parts of her dress. The old servant, with a true woman's courage, caught her in her arms, and was so fearfully burnt in the vain endeavor to extinguish the flames, that she expired even before her mistress, who lingered many days in dreadful agony, but without any return of recollection. The surviving sister, happily unconscious of the catastrophe, died at last of mere old age. This tragedy occurred not many years after the death of Cowper.

THE CASTAWAY.
Obscurest night involved the sky;
The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I
Washed headlong from on hoard,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home forever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion's coast
With warmer wishes sent.
He loved them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine
Expert to swim he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
Or courage die away;
He waged with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had failed
To check the vessel's course,
But so the furious blast prevailed
That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succor yet they could afford
And such as storms allow
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
Delayed not to bestow.
But he, they knew, nor ship nor shore
Whate'er they gave should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seemed, could he
Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight in such a sea
Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted and his friends so nigh.

He long survives who lives an hour
In ocean self-upheld:
And so long he with unspent power
His destiny repelled;
And ever as the minutes flew
Entreated help, or cried Adieu!

At length his transient respite past
His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in every blast,
Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him; but the page
Of narrative sincere
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Anson's tear;
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not or dream,
Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
A more enduring date.
But misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in another's case.

No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When snatched from all effectual aid
We perished each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.