1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "On the most valuable Materials of Biography, with Extracts from the Letters, and Remarks on the Character, both literary and moral, of Cowper" Censura Literaria 1 (1805) 205-16.



I know not whether, it is from an ill-natured triumph, or whether, as I hope and believe, from an amiable sympathy, that those passages in biography and other writings, in which the movements, the foibles, and weaknesses, of the human heart are opened with a frank and undisguised simplicity, are universally read with the keenest interest and delight. Hence it seems, that whatever be the variations in shape, dress, and colour, of vanity and affectation, the real internal workings of nature, in the bosoms of human beings, have the strongest similitude. It is by pictures of this kind that the best knowledge is attained, and the most valuable quality of the memoirs of individuals discovered. These delineations afford the best topics for reflection and remark, and cannot be contemplated without deep improvement as well as pleasure. The ordinary incidents of personal history, those superficial events which give no insight into the feelings and sentiments of the individual, are of little attraction, and as little use. For this reason, those letters which were never intended for the public eye; those effusions in moments of strong agitation, in which the emotions of the soul prevail over all form and ceremony and ostentation, constitute the most precious materials for the lives of eminent men.

But however easy it may seem to throw forth these natural and unaffected touches; to seize the primary, genuine, and unforced impressions of the head and the heart; it is a power which few have possessed at all, and still fewer in an exquisite degree. Yet there is a lately deceased author, who was most eminently endowed with this talent. I scarcely need mention the name of Cowper, who, in his poems, and above all, in his letters, has continually exhibited, by a few simple strokes of his pen, these affecting traits. We behold him with a mixture of humility and conscious innocence laying bare all the secrets of his breast, and pointing to all those amiable singularities and imbecilities, of which the discovery would have made more ordinary minds shrink with abasement. Well indeed does he illustrate how fearfully and wonderfully we are made! In thought so vigorous; in action so timid and weak; in the closet so easy, fluent, natural, copious, and bold; in public so confused, overwhelmed, and dispossessed of himself! Delighted with the cheapest, purest, and most virtuous amusements, yet often losing the relish for every earthly occupation, sinking into the most immoveable gloom, and deprest by the horrors of imaginary despair. Thence, when the deranged chords of his exquisite frame had again recovered their tone, trembling with new sensibility at every breeze, throwing forth new notes of poetic rapture to every air of heaven, and rising, almost to the very last, into notes of music and inspiration, which will never cease to charm as long as our language exists!

When age and sorrow had at length seemed to plunge him into irrecoverable melancholy, when he took little notice of any thing around him, and appeared to labour under all the imbecilities of departed intellect, still he could occasionally write poetry. When he was as helpless as an infant, and had not spoke for days, and perhaps weeks, he still possessed, and occasionally exercised, that high faculty with which nature had pre-eminently endowed him; he could translate, he could write in Latin, and execute that kind of composition which is supposed to require the full command of the best and loftiest powers of the mind. When he sat mute and helpless, and as it seemed totally lost, day after day by the side of Lady Hesketh, as she employed herself with unexampled kindness in transcribing the rough MSS. of his Homer for the press, still he could promptly resolve any difficulties she found in making out the copy, and had the memory of every passage ready at her call.

I must not pronounce the lot of Cowper on earth happy; but I cannot refrain from saying that I should have preferred it with all its miseries to ordinary felicity. I revere the talents and qualities, which Heaven bestowed on him, with an uncontrollable ardor which no worldly prudence, no cold ungenerous convictions of experience can weaken; and I view the just reputation he attained, and the inexpressible gratification of having been admitted to have possessed and exerted the charm of delighting the world by his poetry, not with envy, but with unabated love and admiration! It is true that such pursuits do not often gratify the mere ostentatious ambition of friends and relations; slights, and vulgar scorn and neglect are the almost inevitable attendants of the bard among his neighbours; and the indulgences, luxuries, and popular respect of wealth and rank and grandeur, which are generally considered the most substantial advantages, must not be hoped for. Yet I am unable to diminish my predilection for the empire of the mind! Many there might be, who, having risen by the exertion of coarser faculties, in the paths of public life, to the pinnacle of honours and riches, surveyed Cowper in his humble abodes at Olney or Weston with pity, or contempt, or rudeness! But while these are already forgotten in the grave where their bones are mouldering with the dirt above which their base spirits never rose, the voice of the poet is still speaking to all our hearts and fancies, we behold his illuminated countenance, we wander with him over the fields and woods; our souls expand with his sentiments; we moisten his tomb with our tears; we guard his reliques with holy idolatry, and while his immortal part still hovers over us, we propitiate it in heaven!

But let us hear this humble, yet energetic, genius give a few touches of his own character.

1763. "Oh, my good cousin! if I was to open my heart to you, I could shew you strange sights; nothing, I flatter myself, that would shock you, but a great deal that would make you wonder. I am of a very singular temper, and very unlike all the men that I have ever conversed with. Certainly I am not an absolute fool; but I have more weaknesses than the greatest of all the fools I can recollect at present. In short, if I was as fit for the next world, as I am unfit for this, and God forbid I should speak it in vanity, I would not change conditions with any saint in Christendom. — I know not what you expect, but ever since I was born, I have been good at disappointing the most natural expectations. Many years ago, cousin, there was a possibility that I might prove a very different thing from what I am at present. My character is now fixt, and, between friends, is not a very splendid one, or likely to be guilty of much fascination."

1781. "What nature expressly designed me for, I have never been able to conjecture, I seem to myself so universally disqualified for the common and customary occupations and amusements of mankind. When I was a boy, I excelled at cricket and football; but the fame I acquired by achievements that way, is long since forgotten; and I do not know that I have made a figure in any thing since."

1780. "So long as I am pleased with an employment, I am capable of unwearied application, because my feelings are all of the intense kind; I never received a little pleasure from any thing in my life; if I am delighted, it is in the extreme. The unhappy consequence of this temperature is, that my attachment to any occupation seldom outlives the novelty of it. That nerve of my imagination, that feels the touch of any particular amusement, twangs under the energy of the pressure with so much vehemence, that it soon becomes sensible of weariness and fatigue. Hence I draw an unfavourable prognostic, and expect that I shall shortly be constrained to look out for something else" (than drawing). "Then perhaps I may string the harp again, and be able to comply with your demand."

1782. "Caraccioli says, 'There is something very bewitching in authorship, and that he, who has once written, will write again.' It may be so — I can subscribe to the former part of his assertion from my own experience, having never found an amusement, among the many I have been obliged to have recourse to, that so well answered the purpose for which I used it. The quieting and composing effect of it was such, and so totally absorbed have I sometimes been in my rhiming occupation, that neither the past nor the future (those themes which to me are so fruitful in regret at other times) had any longer a share in my contemplation. For this reason I wish, and have often wished, since the fit left me, that it would seize me again but hitherto I have wished vain. I see no want of subjects, but I feel a total disability to discuss them."

1786. "I am not naturally insensible, and the sensibilities that I had by Nature have been wonderfully enhanced by a long series of shocks, given to a frame of nerves that was never very athletic. I feel accordingly, whether painful or pleasant, in the extreme. Am easily elevated, and easily cast down. The frown of a critic freezes my poetical powers, and discourages me to a degree that makes me ashamed of my own weakness. Yet I presently recover my confidence again: the half of what you so kindly say in your last, would at any time restore my spirits, and being said by you, is infallible. I am not ashamed to confess, that having commenced an author, I am most abundantly desirous to succeed as such. I have (what perhaps you little suspect me of) an infinite share of ambition: but with it I have at the same time, as you well know, an equal share of diffidence. To this combination of opposite qualities it has been owing, that, till lately, I stole through life without undertaking any thing, yet always wishing to distinguish myself. At last I ventured, ventured too in the only path, that at so late a period, was yet open to me, and am determined, if God have not determined otherwise, to work my way through the obscurity that has been long my portion into notice. Every thing, therefore, that seems to threaten this my favourite purpose with disappointment, affects me nearly. I suppose that all ambitious minds are in the same predicament. He who seeks distinction must be sensible of disapprobation exactly in the same proportion as he desires applause. And now, my precious cousin, I have unfolded my heart to you in this particular, without a speck of dissimulation. Some people, and good people too, would blame me, but you will not, and they I think would blame without just cause. We certainly do not honour when we bury, or when we neglect to improve as we may, whatever talent he may have bestowed on us, whether it be little or much. In natural things, as well as in spiritual, it is a never failing truth, that to him who hath, that is, to him who occupies what he hath diligently, more shall be given. Set me down, therefore, for an industrious rhymer, so long as I shall have the ability, for in this only way is it possible for me, so far as I can see, either to honour God, or to serve man, or even to serve myself." [Letters I. 190.]

1792. "From the age of twenty to thirty-three, I was occupied, or ought to have been, in the study of the law; from thirty-three to sixty I have spent my time in the country, where my reading has been only an apology for idleness, and where, when I had not either a magazine or a review, I was sometimes a carpenter, at others a birdcage-maker, or a gardener, or a drawer of landscapes. At fifty years of age I commenced an author. It is a whim that has served me longest and best, and will probably be my last." [Ib. p. 19.]

1785. "Dejection of spirits, which I suppose may have prevented many a man from becoming an author, made me one. I find constant employment necessary, and therefore take care to be constantly employed. Manual occupations do not engage the mind sufficiently, as I know by experience, having tried many. But composition, especially of verse, absorbs it wholly." [Letters p. 147.]

1786. "The dew of your intelligence has refreshed my poetical laurels. A little praise now and then is very good for your hard-working poet, who is apt to grow languid, and perhaps careless, without it." [p. 235.]

1787. "A sensible mind cannot do violence even to a local attachment without much pain. When my father died, I was young, too young to have reflected much. He was rector of Berkhampstead, and there I was born. It had never occurred to me that a parson has no fee-simple in the house and glebe he occupies. There was neither tree, nor gate, nor stile in all that country, to which I did not feel a relation, and the house itself I preferred to a palace. I was sent for from London to attend him in his last illness, and he died just before I arrived. Then, and not till then, I felt for the first time, that I and my native place were disunited for ever. I sighed a long adieu to fields and woods, from which I once thought I should never be parted, and was at no time so sensible of their beauties as just when I left them all behind me to return no more." [p. 251.]

1790. Acknowledging the gift of a picture of his mother. "The world could not have furnished you with a present so acceptable to me, as the picture which you have so kindly sent me. I received it the night before last, and viewed it with a trepidation of nerves and spirits, somewhat akin to what I should have felt, had the dear original presented herself to my embraces. I kissed it, and hung it, where it is the last object, that I see at night, and of course the first on which I open my eyes in the morning. She died when I had completed my sixth year, yet I remember her well, and am an ocular witness of the great fidelity of the copy. I remember too a multitude of the maternal tendernesses which I received from her, and which have endeared her memory to me beyond expression. There is in me, I believe, more of the Donne than of the Cowper, and though I love all of both names, and have a thousand reasons to love those of my own name, yet I feel the bond of nature draw me vehemently to your side. I was thought in the days of my childhood much to resemble my mother, and in my natural temper, of which, at the age of fifty-eight, I must be supposed a competent judge, can trace both her and, my late uncle, your father. Somewhat of his irritability, and a little, I would hope, of his, and of her — I know not what to call it, without seeming to praise myself, which is not my intention, but speaking to you, I will even speak out, and say, good nature. Add to all this, I deal much in poetry, as did our venerable ancestor, the Dean of St. Paul's, and I think I shall have proved myself a Donne at all points."

1792. On his intended journey to visit Mr. Hayley at Eartham in Sussex, he writes: "Could you have ally conception of the fears I have had to bustle with, of the dejection of spirits that I have suffered concerning this journey, you would wonder much more that I still courageously persevere in my resolution to undertake it. Fortunately for my intentions, it happens, that as the day approaches, my terrors abate; for had they continued to be what they were a week since, I must, after all, have disappointed you; and was actually once on the verge of doing it. I have told you something of my nocturnal experiences, and assure you now, that they were hardly ever more terrific than on this occasion. Prayer has, however, opened my passage at last, and obtained for me a degree of confidence that I trust will prove a comfortable viaticum to me all the way. On Wednesday therefore we set forth. The terrors that I have spoken of would appear ridiculous to most, but to you they will not, for you are a reasonable creature, and know well, that to whatever cause it be owing (whether to constitution or to God's express appointment) I am hunted by spiritual hounds in the night-season. I cannot help it. You will pity me, and wish it were otherwise; and though you may think there is much of imaginary in it, will not deem it for that reason an evil less to be lamented." [Letters II. 67.]

1793. "In vain has it been, that I have made several attempts to write, since I came from Sussex: unless more comfortable days arrive than I have the confidence to look for, there is an end of all writing with me. I have no spirits: — When the Rose came, I was obliged to prepare for his coming by a nightly close of laudanum — twelve drops suffice; but without them I am devoured by melancholy." [p. 107.]

1794. To Mr. Hayley, in answer to a proposal for engaging in a joint work. "My poor Mary's infirm condition makes it impossible for me at present to engage in a work such as you propose. My thoughts are not sufficiently free, nor have I, or can I by any means find opportunity: added to which, comes a difficulty, which, though you are not at all aware of it, presents itself to me under a most forbidding appearance: can you guess it? No, not you; neither perhaps will you he able to imagine that such a difficulty can possibly subsist. If your hair begins to bristle, stroak it down again, for there is no need why it should erect itself. It concerns me, not you. I know myself too well not to know, that I am nobody in verse, unless in a corner, and alone, and unconnected in my operations. This is not owing to want of love for you, my brother, or the most consummate confidence in you; for I have both in a degree, that has not been exceeded in the experience of any friend you have, or ever had. But I am so made up; I will not enter into a metaphysical analysis of my strange composition, in order to detect the true cause of this evil; but on a general view of the matter, I suspect that it proceeds from that shyness, which has been my effectual and almost fatal hindrance on many other important occasions; which I should feel, I well know, on this, to a degree that would perfectly cripple me. No! I shall neither do, nor attempt any thing of consequence more, unless my poor Mary get better; nor even then, unless it should please God to give rue another nature, in concert with any man. I could not, even with my own father or brother, were they now alive." [Letters II. p. 132.]

But I must forbear, or I shall transcribe half the poet's letters. Whether it is that there have seldom existed such adequate memorials of men of genius as have been left of Cowper, or whether, as I believe, few have ever been so thoroughly steeped in the well-head of the Muses, it is certain that few are recorded to have possessed qualities so well suited to the inspiration of the lyre. That sensibility which was so excessive, as at times, when it operated on a diseased body, to endanger and overcome his reason, prompted him at other times to inimitable strains of moral pathos, touching sentiment, or brilliant description. In proportion as he was little fitted for the ordinary intercourse, and bustle and intrigues of society, he attained and cherished a state of mind, which qualified him for those compositions by which his name has been endeared to his cotemporaries and consecrated to posterity. Whoever has experienced the delight of such a mood, whoever has felt the intense pleasure of an intellectual occupation, by which he hopes to preserve his name to future ages, can alone appreciate the extent of sufferings which the exercise of such endowments can counterbalance. It may be asked whether in the cold tomb he can hear the sounds of admiration which are now lavished upon his poetry; and what recompence there can be in these empty returns for his sorrows and inexpressible afflictions of mind! To this question I am not bold enough to reply: but I can scarcely suppose that the universal desire of being remembered after death, which is felt in every state of society, from the most savage to the most refined, is implanted in us for nothing.