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If we compare our English literature to a beautiful garden, where Milton lifts his head to heaven in the spotless chalice of the tall white lily, and Shakspere scatters his dramas round him in beds of fragrant roses, blushing with a thousand various shades—some stained to the core as if with blood, others unfolding their fair pink petals with a lovely smile to the summer sun,—what shall we find in shrub or flower so like the timid, shrinking spirit of William Cowper, as that delicate sensitive-plant, whose leaves, folding up at the slightest touch, cannot bear even the brighter rays of the cherishing sun
The Reverend Doctor John Cowper, a royal chaplain, the son of a judge, and the nephew of a lord-chancellor, was rector of Great Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire, when his son William was born there in 1731. A tender mother-a lady of the highest descent—watched the infancy and childhood of the boy. Her hand it was that wrapped his little scarlet cloak around him, and filled his little bag with biscuits, every morning before he went to his first school. By her knee was his happiest place, where he often amused himself by marking out the flowered pattern of her dress on paper with a pin, taking a child's delight in his simple skill. He was only six years old when this fond mother died; thus early upon the childish head a pitiless storm began to beat. More than fifty years after the day on which a sad little face, looking from the nursery window, had seen a dark hearse mov
STUDYING LAW WITH THURLOW.
ing slowly from the door, an old man, smitten with incurable madness but then enjoying a brief lucid interval, bent over a picture, and saw the never-forgotten image of that kindest earthly friend, from whom he had so long been severed, but whom he was so soon to join in the sorrowless land. There are no more touching and beautiful lines in English poetry or prose than Cowper's Verses to his Mother's Picture.
The circumstance to which his morbid nervousness and melancholy may most of all be traced, is full of warning for the young. The poor motherless boy of six was sent to a boarding-school at Market Street in Hertfordshire, where a senior pupil, whose brutality and cowardice cannot be too strongly condemned, led the child a terrible life for two years, crushing down his young spirit with cruel blows and bitter persecution. It was a happy release, when he was removed from this scene of misery to the house of an eminent oculist, for the treatment of his eyes,
which the poor little fellow had probably cried into a state of violent inflammation. His seven years at Westminster School were less unpleasant to the timid boy, though there too he had to take his full share of buffeting and sneers.
The law being his appointed profession, he entered an attorney's office at eighteen, and there spent three years. This period and a few succeeding years formed almost the only spot of sunshine in the poet's life. Many a hearty laugh echoed through the gloomy office, where Cowper and his fellow-apprentice-afterwards LordChancellor Thurlow—made believe that they were studying the English law. Called to the bar in 1754, he lived for some time an idle, agreeable life, in his Temple chambers, writing a little for the serials of the day, and taking a share in the wit-combats of the "Nonsense Club," which consisted nearly altogether of Westminster men.
It was during this part of his life that he fell in love with his cousin Theodora,-a passion the unfortunate issue of which gave a darker colouring to the naturally sombre spirit of the young lawyer.
A relative presented him in the year 1763 to a valuable clerkship in the Lords, which required the holder of the office to
appear frequently before the House. The idea of such a thing
Obliged to face the future horror of this examination, while for months he worked hard to prepare himself for passing it , creditably, his mind gave way,--he tried to kill himself; and a private asylum at St. Albans became for eighteen months the refuge of the afflicted man.
A deep religious melancholy was the form of his mental disease; an awful terror that his soul was lost for ever, beyond the power of redemption, hung in a thick night-cloud upon his life. Three times after the first attack the madness returned, for nearly four years previous to 1776—for about six months in 1787-and during his last six years, from 1794 to 1800.
The friendship of the Unwins was the great blessing of his life. At Huntingdon he became intimate with this kind family, then consisting of the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife, son, and daughter; and the friendship grew so strong, that Cowper went in 1766 to live in their calm and cheerful home. 1766 The good clergyman was killed in the following year by a fall from his horse, and the widow and her daughter went to live at Olney in Buckinghamshire. Thither Cowper accompanied them, for he was now unalterably one of the quiet household.
Here the timid spirit nestled in a pleasant home. A walk with his dog by the reedy banks of the placid Ouse, to admire the white and gold of the water-lilies that floated on the deep stream —a round of visits to the cottages of the neighbouring poor-the composition of some hymns for his friend John Newton, the curate of the parish,—filled up his peaceful days for a time. But the terrible shadows were thickening again round his brain. A second fit of madness came in 1773, and all was dark for more than three years.
FIRST APPEARANCE AS A POET.
When light once more broke through the clouds, the need of some graver and more constant work made the man of fifty, who had already produced light occasional verses, take pen in hand, and sit down seriously to write a book of poems. For recreation he had his flowers, his pet bares, his landscape drawing, and his manufacture of bird-cages; but poetry now became the serious business of his life. His first volume was issued in 1782. It contained three grave
and powerful satires, Truth, Table-talk, and Expostulation, 1782 with poems on Error, Hope, Charity, and kindred subjects,
written chiefly in pentameter rhymes. No great success
rewarded this first instalment of Cowper's poetic toil; but at least two men, whose good opinion was worth more than gold, saw real merit in the modest book. Johnson and Franklin recognised in the recluse of fifty a true and ensinent poet.
But higher efforts lay before the literary hermit. The widow of Sir Robert Austen, coming to live at Olney, soon became intimate with the melancholy Cowper. To cheer him, she told the story of John Gilpin, whose comical equestrianism became the subject of a famous ballad. In this rattling tale and other minor pieces, as well as in numberless satiric and ironical touches scattered through the mass of his poems, we catch gleams of a sunny humour lurking below the shy and sensitive moods which wrapt the poet from public gaze. To Lady Austen, Cowper owed the origin of his greatest work, The Task. She asked him to write some blankverse, and playfully gave him the Sofa as a subject. Beginning a
poem on this homely theme, he produced the six books 1785 of The Task, which took its name from the circumstances
of its origin. From a humorous historical sketch of the
gradual improvement of seats, the three-legged stool growing into the softly cushioned sofa, he glides into the pleasures of a country walk, and following out the natural train of thought, draws
strong contrast between rural and city life, lavishing loving praise upon the former. The second book, entitled The Time-piece, opens with a just and powerful denunciation of slavery, and proceeds to declare the blessings and the need of peace among the wations.
LAST DAYS OF COWPER.
A noble apostrophe to England, and a brilliantly sarcastic picture of a fashionable preacher are among the more striking passages of this book. Then come The Garden, The Winter Evening, The Winter Morning Walk, and The Winter Walk at Noon, full of exquisite description and deep kindliness. Mirrored in these beautiful poems, we see the peaceful recreations and the gentle nature of this amiable afflicted man. We learn to reverence him for his wisdom, to love him for his human tenderness, and to sympathize pitifully and deeply with the overshadowing sorrow of his fitful life.
Accompanying “The Task,” which appeared in 1785 to take the hearts of all Englishmen by storm, was a review of schools, entitled Tirocinium, strongly recommending private tuition in preference to education at a public school. The sad experience of his own early school-days was, without doubt, the root from which this poem sprang.
Dissatisfied with Pope's version of the great Greek epics, Cowper now undertook to translate Homer into English verse; and by working regularly at the rate of forty lines a day, he accomplished the task in a few years. A passing attack of his old malady laid him by for a while during the progress of this work. The "Homer" appeared in 1791 ; and a revised edition, altered and corrected to a great extent, followed in 1799. Kind friends of his youth drew round the poor old man in his last years. His cousin, Lady Hesketh, induced him to remove to a villa at Weston, about a mile from his well-loved Olney. But the last and thickest cloud was darkening down. About 1794 the gloom of madness fell again upon his mind, and only for very brief intervals was there any light, until the ineffable brilliance of a higher life broke upon his raptured gaze. A sad sight it must have been to see the grey-haired sufferer standing by the coffin, where his faithful friend of many years—the kind, devoted Mary Unwin-lay in the last marble sleep. She died in 1796; and in less than four years the gentle poet, whom her roof-tree had sheltered, and her gentle ministerings had cheered and solaced for April 25, fully thirty years, closed his eyes for ever on the earth, 1800 which had been to him indeed a place of many sorrows.