E-text prepared by Al Haines
At Huntingdon–The Unwins
At Olney–Mr. Newton
Authorship–The Moral Satires
Short Poems and Translations
Close of Life
Cowper is the most important English poet of the period between Pope and the illustrious group headed by Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, which arose out of the intellectual ferment of the European Revolution. As a reformer of poetry, who called it back from conventionality to nature, and at the same time as the teacher of a new school of sentiment which acted as a solvent upon the existing moral and social system, he may perhaps himself be numbered among the precursors of the revolution, though he was certainly the mildest of them all. As a sentimentalist he presents a faint analogy to Rousseau, whom in natural temperament he somewhat resembled. He was also the great poet of the religious revival which marked the latter part of the eighteenth century in England, and which was called Evangelicism within the establishment and Methodism without. In this way he is associated with Wesley and Whitefield, as well as with the philanthropists of the movement, such as Wilberforce, Thornton, and Clarkson. As a poet he touches, on different sides of his character, Goldsmith, Crabbe, and Burns. With Goldsmith and Crabbe he shares the honour of improving English taste in the sense of truthfulness and simplicity. To Burns he felt his affinity, across a gulf of social circumstance, and in spite of a dialect not yet made fashionable by Scott. Besides his poetry, he holds a high, perhaps the highest place, among English letter writers: and the collection of his letters appended to Southey’s biography forms, with the biographical portions of his poetry, the materials for a sketch of his life. Southey’s biography itself is very helpful, though too prolix and too much filled out with dissertations for common readers. Had its author only done for Cowper what he did for Nelson! [Our acknowledgments are also due to Mr. Benham, the writer of the Memoir prefixed to the Globe Edition of Cowper.]
William Cowper came of the Whig nobility of the robe. His great-uncle, after whom he was named, was the Whig Lord Chancellor of Anne and George I. His grandfather was that Spencer Cowper, judge of the Common Pleas, for love of whom the pretty Quakeress drowned herself, and who, by the rancour of party, was indicted for her murder. His father, the Rev. John Cowper, D.D., was chaplain to George II. His mother was a Donne, of the race of the poet, and descended by several lines from Henry III. A Whig and a gentleman he was by birth, a Whig and a gentleman he remained to the end. He was born on the 15th November (old style), 1731, in his father’s rectory of Berkhampstead. From nature he received, with a large measure of the gifts of genius, a still larger measure of its painful sensibilities. In his portrait; by Romney the brow bespeaks intellect, the features feeling and refinement, the eye madness. The stronger parts of character, the combative and propelling forces he evidently lacked from the beginning. For the battle of life he was totally unfit. His judgment in its healthy state was, even on practical questions, sound enough, as his letters abundantly prove; but his sensibility not only rendered him incapable of wrestling with a rough world, but kept him always on the verge of madness, and frequently plunged him into it. To the malady which threw him out of active life we owe not the meanest of English poets.
At the age of thirty-two, writing of himself, he says, “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 weakness 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.” Folly produces nothing good, and if Cowper had been an absolute fool, he would not have written good poetry. But he does not exaggerate his own weakness, and that he should have become a power among men is a remarkable triumph of the influences which have given birth to Christian civilization.
The world into which the child came was one very adverse to him, and at the same time very much in need of him. It was a world from which the spirit of poetry seemed to have fled. There could be no stronger proof of this than the occupation of the throne of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton by the arch-versifier Pope. The Revolution of 1688 was glorious, but unlike the Puritan Revolution which it followed, and in the political sphere partly ratified, it was profoundly prosaic. Spiritual religion, the source of Puritan grandeur and of the poetry of Milton, was almost extinct; there was not much more of it among the Nonconformists, who had now become to a great extent mere Whigs, with a decided Unitarian tendency. The Church was little better than a political force, cultivated and manipulated by political leaders for their own purposes. The Bishops were either politicians or theological polemics collecting trophies of victory over free-thinkers as titles to higher preferment. The inferior clergy as a body were far nearer in character to Trulliber than to Dr. Primrose; coarse, sordid, neglectful of their duties, shamelessly addicted to sinecurism and pluralities, fanatics in their Toryism and in attachment to their corporate privileges, cold, rationalistic and almost heathen in their preachings, if they preached at all. The society of the day is mirrored in the pictures of Hogarth, in the works of Fielding and Smollett; hard and heartless polish was the best of it; and not a little of it was _Marriage a la Mode_. Chesterfield, with his soulless culture, his court graces, and his fashionable immoralities, was about the highest type of an English gentleman; but the Wilkeses, Potters, and Sandwiches, whose mania for vice culminated in the Hell-fire Club, were more numerous than the Chesterfields. Among the country squires, for one Allworthy or Sir Roger de Coverley there were many Westerns. Among the common people religion was almost extinct, and assuredly no new morality or sentiment, such as Positivists now promise, had taken its place. Sometimes the rustic thought for himself, and scepticism took formal possession of his mind; but, as we see from one of Cowper’s letters, it was a coarse scepticism which desired to be buried with its hounds. Ignorance and brutality reigned in the cottage. Drunkenness reigned in palace and cottage alike. Gambling, cockfighting, and bullfighting were the amusements of the people. Political life, which, if it had been pure and vigorous, might have made up for the absence of spiritual influences, was corrupt from the top of the scale to the bottom: its effect on national character is pourtrayed in Hogarth’s _Election_. That property had its duties as well as its rights, nobody had yet ventured to say or think. The duty of a gentleman towards his own class was to pay his debts of honour and to fight a duel whenever he was challenged by one of his own order; towards the lower class his duty was none. Though the forms of government were elective, and Cowper gives us a description of the candidate at election time obsequiously soliciting votes, society was intensely aristocratic, and each rank was divided from that below it by a sharp line which precluded brotherhood or sympathy. Says the Duchess of Buckingham to Lady Huntingdon, who had asked her to come and hear Whitefield, “I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers; their doctrines are most repulsive, and strongly tinctured with disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding. I shall be most happy to come and hear your favourite preacher.” Her Grace’s sentiments towards the common wretches that crawl on the earth were shared, we may be sure, by her Grace’s waiting-maid. Of humanity there was as little as there was of religion. It was the age of the criminal law which hanged men for petty thefts, of life-long imprisonment for debt, of the stocks and the pillory, of a Temple Bar garnished with the heads of traitors, of the unreformed prison system, of the press-gang, of unrestrained tyranny and savagery at public schools. That the slave trade was iniquitous hardly any one suspected; even men who deemed themselves religious took part in it without scruple. But a change was at hand, and a still mightier change was in prospect. At the time of Cowper’s birth, John Wesley was twenty-eight and Whitefield was seventeen. With them the revival of religion was at hand. Johnson, the moral reformer, was twenty-two. Howard was born, and in less than a generation Wilberforce was to come.
When Cowper was six years old his mother died; and seldom has a child, even such a child, lost more, even in a mother. Fifty years after her death he still thinks of her, he says, with love and tenderness every day. Late in his life his cousin Mrs. Anne Bodham recalled herself to his remembrance by sending him his mother’s picture. “Every creature,” he writes, “that has any affinity to my mother is dear to me, and you, the daughter of her brother, are but one remove distant from her, I love you therefore, and love you much, both for her sake and for your own. 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 received it with a trepidation of nerves and spirits somewhat akin to what I should have felt had its dear original presented herself to my embraces. I kissed it and hung it where it is the last object which I see at night, and the first on which I open my eyes in the morning. She died when I 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.” As Cowper never married, there was nothing to take the place in his heart which had been left vacant by his mother.
My mother! when I learn’d that thou wast dead, Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed? Hover’d thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son, Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun? Perhaps thou gayest me, though unfelt, a kiss; Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss– Ah, that maternal smile!–it answers–Yes. I heard the bell toll’d on thy burial day, I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away, And, turning from my nursery window, drew A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu! But was it such?–It was.–Where thou art gone Adieus and farewells are a sound unknown. May I but meet thee on that peaceful shore, The parting word shall pass my lips no more! Thy maidens, grieved themselves at my concern, Oft gave me promise of thy quick return. What ardently I wish’d, I long believed, And disappointed still, was still deceived; By expectation every day beguiled,
Dupe of to-morrow even from a child. Thus many a sad to-morrow came and went, Till, all my stock of infant sorrows spent, I learn’d at last submission to my lot, But, though I less deplored thee, ne’er forgot.
In the years that followed no doubt he remembered her too well. At six years of age this little mass of timid and quivering sensibility was, in accordance with the cruel custom of the time, sent to a large boarding school. The change from home to a boarding school is bad enough now; it was much worse in those days.
“I had hardships,” says Cowper, “of various kinds to conflict with, which I felt more sensibly in proportion to the tenderness with which I had been treated at home. But my chief affliction consisted in my being singled out from all the other boys by a lad of about fifteen years of age as a proper object upon whom he might let loose the cruelty of his temper. I choose to conceal a particular recital of the many acts of barbarity with which he made it his business continually to persecute me. It will be sufficient to say that his savage treatment of me impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift my eyes upon him higher than to his knees, and that I knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any other part of his dress. May the Lord pardon him, and may we meet in glory!” Cowper charges himself, it may be in the exaggerated style of a self-accusing saint, with having become at school an adept in the art of lying. Southey says this must be a mistake, since at English public schools boys do not learn to lie. But the mistake is on Southey’s part; bullying, such as this child endured, while it makes the strong boys tyrants, makes the weak boys cowards, and teaches them to defend themselves by deceit, the fist of the weak. The recollection of this boarding school mainly it was that at a later day inspired the plea for a home education in _Tirocinium_.
Then why resign into a stranger’s hand A task as much within your own command, That God and nature, and your interest too, Seem with one voice to delegate to you? Why hire a lodging in a house unknown
For one whose tenderest thoughts all hover round your own? This second weaning, needless as it is, How does it lacerate both your heart and his The indented stick that loses day by day Notch after notch, till all are smooth’d away, Bears witness long ere his dismission come, With what intense desire he wants his home. But though the joys he hopes beneath your roof Bid fair enough to answer in the proof, Harmless, and safe, and natural as they are, A disappointment waits him even there:
Arrived, he feels an unexpected change, He blushes, hangs his head, is shy and strange. No longer takes, as once, with fearless ease, His favourite stand between his father’s knees, But seeks the corner of some distant seat, And eyes the door, and watches a retreat, And, least familiar where he should be most, Feels all his happiest privileges lost. Alas, poor boy!–the natural effect
Of love by absence chill’d into respect.
From the boarding school, the boy, his eyes being liable to inflammation, was sent to live with an oculist, in whose house he spent two years, enjoying at all events a respite from the sufferings and the evils of the boarding school. He was then sent to Westminster School, at that time in its glory. That Westminster in those days must have been a scene not merely of hardship, but of cruel suffering and degradation to the younger and weaker boys, has been proved by the researches of the Public Schools Commission. There was an established system and a regular vocabulary of bullying. Yet Cowper seems not to have been so unhappy there as at the private school; he speaks of himself as having excelled at cricket and football; and excellence in cricket and football at a public school generally carries with it, besides health and enjoyment, not merely immunity from bullying, but high social consideration. With all Cowper’s delicacy and sensitiveness, he must have had a certain fund of physical strength, or he could hardly have borne the literary labour of his later years, especially as he was subject to the medical treatment of a worse than empirical era. At one time he says, while he was at Westminster, his spirits were so buoyant that he fancied he should never die, till a skull thrown out before him by a gravedigger as he was passing through St. Margaret’s churchyard in the night recalled him to a sense of his mortality.
The instruction at a public school in those days was exclusively classical. Cowper was under Vincent Bourne, his portrait of whom is in some respects a picture not only of its immediate subject, but of the schoolmaster of the last century. “I love the memory of Vinny Bourne. I think him a better Latin poet than Tibullus, Propertius, Ausonius, or any of the writers in his way, except Ovid, and not at all inferior to him. I love him too with a love of partiality, because he was usher of the fifth form at Westminster when I passed through it. He was so good-natured and so indolent that I lost more than I got by him, for he made me as idle as himself. He was such a sloven, as if he had trusted to his genius as a cloak for everything that could disgust you in his person; and indeed in his writings he has almost made amends for all. . . . . I remember seeing the Duke of Richmond set fire to his greasy locks and box his ears to put it out again.” Cowper learned, if not to write Latin verses as well as Vinny Bourne himself, to write them very well, as his Latin versions of some of his own short poems bear witness. Not only so, but he evidently became a good classical scholar, as classical scholarship was in those days, and acquired the literary form of which the classics are the best school. Out of school hours he studied independently, as clever boys under the unexacting rule of the old public schools often did, and read through the whole of the _Iliad_ and _Odyssey_ with a friend. He also probably picked up at Westminster much of the little knowledge of the world which he ever possessed. Among his schoolfellows was Warren Hastings, in whose guilt as proconsul he afterwards, for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, refused to believe, and Impey, whose character has had the ill-fortune to be required as the shade in Macaulay’s fancy picture of Hastings.
On leaving Westminster, Cowper, at eighteen, went to live with Mr. Chapman, an attorney, to whom he was articled, being destined for the Law. He chose that profession, he says, not of his own accord, but to gratify an indulgent father, who may have been led into the error by a recollection of the legal honours of the family, as well as by the “silver pence” which his promising son had won by his Latin verses at Westminster School. The youth duly slept at the attorney’s house in Ely Place. His days were spent in “giggling and making giggle” with his cousins, Theodora and Harriet, the daughters of Ashley Cowper, in the neighbouring Southampton Row. Ashley Cowper was a very little man in a white hat lined with yellow, and his nephew used to say that he would one day he picked by mistake for a mushroom. His fellow-clerk in the office, and his accomplice in giggling and making giggle, was one strangely mated with him; the strong, aspiring, and unscrupulous Thurlow, who though fond of pleasure was at the same time preparing himself to push his way to wealth and power. Cowper felt that Thurlow would reach the summit of ambition, while he would himself remain below, and made his friend promise when he was Chancellor to give him something. When Thurlow was Chancellor, he gave Cowper his advice on translating Homer.
At the end of his three years with the attorney, Cowper took chambers in the Middle, from which he afterwards removed to the Inner Temple. The Temple is now a pile of law offices. In those days it was still a Society. One of Cowper’s set says of it: “The Temple is the barrier that divides the City and suburbs; and the gentlemen who reside there seem influenced by the situation of the place they inhabit. Templars are in general a kind of citizen courtiers. They aim at the air and the mien of the drawing-room, but the holy-day smoothness of a ‘prentice, heightened with some additional touches of the rake or coxcomb, betrays itself in everything they do. The Temple, however, is stocked with its peculiar beaux, wits, poets, critics, and every character in the gay world; and it is a thousand pities that so pretty a society should be disgraced with a few dull fellows, who can submit to puzzle themselves with cases and reports, and have not taste enough to follow the genteel method of studying the law.” Cowper at all events studied law by the genteel method; he read it almost as little in the Temple as he had in the attorney’s office, though in due course of time he was formally called to the Bar, and even managed in some way to acquire a reputation, which when he had entirely given up the profession brought him a curious offer of a readership at Lyons Inn. His time was given to literature, and he became a member of a little circle of men of letters and journalists which had its social centre in the Nonsense Club, consisting of seven Westminster men who dined together every Thursday. In the set were Bonnell Thornton and Colman, twin wits, fellow-writers of the periodical essays which were the rage in that day, joint proprietors of the _St. James’s Chronicle_, contributors both of them to the _Connoisseur_, and translators, Colman of Terence, Bonnell Thornton of Plautus, Colman being a dramatist besides. In the set was Lloyd, another wit and essayist and a poet, with a character not of the best. On the edge of the set, but apparently not in it, was Churchill, who was then running a course which to many seemed meteoric, and of whose verse, sometimes strong but always turbid, Cowper conceived and retained an extravagant admiration. Churchill was a link to Wilkes; Hogarth too was an ally of Colman, and helped him in his exhibition of Signs. The set was strictly confined to Westminsters. Gray and Mason, being Etonians, were objects of its literary hostility and butts of its satire. It is needless to say much about these literary companions of Cowper’s youth: his intercourse with them was totally broken off, and before he himself became a poet its effects had been obliterated by madness, entire change of mind, and the lapse of twenty years. If a trace remained, it was in his admiration of Churchill’s verses, and in the general results of literary society, and of early practice in composition. Cowper contributed to the _Connoiseur_ and the _St. James’s Chronicle_. His papers in the _Connoisseur_ have been preserved; they are mainly imitations of the lighter papers of the _Spectator_ by a student who affects the man of the world. He also dallied with poetry, writing verses to “Delia,” and an epistle to Lloyd. He had translated an elegy of Tibullus when he was fourteen, and at Westminster he had written an imitation of Phillips’s _Splendid Shilling_, which, Southey says, shows his manner formed. He helped his Cambridge brother, John Cowper, in a translation of the _Henriade_. He kept up his classics, especially his Homer. In his letters there are proofs of his familiarity with Rousseau. Two or three ballads which he wrote are lost, but he says they were popular, and we may believe him. Probably they were patriotic. “When poor Bob White,” he says, “brought in the news of Boscawen’s success off the coast of Portugal, how did I leap for joy! When Hawke demolished Conflans, I was still more transported. But nothing could express my rapture when Wolfe made the conquest of Quebec.”
The “Delia” to whom Cowper wrote verses was his cousin Theodora, with whom he had an unfortunate love affair. Her father, Ashley Cowper, forbade their marriage, nominally on the ground of consanguinity, really, as Southey thinks, because he saw Cowper’s unfitness for business and inability to maintain a wife. Cowper felt the disappointment deeply at the time, as well he might do if Theodora resembled her sister, Lady Hesketh. Theodora remained unmarried, and, as we shall see, did not forget her lover. His letters she preserved till her death in extreme old age.
In 1756 Cowper’s father died. There does not seem to have been much intercourse between them, nor does the son in after-years speak with any deep feeling of his loss: possibly his complaint in _Tirocinium_ of the effect of boarding-schools, in estranging children from their parents, may have had some reference to his own case. His local affections, however, were very strong, and he felt with unusual keenness the final parting from his old home, and the pang of thinking that strangers usurp our dwelling and the familiar places will know us no more.
Where once we dwelt our name is heard no more, Children not thine have trod my nursery floor; And where the gardener Robin, day by day, Drew me to school along the public way, Delighted with my bauble coach, and wrapp’d In scarlet mantle warm and velvet capp’d. ‘Tis now become a history little known, That once we call’d the pastoral house our own.
Before the rector’s death, it seems, his pen had hardly realized the cruel frailty of the tenure by which a home in a parsonage is held. Of the family of Berkhampstead Rectory there was now left besides himself only his brother John Cowper, Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, whose birth had cost their mother’s life.
When Cowper was thirty-two and still living in the Temple, came the sad and decisive crisis of his life. He went mad and attempted suicide. What was the source of his madness? There is a vague tradition that it arose from licentiousness, which, no doubt is sometimes the cause of insanity. Hut in Cowper’s case there is no proof of anything of the kind; his confessions, after his conversion, of his own past sinfulness point to nothing worse than general ungodliness and occasional excess in wine; and the tradition derives a colour of probability only from the loose lives of one or two of the wits and Bohemians with whom he had lived. His virtuous love of Theodora was scarcely compatible with low and gross amours. Generally, his madness is said to have been religious, and the blame is laid on the same foe to human weal as that of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. But when he first went mad, his conversion to Evangelicism had not taken place; he had not led a particularly religious life, nor been greatly given to religious practices, though as a clergyman’s son he naturally believed in religion, had at times felt religious emotions, and when he found his heart sinking had tried devotional books and prayers. The truth is his malady was simple hypochondria, having its source in delicacy of constitution and weakness of digestion, combined with the influence of melancholy surroundings. It had begun to attack him soon after his settlement in his lonely chambers in the Temple, when his pursuits and associations, as we have seen, were far from Evangelical. When its crisis arrived, he was living by himself without any society of the kind that suited him (for the excitement of the Nonsense Club was sure to be followed by reaction); he had lost hiss love, his father, his home, and as it happened also a dear friend; his little patrimony was fast dwindling away; he must have despaired of success in his profession; and his outlook was altogether dark. It yielded to the remedies to which hypochondria usually yields, air, exercise, sunshine, cheerful society, congenial occupation. It came with January and went with May. Its gathering gloom was dispelled for a time by a stroll in fine weather on the hills above Southampton Water, and Cowper said that he was never unhappy for a whole day in the company of Lady Hesketh. When he had become a Methodist, his hypochondria took a religious form, but so did his recovery from hypochondria; both must be set down to the account of his faith, or neither. This double aspect of the matter will plainly appear further on. A votary of wealth when his brain gives way under disease or age fancies that he is a beggar. A Methodist when his brain gives way under the same influences fancies that he is forsaken of God. In both cases the root of the malady is physical,
In the lines which Cowper sent on his disappointment to Theodora’s sister, and which record the sources of his despondency, there is not a touch of religious despair, or of anything connected with religion. The catastrophe was brought on by an incident with which religion had nothing to do. The office of clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords fell vacant, and was in the gift of Cowper’s kinsman Major Cowper, as patentee. Cowper received the nomination. He had longed for the office, sinfully as he afterwards fancied; it would exactly have suited him and made him comfortable for life. But his mind had by this time succumbed to his malady. His fancy conjured up visions of opposition to the appointment in the House of Lords; of hostility in the office where he had to study the Journals; of the terrors of an examination to be undergone before the frowning peers. After hopelessly poring over the Journals for some months he became quite mad, and his madness took a suicidal form. He has told with unsparing exactness the story of his attempts to kill himself. In his youth his father had unwisely given him a treatise in favour of suicide to read, and when he argued against it, had listened to his reasonings in a silence which he construed as sympathy with the writer, though it seems to have been only unwillingness to think too badly of the state of a departed friend. This now recurred to his mind, and talk with casual companions in taverns and chophouses was enough in his present condition to confirm him in his belief that self-destruction was lawful. Evidently he was perfectly insane, for he could not take up a newspaper without reading in it a fancied libel on himself. First he bought laudanum, and had gone out into the fields with the intention of swallowing it, when the love of life suggested another way of escaping the dreadful ordeal. He might sell all he had, fly to France, change his religion, and bury himself in a monastery. He went home to pack up; but while he was looking over his portmanteau, his mood changed, and he again resolved on self-destruction. Taking a coach he ordered the coachman to drive to the Tower Wharf, intending to throw himself into the river. But the love of life once more interposed, under the guise of a low tide and a porter seated on the quay. Again in the coach, and afterwards in his chambers, he tried to swallow the laudanum; but his hand was paralysed by “the convincing Spirit,” aided by seasonable interruptions from the presence of his laundress and her husband, and at length he threw the laudanum away. On the night before the day appointed for the examination before the Lords, he lay some time with the point of his penknife pressed against his heart, but without courage to drive it home. Lastly he tried to hang himself; and on this occasion he seems to have been saved not by the love of life, or by want of resolution, but by mere accident. He had become insensible, when the garter by which he was suspended broke, and his fall brought in the laundress, who supposed him to be in a fit. He sent her to a friend, to whom he related all that had passed, and despatched him to his kinsman. His kinsman arrived, listened with horror to the story, made more vivid by the sight of the broken garter, saw at once that all thought of the appointment was at end, and carried away the instrument of nomination. Let those whom despondency assails read this passage of Cowper’s life, and remember that he lived to write _John Gilpin_ and _The Task_.
Cowper tells us that “to this moment he had felt no concern of a spiritual kind;” that “ignorant of original sin, insensible of the guilt of actual transgression, he understood neither the Law nor the Gospel, the condemning nature of the one, nor the restoring mercies of the other.” But after attempting suicide he was seized, as he well might be, with religious horrors. Now it was that he began to ask himself whether he had been guilty of the unpardonable sin, and was presently persuaded that he had, though it would be vain to inquire what he imagined the unpardonable sin to be. In this mood, he fancied that if there was any balm for him in Gilead, it would be found in the ministrations of his friend Martin Madan, an Evangelical clergyman of high repute, whom he had been wont to regard as an enthusiast. His Cambridge brother, John, the translator of the _Henriade_, seems to have had some philosophic doubts as to the efficacy of the proposed remedy; but, like a philosopher, he consented to the experiment. Mr. Madan came and ministered, but in that distempered soul his balm turned to poison; his religious conversations only fed the horrible illusion. A set of English Sapphics, written by Cowper at this time, and expressing his despair, were unfortunately preserved; they are a ghastly play of the poetic faculty in a mind utterly deprived of self-control, and amidst the horrors of inrushing madness. Diabolical, they might be termed more truly than religious.
There was nothing for it but a madhouse. The sufferer was consigned to the private asylum of Dr. Cotton, at St. Alban’s. An ill-chosen physician Dr. Cotton would have been, if the malady had really had its source in religion; for he was himself a pious man, a writer of hymns, and was in the habit of holding religious intercourse with his patients. Cowper, after his recovery, speaks of that intercourse with the keenest pleasure and gratitude; so that in the opinion of the two persons best qualified to judge, religion in this case was not the bane. Cowper has given us a full account of his recovery. It was brought about, as we can plainly see, by medical treatment wisely applied; but it came in the form of a burst of religious faith and hope. He rises one morning feeling better; grows cheerful over his breakfast, takes up the Bible, which in his fits of madness he always threw aside, and turns to a verse in the Epistle to the Romans. “Immediately I received strength to believe, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon in His blood, and the fulness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel.” Cotton at first mistrusted the sudden change, but he was at length satisfied, pronounced his patient cured, and discharged him from the asylum, after a detention of eighteen months. Cowper hymned his deliverance in _The Happy Change_, as in the hideous Sapphics he had given religious utterance to his despair.
The soul, a dreary province once
Of Satan’s dark domain,
Feels a new empire form’d within,
And owns a heavenly reign.
The glorious orb whose golden beams
The fruitful year control,
Since first obedient to Thy word,
He started from the goal,
Has cheer’d the nations with the joys His orient rays impart;
But’, Jesus, ’tis Thy light alone
Can shine upon the heart.
Once for all, the reader of Cowper’s life must make up his mind to acquiesce in religious forms of expression. If he does not sympathize with them, he will recognize them as phenomena of opinion, and bear them like a philosopher. He can easily translate them into the language of psychology, or even of physiology, if he thinks fit.
AT HUNTINGDON–THE UNWINS.
The storm was over; but it had swept away a great part of Cowper’s scanty fortune, and almost all his friends. At thirty-five he was stranded and desolate. He was obliged to resign a Commissionership of Bankruptcy which he held, and little seems to have remained to him but the rent of his chambers in the Temple. A return to his profession was, of course, out of the question. His relations, however, combined to make up a little income for him, though from a hope of his family, he had become a melancholy disappointment; even the Major contributing, in spite of the rather trying incident of the nomination. His brother was kind and did a brother’s duty, but there does not seem to have been much sympathy between them; John Cowper did not become a convert to Evangelical doctrine till he was near his end, and he was incapable of sharing William’s spiritual emotions. Of his brilliant companions, the Bonnell Thorntons and the Colmans, the quondam members of the Nonsense Club, he heard no more, till he had himself become famous. But he still had a staunch friend in a less brilliant member of the Club, Joseph Hill, the lawyer, evidently a man who united strong sense and depth of character with literary tastes and love of fun, and who was throughout Cowper’s life his Mentor in matters of business, with regard to which he was himself a child. He had brought with him from the asylum at St. Albans the servant who had attended him there, and who had been drawn by the singular talisman of personal attraction which partly made up to this frail and helpless being for his entire lack of force. He had also brought from the same place an outcast boy whose case bad excited his interest, and for whom he afterwards provided by putting him to a trade. The maintenance of these two retainers was expensive and led to grumbling among the subscribers to the family subsidy, the Major especially threatening to withdraw his contribution. While the matter was in agitation, Cowper received an anonymous letter couched in the kindest terms, bidding him not distress himself, for that whatever deduction from his income might be made, the loss would be supplied by one who loved him tenderly and approved his conduct. In a letter to Lady Hesketh, he says that he wishes he knew who dictated this letter, and that he had seen not long before a style excessively like it. He can scarcely have failed to guess that it came from Theodora.
It is due to Cowper to say that he accepts the assistance of his relatives and all acts of kindness done to him with sweet and becoming thankfulness; and that whatever dark fancies he may have had about his religious state, when the evil spirit was upon him, he always speaks with contentment and cheerfulness of his earthly lot. Nothing splenetic, no element of suspicions and irritable self-love, entered into the composition of his character.
On his release from the asylum he was taken in hand by his brother John, who first tried to find lodgings for him at or near Cambridge, and failing in this, placed him at Huntingdon, within a long ride, so that William becoming a horseman for the purpose, the brothers could meet once a week. Huntingdon was a quiet little town with less than two thousand inhabitants, in a dull country, the best part of which was the Ouse, especially to Cowper, who was fond of bathing. Life there, as in other English country towns in those days, and indeed till railroads made people everywhere too restless and migratory for companionship or even for acquaintance, was sociable in an unrefined way. There were assemblies, dances, races, card-parties, and a bowling-green, at which the little world met and enjoyed itself. From these the new convert, in his spiritual ecstasy, of course turned away as mere modes of murdering time. Three families received him with civility, two of them with cordiality; but the chief acquaintances he made were with “odd scrambling fellows like himself;” an eccentric water-drinker and vegetarian who was to be met by early risers and walkers every morning at six o’clock by his favourite spring; a char-parson, of the class common in those days of sinecurism and non-residence, who walked sixteen miles every Sunday to serve two churches, besides reading daily prayers at Huntingdon, and who regaled his friend with ale brewed by his own hands. In his attached servant the recluse boasted that he had a friend; a friend he might have, but hardly a companion.
For the first days and even weeks, however, Huntingdon seemed a paradise. The heart of its new inhabitant was full of the unspeakable happiness that comes with calm after storm, with health after the most terrible of maladies, with repose after the burning fever of the brain. When first he went to church he was in a spiritual ecstasy; it was with difficulty that he restrained his emotions, though his voice was silent, being stopped by the intensity of his feelings, his heart within him sang for joy; and when the Gospel for the day was read, the sound of it was more than he could well bear. This brightness of his mind communicated itself to all the objects round him, to the sluggish waters of the Ouse, to dull, fenny Huntingdon, and to its commonplace inhabitants.
For about three months his cheerfulness lasted, and with the help of books, and his rides to meet his brother, he got on pretty well; but then “the communion which he had so long been able to maintain with the Lord was suddenly interrupted.” This is his theological version of the case; the rationalistic version immediately follows: “I began to dislike my solitary situation, and to fear I should never be able to weather out the winter in so lonely a dwelling.” No man could be less fitted to bear a lonely life; persistence in the attempt would soon have brought back his madness. He was longing for a home; and a home was at hand to receive him. It was not perhaps one of the happiest kind; but the influence which detracted from its advantages was the one which rendered it hospitable to the wanderer. If Christian piety was carried to a morbid excess beneath its roof, Christian charity opened its door.
The religious revival was now in full career, with Wesley for its chief apostle, organizer, and dictator, Whitefield for its great preacher, Fletcher of Madeley for its typical saint, Lady Huntingdon for its patroness among the aristocracy and the chief of its “devout women.” From the pulpit, but still more from the stand of the field-preacher and through a well-trained army of social propagandists, it was assailing the scepticism, the coldness, the frivolity, the vices of the age. English society was deeply stirred; multitudes were converted, while among those who were not converted violent and sometimes cruel antagonism was aroused. The party had two wings, the Evangelicals, people of the wealthier class or clergymen of the Church of England, who remained within the Establishment; and the Methodists, people of the lower middle class or peasants, the personal converts and followers of Wesley and Whitefield, who, like their leaders, without a positive secession, soon found themselves organizing a separate spiritual life in the freedom of Dissent. In the early stages of the movement the Evangelicals were to be counted at most by hundreds, the Methodists by hundreds of thousands. So far as the masses were concerned, it was in fact a preaching of Christianity anew. There was a cross division of the party into the Calvinists and those whom the Calvinists called Arminians; Wesley belonging to the latter section, while the most pronounced and vehement of the Calvinists was “the fierce Toplady.” As a rule, the darker and sterner element, that which delighted in religious terrors and threatenings was Calvinist, the milder and gentler, that which preached a gospel of love and hope, continued to look up to Wesley, and to bear with him the reproach of being Arminian,
It is needless to enter into a minute description of Evangelicism and Methodism; they are not things of the past. If Evangelicism has now been reduced to a narrow domain by the advancing forces of Ritualism on one side and of nationalism on the other, Methodism is still the great Protestant Church, especially beyond the Atlantic. The spiritual fire which they have kindled, the character which they have produced, the moral reforms which they have wrought, the works of charity and philanthropy to which they have given birth, are matters not only of recent memory, but of present experience. Like the great Protestant revivals which had preceded them in England, like the Moravian revival on the Continent, to which they were closely related, they sought to bring the soul into direct communion with its Maker, rejecting the intervention of a priesthood or a sacramental system. Unlike the previous revivals in England, they warred not against the rulers of the Church or State, but only against vice or irreligion. Consequently in the characters which they produced, as compared with those produced by Wycliffism, by the Reformation, and notably by Puritanism, there was less of force and the grandeur connected with it, more of gentleness, mysticism, and religious love. Even Quietism, or something like it, prevailed, especially among the Evangelicals, who were not like the Methodists, engaged in framing a new organization or in wrestling with the barbarous vices of the lower orders. No movement of the kind has ever been exempt from drawbacks and follies, from extravagance, exaggeration, breaches of good taste in religious matters, unctuousness, and cant–from chimerical attempts to get rid of the flesh and live an angelic life on earth–from delusions about special providences and miracles–from a tendency to over-value doctrine and undervalue duty–from arrogant assumption of spiritual authority by leaders and preachers–from the self-righteousness which fancies itself the object of a divine election, and looks out with a sort of religious complacency from the Ark of Salvation in which it fancies itself securely placed, upon the drowning of an unregenerate world. Still it will hardly be doubted that in the effects produced by Evangelicism and Methodism the good has outweighed the evil. Had Jansenism prospered as well, France might have had more of reform and less of revolution. The poet of the movement will not be condemned on account of his connexion with it, any more than Milton is condemned on account of his connexion with Puritanism, provided it be found that he also served art well.
Cowper, as we have seen, was already converted. In a letter written at this time to Lady Hesketh, he speaks of himself with great humility “as a convert made in Bedlam, who is more likely to be a stumblingblock to others, than to advance their faith,” though he adds, with reason enough, “that he who can ascribe an amendment of life and manners, and a reformation of the heart itself, to madness is guilty of an absurdity, that in any other case would fasten the imputation of madness upon himself.” It is hence to be presumed that he traced his conversion to his spiritual intercourse with the Evangelical physician of St. Albans, though the seed sown by Martin Madan may perhaps also have sprung up in his heart when the more propitious season arrived. However that may have been, the two great factors of Cowper’s life were the malady which consigned him to poetic seclusion and the conversion to Evangelicism, which gave him his inspiration and his theme.
At Huntingdon dwelt the Rev. William Unwin, a clergyman, taking pupils, his wife, much younger than himself, and their son and daughter. It was a typical family of the Revival. Old Mr. Unwin is described by Cowper as a Parson Adams. The son, William Unwin, was preparing for holy orders. He was a man of some mark, and received tokens of intellectual respect from Paley, though he is best known as the friend to whom many of Cowper’s letters are addressed. He it was who, struck by the appearance of the stranger, sought an opportunity of making his acquaintance. He found one, after morning church, when Cowper was taking his solitary walk beneath the trees. Under the influence of religious sympathy the acquaintance quickly ripened into friendship; Cowper at once became one of the Unwin circle, and soon afterwards, a vacancy being made by the departure of one of the pupils, he became a boarder in the house. This position he had passionately desired on religious grounds; but in truth he might well have desired it on economical grounds also, for he had begun to experience the difficulty and expensiveness, as well as the loneliness, of bachelor housekeeping, and financial deficit was evidently before him. To Mrs. Unwin he was from the first strongly drawn. “I met Mrs. Unwin in the street,” he says, “and went home with her. She and I walked together near two hours in the garden, and had a conversation which did me more good than I should have received from an audience with the first prince in Europe. That woman is a blessing to me, and I never see her without being the better for her company.” Mrs. Unwin’s character is written in her portrait with its prim but pleasant features; a Puritan and a precisian she was, but she was not morose or sour, and she had a boundless capacity for affection. Lady Hesketh, a woman of the world, and a good judge in every respect, says of her at a later period, when she had passed with Cowper through many sad and trying years: “She is very far from grave; on the contrary, she is cheerful and gay, and laughs _de bon coeur_ upon the smallest provocation. Amidst all the little puritanical words which fall from her _de temps en temps_, she seems to have by nature a quiet fund of gaiety; great indeed must it have been, not to have been wholly overcome by the close confinement in which she has lived, and the anxiety she must have undergone for one whom she certainly loves as well as one human being can love another. I will not say she idolizes him, because that she would think wrong; but she certainly seems to possess the truest regard and affection for this excellent creature, and, as I said before, has in the most literal sense of those words, no will or shadow of inclination but what is his. My account of Mrs. Unwin may seem perhaps to you, on comparing my letters, contradictory; but when you consider that I began to write at the first moment that I saw her, you will not wonder. Her character develops itself by degrees; and though I might lead you to suppose her grave and melancholy, she is not so by any means. When she speaks upon grave subjects, she does express herself with a puritanical tone, and in puritanical expressions, but on all subjects she seems to have a great disposition to cheerfulness and mirth; and indeed had she not, she could not have gone through all she has. I must say, too, that she seems to be very well read in the English poets, as appears by several little quotations, which she makes from time to time, and has a true taste for what is excellent in that way.”
When Cowper became an author he paid the highest respect to Mrs. Unwin as an instinctive critic, and called her his Lord Chamberlain, whose approbation was his sufficient licence for publication.
Life in the Unwin family is thus described by the new inmate;–“As to amusements, I mean what the world calls such, we have none. The place indeed swarms with them; and cards and dancing are the professed business of almost all the gentle inhabitants of Huntingdon. We refuse to take part in them, or to be accessories to this way of murdering our time, and by so doing have acquired the name of Methodists. Having told you how we do not spend our time, I will next say how we do. We breakfast commonly between eight and nine; till eleven, we read either the scripture, or the sermons of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries; at eleven we attend divine service, which is performed here twice every day, and from twelve to three we separate, and amuse ourselves as we please. During that interval, I either read in my own apartment, or walk or ride, or work in the garden. We seldom sit an hour after dinner, but, if the weather permits, adjourn to the garden, where, with Mrs. Unwin and her son, I have generally the pleasure of religious conversation till tea-time. If it rains, or is too windy for walking, we either converse within doors or sing some hymns of Martin’s collection, and by the help of Mrs. Unwin’s harpsichord, make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope are the best performers. After tea we sally forth to walk in good earnest. Mrs. Unwin is a good walker, and we have generally travelled about four miles before we see home again. When the days are short we make this excursion in the former part of the day, between church-time and dinner. At night we read and converse as before till supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon, and last of all the family are called to prayers. I need not tell you that such a life as this is consistent with the utmost cheerfulness, accordingly we are all happy, and dwell together in unity as brethren.”
Mrs. Cowper, the wife of Major (now Colonel) Cowper, to whom this was written, was herself strongly Evangelical; Cowper had, in fact, unfortunately for him, turned from his other relations and friends to her on that account. She, therefore, would have no difficulty in thinking that such a life was consistent with cheerfulness, but ordinary readers will ask how it could fail to bring on another fit of hypochondria. The answer is probably to be found in the last words of the passage. Overstrained and ascetic piety found an antidote in affection. The Unwins were Puritans and enthusiasts, but their household was a picture of domestic love.
With the name of Mrs. Cowper is connected an incident which, occurred at this time, and which illustrates the propensity to self-inspection and self-revelation which Cowper had in common with Rousseau. Huntingdon, like other little towns, was all eyes and gossip; the new comer was a mysterious stranger who kept himself aloof from the general society, and he naturally became the mark for a little stone-throwing. Young Unwin happening to be passing near “the Park” on his way from London to Huntingdon, Cowper gave him an introduction to its lady, in a letter to whom he afterwards disclosed his secret motive. “My dear Cousin,–You sent my friend Unwin home to us charmed, with your kind reception of him, and with everything he saw at the Park. Shall I once more give you a peep into my vile and deceitful heart? What motive do you think lay at the bottom of my conduct when I desired him to call upon you? I did not suspect, at first, that pride and vainglory had any share in it, but quickly after I had recommended the visit to him, I discovered, in that fruitful soil, the very root of the matter. You know I am a stranger here; all such are suspected characters, unless they bring their credentials with them. To this moment, I believe, it is a matter of speculation in the place, whence I came, and to whom I belong. Though my friend, you may suppose, before I was admitted an inmate here, was satisfied that I was not a mere vagabond, and has, since that time, received more convincing proofs of my _sponsibility_; yet I could not resist the opportunity of furnishing him with ocular demonstration of it, by introducing him to one of my most splendid connexions; that when he hears me called ‘that fellow Cowper,’ which has happened heretofore, he may be able, upon unquestionable evidence, to assert my gentlemanhood, and relieve me from the weight of that opprobrious appellation. Oh pride! pride! it deceives with the subtlety of a serpent, and seems to walk erect, though it crawls upon the earth. How will it twist and twine itself about to get from under the Cross, which it is the glory of our Christian calling to be able to bear with patience and goodwill. They who can guess at the heart of a stranger,–and you especially, who are of a compassionate temper,–will be more ready, perhaps, to excuse me, in this instance, than I can be to excuse myself. But, in good truth, it was abominable pride of heart, indignation, and vanity, and deserves no better name.”
Once more, however obsolete Cowper’s belief, and the language in which he expresses it may have become for many of us, we must take it as his philosophy of life. At this time, at all events, it was a source of happiness. “The storm being passed, a quiet and peaceful serenity of soul succeeded,” and the serenity in this case was unquestionably produced in part by the faith.
I was a stricken deer that left the herd Long since; with many an arrow deep infixed My panting side was charged, when I withdrew To seek a tranquil death in distant shades, There was I found by one who had himself Been hurt by the archers. In his side he bore And in his hands and feet the cruel scars, With gentle force soliciting the darts, He drew them forth and healed and bade me live.
Cowper thought for a moment of taking orders, but his dread of appearing in public conspired with the good sense which lay beneath his excessive sensibility to put a veto on the design. He, however, exercised the zeal of a neophyte in proselytism to a greater extent than his own judgment and good taste approved when his enthusiasm had calmed down.
AT OLNEY–MR. NEWTON.
Cowper had not been two years with the Unwins when Mr. Unwin, the father, was killed by a fall from his horse; this broke up the household. But between Cowper and Mrs. Unwin an indissoluble tie had been formed. It seems clear, notwithstanding Southey’s assertion to the contrary, that they at one time meditated marriage, possibly as a propitiation to the evil tongues which did not spare even this most innocent connexion; but they were prevented from fulfilling their intention by a return of Cowper’s malady. They became companions for life. Cowper says they were as mother and son to each other; but Mrs. Unwin was only seven years older than he. To label their connexion is impossible, and to try to do it would be a platitude. In his poems Cowper calls Mrs. Unwin Mary; she seems always to have called him Mr. Cowper. It is evident that her son, a strictly virtuous and religious man, never had the slightest misgiving about his mother’s position.
The pair had to choose a dwelling-place; they chose Olney in Buckinghamshire, on the Ouse. The Ouse was “a slow winding river,” watering low meadows, from which crept pestilential fogs. Olney was a dull town, or rather village, inhabited by a population of lace-makers, ill-paid, fever-stricken, and for the most part as brutal as they were poor. There was not a woman in the place excepting Mrs. Newton with whom Mrs. Unwin could associate, or to whom she could look for help in sickness or other need. The house in which the pair took up their abode was dismal, prison-like, and tumble-down; when they left it, the competitors for the succession were a cobbler and a publican. It looked upon the Market Place, but it was in the close neighbourhood of Silver End, the worst part of Olney. In winter the cellars were full of water. There were no pleasant walks within easy reach, and in winter Cowper’s only exercise was pacing thirty yards of gravel, with the dreary supplement of dumb-bells. What was the attraction to this “well,” this “abyss,” as Cowper himself called it, and as, physically and socially, it was?
The attraction was the presence of the Rev. John Newton, then curate of Olney. The vicar was Moses Brown, an Evangelical and a religious writer, who has even deserved a place among the worthies of the revival; but a family of thirteen children, some of whom it appears too closely resembled the sons of Eli, had compelled him to take advantage of the indulgent character of the ecclesiastical polity of those days by becoming a pluralist and a non-resident, so that the curate had Olney to himself. The patron was the Lord Dartmouth, who, as Cowper says, “wore a coronet and prayed.” John Newton was one of the shining lights and foremost leaders and preachers of the revival. His name was great both in the Evangelical churches within the pale of the Establishment, and in the Methodist churches without it. He was a brand plucked from the very heart of the burning. We have a memoir of his life, partly written by himself, in the form of letters, and completed under his superintendence. It is a monument of the age of Smollett and Wesley, not less characteristic than is Cellini’s memoir of the times in which he lived. His father was master of a vessel, and took him to sea when he was eleven. His mother was a pious Dissenter, who was at great pains to store his mind with religious thoughts and pieces. She died when he was young, and his stepmother was not pious. He began to drag his religious anchor, and at length, having read Shaftesbury, left his theological moorings altogether, and drifted into a wide sea of ungodliness, blasphemy, and recklessness of living. Such at least is the picture drawn by the sinner saved of his own earlier years. While still but a stripling he fell desperately in love with a girl of thirteen; his affection for her was as constant as it was romantic; through all his wanderings and sufferings he never ceased to think of her, and after seven years she became his wife. His father frowned on the engagement, and he became estranged from home. He was impressed; narrowly escaped shipwreck, deserted, and was arrested and flogged as a deserter. Released from the navy, he was taken into the service of a slave-dealer on the coast of Africa, at whose hands, and those of the man’s negro mistress, he endured every sort of ill-treatment and contumely, being so starved that he was fain sometimes to devour raw roots to stay his hunger. His constitution must have been of iron to carry him through all that he endured. In the meantime his indomitable mind was engaged in attempts at self-culture; he studied a Euclid which he had brought with him, drawing his diagrams on the sand, and he afterwards managed to teach himself Latin by means of a Horace and a Latin Bible, aided by some slight vestiges of the education which he had received at a grammar school. His conversion was brought about by the continued influences of Thomas a Kempis, of a very narrow escape, after terrible sufferings, from shipwreck, of the impression made by the sights of the mighty deep on a soul which, in its weather-beaten casing, had retained its native sensibility, and, we may safely add, of the disregarded but not forgotten teachings of his pious mother. Providence was now kind to him; he became captain of a slave ship, and made several voyages on the business of the trade. That it was a wicked trade he seems to have had no idea; he says he never knew sweeter or more frequent hours of divine communion than on his two last voyages to Guinea. Afterwards it occurred to him that though his employment was genteel and profitable, it made him a sort of gaoler, unpleasantly conversant with both chains and shackles; and he besought Providence to fix him in a more humane calling,
In answer to his prayer came a fit of apoplexy, which made it dangerous for him to go to sea again. He obtained an office in the port of Liverpool, but soon he set his heart on becoming a minister of the Church of England. He applied for ordination to the Archbishop of York, but not having the degree required by the rules of the Establishment, he received through his Grace’s secretary “the softest refusal imaginable.” The Archbishop had not had the advantage of perusing Lord Macaulay’s remarks on the difference between the policy of the Church of England and that of the Church of Rome, with regard to the utilization of religious enthusiasts. In the end Newton was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln, and threw himself with the energy of a newborn apostle upon the irreligion and brutality of Olney. No Carthusian’s breast could glow more intensely with the zeal which is the offspring of remorse. Newton was a Calvinist of course, though it seems not an extreme one, otherwise he would probably have confirmed Cowper in the darkest of hallucinations. His religion was one of mystery and miracle, full of sudden conversions, special providences and satanic visitations. He himself says that “his name was up about the country for preaching people mad:” it is true that in the eyes of the profane Methodism itself was madness; but he goes on to say “whether it is owing to the sedentary life the women live here, poring over their (lace) pillows for ten or twelve hours every day, and breathing confined air in their crowded little rooms, or whatever may be the immediate cause, I suppose we have near a dozen in different degrees disordered in their heads, and most of them I believe truly gracious people.” He surmises that “these things are permitted in judgment, that they who seek occasion for cavilling and stumbling may have what they want.” Nevertheless there were in him not only force, courage, burning zeal for doing good, but great kindness, and even tenderness of heart. “I see in this world,” he said, “two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the smallest bit from one heap and add it to the other I carry a point–if, as I go home, a child has dropped a half-penny, and by giving it another I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something.” There was even in him a strain, if not of humour, of a shrewdness which was akin to it, and expressed itself in many pithy sayings. “If two angels came down from heaven to execute a divine command, and one was appointed to conduct an empire and the other to sweep a street in it, they would feel no inclination to change employments.” “A Christian should never plead spirituality for being a sloven; if he be but a shoe-cleaner, he should be the best in the parish.” “My principal method for defeating heresy is by establishing truth. One proposes to fill a bushel with tares; now if I can fill it first with wheat, I shall defy his attempts.” That his Calvinism was not very dark or sulphureous, seems to be shown from his repeating with gusto the saying of one of the old women of Olney when some preacher dwelt on the doctrine of predestination–“Ah, I have long settled that point; for if God had not chosen me before I was born, I am sure he would have seen nothing to have chosen me for afterwards.” That he had too much sense to take mere profession for religion appears from his describing the Calvinists of Olney as of two sorts, which reminded him of the two baskets of Jeremiah’s figs. The iron constitution which had carried him through so many hardships, enabled him to continue in his ministry to extreme old age. A friend at length counselled him to stop before he found himself stopped by being able to speak no longer. “I cannot stop,” he said, raising his voice. “What! shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
At the instance of a common friend, Newton had paid Mrs. Unwin a visit at Huntingdon, after her husband’s death, and had at once established the ascendancy of a powerful character over her and Cowper. He now beckoned the pair to his side, placed them in the house adjoining his own, and opened a private door between the two gardens, so as to have his spiritual children always beneath his eye. Under this, in the most essential respect, unhappy influence, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin together entered on “a decided course of Christian happiness.” That is to say they spent all their days in a round of religious exercises without relaxation or relief. On fine summer evenings, as the sensible Lady Hesketh saw with dismay, instead of a walk, there was a prayer-meeting. Cowper himself was made to do violence to his intense shyness by leading in prayer. He was also made to visit the poor at once on spiritual missions, and on that of almsgiving, for which Thornton, the religious philanthropist, supplied Newton and his disciples with means. This, which Southey appears to think about the worst part of Newton’s regimen, was probably its redeeming feature. The effect of doing good to others on any mind was sure to be good; and the sight of real suffering was likely to banish fancied ills. Cowper in this way gained at all events a practical knowledge of the poor, and learned to do them justice, though from a rather too theological point of view. Seclusion from the sinful world was as much a part of the system of Mr. Newton, as it was of the system of Saint Benedict. Cowper was almost entirely cut off from intercourse with his friends and people of his own class. He dropped his correspondence even with his beloved cousin, Lady Hesketh, and would probably have dropped his correspondence with Hill, had not Hill’s assistance in money matters been indispensable. To complete his mental isolation it appears that having sold his library he had scarcely any books. Such a course of Christian happiness as this could only end in one way; and Newton himself seems to have had the sense to see that a storm was brewing, and that there was no way of conjuring it but by contriving some more congenial occupation. So the disciple was commanded to employ his poetical gifts in contributing to a hymnbook which Newton was compiling. Cowper’s Olney hymns have not any serious value as poetry. Hymns rarely have. The relations of man with Deity transcend and repel poetical treatment. There is nothing in them on which the creative imagination can be exercised. Hymns can be little more than incense of the worshipping soul. Those of the Latin church are the best; not because they are better poetry than the rest (for they are not), but because their language is the most sonorous. Cowper’s hymns were accepted by the religious body for which they were written, as expressions of its spiritual feeling and desires; so far they were successful. They are the work of a religious man of culture, and free from anything wild, erotic, or unctuous. But on the other hand there is nothing in them suited to be the vehicle of lofty devotion, nothing, that we can conceive a multitude or even a prayer-meeting uplifting to heaven with voice and heart. Southey has pointed to some passages on which the shadow of the advancing malady falls; but in the main there is a predominance of religious joy and hope. The most despondent hymn of the series is _Temptation_, the thought of which resembles that of _The Castaway_.
Cowper’s melancholy may have been aggravated by the loss of his only brother, who died about this time, and at whose death-bed he was present; though in the narrative which he wrote, joy at John’s conversion and the religious happiness of his end seems to exclude the feelings by which hypochondria was likely to be fed. But his mode of life under Newton was enough to account for the return of his disease, which in this sense may be fairly laid to the charge of religion. He again went mad, fancied as before that he was rejected of heaven, ceased to pray as one helplessly doomed, and again attempted suicide. Newton and Mrs. Unwin at first treated the disease as a diabolical visitation, and “with deplorable consistency,” to borrow the phrase used by one of their friends in the case of Cowper’s desperate abstinence from prayer, abstained from calling in a physician. Of this again their religion must bear the reproach. In other respects they behaved admirably. Mrs. Unwin, shut up for sixteen months with her unhappy partner, tended him with unfailing love; alone she did it, for he could bear no one else about him; though to make her part more trying he had conceived the insane idea that she hated him. Seldom has a stronger proof been given of the sustaining power of affection. Assuredly of whatever Cowper may have afterwards done for his kind, a great part must be set down to the credit of Mrs. Unwin.
Mary! I want a lyre with other strings, Such aid from heaven as some have feigned they drew, An eloquence scarce given to mortals, new And undebased by praise of meaner things, That, ere through age or woe I shed my wings, I may record thy worth with honour due, In verse as musical as thou art true,
And that immortalizes whom it sings. But thou hast little need. There is a book By seraphs writ with beams of heavenly light, On which the eyes of God not rarely look, A chronicle of actions just and bright; There all thy deeds, my faithful Mary shine, And, since thou own’st that praise, I spare thee mine.
Newton’s friendship too was sorely tried. In the midst of the malady the lunatic took it into his head to transfer himself from his own house to the Vicarage, which, he obstinately refused to leave; and Newton bore this infliction for several months without repining, though, he might well pray earnestly for his friend’s deliverance. “The Lord has numbered the days in which I am appointed to wait on him in this dark valley, and he has given us such a love to him, both as a believer and a friend, that I am not weary; but to be sure his deliverance would be to me one of the greatest blessings my thoughts can conceive.” Dr. Cotton was at last called in, and under his treatment, evidently directed against a bodily disease, Cowper was at length restored to sanity.
Newton once compared his own walk in the world to that of a physician going through Bedlam. But he was not skilful in his treatment of the literally insane. He thought to cajole Cowper out of his cherished horrors by calling his attention to a case resembling his own. The case was that of Simon Browne, a Dissenter, who had conceived the idea that, being under the displeasure of Heaven, he had been entirely deprived of his rational being and left with merely his animal nature. He had accordingly resigned his ministry, and employed, himself in compiling a dictionary, which, he said, was doing nothing that could require a reasonable soul. He seems to have thought that theology fell under the same category, for he proceeded to write some theological treatises, which he dedicated to Queen Caroline, calling her Majesty’s attention to the singularity of the authorship as the most remarkable phenomenon of her reign. Cowper, however, instead of falling into the desired train of reasoning, and being led to suspect the existence of a similar illusion in himself, merely rejected the claim of the pretended rival in spiritual affliction, declaring his own case to be far the more deplorable of the two.
Before the decided course of Christian happiness had time again to culminate in madness, fortunately for Cowper, Newton left Olney for St. Mary Woolnoth. He was driven away at last by a quarrel with his barbarous parishioners, the cause of which did him credit. A fire broke out at Olney, and burnt a good many of its straw-thatched cottages. Newton ascribed the extinction of the fire rather to prayer than water, but he took the lead in practical measures of relief, and tried to remove the earthly cause of such visitations by putting an end to bonfires and illuminations on the 5th of November. Threatened with the loss of their Guy Fawkes, the barbarians rose upon him, and he had a narrow escape from their violence. We are reminded of the case of Cotton Mather, who, after being a leader in witch-burning, nearly sacrificed his life in combatting the fanaticism which opposed itself to the introduction of inoculation. Let it always be remembered that besides its theological side, the Revival had its philanthropic and moral side; that it abolished the slave trade, and at last slavery; that it waged war, and effective war, under the standard of the gospel, upon masses of vice and brutality, which had been totally neglected by the torpor of the Establishment; that among large classes of the people it was the great civilizing agency of the time.
Newton was succeeded as curate of Olney by his disciple, and a man of somewhat the same cast of mind and character, Thomas Scott the writer of the _Commentary on the Bible_ and _The Force of Truth_. To Scott Cowper seems not to have greatly taken. He complains that, as a preacher, he is always scolding the congregation. Perhaps Newton had foreseen that it would be so, for he specially commended the spiritual son whom he was leaving, to the care of the Rev. William Bull, of the neighbouring town of Newport Pagnell, a dissenting minister, but a member of a spiritual connexion which did not stop at the line of demarcation between Nonconformity and the Establishment. To Bull Cowper did greatly take, he extols him as “a Dissenter, but a liberal one,” a man of letters and of genius, master of a fine imagination–or, rather, not master of it–and addresses him as _Carissime Taurorum_. It is rather singular that Newton should have given himself such a successor. Bull was a great smoker, and had made himself a cozy and secluded nook in his garden for the enjoyment of his pipe. He was probably something of a spiritual as well as of a physical Quietist, for he set Cowper to translate the poetry of the great exponent of Quietism, Madame Guyon. The theme of all the pieces which Cowper has translated is the same–Divine Love and the raptures of the heart that enjoys it–the blissful union of the drop with the Ocean–the Evangelical Nirvana. If this line of thought was not altogether healthy, or conducive to the vigorous performance of practical duty, it was at all events better than the dark fancy of Reprobation. In his admiration of Madame Guyon, her translator showed his affinity, and that of Protestants of the same school, to Fenelon and the Evangelical element which has lurked in the Roman Catholic church since the days of Thomas a Kempis.
AUTHORSHIP. THE MORAL SATIRES.
Since his recovery, Cowper had been looking out for what he most needed, a pleasant occupation. He tried drawing, carpentering, gardening. Of gardening he had always been fond; and he understood it as shown by the loving though somewhat “stercoraceous” minuteness of some passages in _The Task_. A little greenhouse, used as a parlour in summer, where he sat surrounded by beauty and fragrance, and lulled by pleasant sounds, was another product of the same pursuit, and seems almost Elysian in that dull dark life. He also found amusement in keeping tame hares, and he fancied that he had reconciled the hare to man and dog. His three tame hares are among the canonized pets of literature, and they were to his genius what “Sailor” was to the genius of Byron. But Mrs. Unwin, who had terrible reason for studying his case, saw that the thing most wanted was congenial employment for the mind, and she incited him to try his hand at poetry on a larger scale. He listened to her advice, and when he was nearly fifty years of age became a poet. He had acquired the faculty of verse-writing, as we have seen; he had even to some extent formed his manner when he was young. Age must by this time have quenched his fire, and tamed his imagination, so that the didactic style would suit him best. In the length of the interval between his early poems and his great work he resembles Milton; but widely different in the two cases had been the current of the intervening years. Poetry written late in life is of course free from youthful crudity and extravagance. It also escapes the youthful tendency to imitation. Cowper’s authorship is ushered in by Southey with a history of English poetry; but this is hardly in place; Cowper had little connexion with anything before him. Even his knowledge of poetry was not great. In his youth he had read the great poets, and had studied Milton especially with the ardour of intense admiration. Nothing ever made him so angry as Johnson’s Life of Milton. “Oh!” he cries, “I could thrash his old jacket till I made his pension jingle in his pocket.” Churchill had made a great–far too great–an impression on him, when he was a Templar. Of Churchill, if of anybody, he must be regarded as a follower, though only in his earlier and less successful poems. In expression he always regarded as a model the neat and gay simplicity of Prior. But so little had he kept up his reading of anything but sermons and hymns, that he learned for the first time from Johnson’s Lives the existence of Collins. He is the offspring of the Religious Revival rather than of any school of art. His most important relation to any of his predecessors is, in fact, one of antagonism to the hard glitter of Pope.
In urging her companion to write poetry, Mrs. Unwin was on the right path, her puritanism led her astray in the choice of a theme. She suggested _The Progress of Error_ as a subject for a “Moral Satire.” It was unhappily adopted, and _The Progress of Error_ was followed by _Truth_, _Table Talk_, _Expostulation_, _Hope_, _Charity_, _Conversation_, and _Retirement_. When the series was published, _Table Talk_ was put first, being supposed to be the lightest and the most attractive to an unregenerate world. The judgment passed upon this set of poems at the time by the _Critical Review_ seems blasphemous to the fond biographer, and is so devoid of modern smartness as to be almost interesting as a literary fossil. But it must be deemed essentially just, though the reviewer errs, as many reviewers have erred, in measuring the writer’s capacity by the standard of his first performance. “These poems,” said the _Critical Review_, “are written, as we learn from the title-page, by Mr. Cowper of the Inner Temple, who seems to be a man of a sober and religious turn of mind, with a benevolent heart, and a serious wish to inculcate the precepts of morality; he is not, however, possessed of any superior abilities or the power of genius requisite for so arduous an undertaking. . . . . He says what is incontrovertible and what has been said over and over again with much gravity, but says nothing new, sprightly or entertaining; travelling on a plain level flat road, with great composure almost through the whole long and tedious volume, which is little better than a dull sermon in very indifferent verse on Truth, the Progress of Error, Charity, and some other grave subjects. If this author had followed the advice given by Caraccioli, and which he has chosen for one of the mottoes prefixed to these poems, he would have clothed his indisputable truths in some more becoming disguise, and rendered his work much more agreeable. In its present shape we cannot compliment him on its beauty; for as this bard himself sweetly sings:–
“The clear harangue, and cold as it is clear, Falls soporific on the listless ear.”
In justice to the bard it ought to be said that he wrote under the eye of the Rev. John Newton, to whom the design had been duly submitted, and who had given his _imprimatur_ in the shape of a preface which took Johnson the publisher aback by its gravity. Newton would not have sanctioned any poetry which had not a distinctly religious object, and he received an assurance from the poet that the lively passages were introduced only as honey on the rim of the medicinal cup, to commend its healing contents to the lips of a giddy world. The Rev. John Newton must have been exceedingly austere if he thought that the quantity of honey used was excessive.
A genuine desire to make society better is always present in these poems, and its presence lends them the only interest which they possess except as historical monuments of a religious movement. Of satirical vigour they have scarcely a semblance. There are three kinds of satire, corresponding to as many different views of humanity and life, the Stoical, the Cynical, and the Epicurean. Of Stoical satire, with its strenuous hatred of vice and wrong, the type is Juvenal. Of Cynical satire, springing from bitter contempt of humanity, the type is Swift’s Gulliver, while its quintessence is embodied in his lines on the Day of Judgment. Of Epicurean satire, flowing from a contempt of humanity which is not bitter, and lightly playing with the weakness and vanities of mankind, Horace is the classical example. To the first two kinds, Cowper’s nature was totally alien, and when he attempts anything in either of those lines, the only result is a querulous and censorious acerbity, in which his real feelings had no part, and which on mature reflection offended his own better taste. In the Horatian kind he might have excelled, as the episode of the _Retired Statesman_ in one of these poems shows. He might have excelled, that is, if like Horace he had known the world. But he did not know the world. He saw the “great Babel” only “through the loopholes of retreat,” and in the columns of his weekly newspaper. Even during the years, long past, which he spent in the world, his experience had been confined to a small literary circle. Society was to him an abstraction on which he discoursed like a pulpiteer. His satiric whip not only has no lash, it is brandished in the air.
No man was ever less qualified for the office of a censor; his judgment is at once disarmed, and a breach in his principles is at once made by the slightest personal influence. Bishops are bad, they are like the Cretans, evil beasts and slow bellies; but the bishop whose brother Cowper knows is a blessing to the Church. Deans and Canons are lazy sinecurists, but there is a bright exception in the case of the Cowper who held a golden stall at Durham. Grinding India is criminal, but Warren Hastings is acquitted, because he was with Cowper at Westminster. Discipline was deplorably relaxed in all colleges except that of which Cowper’s brother was a fellow. Pluralities and resignation bonds, the grossest abuses of the Church, were perfectly defensible in the case of any friend or acquaintance of this Church Reformer. Bitter lines against Popery inserted in _The Task_ were struck out, because the writer had made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Throckmorton, who were Roman Catholics. Smoking was detestable, except when practised by dear Mr. Bull. Even gambling, the blackest sin of fashionable society, is not to prevent Fox, the great Whig, from being a ruler in Israel. Besides, in all his social judgments, Cowper is at a wrong point of view. He is always deluded by the idol of his cave. He writes perpetually on the twofold assumption that a life of retirement is more favourable to virtue than a life of action, and that “God made the country, while man made the town.” Both parts of the assumption are untrue. A life of action is more favourable to virtue, as a rule, than a life of retirement, and the development of humanity is higher and richer, as a rule, in the town than in the country. If Cowper’s retirement was virtuous, it was so because he was actively employed in the exercise of his highest faculties: had he been a mere idler, secluded from his kind, his retirement would not have been virtuous at all. His flight from the world was rendered necessary by his malady, and respectable by his literary work; but it was a flight and not a victory. His misconception was fostered and partly produced by a religion which was essentially ascetic, and which, while it gave birth to characters of the highest and most energetic beneficence, represented salvation too little as the reward of effort, too much as the reward of passive belief and of spiritual emotion.
The most readable of the Moral Satires is _Retirement_, in which the writer is on his own ground expressing his genuine feelings, and which is, in fact, a foretaste of _The Task_. _Expostulation_, a warning to England from the example of the Jews, is the best constructed: the rest are totally wanting in unity, and even in connexion. In all there are flashes of epigrammatic smartness.
How shall I speak thee, or thy power address, Thou God of our idolatry, the press?
By thee, religion, liberty, and laws Exert their influence, and advance their cause; By thee, worse plagues than Pharaoh’s land befel, Diffused, make earth the vestibule of hell: Thou fountain, at which drink the good and wise, Thou ever-bubbling spring of endless lies, Like Eden’s dread probationary tree,
Knowledge of good and evil is from thee.
Occasionally there are passages of higher merit. The episode of statesmen in _Retirement_ has been already mentioned. The lines on the two disciples going to Emmaus in _Conversation_, though little more than a paraphrase of the Gospel narrative, convey pleasantly the Evangelical idea of the Divine Friend. Cowper says in one of his letters that he had been intimate with a man of fine taste who had confessed to him that though he could not subscribe to the truth of Christianity itself, he could never read this passage of St. Luke without being deeply affected by it, and feeling that if the stamp of divinity was impressed upon anything in the Scriptures, it was upon that passage.
It happen’d on a solemn eventide,
Soon after He that was our surety died, Two bosom friends, each pensively inclined, The scene of all those sorrows left behind, Sought their own village, busied as they went In musings worthy of the great event:
They spake of him they loved, of him whose life, Though blameless, had incurr’d perpetual strife, Whose deeds had left, in spite of hostile arts, A deep memorial graven on their hearts. The recollection, like a vein of ore,
The farther traced enrich’d them still the more;
They thought him, and they justly thought him, one Sent to do more than he appear’d to have done, To exalt a people, and to place them high Above all else, and wonder’d he should die. Ere yet they brought their journey to an end, A stranger join’d them, courteous as a friend, And ask’d them with a kind engaging air What their affliction was, and begg’d a share. Inform’d, he gathered up the broken thread, And truth and wisdom gracing all he said, Explain’d, illustrated, and search’d so well The tender theme on which they chose to dwell, That reaching home, the night, they said is near, We must not now be parted, sojourn here.– The new acquaintance soon became a guest, And made so welcome at their simple feast, He bless’d the bread, but vanish’d at the word, And left them both exclaiming, ‘Twas the Lord! Did not our hearts feel all he deign’d to say, Did they not burn within us by the way?
The prude going to morning church in _Truth_ is a good rendering of Hogarth’s picture:–
Yon ancient prude, whose wither’d features show She might, be young some forty years ago, Her elbows pinion’d close upon her hips, Her head erect, her fan upon her lips,
Her eyebrows arch’d, her eyes both gone astray To watch yon amorous couple in their play, With bony and unkerchief’d neck defies
The rude inclemency of wintry skies, And sails with lappet-head and mincing airs Daily at clink of hell, to morning prayers. To thrift and parsimony much inclined,
She yet allows herself that boy behind; The shivering urchin, bending as he goes, With slipshod heels, and dew-drop at his nose, His predecessor’s coat advanced to wear, Which future pages are yet doom’d to share, Carries her Bible tuck’d beneath his arm, And hides his hands to keep his fingers warm.
Of personal allusions there are a few; if the satirist had not been prevented from indulging in them by his taste, he would have been debarred by his ignorance. Lord Chesterfield, as the incarnation of the world and the most brilliant servant of the arch-enemy, comes in for a lashing under the name of Petronius.
Petronius! all the muses weep for thee, But every tear shall scald thy memory.
The graces too, while virtue at their shrine Lay bleeding under that soft hand of thine, Felt each a mortal stab in her own breast, Abhorr’d the sacrifice, and cursed the priest. Thou polish’d and high-finish’d foe to truth, Gray-beard corruptor of our listening youth, To purge and skim away the filth of vice, That so refined it might the more entice, Then pour it on the morals of thy son
To taint _his_ heart, was worthy of _thine own_.
This is about the nearest approach to Juvenal that the Evangelical satirist ever makes. In _Hope_ there is a vehement vindication of the memory of Whitefield. It is rather remarkable that there is no mention of Wesley. But Cowper belonged to the Evangelical rather than to the Methodist section. It may be doubted whether the living Whitefield would have been much to his taste.
In the versification of the moral satires there are frequent faults, especially in the earlier poems of the series, though Cowper’s power of writing musical verse is attested both by the occasional poems and by _The Task_.
With the Moral Satires may be coupled, though written later, _Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools_. Here Cowper has the advantage of treating a subject which he understood, about which he felt strongly, and desired for a practical purpose to stir the feelings of his readers. He set to work in bitter earnest. “There is a sting,” he says, “in verse that prose neither has nor can have; and I do not know that schools in the gross, and especially public schools, have ever been so pointedly condemned before. But they are become a nuisance, a pest, an abomination, and it is fit that the eyes and noses of mankind should be opened if possible to perceive it.” His descriptions of the miseries which children in his day endured, and, in spite of all our improvements, must still to some extent endure in boarding schools, and of the effects of the system in estranging boys from their parents and deadening home affections, are vivid and true. Of course the Public School system was not to be overturned by rhyming, but the author of _Tirocinium_ awakened attention to its faults, and probably did something towards amending them. The best lines, perhaps, have been already quoted in connexion with the history of the writer’s boyhood. There are, however, other telling passages such as that on the indiscriminate use of emulation as a stimulus:–
Our public hives of puerile resort
That are of chief and most approved report, To such base hopes in many a sordid soul Owe their repute in part, but not the whole. A principle, whose proud pretensions pass Unquestion’d, though the jewel be but glass, That with a world not often over-nice
Ranks as a virtue, and is yet a vice, Or rather a gross compound, justly tried, Of envy, hatred, jealousy, and pride,
Contributes moat perhaps to enhance their fame, And Emulation is its precious name.
Boys once on fire with that contentious zeal Feel all the rage that female rivals feel; The prize of beauty in a woman’s eyes
Not brighter than in theirs the scholar’s prize. The spirit of that competition burns
With all varieties of ill by turns, Each vainly magnifies his own success,
Resents his fellow’s, wishes it were less, Exults in his miscarriage if he fail,
Deems his reward too great if he prevail, And labours to surpass him day and night, Less for improvement, than to tickle spite. The spur is powerful, and I grant its force; It pricks the genius forward in its course, Allows short time for play, and none for sloth, And felt alike by each, advances both,
But judge where so much evil intervenes, The end, though plausible, not worth the means. Weigh, for a moment, classical desert
Against a heart depraved, and temper hurt, Hurt, too, perhaps for life, for early wrong Done to the nobler part, affects it long, And you are staunch indeed in learning’s cause, If you can crown a discipline that draws Such mischiefs after it, with much applause.
He might have done more, if he had been able to point to the alternative of a good day school, as a combination of home affections with the superior teaching hardly to be found, except in a large school, and which Cowper, in drawing his comparison between the two systems, fails to take into account.
To the same general class of poems belongs _Anti-Thelypthora_, which it is due to Cowper’s memory to say was not published in his lifetime. It is an angry pasquinade on an absurd book advocating polygamy on Biblical grounds, by the Rev. Martin Madan, Cowper’s quondam spiritual counsellor. Alone among Cowper’s works it has a taint of coarseness.
The Moral Satires pleased Franklin, to whom their social philosophy was congenial, as at a later day, in common with all Cowper’s works, they pleased Cobden, who no doubt specially relished the passage in _Charity_, embodying the philanthropic sentiment of Free Trade. There was a trembling consultation as to the expediency of bringing the volume under the notice of Johnson. “One of his pointed sarcasms, if he should happen to be displeased, would soon find its way into all companies and spoil the sale.” “I think it would be well to send in our joint names, accompanied with a handsome card, such an one as you will know how to fabricate, and such as may predispose him to a favourable perusal of the book, by coaxing him into a good temper, for he is a great bear, with all his learning and penetration.” Fear prevailed; but it seems that the book found its way into the dictator’s hands, that his judgment on it was kind, and that he even did something to temper the wind of adverse criticism to the shorn lamb. Yet parts of it were likely to incur his displeasure as a Tory, as a Churchman, and as one who greatly preferred Fleet Street to the beauties of nature; while with the sentimental misery of the writer, he could have had no sympathy whatever. Of the incompleteness of Johnson’s view of character there could be no better instance than the charming weakness of Cowper. Thurlow and Colman did not even acknowledge their copies, and were lashed for their breach of friendship with rather more vigour than the Moral Satires display, in _The Valedictory_, which unluckily survived for posthumous publication, when the culprits had made their peace.
Cowper certainly misread himself if he believed that ambition, even literary ambition, was a large element in his character. But having published, he felt a keen interest in the success of his publication. Yet he took its failure and the adverse criticism very calmly. With all his sensitiveness, from irritable and suspicious egotism, such as is the most common cause of moral madness, he was singularly free. In this respect his philosophy served him well.
It may safely be said that the Moral Satires would have sunk into oblivion if they had not been buoyed up by _The Task_.
Mrs. Unwin’s influence produced the Moral Satires. _The Task_ was born of a more potent inspiration. One day Mrs. Jones, the wife of a neighbouring clergyman, came into Olney to shop, and with her came her sister, Lady Austen, the widow of a Baronet, a woman of the world, who had lived much in France, gay, sparkling and vivacious, but at the same time full of feeling even to overflowing. The apparition acted like magic on the recluse. He desired Mrs. Unwin to ask the two ladies to stay to tea, then shrank from joining the party which he had himself invited, ended by joining it, and, his shyness giving way with a rush, engaged in animated conversation with Lady Austen, and walked with her part of the way home. On her an equally great effect appears to have been produced. A warm friendship at once sprang up, and before long Lady Austen had verses addressed to her as Sister Anne. Her ladyship, on her part, was smitten with a great love of retirement, and at the same time with great admiration for Mr. Scott, the curate of Olney, as a preacher, and she resolved to fit up for herself “that part of our great building which is at present occupied by Dick Coleman, his wife and child, and a thousand rats.” That a woman of fashion, accustomed to French salons, should choose such an abode, with a pair of Puritans for her only society, seems to show that one of the Puritans at least must have possessed great powers of attraction. Better quarters were found for her in the Vicarage; and the private way between the gardens, which apparently had been closed since Newton’s departure, was opened again.
Lady Austen’s presence evidently wrought on Cowper like an elixir: “From a scene of the most uninterrupted retirement,” he writes to Mrs. Unwin, “we have passed at once into a state of constant engagement. Not that our society is much multiplied; the addition of an individual has made all this difference. Lady Austen and we pass our days alternately at each other’s Chateau. In the morning I walk with one or other of the ladies, and in the evening wind thread. Thus did Hercules, and thus probably did Samson, and thus do I; and were both those heroes living, I should not fear to challenge them to a trial of skill in that business, or doubt to beat them both.” It was perhaps while he was winding thread that Lady Austen told him the story of John Gilpin. He lay awake at night laughing over it, and next morning produced the ballad. It soon became famous, and was recited by Henderson, a popular actor, on the stage, though, as its gentility was doubtful, its author withheld his name. He afterwards fancied that this wonderful piece of humour had been written in a mood of the deepest depression. Probably he had written it in an interval of high spirits between two such moods. Moreover he sometimes exaggerated his own misery. He will begin a letter with a _de profundis_, and towards the end forget his sorrows, glide into commonplace topics, and write about them in the ordinary strain. Lady Austen inspired _John Gilpin_. She inspired, it seems, the lines on the loss of the Royal George. She did more: she invited Cowper to try his hand at something considerable in blank verse. When he asked her for a subject, she was happier in her choice than the lady who had suggested the _Progress of Error_. 8he bade him take the sofa on which she was reclining, and which, sofas being then uncommon, was a more striking and suggestive object than it would be now. The right chord was struck; the subject was accepted; and _The Sofa_ grew into _The Task_; the title of the song reminding us that it was “commanded by the fair.” As _Paradise Lost_ is to militant Puritanism, so is _The Task_ to the religious movement of its author’s time. To its character as the poem of a sect it no doubt owed and still owes much of its popularity. Not only did it give beautiful and effective expression to the sentiments of a large religious party, but it was about the only poetry that a strict Methodist or Evangelical could read; while to those whose worship was unritualistic and who were debarred by their principles from the theatre and the concert, anything in the way of art that was not illicit must have been eminently welcome. But _The Task_ has merits of a more universal and enduring kind. Its author himself says of it:–“If the work cannot boast a regular plan (in which respect, however, I do not think it altogether indefensible), it may yet boast, that the reflections are naturally suggested always by the preceding passage, and that, except the fifth book, which is rather of a political aspect, the whole has one tendency, to discountenance the modern enthusiasm after a London life, and to recommend rural ease and leisure as friendly to the cause of piety and virtue.” A regular plan, assuredly, _The Task_ has not. It rambles through a vast variety of subjects, religious, political, social, philosophical, and horticultural, with as little of method as its author used in taking his morning walks. Nor as Mr. Benham has shown, are the reflections, as a rule, naturally suggested by the preceding passage. From the use of a sofa by the gouty to those, who being free from gout, do not need sofas,–and so to country walks and country life is hardly a natural transition. It is hardly a natural transition from the ice palace built by a Russian despot, to despotism and politics in general. But if Cowper deceives himself in fancying that there is a plan or a close connexion of parts, he is right as to the existence of a pervading tendency. The praise of retirement and of country life as most friendly to piety and virtue, is the perpetual refrain of The Task, if not its definite theme. From this idea immediately now the best and the most popular passages: those which please apart from anything peculiar to a religious school; those which keep the poem alive; those which have found their way into the heart of the nation, and intensified the taste for rural and domestic happiness, to which they most winningly appeal. In these Cowper pours out his inmost feelings, with the liveliness of exhilaration, enhanced by contrast with previous misery. The pleasures of the country and of home, the walk, the garden, but above all the “intimate delights” of the winter evening, the snug parlour, with its close-drawn curtains shutting out the stormy night, the steaming and bubbling tea-urn, the cheerful circle, the book read aloud, the newspaper through which we look out into the unquiet world, are painted by the writer with a heartfelt enjoyment, which infects the reader. These are not the joys of a hero, nor are they the joys of an Alcaeus “singing amidst the clash of arms, or when he had moored on the wet shore his storm-tost barque.” But they are pure joys, and they present themselves in competition with those of Ranelagh and the Basset Table, which are not heroic or even masculine, any more than they are pure.
The well-known passages at the opening of _The Winter Evening_, are the self-portraiture of a soul in bliss–such bliss as that soul could know–and the poet would have found it very difficult to depict to himself by the utmost effort of his religious imagination any paradise which he would really have enjoyed more.
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
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This folio of four pages, happy work! Which not even critics criticise, that holds Inquisitive attention while I read
Fast bound in chains of silence, which the fair, Though eloquent themselves, yet fear to break, What is it but a map of busy life,
Its fluctuations and its vast concerns?
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‘Tis pleasant through the loop-holes of retreat To peep at such a world. To see the stir Of the great Babel and not feel the crowd. To hear the roar she sends through all her gates At a safe distance, where the dying sound Falls a soft murmur on the injured ear. Thus sitting and surveying thus at ease The globe and its concerns, I seem advanced To some secure and more than mortal height, That liberates and exempts me from them all. It turns submitted to my view, turns round With all its generations; I behold
The tumult and am still. The sound of war Has lost its terrors ere it reaches me, Grieves but alarms me not. I mourn the pride And avarice that make man a wolf to man, Hear the faint echo of those brazen throats By which he speaks the language of his heart, And sigh, but never tremble at the sound. He travels and expatiates, as the bee
From flower to flower, so he from land to land, The manners, customs, policy of all
Pay contribution to the store he gleans; He sucks intelligence in every clime,
And spreads the honey of his deep research At his return, a rich repast for me,
He travels, and I too. I tread his deck, Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes Discover countries, with a kindred heart Suffer his woes and share in his escapes, While fancy, like the finger of a clock, Runs the great circuit, and is still at home. Oh winter! ruler of the inverted year, Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d, Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks Fringed with a beard made white with other snows Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds, A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne A sliding car indebted to no wheels,
And urged by storms along its slippery way; I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st, And dreaded as thou art. Thou hold’st the sun A prisoner in the yet undawning East,
Shortening his journey between morn and noon, And hurrying him impatient of his stay
Down to the rosy West. But kindly still Compensating his loss with added hours
Of social converse and instructive ease, And gathering at short notice in one group The family dispersed by daylight and its cares. I crown thee king of intimate delights, Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness, And all the comforts that the lowly roof Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours Of long uninterrupted evening know.
The writer of _The Task_ also deserves the crown which he has himself claimed as a close observer and truthful painter of nature. In this respect, he challenges comparison with Thomson. The range of Thomson is far wider, he paints nature in all her moods, Cowper only in a few and those the gentlest, though he has said of himself that “he was always an admirer of thunderstorms, even before he knew whose voice be heard in them, but especially of thunder rolling over the great waters.” The great waters he had not seen for many years; he had never, so far as we know, seen mountains, hardly even high hills; his only landscape was the flat country watered by the Ouse. On the other hand he is perfectly genuine, thoroughly English, entirely emancipated from false Arcadianism, the yoke of which still sits heavily upon Thomson, whose “muse” moreover is perpetually “wafting” him away from the country and the climate which he knows to countries and climates which he does not know, and which he describes in the style of a prize poem. Cowper’s landscapes, too, are peopled with the peasantry of England; Thomson’s, with Damons, Palaemons, and Musidoras, tricked out in the sentimental costume of the sham idyl. In Thomson, you always find the effort of the artist working up a description; in Cowper, you find no effort; the scene is simply mirrored on a mind of great sensibility and high pictorial power.
And witness, dear companion of my walks, Whose arm this twentieth winter I perceive Fast lock’d in mine, with pleasure such as love, Confirm’d by long experience of thy worth And well-tried virtues, could alone inspire– Witness a joy that thou hast doubled long. Thou know’st my praise of nature most sincere, And that my raptures are not conjured up To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
But genuine, and art partner of them all. How oft upon yon eminence our pace
Has slacken’d to a pause, and we have borne The ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew, While Admiration, feeding at the eye,
And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene! Thence with what pleasure have we just discerned The distant plough slow moving, and beside His labouring team that swerved not from the track, The sturdy swain diminish’d to a boy!
Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain Of spacious meads, with cattle sprinkled o’er, Conducts the eye along his sinuous course Delighted. There, fast rooted in their bank, Stand, never overlook’d, our favourite elms, That screen the herdsman’s solitary hut; While far beyond, and overthwart the stream, That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale, The sloping land recedes into the clouds; Displaying on its varied side the grace Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tower, Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells Just undulates upon the listening ear,
Groves, heaths, and smoking villages, remote. Scenes must be beautiful, which, daily viewed, Please daily, and whose novelty survives Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years– Praise justly due to those that I describe.
This is evidently genuine and spontaneous. We stand with Cowper and Mrs. Unwin on the hill in the ruffling wind, like them, scarcely conscious that it blows, and feed admiration at the eye upon the rich and thoroughly English champaign that is outspread below.
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 nil the mind; Unnumber’d 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 employs 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 these alone, whose notes Nice-finger’d Art must emulate in vain, But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime In still-repeated circles, screaming loud, The jay, the pie, and e’en the boding owl That hails the rising moon, have charms for me. Sounds inharmonious in themselves and harsh, Yet heard in scenes where peace for ever reigns, And only there, please highly for their sake.
Affection such as the last lines display for the inharmonious as well as the harmonious, for the uncomely, as well as the comely parts of nature has been made familiar by Wordsworth, but it was new in the time of Cowper. Let us compare a landscape painted by Pope in his Windsor forest, with the lines just quoted, and we shall see the difference between the art of Cowper, and that of the Augustan age.
Here waving groves a checkered scene display, And part admit and part exclude the day, As some coy nymph her lover’s warm address Not quite indulges, nor can quite repress. There interspersed in lawns and opening glades The trees arise that share each other’s shades; Here in full light the russet plains extend, There wrapt in clouds, the bluish hills ascend, E’en the wild heath displays her purple dyes, And midst the desert fruitful fields arise, That crowned with tufted trees and springing corn. Like verdant isles the sable waste adorn.
The low Berkshire hills wrapt in clouds on a sunny day; a sable desert in the neighbourhood of Windsor; fruitful fields arising in it, and crowned with tufted trees and springing corn–evidently Pope saw all this, not on an eminence, in the ruffling wind, but in his study with his back to the window, and the Georgics or a translation of them before him.
Here again is a little picture of rural life from the _Winter Morning Walk_.
The cattle mourn in corners, where the fence Screens them, and seem half-petrified to sleep In unrecumbent sadness. There they wait Their wonted fodder; not like hungering man,