Full Online Books
BOOK CATEGORIES
Authors Authors Short Stories Short Stories Long Stories Long Stories Funny Stories Funny Stories Love Stories Love Stories Stories For Kids Stories For Kids Poems Poems Essays Essays Nonfictions Nonfictions Plays Plays Folktales Folktales Fairy Tales Fairy Tales Fables Fables Learning Kitchen Learning Kitchen
LINKS
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Free Classified Website Without Registration Free Classified Website Daniel Company
Twitter Twitter Add book
donate
Full Online Book HomeEssaysWilliam Cowper
Famous Authors (View All Authors)
William Cowper Post by :Sonny_Mac Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :2587

Click below to download : William Cowper (Format : PDF)

William Cowper

The large and weighty family of Gradgrinds may, from their various well-cushioned coigns of advantage, give forcible utterance to their opinions as to what are the really important things in this life; but the fact remains, distasteful as it may be to those of us who accomplish the disciplinary end of vexing our fathers' souls by other means than 'penning stanzas,' that the lives of poets, even of people who have passed for poets, eclipse in general and permanent interest the lives of other men. Whilst above the sod, these poets were often miserable enough. But charm hangs over their graves. The sternest pedestrian, even he who is most bent on making his inn by the precise path he has, with much study of the map, previously prescribed for himself, will yet often veer to the right or to the left, to visit the lonely churchyard where, as he hears by the way, lie the ashes of some brother of the tuneful quill. It may well be that this brother's verses are not frequently on our lips. It is not the lot of every bard to make quotations. It may sometimes happen to you, as you stand mournfully surveying the little heap, to rack your brains unavailingly for so much as a single couplet; nay, so treacherous is memory, the very title of his best-known poem may, for the moment, have slipped you. But your heart is melted all the same, and you feel it would indeed have been a churlish thing to go on your original way, unmindful of the fact that

'In yonder grave a Druid lies!'

And you have your reward. When you have reached your desired haven, and are sitting alone after dinner in the coffee-room, neat-handed Phyllis (were you not fresh from a poet's grave, a homelier name might have served her turn) having administered to your final wants, and disappeared with a pretty flounce, the ruby-coloured wine the dead poet loved, the bottled sunshine of a bygone summer, glows the warmer in your cup as you muse over minstrels now no more, whether

'Of mighty poets in their misery dead,'

or of such a one as he whose neglected grave you have just visited.

It was a pious act, you feel, to visit that grave. You commend yourself for doing so. As the night draws on, this very simple excursion down a rutty lane and across a meadow, begins to wear the hues of devotion and of love; and unless you are very stern with yourself, the chances are that by the time you light your farthing dip, and are proceeding on your dim and perilous way to your bedroom at the end of a creaking passage, you will more than half believe you were that poet's only unselfish friend, and that he died saying so.

All this is due to the charm of poetry. Port has nothing to do with it. Indeed, as a plain matter of fact, who would drink port at a village inn? Nobody feels a bit like this after visiting the tombs of soldiers, lawyers, statesmen, or divines. These pompous places, viewed through the haze of one's recollections of the 'careers' of the men whose names they vainly try to perpetuate, seem but, if I may slightly alter some words of old Cowley's, 'An ill show after a sorry sight.'

It would be quite impossible, to enumerate one half of the reasons which make poets so interesting. I will mention one, and then pass on to the subject-matter. They often serve to tell you the age of men and books. This is most interesting. There is Mr. Matthew Arnold. How impossible it would be to hazard even a wide solution of the problem of his age, but for the way he has of writing about Lord Byron! Then we know


'The thought of Byron, of his cry
Stormily, sweet, his Titan agony.'

And again:

'What boots it now that Byron bore,
With haughty scorn which mocked the smart,
Through Europe to the Ætolian shore,
The pageant of his bleeding heart?'


Ask any man born in the fifties, or even the later forties, what he thinks of Byron's Titan agony, and his features will probably wear a smile. Insist upon his giving his opinion about the pageant of the Childe's bleeding heart, and more likely than not he will laugh outright. But, I repeat, how interesting to be able to tell the age of one distinguished poet from his way of writing of another!

So, too, with books. Miss Austen's novels are dateless things. Nobody in his senses would speak of them as 'old novels.' John Inglesant is an old novel, so is Ginx's Baby. But Emma is quite new, and, like a wise woman, affords few clues as to her age. But when, taking up Sense and Sensibility, we read Marianne Dashwood's account of her sister's lover--

'And besides all this, I am afraid, mamma, he has no real taste. Music seems scarcely to attract him, and though he admires Elinor's drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth. He admires as a lover, and not as a connoisseur. Oh, mamma! how spiritless, how tame was Edward's manner in reading last night! I felt for my sister most severely. I could hardly keep my seat to hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!' 'He would certainly (says Mrs. Dashwood) have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so, at the time, but you would give him Cowper.' 'Nay, mamma, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!'--when we read this, we know pretty well when Miss Austen was born. It is surely pleasant to be reminded of a time when sentimental girls used Cowper as a test of a lover's sensibility. One of our modern swains is no more likely to be condemned as a Philistine for not reading The Task with unction, than he is to be hung for sheep-stealing, or whipped at the cart's tail for speaking evil of constituted authorities; but the position probably still has its perils, and the Marianne Dashwoods of the hour are quite capable of putting their admirers on to Rose Mary, or The Blessed Damosel, and then flouting their insensibility. The fact, of course, is, that each generation has a way of its own, and poets are interesting because they are the mirrors in which their generation saw its own face; and what is more, they are magic mirrors, since they retain the power of reflecting the image long after what was pleased to call itself the substance has disappeared into thin air.

There is no more interesting poet than Cowper, and hardly one the area of whose influence was greater. No man, it is unnecessary to say, courted popularity less, yet he threw a very wide net, and caught a great shoal of readers. For twenty years after the publication of The Task in 1785, his general popularity never flagged, and even when in the eyes of the world it was eclipsed, when Cowper became in the opinion of fierce Byronians and moss-trooping Northerners, 'a coddled Pope' and a milksop, our great, sober, Puritan middle-class took him to their warm firesides for two generations more. Some amongst these were not, it must be owned, lovers of poetry at all; they liked Cowper because he is full of a peculiar kind of religious phraseology, just as some of Burns' countrymen love Burns because he is full of a peculiar kind of strong drink called whisky. This was bad taste; but it made Cowper all the more interesting, since he thus became, by a kind of compulsion, the favourite because the only poet, of all these people's children; and the children of the righteous do not wither like the green herb, neither do they beg their bread from door to door, but they live in slated houses and are known to read at times. No doubt, by the time it came to these children's children the spell was broken, and Cowper went out of fashion when Sunday travelling and play-going came in again. But his was a long run, and under peculiar conditions. Signs and tokens are now abroad, whereby the judicious are beginning to infer that there is a renewed disposition to read Cowper, and to love him, not for his faults, but for his great merits, his observing eye, his playful wit, his personal charm.

Hayley's Life of Cowper is now obsolete, though since it is adorned with vignettes by Blake it is prized by the curious. Hayley was a kind friend to Cowper, but he possessed, in a highly developed state, that aversion to the actual facts of a case which is unhappily so characteristic of the British biographer. Southey's Life is horribly long-winded and stuffed out; still, like Homer's Iliad, it remains the best. It was long excluded from strict circles because of its worldly tone, and also because it more than hinted that the Rev. John Newton was to blame for his mode of treating the poet's delusions. Its place was filled by the Rev. Mr. Grimshaw's Life of the poet, which is not a nice book. Mr. Benham's recent Life, prefixed to the cheap Globe edition of Cowper's Poems, is marvellously good and compressed. Mr. Goldwin Smith's account of the poet in Mr. Morley's series could not fail to be interesting, though it created in the minds of some readers a curious sensation of immense distance from the object described. Mr. Smith seemed to discern Cowper clearly enough, but as somebody very far off. This, however, may be fancy.

The wise man will not trouble the biographers. He will make for himself a short list of dates, so that he may know where he is at any particular time, and then, poking the fire and (his author notwithstanding) lighting his pipe--

'Oh, pernicious weed, whose scent the fair annoys--'

he will read Cowper's letters. There are five volumes of them in Southey's edition. It would be to exaggerate to say you wish there were fifty, but you are, at all events, well content there should be five. In the course of them Cowper will tell you the story of his own life, as it ought to be told, as it alone can be told, in the purest of English and with the sweetest of smiles. For a combination of delightful qualities, Cowper's letters have no rivals. They are playful, witty, loving, sensible, ironical, and, above all, as easy as an old shoe. So easy, indeed, that after you have read half a volume or so, you begin to think their merits have been exaggerated, and that anybody could write letters as good as Cowper's. Even so the man who never played billiards, and who sees Mr. Roberts play that game, might hastily opine that he, too, could go and do likewise.

To form anything like a fair estimate of Cowper, it is wise to ignore as much as possible his mental disease, and always to bear in mind the manner of man he naturally was. He belonged essentially to the order of wags. He was, it is easy to see, a lover of trifling things, elegantly finished. He hated noise, contention, and the public gaze, but society he ever insisted upon.


'I praise the Frenchman, his remark was shrewd,
How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude!
But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
Whom I may whisper--"solitude is sweet."'

He loved a jest, a barrel of oysters, and a bottle of wine. His well-known riddle on a kiss is Cowper from top to toe:


'I am just two and two; I am warm, I am cold,
And the parent of numbers that cannot be told.
I am lawful, unlawful, a duty, a fault,
I am often sold dear, good for nothing when bought,
An extraordinary boon, and a matter of course,
And yielded with pleasure when taken by force.'


Why, it is a perfect dictionary of kisses in six lines!

Had Cowper not gone mad in his thirty-second year, and been frightened out of the world of trifles, we should have had another Prior, a wittier Gay, an earlier Praed, an English La Fontaine. We do better with The Task and the Lines to Mary, but he had a light touch.


''Tis not that I design to rob
Thee of thy birthright, gentle Bob,
For thou art born sole heir and single
Of dear Mat Prior's easy jingle.
Not that I mean while thus I knit
My threadbare sentiments together,
To show my genius or my wit,
When God and you know I have neither,
Or such as might be better shown
By letting poetry alone.'

This lightness of touch, this love of trifling, never deserted Cowper, not even when the pains of hell got hold of him, and he believed himself the especially accursed of God. In 1791, when things were very black, we find him writing to his good Dissenting friend, the Rev. William Bull ('Charissime Taurorum'), as follows:

'Homer, I say, has all my time, except a little that I give every day to no very cheering prospects of futurity. I would I were a Hottentot, or even a Dissenter, so that my views of an hereafter were more comfortable. But such as I am, Hope, if it please God, may visit even me. Should we ever meet again, possibly we may part no more. Then, if Presbyterians ever find their way to heaven, you and I may know each other in that better world, and rejoice in the recital of the terrible things that we endured in this. I will wager sixpence with you now, that when that day comes you shall acknowledge my story a more wonderful one than yours; only order your executors to put sixpence in your mouth when they bury you, that you may have wherewithal to pay me.'

Whilst living in the Temple, which he did for twelve years, chiefly it would appear on his capital, he associated with a race of men, of whom report has reached us, called 'wits.' He belonged to the Nonsense Club; he wrote articles for magazines. He went to balls, to Brighton, to the play. He went once, at all events, to the gallery of the House of Commons, where he witnessed an altercation between a placeman and an alderman--two well-known types still in our midst. The placeman had misquoted Terence, and the alderman had corrected him; whereupon the ready placeman thanked the worthy alderman for teaching him Latin, and volunteered in exchange to teach the alderman English. Cowper must at this time have been a considerable reader, for all through life he is to be found quoting his authors, poets, and playwrights, with an easy appositeness, all the more obviously genuine because he had no books in the country to refer to. 'I have no English History,' he writes, 'except Baker's Chronicle, and that I borrowed three years ago from Mr. Throckmorton.' This was wrong, but Baker's Chronicle (Sir Roger de Coverley's favourite Sunday reading) is not a book to be returned in a month.

After this easy fashion Cowper acquired what never left him--the style and manner of an accomplished worldling.

The story of the poet's life does not need telling; but as Owen Meredith says, probably not even for the second time, 'after all, old things are best.' Cowper was born in the rectory at Great Berkhampstead, in 1735. His mother dying when he was six years old, he was despatched to a country academy, where he was horribly bullied by one of the boys, the reality of whose persecution is proved by one terrible touch in his victim's account of it: 'I had such a dread of him, that I did not dare lift my eyes to his face. I knew him best by his shoe-buckle.' The odious brute! Cowper goes on to say he had forgiven him, which I can believe, but when he proceeds to ejaculate a wish to meet his persecutor again in heaven, doubt creeps in. When ten years old he was sent to Westminster, where there is nothing to show that he was otherwise than fairly happy; he took to his classics very kindly, and (so he says) excelled in cricket and football. This is evidence, but as Dr. Johnson once confessed about the evidence for the immortality of the soul, 'one would like more.' He was for some time in the class of Vincent Bourne, who, though born in 1695, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, ranks high amongst the Latin poets. Whether Cowper was bullied at Westminster is a matter of controversy. Bourne was bullied. About that there can be no doubt. Cowper loved him, and relates with delight how on one occasion the Duke of Richmond (Burke's Duke, I suppose) set fire to the greasy locks of this latter-day Catullus, and then, alarmed at the spread of the conflagration, boxed his master's ears to put it out. At eighteen Cowper left Westminster, and after doing nothing (at which he greatly excelled) for nine months in the country, returned to town, and was articled to an attorney in Ely Place, Holborn, for three years. At the same time, being intended for the Bar, he was entered at the Middle, though he subsequently migrated to the Inner Temple. These three years in Ely Place Cowper fribbled away agreeably enough. He had as his desk-companion Edward Thurlow, the most tremendous of men. Hard by Ely Place is Southampton Row, and in Southampton Row lived Ashley Cowper, the poet's uncle, with a trio of affable daughters, Theodora Jane, Harriet, afterwards Lady Hesketh, and a third, who became the wife of Sir Archer Croft. According to Cowper, a great deal of giggling went on in Southampton Row. He fell in love with Theodora, and Theodora fell in love with him. He wrote her verses enough to fill a volume. She was called Delia in his lays. In 1752, his articles having expired, he took chambers in the Temple, and in 1754 was called to the Bar.

Ashley Cowper, a very little man, who used to wear a white hat lined with yellow silk, and was on that account likened by his nephew to a mushroom, would not hear of his daughter marrying her cousin; and being a determined little man, he had his own way, and the lovers were parted and saw one another no more. Theodora Cowper wore the willow all the rest of her long life. Her interest in her cousin never abated. Through her sister, Lady Hesketh, she contributed in later years generously to his support. He took the money and knew where it came from, but they never wrote to one another, nor does her name ever appear in Cowper's correspondence. She became, so it is said, morbid on the subject during her latter days, and dying twenty-four years after her lover, she bequeathed to a nephew a mysterious packet she was known to cherish. It was found to contain Cowper's love-verses.

In 1756 Cowper's father died, and the poet's patrimony proved to be a very small one. He was made a Commissioner of Bankrupts. The salary was £60 a year. He knew one solicitor, but whether he ever had a brief is not known. He lived alone in his chambers till 1763, when, under well-known circumstances, he went raving mad, and attempted to hang himself in his bedroom, and very nearly succeeded. He was removed to Dr. Cotton's asylum, where he remained a year. This madness, which in its origin had no more to do with religion than it had with the Binomial Theorem, ultimately took the turn of believing that it was the will of God that he should kill himself, and that as he had failed to do so he was damned everlastingly. In this faith, diversified by doubt, Cowper must be said henceforth to have lived and died.

On leaving St. Albans, the poet, in order to be near his only brother, the Rev. John Cowper, Fellow of Corpus, Cambridge, and a most delightful man, had lodgings in Huntingdon; and there, one eventful Tuesday in 1765, he made the acquaintance of Mary Unwin. Mrs. Unwin's husband, a most scandalously non-resident clergyman--whom, however, Cowper composedly calls a veritable Parson Adams--was living at this time, not in his Norfolk rectory of Grimston, but contentedly enough in Huntingdon, where he took pupils. Cowper became a lodger in the family, which consisted of the rector and his wife, a son at Cambridge, and a daughter, also one or two pupils. In 1767 Mr. Unwin was thrown from his horse and fractured his skull. Church-reformers pointed out, at the time, that had the Rector of Grimston been resident, this accident could not have occurred in Huntingdon. They then went on to say, but less convincingly, that Mr. Unwin's death was the judgment of Heaven upon him. Mr. Unwin dead, the poet and the widow moved to Olney, where they lived together for nineteen years in a tumble-down house, and on very slender means. Their attraction to Olney was in the fact that John Newton was curate-in-charge. Olney was not an ideal place by any means. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin lived in no fools' paradise, for they visited the poor and knew the manner of their lives. The inhabitants were mostly engaged in lace-making and straw-plaiting; they were miserably poor, immoral, and drunken. There is no idyllic nonsense in Cowper's poetry.

In 1773 he had another most violent attack of suicidal mania, and attempted his life more than once. Writing in 1786 to Lady Hesketh, Cowper gives her an account of his illness, of which at the time she knew nothing, as her acquaintance with her cousin was not renewed till 1785:

'Know then, that in the year '73, the same scene that was acted at St. Albans opened upon me again at Olney, only covered with a still deeper shade of melancholy, and ordained to be of much longer duration. I believed that everybody hated me, and that Mrs. Unwin hated me most of all; was convinced that all my food was poisoned, together with ten thousand megrims of the same stamp. Dr. Cotton was consulted. He replied that he could do no more for me than might be done at Olney, but recommended particular vigilance, lest I should attempt my life; a caution for which there was the greatest occasion. At the same time that I was convinced of Mrs. Unwin's aversion to me, I could endure no other companion. The whole management of me consequently devolved upon her, and a terrible task she had; she performed it, however, with a cheerfulness hardly ever equalled on such an occasion, and I have often heard her say that if ever she praised God in her life, it was when she found she was to have all the labour. She performed it accordingly, but as I hinted once before, very much to the hurt of her own constitution.'

Just before this outbreak, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin had agreed to marry, but after it they felt the subject was not to be approached, and so the poor things spoke of it no more. Still, it was well they had spoken out. 'Love me, and tell me so,' is a wise maxim of behaviour.

Stupid people, themselves leading, one is glad to believe, far duller lives than Cowper and Mary Unwin, have been known to make dull, ponderous jokes about this ménage at Olney--its country walks, its hymn tunes, its religious exercises. But it is pleasant to note how quick Sainte Beuve, whose three papers on Cowper are amongst the glories of the Causeries du Lundi, is to recognise how much happiness and pleasantness was to be got out of this semi-monastic life and close social relation.

Cowper was indeed the very man for it. One can apply to him his own well-known lines about the winter season, and crown him


'The King of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, and homeborn happiness.'


No doubt he went mad at times. It was a terrible affliction. But how many men have complaints of the liver, and are as cheerful to live with as the Black Death, or Young's Night Thoughts. Cowper had a famous constitution. Not even Dr. James's powder, or the murderous practices of the faculty, could undermine it. Sadness is not dulness.


'Dear saints, it is not sorrow, as I hear,
Nor suffering that shuts up eye and ear
To all which has delighted them before,
And lets us be what we were once no more!
No! we may suffer deeply, yet retain
Power to be moved and soothed, for all our pain,
By what of old pleased us, and will again.
No! 'tis the gradual furnace of the world,
In whose hot air our spirits are upcurled
Until they crumble, or else grow like steel,
Which kills in us the bloom, the youth, the spring,
Which leaves the fierce necessity to feel,
But takes away the power--this can avail
By drying up our joy in everything,
To make our former pleasures all seem stale.'

I can think of no one to whom these beautiful lines of Mr. Arnold's are so exquisitely appropriate as to Cowper. Nothing could knock the humanity out of him. Solitude, sorrow, madness, found him out, threw him down and tore him, as did the devils their victims in the days of old; but when they left him for a season, he rose from his misery as sweet and as human, as interested and as interesting as ever. His descriptions of natural scenery and country-side doings are amongst his best things. He moralises enough, heaven knows! but he keeps his morality out of his descriptions. This is rather a relief after overdoses of Wordsworth's pantheism and Keats's paganism. Cowper's Nature is plain county Bucks.


'The sheepfold here
Pours out its fleecy tenants o'er the glebe.
At first progressive as a stream, they seek
The middle field; but scattered by degrees,
Each to his choice, soon whiten all the land.'

The man who wrote that had his eye on the object; but lest the quotation be thought too woolly by a generation which has a passion for fine things, I will allow myself another:


'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
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . 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.'

In 1781 began the episode of Lady Austen. That lady was doing some small shopping in Olney, in company with her sister, the wife of a neighbouring clergyman, when our poet first beheld her. She pleased his eye. Whether in the words of one of his early poems he made free to comment on her shape I cannot say; but he hurried home and made Mrs. Unwin ask her to tea. She came. Cowper was seized with a fit of shyness, and very nearly would not go into the room. He conquered the fit, went in and swore eternal friendship. To the very end of her days Mrs. Unwin addressed the poet, her true lover though he was, as 'Mr. Cowper.' In a week, Lady Austen and he were 'Sister Ann' and 'William' one to another. Sister Ann had a furnished house in London. She gave it up. She came to live in Olney, next door. She was pretty, she was witty, she played, she sang. She told Cowper the story of John Gilpin, she inspired his Wreck of the Royal George. The Task was written at her bidding. Day in and day out, Cowper and Lady Austen and Mrs. Unwin were together. One turns instinctively to see what Sainte Beuve has to say about Lady Austen. 'C'était Lady Austen, veuve d'un baronet. Cette rare personne était douée des plus heureux dons; elle n'était plus très-jeune ni dans la fleur de beauté; elle avait ce qui est mieux, une puissance d'attraction et d'enchantement qui tenait à la transparence de l'âme, une faculté de reconnaissance, de sensibilité émue jusqu'aux larmes pour toute marque de bienveillance dont elle était l'objet. Tout en elle exprimait une vivacité pure, innocente et tendre. C'était une créature sympathique, et elle devait tout-à-fait justifier dans le cas présent ce mot de Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: "Il y a dans la femme une gaieté légère qui dissipe la tristesse de l'homme."'

That odd personage, Alexander Knox, who had what used to be called a 'primitive,' that is, a fourth-century mind, and on whom the Tractarian movement has been plausibly grandfathered, and who was (incongruously) employed by Lord Castlereagh to help through the Act of Union with Ireland, of which we have lately heard, but who remained all the time primitively unaware that any corruption was going on around him--this odd person, I say, was exercised in his mind about Lady Austen, of whom he had been reading in Hayley's Life. In October, 1806, he writes to Bishop Jebb in a solemn strain: 'I have rather a severer idea of Lady A. than I should wish to put into writing for publication. I almost suspect she was a very artful woman. But I need not enlarge.' He puts it rather differently from Sainte Beuve, but I dare say they both meant much the same thing. If Knox meant more it would be necessary to get angry with him. That Lady Austen fell in love with Cowper and would have liked to marry him, but found Mrs. Unwin in the way, is probable enough; but where was the artfulness? Poor Cowper was no catch. The grandfather of Tractarianism would have been better employed in unmasking the corruption amongst which he had lived, than in darkly suspecting a lively lady of designs upon a penniless poet, living in the utmost obscurity, on the charity of his relatives.

But this state of things at Olney did not last very long. 'Of course not,' cackle a chorus of cynics. 'It could not!' The Historical Muse, ever averse to theory, is content to say, 'It did not,' but as she writes the words she smiles. The episode began in 1781, it ended in 1784. It became necessary to part. Cowper may have had his qualms, but he concealed them manfully and remained faithful to Mrs. Unwin--


'The patient flower
Who possessed his darker hour.'


Lady Austen flew away, and afterwards, as if to prove her levity incurable, married a Frenchman. She died in 1802. English literature owes her a debt of gratitude. Her name is writ large over much that is best in Cowper's poetry. Not indeed over the very best; that bears the inscription To Mary. And it was right that it should be so, for Mrs. Unwin had to put up with a good deal.

The Task and John Gilpin were published together in 1785, and some of Cowper's old friends (notably Lady Hesketh) rallied round the now known poet once more. Lady Hesketh soon begins to fill the chair vacated by Lady Austen, and Cowper's letters to her are amongst his most delightful. Her visits to Olney were eagerly expected, and it was she who persuaded the pair to leave the place for good and all, and move to Weston, which they did in 1786. The following year Cowper went mad again, and made another most desperate attempt upon his life. Again Mary Unwin stood by the poor maniac's side, and again she stood alone. He got better, and worked away at his translation of Homer as hard and wrote letters as charming as ever. But Mrs. Unwin was pretty well done for. Cowper published his Homer by subscription, and must be pronounced a dab hand in the somewhat ignoble art of collecting subscribers. I am not sure that he could not have given Pope points. Pope had a great acquaintance, but he had barely six hundred subscribers. Cowper scraped together upwards of five hundred. As a beggar he was unabashed. He quotes in one of his letters, and applies to himself patly enough, Ranger's observation in the Suspicious Husband, 'There is a degree of assurance in you modest men, that we impudent fellows can never arrive at!' The University of Oxford was, however, too much for him. He beat her portals in vain. She had but one answer, 'We subscribe to nothing.' Cowper was very angry, and called her 'a rich old vixen.' She did not mind. The book appeared in 1791. It has many merits, and remains unread.

The clouds now gathered heavily over the biography of Cowper. Mrs. Unwin had two paralytic strokes, the old friends began to torture one another. She was silent save when she was irritable, indifferent except when exacting. At last, not a day too soon, Lady Hesketh came to Weston. They were moved into Norfolk--but why prolong the tale? Mrs. Unwin died at East Dereham on the 17th of December, 1796. Thirty-one years had gone since the poet and she first met by chance in Huntingdon. Cowper himself died in April, 1800. His last days were made physically comfortable by the kindness of some Norfolk cousins, and the devotion of a Miss Perowne. But he died in wretchedness and gloom.

The Castaway was his last original poem:


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


Everybody interested in Cowper has of course to make out, as best he may, a picture of the poet for his own use. It is curious how sometimes little scraps of things serve to do this better than deliberate efforts. In 1800, the year of Cowper's death, his relative, a Dr. Johnson, wrote a letter to John Newton, sending good wishes to the old gentleman, and to his niece, Miss Catlett; and added: 'Poor dear Mr. Cowper, oh that he were as tolerable as he was, even in those days when, dining at his house in Buckinghamshire with you and that lady, I could not help smiling to see his pleasant face when he said, "Miss Catlett, shall I give you a piece of cutlet?"' It was a very small joke indeed, and it is a very humble little quotation, but for me it has long served, in the mind's eye, for a vignette of the poet, doomed yet debonnaire. Romney's picture, with that frightful nightcap and eyes gleaming with madness, is a pestilent thing one would forget if one could. Cowper's pleasant face when he said, 'Miss Catlett, shall I give you a piece of cutlet?' is a much more agreeable picture to find a small corner for in one's memory.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: William Cowper

If you like this book please share to your friends :
NEXT BOOKS

George Borrow George Borrow

George Borrow
Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his delightful Memories and Portraits, takes occasion to tell us, amongst a good many other things of the sort, that he has a great fancy for The Bible in Spain, by Mr. George Borrow. He has not, indeed, read it quite so often as he has Mr. George Meredith's Egoist, but still he is very fond of it. It is interesting to know this, interesting, that is, to the great Clan Stevenson who owe suit and service to their liege lord; but so far as Borrow is concerned, it does not matter, to speak frankly, two
PREVIOUS BOOKS

Edward Gibbon Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon
A LECTURE 'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter that the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the City first started to my mind. 'It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or
NEXT 10 BOOKS | PREVIOUS 10 BOOKS | RANDOM 10 BOOKS
LEAVE A COMMENT