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not in a humour to transcribe it now. I wonder that a sportive thought should ever knock at the door of my intellects, and still more that it should gain admittance. It is as if harlequin should intrude himself into the gloomy chamber where a corpse is deposited in state. His antic gesticulations would be unseasonable at any rate, but more especially so if they should distort the features of the mournful attendants into laughter. But the mind long wearied with the sameness of a dull, dreary prospect, will gladly fix its eyes on any thing that may make a little variety in its contemplations, though it were but a kitten playing with her tail."
From that dejection, however, nothing so effectually raised his spirits as poetry. Of this he was fully sensible, when he remarked to Mr. Newton, in December in the same year:
"At this season of the year, and in this gloomy uncomfortable climate, it is no easy matter for the owner of a mind like mine to divert it from sad subjects, and to fix it upon such as may administer to its amusement. Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect. While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget every thing that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again. It will not be long, perhaps, before you
will receive a poem, called the Progress of Error. That will be succeeded by another, in due time, called Truth. Don't be alarmed. I ride Pegasus with a curb. He will never run away with me again. I have even convinced Mrs. Unwin that I can manage him, and make him stop when I please.'
This was the first notification to Mr. Newton of his intention to appear as an author, and when he found that Mr. Hill was apprised of his design, he expressed the greatest surprise; but gave him the following account of his motive:
"My labours are principally the production of the last winter; all, indeed, except a few of the minor pieces. When I can find no other occupation, I think, and when I think, I am very apt to do it in rhyme. Hence it comes to pass that the season of the year which generally pinches off the flowers of poetry, unfolds mine, such as they are, and crowns me with a winter garland. In this respect, therefore, I and my cotemporary bards are by no means upon a par. They write when the delightful influences of fine weather, fine prospects, and a brisk motion of the animal spirits make poetry almost the language of nature; and I, when icicles depend from all the leaves of the Parnassian laurel, and when a reasonable man would as little expect to succeed in verse, as to hear a black-bird whistle. This must be my apology to you for whatever want of fire and animation you may observe in what you will
shortly have the perusal of. As to the public, if they like me not, there is no remedy."
It was chiefly at the request of Mrs. Unwin that Cowper was induced to undertake a poetical piece of any extent. Affection is lynx-eyed in discovering whatever is beneficial to its object, and in pressing upon her friend an occupation for which nature had peculiarly adapted him, she displayed considerable judgment. The "Progress of Error" was suggested by her as his theme, and in treating on it, he says his sole object was to be useful. The Preface was written by Mr. Newton, at that gentleman's special desire, and the volume was published in 1783; but it was for some time treated with neglect, and it was not until his subsequent productions established his reputation that the beauties of his earlier pieces began to be appreciated.
The next subject which engaged his attention was his Poem entitled "Truth;" but before he had fairly transcribed it for press, he commenced "Expostulation;" and in a letter to Mr. Newton, in March, 1781, he says: "If a Board of Inquiry were to be established, at which poets were to undergo an examination respecting the motives that induced them to publish, and I were to be summoned to attend, that I might give an account of mine, I think I could truly say, what perhaps few poets could, that though I have no objection to lucrative consequences, if any such should follow, they are not my aim; much less is it my
ambition to exhibit myself to the world as a genius. What then, says Mr. President, can possibly be your motive? I answer with a bowAmusement. There is nothing but this—no occupation within the compass of my small sphere, Poetry excepted-that can do much towards diverting that train of melancholy thoughts, which, when I am not thus employed, are for ever pouring themselves in upon me. And if I did not publish what I write, I could not interest myself sufficiently in my own success, to make an amuse
ment of it."
Early in July, 1781, Cowper formed an acquaintance with Lady Austen, a woman of considerable talents and accomplishments, who possessed great influence over him, and, for some time, added much to the happiness of his retirement. To her the world is mainly indebted for "The Task," "Johnny Gilpin," and for the translation of Homer, a circumstance which entitles her to be specially commemorated in a life of the Poet. Lady Austen* was the widow of Sir Robert Austen, Baronet, and paying a visit to her sister Mrs. Jones, the wife of a clergyman, who lived at Clifton, Cowper observed her at a shop in Olney. He was so struck with her appearance
*Her maiden name was Richardson. She married Sir Robert Austen very early in life, and passed some years in France. Her ladyship subsequently married a Mons. De Tardif, a French gentleman, of poetical talents, and died at Paris on the 12th of August, 1802.
that he requested Mrs. Unwin to make her acquaintance, which soon ripened into intimacy, and she was afterwards always designated by him as his "Sister Anne." Speaking of her first visit, in a letter dated July 7, 1781, he says:
'Lady Austen, waving all forms, has paid us the first visit; and not content with showing us that proof of her respect, made handsome apologies for her intrusion. We returned the visit yesterday. She is a lively agreeable woman; has seen much of the world, and accounts it a great simpleton, as it is. She laughs and makes laugh, and keeps up a conversation without seeming to labour at it."
On the 12th of July he wrote the following humorous letter to Mr. Newton, which is printed entire for the first time:
66 MY VERY DEAR FRIEND,
"I AM going to send, what when you have read, you may scratch your head, and say, I suppose, there's nobody knows, whether what I have got, be verse or not:-by the tune and the time, it ought to be rhyme, but if it be, did you ever see, of late or of yore, such a ditty before? The thought did occur, to me and to her, as Madam and I, did walk not fly, over hills and dales, with spreading sails, before it was dark, to Weston Park.
"The news at Oney, is little or noney, but such as it is, I send it, viz. Poor Mr. Peace,