« PreviousContinue »
LIFE OF COWPER.
A NEW edition of Cowper's Poems seems to require something new to be said respecting its admirable author; but so much has already appeared concerning him, that the subject must inevitably be exhausted; little more therefore remains for us to do, than to avail ourselves of the authentic materials, which have been scattered around us, and to place them in the most conspicuous point of view.
William Cowper was the son of the Rev. Dr. John Cowper, rector of Great Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, at which place he was born, on the 15th November, 1731. His mother was Anne, daughter of R. Donne, Esq. of Ludham Hall, Norfolk, who died in child-bed in 1737; and his father of a paralytic stroke in July, 1756. The issue of their marriage were five sons and two daughters, all of whom, except our author and his brother John, died in infancy. The pedigree of our meek and unassuming bard may be traced up to the first families in England, but it was his boast, not
'To have drawn his birth
From loins unthroned and rulers of the earth, But higher far did his 'pretensions rise :--• The son of parents passed into the skies!' VOL. I.
Cowper commenced his education at the village day-school. He was but six years old when he lost his beloved mother: after which he was removed, and placed under the care of Dr. Pitman, a few miles distant from the parsonage.
At eight years of age he was sent to London, and resided some time at the house of an eminent female oculist, for a complaint in his eyes; of which, however, the small-pox effectually relieved him. He exchanged his residence for Westminster School, which he left in 1749, with great classical attainments. He was shortly after articled for three years to a Mr. Chapman, an eminent solicitor in the metropolis. Legal studies, however, seemed to have few charms for him; and, according to his own confession to his biographer, Hayley, he spent the greater part of his time at the house of a near relation, and in the company of the future Lord Chancellor, Thurlow.
The term for which he was articled to Mr. Chapman having expired, he took chambers in the Inner Temple, where, instead of devoting himself to the dry study of the law, he enjoyed his literary leisure with his former companions and school-fellows,
In the thirty-first year of his age, through the interest of friends, he procured a nomination to the offices of Reading Clerk, and Clerk of the private Committees, in the House of Lords; but the idea of a public exhibition of himself, in so conspicuous a situation, made such a deep impression on his excessively tender and delicate spirit, as utterly to disqualify him for it. His friends endeavoured to exchange this for a less irksome, though less lucrative,
office, the Clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords: but this he was obliged to decline, from the same cause. His feelings and intellectual powers had received such a shock, that it became necessary to place him, in December 1763, under the care of Dr. Cotton, of St. Albans; his disorder, says his kinsman, the Rev. Dr. Johnson, having in a very early stage of it assumed the shape of hypochondriasis, which converted divine truth into a source of intellectual poison.'
Through the blessing of God upon the skill and tender care of his excellent medical friend, he experienced deliverance from rational bondage, and immediately the prison doors were also opened, and he enjoyed spiritual liberty, and that peace' and cheerfulness which passeth all understanding.' Dr. Cotton's devotional feelings were so completely in unison with those of Cowper, that the latter did not take his departure from St. Albans till June 1765; nearly a twelvemonth after his cure. Here he composed some of his first excellent hymns.
The same year he paid an affectionate visit to his brother John, at Cambridge; and on his return, went to reside at Huntingdon, where his acquaintance commenced with young Mr. W. Cawthorne Unwin, in whose family he soon after found a most agreeable residence.
About a twelvemonth afterwards, the Rev. Mr Unwin, the father of his young friend, was unfortunately killed by a fall from his horse, when Providence removed the family to Olney, in Buckinghamshire, where Cowper became acquainted with that excellent
man, the Rev. John Newton, then curate of that parish. This friendship brought to light that esteemed collection of hymns, called Olney Hymns,' as a monument of their congenial piety and joint labours.
In February 1770, Cowper's fraternal feelings received another shock, by a summon to attend the death-bed of his beloved brother, John, whose eyes he closed, and whom he saw die full of faith and hope in the gospel.
In 1780, he lost the company of Mr. Newton, who was called to the rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth, in London: but this vacuum in friendship was supplied by the Rev. William Bull, of Newton Pagnel, a learned and worthy dissenting minister, at whose suggestion Cowper translated Madame Guin's Poems. In the spring of 1782, he published the first volume of his Poems. Notwithstanding the gloom of mind into which he had relapsed at the death of his brother, in 1785 he published that beautiful poem the Task, which was undertaken in compliance with the request of a lady, who gave him for a subject the Sofa. This work established his reputation. In 1787, to divert his melancholy, he received an invitation from Mr. Throckmorton, to reside at his seat at Weston Underwood, about a mile from Olney, whether he was accompanied by his tender friend, Mrs. Unwin, whose affectionate friendship neither time nor circumstance could diminish.
In 1790, he completed his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. In 1792, the death of his friend, Sir Robert Throckmorton, occasioned the removal of the family to a seat in Oxfordshire, when he was intro
duced to his amiable biographer, Mr. Hayley, his kinsman, the Rev. Mr. Johnson, and other literary acquaintances, who kept his mind continually engaged in poetical avecations.
Owing to the interest of friends, his finances were now increased by a grant from royal munificence of three hundred pounds a year; but such was the state of his mind, that he was disabled from receiving any enjoyment at the disclosure of the circumstance.
In the summer of 1795, the poet and his aged companion, Mrs. Unwin, who had had a shock of the palsy, was taken by their friends, by gentle stages, to Mundsley, on the Norfolk coast. Here one of his greatest comforts was in the family devotions, the church being at a great distance. From Mundsley, the two invalids retired to Dereham, where, on the 17th December, the excellent Mrs. Unwin closed a long and exemplary life; the best part of which had been devoted to alleviate the sufferings, and sooth the wounded spirit, of our poet.
At the close of the winter, 1799, his unhappy despondency brought on a rapid decline; and on the 25th of April, 1800, after remaining several hours in a state of insensibility, he resigned his spirit into the hands of God who gave it,' in the sixty-ninth year of his age. His remains were buried in St. Edmund's Chapel, in the Church of East Dereham, on the 2nd of May, and a monument was erected over his grave, on which was inscribed the following elegant epitaph, from the pen of his friend Mr. Hayley :