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FRIENDSHIP OF THE UNWINS,
appear frequently before the House. The idea of such a thing was, in Cowper's own words, “mortal poison” to his shrinking nature. A more private post—that of Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords—was then substituted for the 1763 former gift; but, most unexpectedly, the presentee was summoned to the bar to be examined as to his fitness for the post. Obliged to face the future horror of this examination, while for months he worked hard to prepare himself for passing it creditably, his mind gave way,-he tried to kill himself; and a private asylum at St. Albans became for eighteen months the refuge of the afflicted man.
A deep religious melancholy was the form of his mental disease; an awful terror that his soul was lost for ever, beyond the power of redemption, hung in a thick night-cloud upon his life. Three times after the first attack the madness returned,—for nearly four years previous to 1776—for about six months in 1787—and during his last six years, from 1794 to 1800.
The friendship of the Unwins was the great blessing of his life. At Huntingdon he became intimate with this kind family, then consisting of the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife, son, and daughter; and the friendship grew so strong, that Cowper went in 1766 to live in their calm and cheerful home. 1766 The good clergyman was killed in the following year by a fall from his horse, and the widow and her daughter went to live at Olney in Buckinghamshire. Thither Cowper accompanied them, for he was now unalterably one of the quiet household.
Here the timid spirit nestled in a pleasant home. A walk with his dog by the reedy banks of the placid Ouse, to admire the white and gold of the water-lilies that floated on the deep stream —a round of visits to the cottages of the neighbouring poor-the composition of some hymns for his friend John Newton, the curate of the parish,-filled up his peaceful days for a time. But the terrible shadows were thickening again round his brain. A second fit of madriess came in 1773, and all was dark for more
than three years.
FIRST APPEARANCE AS A POET.
When light once more broke through the clouds, the need of some graver and more constant work made the man of fifty, who had already produced light occasional verses, take pen in hand, and sit down seriously to write a book of poems. For recreation he had his flowers, his pet hares, his landscape drawing, and his manufacture of bird-cages; but poetry now became the serious business of his life. His first volume was issued in 1782. It contained three grave
and powerful satires, Truth, Table-talk, and Expostulation, 1782 with poems on Error, Hope, Charity, and kindred subjects, A.D. written chiefly in pentameter rhymes. No great success
rewarded this first instalment of Cowper's poetic toil; but at least two men, whose good opinion was worth more than gold, saw real merit in the modest book. Johnson and Franklin recognised in the recluse of fifty a true and en inent poet.
But higher efforts lay before the literary hermit. The widow of Sir Robert Austen, coming to live at Olney, soon became intimate with the melancholy Cowper. To cheer him, she told the story of John Gilpin, whose comical equestrianism became the subject of a famous ballad. In this rattling tale and other minor pieces, as well as in numberless satiric and ironical touches scattered through the mass of his poems, we catch gleams of a sunny humour lurking below the shy and sensitive moods which wrapt the poet from public gaze. To Lady Austen, Cowper owed the origin of his greatest work, The Task. She asked him to write some blankverse, and playfully gave him the Sofa as a subject. Beginning a
poem on this homely theme, he produced the six books 1785 of The Task, which took its name from the circumstances
of its origin. From a humorous historical sketch of the
gradual improvement of seats, the three-legged stool growing into the softly cushioned sofa, he glides into the pleasures of a country walk, and following out the natural train of thought, draws a strong contrast between rural and city life, lavishing loving praise upon the former. The second book, entitled The Time-piece, opens with a just and powerful denunciation of slavery, and proceeds to declare the blessings and the need of peace among the nations.
LAST DAYS OF COWPER.
A noble apostrophe to England, and a brilliantly sarcastic picture of a fashionable preacher are among the more striking passages of this book. Then come The Garden, The Winter Evening, The Winter Morning Walk, and The Winter Walk at Noon, full of exquisite description and deep kindliness. Mirrored in these beautiful poems, we see the peaceful recreations and the gentle nature of this amiable afflicted man. We learn to reverence him for his wisdom, to love him for his human tenderness, and to sympathize pitifully and deeply with the overshadowing sorrow of his fitful life. Accompanying "The Task," which appeared in 1785 to take the
” hearts of all Englishmen by storm, was a review of schools, entitled Tirocinium, strongly recommending private tuition in preference to education at a public school. The sad experience of his own early school-days was, without doubt, the root from which this poem sprang.
Dissatisfied with Pope's version of the great Greek epics, Cowper now undertook to translate Homer into English verse; and by working regularly at the rate of forty lines a day, he accomplished the task in a few years. A passing attack of his old malady laid him by for a while during the progress of this work. The “ Homer" appeared in 1791 ; and a revised edition, altered and corrected to a great extent, followed in 1799. Kind friends of his youth drew round the poor old man in his last years.
His cousin, Lady Hesketh, induced him to remove to a villa at Weston, about a mile from his well-loved Olney. But the last and thickest cloud was darkening down. About 1794 the gloom of madness fell again upon his mind, and only for very brief intervals was there any light, until the ineffable brilliance of a higher life broke upon
raptured gaze. A sad sight it must have been to see the grey-haired sufferer standing by the coffin, where his faithful friend of many years—the kind, devoted Mary Unwin-lay in the last marble sleep. She died in 1796; and in less than four years the gentle poet, whom her roof-tree had sheltered, and her gentle ministerings had cheered and solaced for April 25, fully thirty years, closed his eyes for ever on the earth, 1800 which had been to him indeed a place of many sorrows. A.D.
A pension of £300 a year from the king had comforted his declining days. He was able before death to revise his “ Homer," and to leave in the little poem of The Castaway-descriptive of a sailor's death, who had been washed overboard in the mid Atlantic -the last sad wail of his noble lyre. Already the darkness of the Valley of the Shadow of Death was on his soul, when he sang the concluding words :
“We perished, each alone; But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he." To forget Cowper's Letters, in a sketch of his literary life, would be unpardonable. Southey, his best biographer, calls him “ the best of English letter-writers;" and there is no exaggeration in the praise. Loathing from his soul, as he tells us, all affectation, he writes to his friends in fine simple English words, which have caught their lustre, as style must always do, from the beauty of the thoughts expressed. A sweet, delicate humour, plays throughout these charming compositions, like golden sunlight on a clear and pebbled stream.
APOSTROPHE TO WINTER.
(FROM "THE TASK," BOOK IV.)
SPECIMEN OF COWPER'S VERSE.
Till the street rings; no stationary steeds