Goldwin Smith

Part 2 out of 2

Fretful if unsupplied; but silent, meek,
And patient of the slow-paced swain's delay.
_He from the stack carves out the accustomed load
Deep-plunging, and again deep-plunging oft,
His broad keen knife into the solid mass:
Smooth as a wall the upright remnant stands,
With such undeviating and even force
He severs it away_: no needless care,
Lest storms should overset the leaning pile
Deciduous, or its own unbalanced weight.
Forth goes the woodman, leaving unconcern'd
The cheerful haunts of man; to wield the axe
And drive the wedge in yonder forest drear,
from, morn to eve, his solitary task.
Shaggy, and lean, and shrewd, with pointed ears
And tail cropp'd short, half lurcher and half cur,
His dog attends him. Close behind his heel
Now creeps he slow; and now, with many a frisk
Wide-scampering, snatches up the drifted snow
With ivory teeth, or ploughs it with his snout;
Then shakes his powder'd coat, and barks for joy.
Heedless of all his pranks, the sturdy churl
Moves right toward the mark; nor stops for aught
But now and then with pressure of his thumb
To adjust the fragrant charge of a short tube,
That fumes beneath his nose: the trailing cloud
Streams far behind him, scenting all the air.

The minutely faithful description of the man carving the load of hay
out of the stack, and again those of the gambolling dog, and the
woodman smoking his pipe with the stream of smoke trailing behind him,
remind us of the touches of minute fidelity in Homer. The same may be
said of many other passages.

The sheepfold here
Pours out its fleecy tenants o'er the glebe.
_At first, progressive as a stream they seek
The middle field: but, scatter'd by degrees,
Each to his choice, soon whiten all the land_.
There from the sun-burnt hay-field homeward creeps
_The loaded wain: while lighten'd of its charge,
The wain that meets it passes swiftly by_;
The boorish driver leaning o'er his team
Vociferous and impatient of delay.

A specimen of more imaginative and distinctly poetical description is
the well-known passage on evening, in writing which Cowper would seem
to have had Collins in his mind.

Come, Evening, once again, season of peace,
Return, sweet Evening, and continue long!
Methinks I see thee in the streaky west,
With matron-step slow-moving, while the Night
Treads on thy sweeping train; one hand employed
In letting fall the curtain of repose
On bird and beast, the other charged for man
With sweet oblivion of the cares of day:
Not sumptuously adorn'd, nor needing aid,
Like homely-featured Night, of clustering gems!
A star or two just twinkling on thy brow
Suffices thee; save that the moon is thine
No less than hers, not worn indeed on high
With ostentatious pageantry, but set.
With modest grandeur in thy purple zone,
Resplendent less, but of an ampler round.

Beyond this line Cowper does not go, and had no idea of going; he never
thinks of lending a soul to material nature as Wordsworth and Shelley
do. He is the poetic counterpart of Gainsborough, as the great
descriptive poets of a later and more spiritual day are the
counterparts of Turner. We have said that Cowper's peasants are
genuine as well as his landscape; he might have been a more exquisite
Crabbe if he had turned his mind that way, instead of writing sermons
about a world which to him was little more than an abstraction,
distorted moreover, and discoloured by his religious asceticism.

Poor, yet industrious, modest, quiet, neat,
Such claim compassion in a night like this,
And have a friend in every feeling heart.
Warm'd, while it lasts, by labour, all day long
They brave the season, and yet find at eve,
Ill clad, and fed but sparely, time to cool.
The frugal housewife trembles when she lights
Her scanty stock of brushwood, blazing clear,
But dying soon, like all terrestrial joys.
The few small embers left, she nurses well;
And, while her infant race, with outspread hands
And crowded knees sit cowering o'er the sparks,
Retires, content to quake, so they be warm'd.
The man feels least, as more inured than she
To winter, and the current in his veins
More briskly moved by his severer toil;
Yet he too finds his own distress in theirs,
The taper soon extinguish'd, which I saw
Dangled along at the cold finger's end
Just when the day declined; and the brown loaf
Lodged on the shelf, half eaten without sauce
Of savoury cheese, or batter, costlier still:
Sleep seems their only refuge: for, alas'
Where penury is felt the thought is chained,
And sweet colloquial pleasures are but few!
With all this thrift they thrive not. All the care
Ingenious Parsimony takes, but just
Saves the small inventory, bed and stool,
Skillet, and old carved chest, from public sale.
They live, and live without extorted alms
from grudging hands: but other boast have none
To soothe their honest pride that scorns to beg,
Nor comfort else, but in their mutual love.

Here we have the plain, unvarnished record of visitings among the poor
of Olney. The last two lines are simple truth as well as the rest.

"In some passages, especially in the second book, you will observe me
very satirical." In the second book of _The Task_, there are some
bitter things about the clergy, and in the passage pourtraying a
fashionable preacher, there is a touch of satiric vigour, or rather of
that power of comic description which was one of the writer's gifts.
But of Cowper as a satirist enough has been said.

"What there is of a religious cast in the volume I have thrown towards
the end of it, for two reasons; first, that I might not revolt the
reader at his entrance, and secondly, that my best impressions might be
made last. Were I to write as many volumes as Lope de Vega or
Voltaire, not one of them would be without this tincture. If the world
like it not, so much the worse for them. I make all the concessions I
can, that I may please them, but I will not please them at the expense
of conscience." The passages of _The Task_ penned by conscience, taken
together, form a lamentably large proportion of the poem. An ordinary
reader can be carried through them, if at all, only by his interest in
the history of opinion, or by the companionship of the writer, who is
always present, as Walton is in his Angler, as White is in his
Selbourne. Cowper, however, even at his worst, is a highly cultivated
methodist; if he is sometimes enthusiastic, and possibly superstitious,
he is never coarse or unctuous. He speaks with contempt of "the twang
of the conventicle." Even his enthusiasm had by this time been
somewhat tempered. Just after his conversion he used to preach to
everybody. He had found out, as he tells us himself, that this was a
mistake, that "the pulpit was for preaching; the garden, the parlour,
and the walk abroad were for friendly and agreeable conversation." It
may have been his consciousness of a certain change in himself that
deterred him from taking Newton into his confidence when he was engaged
upon _The Task_. The worst passages are those which betray a fanatical
antipathy to natural science, especially that in the third book
(150--190). The episode of the judgment of heaven on the young atheist
Misagathus, in the sixth book, is also fanatical and repulsive.

Puritanism had come into violent collision with the temporal power, and
had contracted a character fiercely political and revolutionary.
Methodism fought only against unbelief, vice, and the coldness of the
establishment; it was in no way political, much less revolutionary; by
the recoil from the atheism of the French Revolution its leaders,
including Wesley himself, were drawn rather to the Tory side. Cowper,
we have said, always remained in principle what he had been born, a
Whig, an unrevolutionary Whig, an "Old Whig" to adopt the phrase made
canonical by Burke.

'Tis liberty alone that gives the flower
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume,
And we are weeds without it. All constraint
Except what wisdom lays on evil men
Is evil.

The sentiment of these lines, which were familiar and dear to Cobden,
is tempered by judicious professions of loyalty to a king who rules in
accordance with the law. At one time Cowper was inclined to regard the
government of George III as a repetition of that of Charles I,
absolutist in the State and reactionary in the Church; but the progress
of revolutionary opinions evidently increased his loyalty, as it did
that of many other Whigs, to the good Tory king. We shall presently
see, however, that the views of the French Revolution, itself expressed
in his letters are wonderfully rational, calm, and free from the
political panic and the apocalyptic hallucination, both of which we
should rather have expected to find in him. He describes himself to
Newton as having been, since his second attack of madness, "an
extramundane character with reference to this globe, and though not a
native of the moon, not made of the dust of this planet." The
Evangelical party has remained down to the present day non-political,
and in its own estimation extramundane, taking part in the affairs of
the nation only when some religious object was directly in view. In
speaking of the family of nations, an Evangelical poet is of course a
preacher of peace and human brotherhood. He has even in some lines of
_Charity,_ which also were dear to Cobden, remarkably anticipated the
sentiment of modern economists respecting the influence of free trade
in making one nation of mankind. The passage is defaced by an
atrociously bad simile:--

Again--the band of commerce was design'd,
To associate all the branches of mankind,
And if a boundless plenty be the robe,
Trade is the golden girdle of the globe.
Wise to promote whatever end he means,
God opens fruitful Nature's various scenes,
Each climate needs what other climes produce,
And offers something to the general use;
No land but listens to the common call,
And in return receives supply from all.
This genial intercourse and mutual aid
Cheers what were else an universal shade,
Calls Nature from her ivy-mantled den,
And softens human rock-work into men.

Now and then, however, in reading _The Task_, we come across a dash of
warlike patriotism which, amidst the general philanthropy, surprises
and offends the reader's palate, like the taste of garlic in our butter.

An innocent Epicurism, tempered by religious asceticism of a mild
kind--such is the philosophy of _The Task_, and such the ideal embodied
in the portrait of the happy man with which it concludes. Whatever may
be said of the religious asceticism, the Epicurism required a
corrective to redeem it from selfishness and guard it against
self-deceit. This solitary was serving humanity in the best way he
could, not by his prayers, as in one rather fanatical passage he
suggests, but by his literary work; he had need also to remember that
humanity was serving him. The newspaper through which he looks out so
complacently into the great "Babel," has been printed in the great
Babel itself, and brought by the poor postman, with his "spattered
boots, strapped waist, and frozen locks," to the recluse sitting
comfortably by his fireside. The "fragrant lymph" poured by "the fair"
for their companion in his cosy seclusion, has been brought over the
sea by the trader, who must encounter the moral dangers of a trader's
life, as well as the perils of the stormy wave. It is delivered at the
door by

The waggoner who bears
The pelting brunt of the tempestuous night,
With half-shut eyes and puckered cheeks and teeth
Presented bare against the storm;

and whose coarseness and callousness, as he whips his team, are the
consequences of the hard calling in which he ministers to the recluse's
pleasure and refinement. If town life has its evils, from the city
comes all that makes retirement comfortable and civilized. Retirement
without the city-would have been bookless and have fed on acorns.

Rousseau is conscious of the necessity of some such institution as
slavery, by way of basis for his beautiful life according to nature.
The celestial purity and felicity of St. Pierre's _Paul and Virginia_
are sustained by the labour of two faithful slaves. A weak point of
Cowper's philosophy, taken apart from his own saving activity as a
poet, betrays itself in a somewhat similar way.

Or if the garden with its many cares
All well repaid demand him, he attends
The welcome call, conscious how much the hand
Of lubbard labour, needs his watchful eye,
Oft loitering lazily if not o'er seen;
Or misapplying his unskilful strength
But much performs himself, _no works indeed
That ask robust tough sinews bred to toil,
Servile employ_, but such as may amuse
Not tire, demanding rather skill than force.

We are told in _The Task_ that there is no sin in allowing our own
happiness to be enhanced by contrast with the less happy condition of
others: if we are doing our best to increase the happiness of others,
there is none. Cowper, as we have said before, was doing this to the
utmost of his limited capacity.

Both in the Moral Satires and in _The Task_, there are sweeping
denunciations of amusements which we now justly deem innocent, and
without which or something equivalent to them, the wrinkles on the brow
of care could not be smoothed, nor life preserved from dulness and
moroseness. There is fanaticism in this no doubt: but in justice to
the Methodist as well as to the Puritan, let it be remembered that the
stage, card parties, and even dancing once had in them something from
which even the most liberal morality might recoil.

In his writings generally, but especially in _The Task_, Cowper,
besides being an apostle of virtuous retirement and evangelical piety,
is, by his general tone, an apostle of sensibility. _The Task_, is a
perpetual protest not only against the fashionable vices and the
irreligion, but against the hardness of the world; and in a world which
worshipped Chesterfield the protest was not needless, nor was it
ineffective. Among the most tangible characteristics of this special
sensibility is the tendency of its brimming love of humankind to
overflow upon animals, and of this there are marked instances in some
passages of _The Task_.

I would not enter on my list of friends
(Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility) the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.

Of Cowper's sentimentalism (to use the word in a neutral sense), part
flowed from his own temperament, part was Evangelical, but part
belonged to an element which was European, which produced the _Nouvelle
Heloise_ and the _Sorrows of Werther_, and which was found among the
Jacobins in sinister companionship with the cruel frenzy of the
Revolution. Cowper shows us several times that he had been a reader of
Rousseau, nor did he fail to produce in his time a measure of the same
effect which Rousseau produced; though there have been so many
sentimentalists since, and the vein has been so much worked, that it is
difficult to carry ourselves back in imagination to the day in which
Parisian ladies could forego balls to read the _Nouvelle Heloise_, or
the stony heart of people of the world could be melted by _The Task_.

In his versification, as in his descriptions, Cowper flattered himself
that he imitated no one. But he manifestly imitates the softer
passages of Milton, whose music he compares in a rapturous passage of
one of his letters to that of a fine organ. To produce melody and
variety, he, like Milton, avails himself fully of all the resources of
a composite language. Blank verse confined to short Anglo-Saxon words
is apt to strike the ear, not like the swell of an organ, but like the
tinkle of a musical-box.

_The Task_ made Cowper famous. He was told that he had sixty readers
at the Hague alone. The interest of his relations and friends in him
revived, and those of whom he had heard nothing for many years
emulously renewed their connexion. Colman and Thurlow reopened their
correspondence with him, Colman writing to him "like a brother."
Disciples, young Mr. Rose, for instance, came to sit at his feet.
Complimentary letters were sent to him, and poems submitted to his
judgment. His portrait was taken by famous painters. Literary
lion-hunters began to fix their eyes upon him. His renown spread even
to Olney. The clerk of All Saints', Northampton, came over to ask him
to write the verses annually appended to the bill of mortality for that
parish. Cowper suggested that "there were several men of genius in
Northampton, particularly Mr. Cox, the statuary, who, as everybody
knew, was a first-rate maker of verses." "Alas!" replied the clerk, "I
have heretofore borrowed help from him, but he is a gentleman of so
much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him." The
compliment was irresistible, and for seven years the author of The Task
wrote the mortuary verses for All Saints', Northampton. Amusement, not
profit, was Cowper's aim; he rather rashly gave away his copyright to
his publisher, and his success does not seem to have brought him money
in a direct way, but it brought him a pension of 300 pounds in the end.
In the meantime it brought him presents, and among them an annual gift
of 50 pounds from an anonymous hand, the first instalment being
accompanied by a pretty snuff-box ornamented with a picture of the
three hares. From the gracefulness of the gift, Southey infers that it
came from a woman, and he conjectures that the woman was Theodora.



The task was not quite finished when the influence which had inspired
it was withdrawn. Among the little mysteries and scandals of literary
history is the rupture between Cowper and Lady Austen. Soon after the
commencement of their friendship there had been a "fracas," of which
Cowper gives an account in a letter to William Unwin. "My letters have
already apprised you of that close and intimate connexion, that took
place between the lady you visited in Queen Anne Street and us.
Nothing could be more promising, though sudden in the commencement.
She treated us with as much unreservedness of communication, as if we
had been born in the same house and educated together. At her
departure, she herself proposed a correspondence, and, because writing
does not agree with your mother, proposed a correspondence with me.
This sort of intercourse had not been long maintained before I
discovered, by some slight intimations of it, that she had conceived
displeasure at somewhat I had written, though I cannot now recollect
it; conscious of none but the most upright, inoffensive intentions, I
yet apologized for the passage in question, and the flaw was healed
again. Our correspondence after this proceeded smoothly for a
considerable time, but at length, having had repeated occasion to
observe that she expressed a sort of romantic idea of our merits, and
built such expectations of felicity upon our friendship, as we were
sure that nothing human could possibly answer, I wrote to remind her
that we were mortal, to recommend her not to think more highly of us
than the subject would warrant, and intimating that when we embellish a
creature with colours taken from our own fancy, and so adorned, admire
and praise it beyond its real merits, we make it an idol, and have
nothing to expect in the end but that it will deceive our hopes, and
that we shall derive nothing from it but a painful conviction of our
error. Your mother heard me read the letter, she read it herself, and
honoured it with her warm approbation. But it gave mortal offence; it
received, indeed, an answer, but such an one as I could by no means
reply to; and there ended (for it was impossible it should ever be
renewed) a friendship that bid fair to be lasting; being formed with a
woman whose seeming stability of temper, whose knowledge of the world
and great experience of its folly, but, above all, whose sense of
religion and seriousness of mind (for with all that gaiety she is a
great thinker) induced us both, in spite of that cautious reserve that
marked our characters, to trust her, to love and value her, and to open
our hearts for her reception. It may be necessary to add that by her
own desire, I wrote to her under the assumed relation of a brother, and
she to me as my sister. _Ceu fumus in auras_." It is impossible to
read this without suspecting that there was more of "romance" on one
side, than there was either of romance or of consciousness of the
situation on the other. On that occasion the reconciliation, though
"impossible," took place, the lady sending, by way of olive branch, a
pair of ruffles, which it was known she had begun to work before the
quarrel. The second rupture was final. Hayley, who treats the matter
with sad solemnity, tells us that Cowper's letter of farewell to Lady
Austen, as she assured him herself, was admirable, though unluckily,
not being gratified by it at the time, she had thrown it into the fire.
Cowper has himself given us, in a letter to Lady Hesketh, with
reference to the final rupture, a version of the whole affair:--"There
came a lady into this country, by name and title Lady Austen, the widow
of the late Sir Robert Austen. At first she lived with her sister
about a mile from Olney; but in a few weeks took lodgings at the
vicarage here. Between the vicarage and the back of our house are
interposed our garden, an orchard, and the garden belonging to the
vicarage. She had lived much in France, was very sensible, and had
infinite vivacity. She took a great liking to us, and we to her. She
had been used to a great deal of company, and we, fearing that she
would feel such a transition into silent retirement irksome, contrived
to give her our agreeable company often. Becoming continually more and
more intimate, a practice at length obtained of our dining with each
other alternately every day, Sundays excepted. In order to facilitate
our communication, we made doors in the two garden-walls aforesaid, by
which means we considerably shortened the way from one house to the
other, and could meet when we pleased without entering the town at all;
a measure the rather expedient, because the town is abominably dirty,
and she kept no carriage. On her first settlement in our
neighbourhood, I made it my own particular business (for at that time I
was not employed in writing, having published my first volume and not
begun my second) to pay my _devoirs_ to her ladyship every morning at
eleven. Customs very soon became laws. I began _The Task_, for she
was the lady who gave me the _Sofa_ for a subject. Being once engaged
in the work, I began to feel the inconvenience of my morning
attendance. We had seldom breakfasted ourselves till ten; and the
intervening hour was all the time I could find in the whole day for
writing, and occasionally it would happen that the half of that hour
was all that I could secure for the purpose. But there was no remedy.
Long usage had made that which was at first optional a point of good
manners, and consequently of necessity, and I was forced to neglect
_The Task_ to attend upon the Muse who had inspired the subject. But
she had ill-health, and before I had quite finished the work was
obliged to repair to Bristol." Evidently this was not the whole
account of the matter, or there would have been no need for a formal
letter of farewell. We are very sorry to find the revered Mr.
Alexander Knox saying, in his correspondence with Bishop Jebb, that he
had a severer idea of Lady Austen than he should wish to put into
writing for publication, and that he almost suspected she was a very
artful woman. On the other hand, the unsentimental Mr. Scott is
reported to have said, "Who can be surprised that two women should be
continually in the society of one man and quarrel, sooner or later,
with each other?" Considering what Mrs. Unwin had been to Cowper, and
what he had been to her, a little jealousy on her part would not have
been highly criminal. But, as Southey observes, we shall soon see two
women continually in the society of this very man without quarrelling
with each other. That Lady Austen's behaviour to Mrs. Unwin was in the
highest degree affectionate, Cowper has himself assured us. Whatever
the cause may have been, this bird of paradise, having alighted for a
moment in Olney, took wing and was seen no more.

Her place, as a companion, was supplied, and more than supplied, by
Lady Hesketh, like her a woman of the world, and almost as bright and
vivacious, but with more sense and stability of character, and who,
moreover, could be treated as a sister without any danger of,
misunderstanding. The renewal of the intercourse between Cowper and
the merry and affectionate play-fellow of his early days, had been one
of the best fruits borne to him by _The Task_, or perhaps we should
rather say by _John Gilpin_, for on reading that ballad she first
became aware that her cousin had emerged from the dark seclusion of his
truly Christian happiness, and might again be capable of intercourse
with her sunny nature. Full of real happiness for Cowper were her
visits to Olney; the announcement of her coming threw him into a
trepidation of delight. And how was this new rival received by Mrs.
Unwin. "There is something," says Lady Hesketh in a letter which has
been already quoted, "truly affectionate and sincere in Mrs. Unwin's
manner. No one can express more heartily than she does her joy to have
me at Olney; and as this must be for his sake it is an additional proof
of her regard and esteem for him." She could even cheerfully yield
precedence in trifles, which is the greatest trial of all. "Our
friend," says Lady Hesketh, "delights in a large table and a large
chair. There are two of the latter comforts in my parlour. I am sorry
to say that he and I always spread ourselves out in them, leaving poor
Mrs. Unwin to find all the comfort she can in a small one, half as high
again as ours, and considerably harder than marble. However, she
protests it is what she likes, that she prefers a high chair to a low
one, and a hard to a soft one; and I hope she is sincere; indeed, I am
persuaded she is." She never gave the slightest reason for doubting
her sincerity; so Mr. Scott's coarse theory of the "two women" falls to
the ground, though, as Lady Hesketh was not Lady Austen, room is still
left for the more delicate and interesting hypothesis.

By Lady Hesketh's care Cowper was at last taken out of the "well" at
Olney and transferred with his partner to a house at Weston, a place in
the neighbourhood, but on higher ground, more cheerful, and in better
air. The house at Weston belonged to Mr. Throckmorton of Weston Hall,
with whom and Mrs. Throckmorton, Cowper had become so intimate that
they were already his Mr. and Mrs. Frog. It is a proof of his freedom
from fanatical bitterness that he was rather drawn to them by their
being Roman Catholics, and having suffered rude treatment from the
Protestant boors of the neighbourhood. Weston Hall had its grounds,
with the colonnade of chestnuts, the "sportive light" of which still
"dances" on the pages of _The Task_; with the Wilderness,--

Whose well-rolled walks,
With curvature of slow and easy sweep,
Deception innocent, give ample space
To narrow bounds--

with the Grove,--

Between the upright shafts of whose tall elms
We may discern the thresher at his task,
Thump after thump resounds the constant flail
That seems to swing uncertain, and yet falls
Full on the destined ear. Wide flies the chaff,
The rustling straw sends up a fragrant mist
Of atoms, sparkling in the noonday beam.

A pretty little vignette, which the threshing-machine has now made
antique. There were ramblings, picnics, and little dinner-parties.
Lady Hesketh kept a carriage. Gayhurst, the seat of Mr. Wright, was
visited as well as Weston Hall; the life of the lonely pair was fast
becoming social. The Rev. John Newton was absent in the flesh, but he
was present in the spirit, thanks to the tattle of Olney. To show that
he was, he addressed to Mrs. Unwin a letter of remonstrance on the
serious change which had taken place in the habits of his spiritual
children. It was answered by her companion, who in repelling the
censure mingles the dignity of self-respect with a just appreciation of
the censor's motives, in a style which showed that although he was
sometimes mad, he was not a fool.

Having succeeded in one great poem, Cowper thought of writing another,
and several subjects were started--_The Mediterranean_, _The Four Ages
of Man_, _Yardley Oak_. _The Mediterranean_ would not have suited him
well if it was to be treated historically, for of history he was even
more ignorant than most of those who have had the benefit of a
classical education, being capable of believing that the Latin element
of our language had come in with the Roman conquest. Of the _Four
Ages_ he wrote a fragment. Of _Yardley Oak_ he wrote the opening; it
was apparently to have been a survey of the countries in connexion with
an immemorial oak which stood in a neighbouring chace. But he was
forced to say that the mind of man was not a fountain but a cistern,
and his was a broken one. He had expended his stock of materials for a
long poem in _The Task_.

These, the sunniest days of Cowper's life, however, gave birth to many
of those short poems which are perhaps his best, certainly his most
popular works, and which will probably keep his name alive when _The
Task_ is read only in extracts. _The Loss of the Royal George_, _The
Solitude of Alexander Selkirk_, _The Poplar Field_, _The Shrubbery_,
the _Lines on a Young Lady_, and those _To Mary, will hold their places
for ever in the treasury of English Lyrics. In its humble way _The
Needless Alarm_ is one of the most perfect of human compositions.
Cowper had reason to complain of Aesop for having written his fables
before him. One great charm of these little pieces is their perfect
spontaneity. Many of them were never published, and generally they
have the air of being the simple effusions of the moment, gay or sad.
When Cowper was in good spirits his joy, intensified by sensibility and
past suffering, played like a fountain of light on all the little
incidents of his quiet life. An ink-glass, a flatting mill, a halibut
served up for dinner, the killing of a snake in the garden, the arrival
of a friend wet after a Journey, a cat shut up in a drawer, sufficed to
elicit a little jet of poetical delight, the highest and brightest jet
of all being _John Gilpin_. Lady Austen's voice and touch still
faintly live in two or three pieces which were written for her
harpsichord. Some of the short poems on the other hand are poured from
the darker urn, and the finest of them all is the saddest. There is no
need of illustrations unless it be to call attention to a secondary
quality less noticed, than those of more importance. That which used
to be specially called "wit," the faculty of ingenious and unexpected
combination, such as is shown in the similes of _Hudibras_, was
possessed by Cowper in large measure.

A friendship that in frequent fits
Of controversial rage emits
The sparks of disputation,
Like hand-in-hand insurance plates,
Most unavoidably creates
The thought of conflagration.

Some fickle creatures boast a soul
True as a needle to the pole,
Their humour yet so various--
They manifest their whole life through
The needle's deviations too,
Their love is so precarious.

The great and small but rarely meet
On terms of amity complete;
Plebeians must surrender,
And yield so much to noble folk,
It is combining fire with smoke,
Obscurity with splendour.

Some are so placid and serene
(As Irish bogs are always green)
They sleep secure from waking;
And are indeed a bog, that bears
Your unparticipated cares
Unmoved and without quaking.

Courtier and patriot cannot mix
Their heterogeneous politics
Without an effervescence,
Like that of salts with lemon juice,
Which does not yet like that produce
A friendly coalescence.

Faint presages of Byron are heard in such a poem as _The Shrubbery_,
and of Wordsworth in such a poem as that _To a Young Lady_. But of the
lyrical depth and passion of the great Revolution poets Cowper is
wholly devoid. His soul was stirred by no movement so mighty, if it
were even capable of the impulse. Tenderness he has, and pathos as
well as playfulness; he has unfailing grace and ease; he has clearness
like that of a trout-stream. Fashions, even our fashions, change. The
more metaphysical poetry of our time has indeed too much in it, besides
the metaphysics, to be in any danger of being ever laid on the shelf
with the once admired conceits of Cowley; yet it may one day in part
lose, while the easier and more limpid kind of poetry may in part
regain, its charm.

The opponents of the Slave Trade tried to enlist this winning voice in
the service of their cause. Cowper disliked the task, but he wrote two
or three anti-Slave-Trade ballads. _The Slave Trader in the Dumps_,
with its ghastly array of horrors dancing a jig to a ballad metre,
justifies the shrinking of an artist from a subject hardly fit for art.

If the cistern which had supplied _The Task_ was exhausted, the rill of
occasional poems still ran freely, fed by a spring which, so long as
life presented the most trivial object or incident could not fail. Why
did not Cowper go on writing these charming pieces which he evidently
produced with the greatest facility? Instead of this, he took, under
an evil star, to translating Homer. The translation of Homer into
verse is the Polar Expedition of literature, always failing, yet still
desperately renewed. Homer defies modern reproduction. His primeval
simplicity is a dew of the dawn which can never be re-distilled. His
primeval savagery is almost equally unpresentable. What civilized poet
can don the barbarian sufficiently to revel, or seem to revel, in the
ghastly details of carnage, in hideous wounds described with surgical
gusto, in the butchery of captives in cold blood, or even in those
particulars of the shambles and the spit which to the troubadour of
barbarism seem as delightful as the images of the harvest and the
vintage? Poetry can be translated into poetry only by taking up the
ideas of the original into the mind of the translator, which is very
difficult when the translator and the original are separated by a gulf
of thought and feeling, and when the gulf is very wide, becomes
impossible. There is nothing for it in the case of Homer but a prose
translation. Even in prose to find perfect equivalents for some of the
Homeric phrases is not easy. Whatever the chronological date of the
Homeric poems may be, their political and psychological date may be
pretty well fixed. Politically they belong, as the episode of
Thersites shows, to the rise of democracy and to its first collision
with aristocracy, which Homer regards with the feelings of a bard who
sang in aristocratic halls. Psychologically they belong to the time
when in ideas and language, the moral was just disengaging itself from
the physical. In the wail of Andromache for instance, _adinon epos_,
which Pope improves into "sadly dear," and Cowper, with better taste at
all events, renders "precious," is really semi-physical, and scarcely
capable of exact translation. It belongs to an unreproducible past,
like the fierce joy which, in the same wail, bursts from the savage
woman in the midst of her desolation at the thought of the numbers whom
her husband's hands had slain. Cowper had studied the Homeric poems
thoroughly in his youth, he knew them so well that he was able to
translate them, not very incorrectly with only the help of a Clavis; he
understood their peculiar qualities as well as it was possible for a
reader without the historic sense to do; he had compared Pope's
translation carefully with the original, and had decisively noted the
defects which make it not a version of Homer, but a periwigged epic of
the Augustan age. In his own translation he avoids Pope's faults, and
he preserves at least the dignity of the original, while his command of
language could never fail him, nor could he ever lack the guidance of
good taste. But we well know where he will be at his best. We turn at
once to such passages as the description of Calypso's Isle,

Alighting on Pieria, down he (Hermes) stooped.
To Ocean, and the billows lightly skimmed
In form a sea-mew, such as in the bays
Tremendous of the barren deep her food
Seeking, dips oft in brine her ample wing.
In such disguise o'er many a wave he rode,
But reaching, now, that isle remote, forsook
The azure deep, and at the spacious grove
Where dwelt the amber-tressed nymph arrived
Found her within. A fire on all the hearth
Blazed sprightly, and, afar diffused, the scent
Of smooth-split cedar and of cypress-wood
Odorous, burning cheered the happy isle.
She, busied at the loom and plying fast
Her golden shuttle, with melodious voice
Sat chanting there; a grove on either side,
Alder and poplar, and the redolent branch
Wide-spread of cypress, skirted dark the cave
Where many a bird of broadest pinion built
Secure her nest, the owl, the kite, and daw,
Long-tongued frequenters of the sandy shores.
A garden vine luxuriant on all sides
Mantled the spacious cavern, cluster-hung
Profuse; four fountains of serenest lymph,
Their sinuous course pursuing side by side,
Strayed, all around, and everywhere appeared
Meadows of softest verdure purpled o'er
With violets; it was a scene to fill
A God from heaven with wonder and delight.

There are faults in this and even blunders, notably in the natural
history; and "serenest lymph" is a sad departure from Homeric
simplicity. Still on the whole the passage in the translation charms,
and its charm is tolerably identical with that of the original. In
more martial and stirring passages the failure is more signal, and here
especially we feel that if Pope's rhyming couplets are sorry
equivalents for the Homeric hexameter, blank verse is superior to them
only in a negative way. The real equivalent, if any, is the romance
metre of Scott, parts of whose poems, notably the last canto of
_Marmion_ and some passages in the _Lay of the Last Minstrel_, are
about the most Homeric things in our language. Cowper brought such
poetic gifts to his work that his failure might have deterred others
from making the same hopeless attempt. But a failure his work is; the
translation is no more a counterpart of the original, than the Ouse
creeping through its meadows is the counterpart of the Aegean rolling
before a fresh wind and under a bright sun. Pope delights school-boys;
Cowper delights nobody, though on the rare occasions when he is taken
from the shelf, he commends himself, in a certain measure, to the taste
and judgment of cultivated men.

In his translations of Horace, both those from the Satires and those
from the Odes, Cowper succeeds far better. Horace requires in his
translator little of the fire which Cowper lacked. In the Odes he
requires grace, in the Satires urbanity and playfulness, all of which
Cowper had in abundance. Moreover, Horace is separated from us by no
intellectual gulf. He belongs to what Dr. Arnold called the modern
period of ancient history. Nor is Cowper's translation of part of the
eighth book of Virgil's Aeneid bad, in spite of the heaviness of the
blank verse. Virgil, like Horace, is within his intellectual range.

As though a translation of the whole of the Homeric poems had not been
enough to bury his finer faculty, and prevent him from giving us any
more of the minor poems, the publishers seduced him into undertaking an
edition of Milton, which was to eclipse all its predecessors in
splendour. Perhaps he may have been partly entrapped by a chivalrous
desire to rescue his idol from the disparagement cast on it by the
tasteless and illiberal Johnson. The project after weighing on his
mind and spirits for some time was abandoned, leaving as its traces
only translations of Milton's Latin poems, and a few notes on _Paradise
Lost,_ in which there is too much of religion, too little of art.

Lady Hesketh had her eye on the Laureateship, and probably with that
view persuaded her cousin to write loyal verses on the recovery of
George III. He wrote the verses, but to the hint of the Laureateship
he said, "Heaven guard my brows from the wreath you mention, whatever
wreaths beside may hereafter adorn them. It would be a leaden
extinguisher clapt on my genius, and I should never more produce a line
worth reading." Besides, was he not already the mortuary poet of All
Saints, Northampton?



Southey, no mean judge in such a matter, calls Cowper the best of
English, letter-writers. If the first place is shared with him by any
one it is by Byron, rather than by Gray, whose letters are pieces of
fine writing, addressed to literary men, or Horace Walpole, whose
letters are memoirs, the English counterpart of St. Simon. The
letters both of Gray and Walpole are manifestly written for
publication. Those of Cowper have the true epistolary charm. They are
conversation, perfectly artless, and at the same time autobiography,
perfectly genuine, whereas all formal autobiography is cooked. They
are the vehicles of the writer's thoughts and feelings, and the mirror
of his life. We have the strongest proofs that they were not written
for publication. In many of them there are outpourings of wretchedness
which could not possibly have been intended for any heart but that to
which they were addressed, while others contain medical details which
no one would have thought of presenting to the public eye. Some, we
know, were answers to letters received but a moment before; and Southey
says that the manuscripts are very free from erasures. Though Cowper
kept a note-book for subjects, which no doubt were scarce with him, it
is manifest that he did not premeditate. Grace of form he never lacks,
but this was a part of his nature, improved by his classical training.
The character and the thoughts presented are those of a recluse who was
sometimes a hypochondriac; the life is life at Olney. But simple
self-revelation is always interesting, and a garrulous playfulness with
great happiness of expression can lend a certain charm even to things
most trivial and commonplace. There is also a certain pleasure in
being carried back to the quiet days before railways and telegraphs,
when people passed their whole lives on the same spot, and life moved
always in the same tranquil round. In truth it is to such days that
letter-writing, as a species of literature belongs, telegrams and
postal cards have almost killed it now.

The large collection of Cowper's letters is probably seldom taken from
the shelf; and the "Elegant Extracts" select those letters which are
most sententious, and therefore least characteristic. Two or three
specimens of the other style may not be unwelcome or needless as
elements of a biographical sketch; though specimens hardly do justice
to a series of which the charm, such as it is, is evenly diffused, not
gathered, into centres of brilliancy like Madame de Sevigne's letter on
the Orleans Marriage. Here is a letter written, in the highest spirits
to Lady Hesketh.

"Olney, _Feb. 9th_, 1786.

"MY DEAREST COUSIN,--I have been impatient to tell you that I am
impatient to see you again. Mrs. Unwin partakes with me in all my
feelings upon this subject, and longs also to see you. I should have
told you so by the last post, but have been so completely occupied by
this tormenting specimen, that it was impossible to do it. I sent the
General a letter on Monday, that would distress and alarm him; I sent
him another yesterday, that will, I hope, quiet him again. Johnson has
apologized very civilly for the multitude of his friend's strictures;
and his friend has promised to confine himself in future to a
comparison of me with the original, so that, I doubt not, we shall jog
on merrily together. And now, my dear, let me tell you once more, that
your kindness in promising us a visit has charmed us both. I shall see
you again. I shall hear your voice. We shall take walks together. I
will show you my prospects, the hovel, the alcove, the Ouse and its
banks, everything that I have described. I anticipate the pleasure of
those days not very far distant, and feel a part of it at this moment.
Talk not of an inn! Mention it not for your life! We have never had
so many visitors, but we could easily accommodate them all; though we
have received Unwin, and his wife, and his sister, and his son all at
once. My dear, I will not let you come till the end of May, or
beginning of June, because before that time my greenhouse will not be
ready to receive us, and it is the only pleasant room belonging to us.
When the plants go out, we go in. I line it with mats, and spread the
floor with mats; and there you shall sit with a bed of mignonette at
your side, and a hedge of honeysuckles, roses, and jasmine; and I will
make you a bouquet of myrtle every day. Sooner than the time I mention
the country will not be in complete beauty.

"And I will tell you what you shall find at your first entrance.
Imprimis, as soon as you have entered the vestibule, if you cast a look
on either side of you, you shall see on the right hand a box of my
making. It is the box in which have been lodged all my hares, and in
which lodges Puss at present; but he, poor fellow, is worn out with
age, and promises to die before you can see him. On the right hand
stands a cupboard, the work of the same author, it was once a
dove-cage, but I transformed it. Opposite to you stands a table, which
I also made; but a merciless servant having scrubbed it until it became
paralytic, it serves no purpose now but of ornament; and all my clean
shoes stand under it. On the left hand, at the further end of this
superb vestibule, you will find the door of the parlour, into which I
will conduct you, and where I will introduce you to Mrs. Unwin, unless
we should meet her before, and where we will be as happy as the day is
long. Order yourself, my cousin, to the Swan at Newport, and there you
shall find me ready to conduct you to Olney.

"My dear, I have told Homer what you say about casks and urns, and have
asked him whether he is sure that it is a cask in which Jupiter keeps
his wine. He swears that it is a cask, and that it will never be
anything better than a cask to eternity. So if the god is content with
it, we must even wonder at his taste, and be so too.

"Adieu! my dearest, dearest cousin.
W. C."

Here, by way of contrast, is a letter written in the lowest spirits
possible to Mr. Newton. It displays literary grace inalienable even in
the depths of hypochondria. It also shows plainly the connexion of
hypochondria with the weather. January was a month to the return of
which the sufferer always looked forward with dread as a mysterious
season of evil. It was a season, especially at Olney, of thick fog
combined with bitter frosts. To Cowper this state of the atmosphere
appeared the emblem of his mental state; we see in it the cause. At
the close the letter slides from spiritual despair to the
worsted-merchant, showing that, as we remarked before, the language of
despondency had become habitual, and does not always flow from a soul
really in the depths of woe.


"_Jan. 13th_, 1784.

"MY DEAR FRIEND,--I too have taken leave of the old year, and parted
with it just when you did, but with very different sentiments and
feelings upon the occasion. I looked back upon all the passages and
occurrences of it, as a traveller looks back upon a wilderness through
which he has passed with weariness, and sorrow of heart, reaping no
other fruit, of his labour, than the poor consolation that, dreary as
the desert was, he has left it all behind him. The traveller would
find even this comfort considerably lessened, if, as soon as he had
passed one wilderness, another of equal length, and equally desolate,
should expect him. In this particular, his experience and mine would
exactly tally. I should rejoice, indeed, that the old year is over and
gone, if I had not every reason to prophesy a new one similar to it.

"The new year is already old in my account, I am not, indeed,
sufficiently second-sighted to be able to boast by anticipation an
acquaintance with the events of it yet unborn, but rest convinced that,
be they what they may, not one of them comes a messenger of good to me.
If even death itself should be of the number, he is no friend of mine.
It is an alleviation of the woes even of an unenlightened man, that he
can wish for death, and indulge a hope, at least, that in death he
shall find deliverance. But, loaded as my life is with despair, I have
no such comfort as would result from a supposed probability of better
things to come, were it once ended. For, more unhappy than the
traveller with whom I set out, pass through what difficulties I may,
through whatever dangers and afflictions, I am not a whit nearer the
home, unless a dungeon may be called so. This is no very agreeable
theme; but in so great a dearth of subjects to write upon, and
especially impressed as I am at this moment with a sense of my own
condition, I could choose no other. The weather is an exact emblem of
my mind in its present state. A thick fog envelopes everything, and at
the same time it freezes intensely. You will tell me that this cold
gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavour to
encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it;--but it will
be lost labour. Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no
more. The hedge that has been apparently dead, is not so; it will
burst into leaf and blossom at the appointed time; but no such time is
appointed for the stake that stands in it. It is as dead as it seems,
and will prove itself no dissembler. The latter end of next month will
complete a period of eleven years in which I have spoken no other
language. It is a long time for a man whose eyes were once opened, to
spend in darkness; long enough to make despair an inveterate habit; and
such it is in me. My friends, I know, expect that I shall see yet
again. They think it necessary to the existence of divine truth, that
he who once had possession of it should never finally lose it. I admit
the solidity of this reasoning in every case but my own. And why not
in my own? For causes which to them it appears madness to allege, but
which rest upon my mind with a weight of immovable conviction. If I am
recoverable, why am I thus?--why crippled and made useless in the
Church, just at that time of life when, my judgment and experience
being matured, I might be most useful?--why cashiered and turned out of
service, till, according to the course of nature, there is not life
enough left in me to make amends for the years I have lost,--till there
is no reasonable hope left that the fruit can ever pay the expense of
the fallow? I forestall the answer:--God's ways are mysterious, and He
giveth no account of His matters--an answer that would serve my purpose
as well as theirs to use it. There is a mystery in my destruction, and
in time it shall be explained.

"I am glad you have found so much hidden treasure; and Mrs. Unwin
desires me to tell you that you did her no more than justice in
believing that she would rejoice in it. It is not easy to surmise the
reason why the reverend doctor, your predecessor, concealed it. Being
a subject of a free government, and I suppose fall of the divinity most
in fashion, he could not fear lest his riches should expose him to
persecution. Nor can I suppose that he held it any disgrace for a
dignitary of the church to be wealthy, at a time when churchmen in
general spare no pains to become so. But the wisdom of some men has a
droll sort of knavishness in it, much like that of a magpie, who hides
what he finds with a deal of contrivance, merely for the pleasure of
doing it.

"Mrs. Unwin is tolerably well. She wishes me to add that she shall be
obliged to Mrs. Newton, if, when an opportunity offers, she will give
the worsted-merchant a jog. We congratulate you that Eliza does not
grow worse, which I know you expected would be the case in the course
of the winter. Present our love to her. Remember us to Sally Johnson,
and assure yourself that we remain as warmly as ever,

W. C.
M. U."

In the next specimen we shall see the faculty of imparting interest to
the most trivial incident by the way of telling it. The incident in
this case is one which also forms the subject of the little poem called
_The Colubriad_.


"_Aug. 3rd_, 1782.

"MY DEAR FRIEND,--Entertaining some hope that Mr. Newton's next letter
would furnish me with the means of satisfying your inquiry on the
subject of Dr. Johnson's opinion, I have till now delayed my answer to
your last; but the information is not yet come, Mr. Newton having
intermitted a week more than usual since his last writing. When I
receive it, favourable or not, it shall be communicated to you; but I
am not very sanguine in my expectations from that quarter. Very
learned and very critical heads are hard to please. He may perhaps
treat me with levity for the sake of my subject and design, but the
composition, I think, will hardly escape his censure. Though all
doctors may not be of the same mind, there is one doctor at least, whom
I have lately discovered, my professed admirer. He too, like Johnson,
was with difficulty persuaded to read, having an aversion to all
poetry, except the _Night Thoughts_; which, on a certain occasion, when
being confined on board a ship he had no other employment, he got by
heart. He was, however, prevailed upon, and read me several times
over; so that if my volume had sailed with him, instead of Dr. Young's,
I might perhaps have occupied that shelf in his memory which he then
allotted to the Doctor; his name is Renny, and he lives at Newport

"It is a sort of paradox, but it is true: we are never more in danger
than when we think ourselves most secure, nor in reality more secure
than when we seem to be most in danger. Both sides of this apparent
contradiction were lately verified in my experience. Passing from the
greenhouse to the barn, I saw three kittens (for we have so many in our
retinue) looking with fixed attention at something, which lay on the
threshold of a door, coiled up. I took but little notice of them at
first, but a loud hiss engaged me to attend more closely, when
behold--a viper! the largest I remember to have seen, rearing itself,
darting its forked tongue, and ejaculating the afore-mentioned hiss at
the nose of a kitten, almost in contact with his lips. I ran into the
hall for a hoe with a long handle, with which I intended to assail him,
and returning in a few seconds missed him: he was gone, and I feared
had escaped me. Still, however, the kitten sat watching immovably upon
the same spot. I concluded, therefore, that, sliding between the door
and the threshold, he had found his way out of the garden into the
yard. I went round immediately, and there found him in close
conversation with the old cat, whose curiosity being excited by so
novel an appearance, inclined her to pat his head repeatedly with her
fore foot; with her claws, however, sheathed, and not in anger, but in
the way of philosophical inquiry and examination. To prevent her
falling a victim to so laudable an exercise of her talents, I
interposed in a moment with the hoe, and performed an act of
decapitation, which though not immediately mortal proved so in the end.
Had he slid into the passages, where it is dark, or had he, when in the
yard, met with no interruption from the cat, and secreted himself in
any of the outhouses, it is hardly possible but that some of the family
must have been bitten; he might have been trodden upon without being
perceived, and have slipped away before the sufferer could have well
distinguished what foe had wounded him. Three years ago we discovered
one in the same place, which the barber slew with a trowel.

"Our proposed removal to Mr. Small's was, as you suppose, a jest, or
rather a joco-serious matter. We never looked upon it as entirely
feasible, yet we saw in it something so like practicability, that we
did not esteem it altogether unworthy of our attention. It was one of
those projects which people of lively imaginations play with, and
admire for a few days, and then break in pieces. Lady Austen returned
on Thursday from London, where she spent the last fortnight, and
whither she was called by an unexpected opportunity to dispose of the
remainder of her lease. She has now, therefore, no longer any
connexion with the great city, she has none on earth whom she calls
friends but us, and no house but at Olney. Her abode is to be at the
vicarage, where she has hired as much room as she wants, which she will
embellish with her own furniture, and which she will occupy, as soon as
the minister's wife has produced another child, which is expected to
make its entry in October.

"Mr. Bull, a dissenting minister of Newport, a learned, ingenious,
good-natured, pious friend of ours, who sometimes visits us, and whom
we visited last week, has put into my hands three volumes of French
poetry, composed by Madame Guyon;--a quietist, say you, and a fanatic,
I will have nothing to do with her. It is very well, you are welcome
to have nothing to do with her, but in the meantime her verse is the
only French verse I ever read that I found agreeable; there is a
neatness in it equal to that which we applaud with so much reason in
the compositions of Prior. I have translated several of them, and
shall proceed in my translations, till I have filled a Lilliputian
paper-book I happen to have by me, which, when filled, I shall present
to Mr. Bull. He is her passionate admirer, rode twenty miles to see
her picture in the house of a stranger, which stranger politely
insisted on his acceptance of it, and it now hangs over his parlour
chimney. It is a striking portrait, too characteristic not to be a
strong resemblance, and were it encompassed with a glory, instead of
being dressed, in a nun's hood, might pass for the face of an angel.

"Our meadows are covered with a winter-flood in August; the rushes with
which our bottomless chairs were to have been bottomed, and much hay,
which was not carried, are gone down the river on a voyage to Ely, and
it is even uncertain whether they will ever return. Sic transit gloria

"I am glad you have found a curate, may he answer! Am happy in Mrs.
Bouverie's continued approbation; it is worth while to write for such a
reader. Yours,

"W. C."

The power of imparting interest to commonplace incidents is so great
that we read with a sort of excitement a minute account of the
conversion of an old card-table into a writing and dining-table, with
the causes and consequences of that momentous event, curiosity having
been first cunningly aroused by the suggestion that the clerical friend
to whom the letter is addressed might, if the mystery were not
explained, be haunted by it when he was getting into his pulpit, at
which time, as he had told Cowper, perplexing questions were apt to
come into his mind.

A man who lived by himself could have little but himself to write
about. Yet in these letters there is hardly a touch of offensive
egotism. Nor is there any querulousness, except that of religious
despondency. From those weaknesses Cowper was free. Of his proneness
to self-revelation we have had a specimen already.

The minor antiquities of the generations immediately preceding ours are
becoming rare, as compared with those of remote ages, because nobody
thinks it worth while to preserve them. It is almost as easy to get a
personal memento of Priam or Nimrod as it is to get a harpsichord, a
spinning-wheel, a tinder-box, or a scratch-back. An Egyptian wig is
attainable, a wig of the Georgian era is hardly so, much less a tie of
the Regency. So it is with the scenes of common life a century or two
ago. They are being lost, because they were familiar. Here are two of
them, however, which have limned themselves with the distinctness of
the camera obscura on the page of a chronicler of trifles.


"_Nov. 17th_, 1783.

"MY DEAR FRIEND,--The country around is much alarmed with apprehensions
of fire. Two have happened since that of Olney. One at Hitchin, where
the damage is said to amount to eleven thousand pounds; and another, at
a place not far from Hitchin, of which I have not yet learnt the name.
Letters have been dropped at Bedford, threatening to burn the town; and
the inhabitants have been so intimidated as to have placed a guard in
many parts of it, several nights past. Since our conflagration here,
we have sent two women and a boy to the justice, for depredation, S. R.
for stealing a piece of beef, which, in her excuse, she said she
intended to take care of. This lady, whom you well remember, escaped
for want of evidence; not that evidence was wanting, but our men of
Gotham judged it unnecessary to send it. With her went the woman I
mentioned before, who, it seems, has made some sort of profession, but
upon this occasion allowed, herself a latitude of conduct rather
inconsistent with it, having filled her apron with wearing-apparel,
which she likewise intended to take care of. She would have gone to
the county gaol, had William Raban, the baker's son, who prosecuted,
insisted upon it; but he, good-naturedly, though I think weakly,
interposed in her favour, and begged her off. The young gentleman who
accompanied these fair ones is the junior son of Molly Boswell. He had
stolen some iron-work, the property of Griggs the butcher. Being
convicted, he was ordered to be whipped, which operation he underwent
at the cart's tail, from the stone-house to the high arch, and back
again. He seemed to show great fortitude, but it was all an imposition
upon the public. The beadle, who performed it, had filled his left
hand with yellow ochre, through which, after every stroke, he drew the
lash of his whip, leaving the appearance of a wound upon the skin, but
in reality not hurting him at all. This being perceived by Mr.
Constable H., who followed the beadle, he applied his cane, without any
such management or precaution, to the shoulders of the too merciful
executioner. The scene immediately became more interesting. The
beadle could by no means be prevailed upon to strike hard, which
provoked the constable to strike harder, and this double flogging
continued, till a lass of Silver-End, pitying the pitiful beadle thus
suffering under the hands of the pitiless constable, joined the
procession, and placing herself immediately behind the latter, seized
him by his capillary club, and pulling him backwards by the same,
slapped his face with a most Amazon fury. This concatenation of events
has taken up more of my paper than I intended it should, but I could
not forbear to inform you how the beadle thrashed the thief, the
constable the beadle, and the lady the constable, and how the thief was
the only person concerned who suffered nothing. Mr. Teedon has been
here, and is gone again. He came to thank me for some left-off
clothes. In answer to our inquiries after his health, he replied that
he had a slow fever, which made him take all possible care not to
inflame his blood. I admitted his prudence, but in his particular
instance, could not very clearly discern the need of it. Pump water
will not heat him much, and, to speak a little in his own style, more
inebriating fluids are to him, I fancy, not very attainable. Ho
brought us news, the truth of which, however, I do not vouch for, that
the town of Bedford was actually on fire yesterday, and the flames not
extinguished when the bearer of the tidings left it.

"Swift observes, when he is giving his reasons why the preacher is
elevated always above his hearers, that let the crowd be as great as it
will below, there is always room enough overhead. If the French
philosophers can carry their art of flying to the perfection they
desire, the observation may be reversed, the crowd will be overhead,
and they will have most room who stay below. I can assure you,
however, upon my own experience, that this way of travelling is very
delightful. I dreamt a night or two since that I drove myself through
the upper regions in a balloon and pair, with the greatest ease and
security. Having finished the tour I intended, I made a short turn,
and, with one flourish of my whip, descended; my horses prancing and
curvetting with an infinite share of spirit, but without the least
danger, either to me or my vehicle. The time, we may suppose, is at
hand, and seems to be prognosticated by my dream, when these airy
excursions will be universal, when judges will fly the circuit, and
bishops their visitations; and when the tour of Europe will be
performed with much greater speed, and with equal advantage, by all who
travel merely for the sake of having it to say, that they have made it.

"I beg you will accept for yourself and yours our unfeigned love, and
remember me affectionately to Mr. Bacon, when you see him.

"Yours, my dear friend,


"_March 29th_, 1784.

"MY DEAR FRIEND,--It being his Majesty's pleasure, that I should yet
have another opportunity to write before he dissolves the Parliament, I
avail myself of it with all possible alacrity. I thank you for your
last, which was not the less welcome for coming, like an extraordinary
gazette, at a time when it was not expected.

"As when the sea is uncommonly agitated, the water finds its way into
creeks and holes of rocks, which in its calmer state it never reaches,
in like manner the effect of these turbulent times is felt even at
Orchard Side, where in general we live as undisturbed by the political
element as shrimps or cockles that have been accidentally deposited in
some hollow beyond the water-mark, by the usual dashing of the waves.
We were sitting yesterday after dinner, the two ladies and myself, very
composedly, and without the least apprehension of any such intrusion in
our snug parlour, one lady knitting, the other netting, and the
gentleman winding worsted, when to our unspeakable surprise a mob
appeared before the window; a smart rap was heard at the door, the boys
bellowed, and the maid announced Mr. Grenville. Puss was unfortunately
let out of her box, so that the candidate, with all his good friends at
his heels, was refused admittance at the grand entry, and referred to
the back door, as the only possible way of approach.

"Candidates are creatures not very susceptible of affronts, and would
rather, I suppose, climb in at the window, than be absolutely excluded.
In a minute, the yard, the kitchen, and the parlour, were filled. Mr.
Grenville, advancing toward me, shook me by the hand with a degree of
cordiality that was extremely seducing. As soon as he, and as many
more as could find chairs, were seated, he began to open the intent of
his visit. I told him I had no vote, for which he readily gave me
credit. I assured him I had no influence, which he was not equally
inclined to believe, and the less, no doubt, because Mr. Ashburner, the
draper, addressing himself to me at this moment, informed me that I had
a great deal. Supposing that I could not be possessed of such a
treasure without knowing it, I ventured to confirm my first assertion,
by saying, that if I had any I was utterly at a loss to imagine where
it could be, or wherein it consisted. Thus ended the conference. Mr.
Grenville squeezed me by the hand again, kissed the ladies, and
withdrew. He kissed likewise the maid in the kitchen, and seemed upon
the whole a most loving, kissing, kind-hearted gentleman. He is very
young, genteel, and handsome. He has a pair of very good eyes in his
head, which not being sufficient as it should seem for the many nice
and difficult purposes of a senator, he has a third also, which he
suspended from his buttonhole. The boys halloo'd, the dogs barked,
puss scampered, the hero, with his long train of obsequious followers,
withdrew. We made ourselves very merry with the adventure, and in a
short time settled into our former tranquillity, never probably to be
thus interrupted more. I thought myself, however, happy in being able
to affirm truly that I had not that influence for which he sued; and
which, had I been possessed of it, with my present views of the dispute
between the Crown and the Commons, I must have refused him, for he is
on the side of the former. It is comfortable to be of no consequence
in a world where one cannot exercise any without disobliging somebody.
The town, however, seems to be much at his service, and if he be
equally successful throughout the country, he will undoubtedly gain his
election. Mr. Ashburner, perhaps, was a little mortified, because it
was evident that I owed the honour of this visit to his
misrepresentation of my importance. But had he thought proper to
assure Mr. Grenville that I had three heads, I should not, I suppose,
have been bound to produce them.

"Mr. Scott, who you say was so much admired in your pulpit, would be
equally admired in his own, at least by all capable judges, were he not
so apt to be angry with his congregation. This hurt him, and had he
the understanding and eloquence of Paul himself, would still hurt him.
He seldom, hardly ever indeed, preaches a gentler well-tempered sermon,
but I hear it highly commended; but warmth of temper, indulged to a
degree that may he called scolding, defeats the end of preaching. It
is a misapplication of his powers, which it also cripples, and tears
away his hearers. But he is a good man, and may perhaps outgrow it.

"Many thanks for the worsted, which is excellent. We are as well as a
spring hardly less severe than the severest winter will give us leave
to be. With our united love, we conclude ourselves yours and Mrs.
Newton's affectionate and faithful,

"W. C.
M. U."

In 1789 the French Revolution advancing with thunder-tread makes even
the hermit of Weston look up for a moment from his translation of
Homer, though he little dreamed that he with his gentle philanthropy
and sentimentalism had anything to do with the great overturn of the
social and political systems of the past. From time to time some crash
of especial magnitude awakens a faint echo in the letters.


"_July 7th_, 1790.

"Instead of beginning with the saffron-vested mourning to which Homer
invites me, on a morning that has no saffron vest to boast, I shall
begin with you. It is irksome to us both to wait so long as we must
for you, but we are willing to hope that by a longer stay you will make
us amends for all this tedious procrastination.

"Mrs. Unwin has made known her whole case to Mr. Gregson, whose opinion
of it has been very consolatory to me; he says indeed it is a case
perfectly out of the reach of all physical aid, but at the same time
not at all dangerous. Constant pain is a sad grievance, whatever part
is affected, and she is hardly ever free from an aching head, as well
as an uneasy side, but patience is an anodyne of God's own preparation,
and of that He gives her largely.

"The French who, like all lively folks, are extreme in everything, are
such in their zeal for freedom; and if it were possible to make so
noble a cause ridiculous, their manner of promoting it could not fail
to do so. Princes and peers reduced to plain gentlemanship, and
gentles reduced to a level with their own lackeys, are excesses of
which they will repent hereafter. Differences of rank and
subordination are, I believe, of God's appointment, and consequently
essential to the well-being of society; but what we mean by fanaticism
in religion is exactly that which animates their politics; and unless
time should sober them, they will, after all, be an unhappy people.
Perhaps it deserves not much to be wondered at, that at their first
escape from tyrannic shackles they should act extravagantly, and treat
their kings as they have sometimes treated their idol. To these,
however, they are reconciled in due time again, but their respect for
monarchy is at an end. They want nothing now but a little English
sobriety, and that they want extremely. I heartily wish them some wit
in their anger, for it were great pity that so many millions should be
miserable for want of it."

This, it will he admitted, is very moderate and unapocalyptic.
Presently Monarchical Europe takes arms against the Revolution. But
there are two political observers at least who see that Monarchical
Europe is making a mistake--Kaunitz and Cowper. "The French," observes
Cowper to Lady Hesketh in December, 1792, "are a vain and childish
people, and conduct themselves on this grand occasion with a levity and
extravagance nearly akin to madness; but it would have been better for
Austria and Prussia to let them alone. All nations have a right to
choose their own form of government, and the sovereignty of the people
is a doctrine that evinces itself; for whenever the people choose to be
masters, they always are so, and none can hinder them. God grant that
we may have no revolution here, but unless we have reform, we certainly
shall. Depend upon it, my dear, the hour has come when power founded
on patronage and corrupt majorities must govern this land no longer.
Concessions, too, must he made to Dissenters of every denomination.
They have a right to them--a right to all the privileges of Englishmen,
and sooner or later, by fair means or by foul, they will have them."
Even in 1793, though he expresses, as he well might, a cordial
abhorrence of the doings of the French, he calls them not fiends, but
"madcaps." He expresses the strongest indignation against the Tory mob
which sacked Priestley's house at Birmingham, as he does, in justice be
it said, against all manifestations of fanaticism. We cannot help
sometimes wishing, as we read these passages in the letters, that
their calmness and reasonableness could have been communicated to
another "Old Whig," who was setting the world on fire with his
anti-revolutionary rhetoric.

It is true, as has already been said, that Cowper was "extramundane,"
and that his political reasonableness was in part the result of the
fancy that he and his fellow-saints had nothing to do with the world
but to keep themselves clear of it, and let it go its own way to
destruction. But it must also be admitted that while the wealth of
Establishments, of which Burke was the ardent defender, is necessarily
reactionary in the highest degree, the tendency of religion itself,
where it is genuine and sincere, must be to repress any selfish feeling
about class or position, and to make men, in temporal matters, more
willing to sacrifice the present to the future, especially where the
hope is held out of moral as well as of material improvement. Thus it
has come to pass that men who professed and imagined themselves to have
no interest in this world, have practically been its great reformers
and improvers in the political and material as well as in the moral

The last specimen shall be one in the more sententious style, and one
which proves that Cowper was capable of writing in a judicious manner
on a difficult and delicate question--even a question so difficult and
so delicate as that of the propriety of painting the face.


"May 3rd, 1784.

"MY DEAR FRIEND,--The subject of face painting may be considered, I
think, in two points of view. First, there is room for dispute with
respect to the consistency of the practice with good morals; and
secondly, whether it be on the whole convenient or not, may be a matter
worthy of agitation. I set out with all the formality of logical
disquisition, but do not promise to observe the same regularity any
further than it may comport with my purpose of writing as fast as I can.

"As to the immorality of the custom, were I in France, I should see
none. On the contrary, it seems in that country to be a symptom of
modest consciousness, and a tacit confession of what all know to be
true, that French faces have in fact neither red nor white of their
own. This humble acknowledgment of a defect looks the more like a
virtue, being found among a people not remarkable for humility. Again,
before we can prove the practice to be immoral, we must prove
immorality in the design of those who use it; either that they intend a
deception, or to kindle unlawful desires in the beholders. But the
French ladies, so far as their purpose comes in question, must be
acquitted of both these charges. Nobody supposes their colour to be
natural for a moment, any more than he would if it were blue or green:
and this unambiguous judgment of the matter is owing to two causes;
first, to the universal knowledge we have, that French women are
naturally either brown or yellow, with very few exceptions; and
secondly, to the inartificial manner in which they paint; for they do
not, as I am most satisfactorily informed, even attempt an imitation of
nature, but besmear themselves hastily, and at a venture, anxious only
to lay on enough. Where therefore there is no wanton intention, nor a
wish to deceive, I can discover no immorality. But in England, I am
afraid, our painted ladies are not clearly entitled to the same
apology. They even imitate nature with such exactness that the whole
public is sometimes divided into parties, who litigate with great
warmth the question whether painted or not? This was remarkably the
case with a Miss E----, whom I well remember. Her roses and lilies
were never discovered to be spurious, till she attained an age that
made the supposition of their being natural impossible. This anxiety
to be not merely red and white, which is all they aim at in France, but
to be thought very beautiful, and much more beautiful than Nature has
made them, is a symptom not very favourable to the idea we would wish
to entertain of the chastity, purity, and modesty of our countrywomen.
That they are guilty of a design to deceive is certain. Otherwise why
so much art? and if to deceive, wherefore and with what purpose?
Certainly either to gratify vanity of the silliest kind, or, which is
still more criminal, to decoy and inveigle, and carry on more
successfully the business of temptation. Here, therefore, my opinion
splits itself into two opposite sides upon the same question. I can
suppose a French woman, though painted an inch deep, to be a virtuous,
discreet, excellent character; and in no instance should I think the
worse of one because she was painted. But an English belle must pardon
me if I have not the same charity for her. She is at least an
impostor, whether she cheats me or not, because she means to do so; and
it is well if that be all the censure she deserves.

"This brings me to my second class of ideas upon this topic, and here I
feel that I should be fearfully puzzled, were I called upon to
recommend the practice on the score of convenience. If a husband chose
that his wife should paint, perhaps it might be her duty, as well as
her interest, to comply. But I think he would not much consult his
own, for reasons that will follow. In the first place, she would
admire herself the more; and in the next, if she managed the matter
well, she might he more admired by others; an acquisition that might
bring her virtue under trials, to which otherwise it might never have
been exposed. In no other case, however, can I imagine the practice in
this country to be either expedient or convenient. As a general one it
certainly is not expedient, because in general English women have no
occasion for it. A swarthy complexion is a rarity here; and the sex,
especially since inoculation has been so much in use, have very little
cause to complain that nature has not been kind to them in the article
of complexion. They may hide and spoil a good one, but they cannot, at
least they hardly can, give themselves a better. But even if they
could, there is yet a tragedy in the sequel, which, should make them

"I understand that in France, though the use of rouge be general, the
use of white paint is far from being so. In England, she that uses
one, commonly uses both. Now all white paints, or lotions, or whatever
they may be called, are mercurial, consequently poisonous, consequently
ruinous in time to the constitution. The Miss B---- above mentioned
was a miserable witness of this truth, it being certain that her flesh
fell from her bones before she died. Lady Coventry was hardly a less
melancholy proof of it; and a London physician perhaps, were he at
liberty to blab, could publish a bill of female mortality, of a length
that would astonish us.

"For these reasons I utterly condemn the practice, as it obtains in
England; and for a reason superior to all these I must disapprove it.
I cannot, indeed, discover that Scripture forbids it in so many words.
But that anxious solicitude about the person, which such an artifice
evidently betrays, is, I am sure, contrary to the tenor and spirit of
it throughout. Show me a woman with a painted face, and I will show
you a woman whose heart is set on things of the earth, and not on
things above.

"But this observation of mine applies to it only when it is an
imitative art. For in the use of French women, I think it is as
innocent as in the use of a wild Indian, who draws a circle round her
face, and makes two spots, perhaps blue, perhaps white, in the middle
of it. Such are my thoughts upon the matter.

"_Vive valeque_,
Yours ever,
W. C."

These letters have been chosen as illustrations of Cowper's epistolary
style, and for that purpose they have been given entire. But they are
also the best pictures of his character; and his character is
everything. The events of his life worthy of record might all be
comprised in a dozen pages.



Cowper says there could not have been a happier trio on earth than Lady
Hesketh, Mrs. Unwin, and himself. Nevertheless, after his removal to
Weston, he again went mad, and once more attempted self-destruction.
His malady was constitutional, and it settled down upon him as his
years increased, and his strength failed. He was now sixty. The Olney
physicians, instead of husbanding his vital power, had wasted it away
_secundum artem_ by purging, bleeding, and emetics. He had overworked
himself on his fatal translation of Homer, under the burden of which he
moved, as he says himself, like an ass over-laden with sand-bags. He
had been getting up to work at six, and not breakfasting till eleven.
And now the life from which his had for so many years been fed, itself
began to fail. Mrs. Unwin was stricken with paralysis; the stroke was
slight, but of its nature there was no doubt. Her days of bodily life
were numbered; of mental life there remained to her a still shorter
span. Her excellent son, William Unwin, had died of a fever soon after
the removal of the pair to Weston. He had been engaged in the work of
his profession as a clergyman, and we do not hear of his being often at
Olney. But he was in constant correspondence with Cowper, in whose
heart as well as in that of Mrs. Unwin his death must have left a great
void, and his support was withdrawn just at the moment when it was
about to become most necessary.

Happily just at this juncture a new and a good friend appeared. Hayley
was a mediocre poet, who had for a time obtained distinction above his
merits. Afterwards his star had declined, but having an excellent
heart, he had not been in the least soured by the downfall of his
reputation. He was addicted to a pompous rotundity of style, perhaps
he was rather absurd; but he was thoroughly good-natured, very anxious
to make himself useful, and devoted to Cowper, to whom, as a poet, he
looked up with an admiration unalloyed by any other feeling. Both of
them, as it happened, were engaged on Milton, and an attempt had been
made to set them by the ears; but Hayley took advantage of it to
introduce himself to Cowper with an effusion of the warmest esteem. He
was at Weston when Mrs. Unwin was attacked with paralysis, and
displayed his resource by trying to cure her with an electric-machine.
At Eartham, on the coast of Sussex, he had, by an expenditure beyond
his means, made for himself a little paradise, where it was his delight
to gather a distinguished circle. To this place he gave the pair a
pressing invitation, which was accepted in the vain hope that a change
might do Mrs. Unwin good.

From Weston to Eartham was a three days' journey, an enterprise not
undertaken without much trepidation and earnest prayer. It was safely
accomplished, however, the enthusiastic Mr. Rose walking to meet his
poet and philosopher on the way. Hayley had tried to get Thurlow to
meet Cowper. A sojourn in a country house with the tremendous Thurlow,
the only talker for whom Johnson condescended to prepare himself, would
have been rather an overpowering pleasure; and perhaps, after all, it
was as well that Hayley could only get Cowper's disciple, Hurdis,
afterwards professor of poetry at Oxford, and Charlotte Smith.

At Eartham, Cowper's portrait was painted by Romney.

Romney, expert infallibly to trace
On chart or canvas not the form alone
And semblance, but, however faintly shown
The mind's impression too on every face,
With strokes that time ought never to erase,
Thou hast so pencilled mine that though I own
The subject worthless, I have never known
The artist shining with superior grace;
But this I mark, that symptoms none of woe
In thy incomparable work appear:
Well: I am satisfied it should be so
Since on maturer thought the cause is clear;
For in my looks what sorrow could'st thou see
When I was Hayley's guest and sat to thee.

Southey observes that it was likely enough there would be no melancholy
in the portrait, but that Hayley and Romney fell into a singular error
in mistaking for "the light of genius" what Leigh Hunt calls "a fire
fiercer than that either of intellect or fancy, gleaming from the
raised and protruded eye."

Hayley evidently did his utmost to make his guest happy. They spent
the hours in literary chat, and compared notes about Milton. The first
days were days of enjoyment. But soon the recluse began to long for
his nook at Weston. Even the extensiveness of the view at Eartham made
his mind ache, and increased his melancholy. To Weston the pair
returned; the paralytic, of course, none the better for her journey.
Her mind as well as her body was now rapidly giving way. We quote as
biography that which is too well known to be quoted as poetry.


The twentieth year is well nigh past.
Since first our sky was overcast:--
Ah, would that this might be the last!
My Mary!

Thy spirits have a fainter flow,
I see thee daily weaker grow:--
'Twas my distress that brought thee low,
My Mary!

Thy needles, once a shining store,
For my sake restless heretofore,
Now rust disused, and shine no more,
My Mary!

For though thou gladly wouldst fulfil
The same kind office for me still,
Thy sight now seconds not thy will,
My Mary!

But well thou play'dst the housewife's part,
And all thy threads with magic art,
Have wound themselves about this heart,
My Mary!

Thy indistinct expressions seem
Like language utter'd in a dream:
Yet me they charm, whate'er the theme,
My Mary!

Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden, beams of orient light,
My Mary!

For could I view nor them nor thee,
What sight worth seeing could I see P
The sun would rise in vain for me,
My Mary!

Partakers of thy sad decline,
Thy hands their little force resign;
Yet gently press'd, press gently mine,
My Mary!

Such feebleness of limbs thou provest,
That now at every step thou movest,
Upheld by two; yet still thou lovest,
My Mary!

And still to love, though press'd with ill,
In wintry age to feel no chill,
With me is to be lovely still,
My Mary!

But ah! by constant heed I know,
How oft the sadness that I show
Transforms thy smiles to looks of woe,
My Mary!

And should my future lot be cast
With much resemblance of the past,
Thy worn-out heart will break at last,
My Mary!

Even love, at least the power of manifesting love, began to betray its
mortality. She who had been so devoted, became, as her mind failed,
exacting, and instead of supporting her partner, drew him down. He
sank again into the depth of hypochondria. As usual, his malady took
the form of religious horrors, and he fancied that he was ordained to
undergo severe penance for his sins. Six days he sat motionless and
silent, almost refusing to take food. His physician suggested, as the
only chance of arousing him, that Mrs. Unwin should be induced, if
possible, to invite him to go out with her; with difficulty she was
made to understand what they wanted her to do; at last she said that it
was a fine morning, and she should like a walk. Her partner at once
rose and placed her arm in his. Almost unconsciously, she had rescued
him from the evil spirit for the last time. The pair were in doleful
plight. When their minds failed they had fallen in a miserable manner
under the influence of a man named Teedon, a schoolmaster crazed with
self-conceit, at whom Cowper in his saner mood had laughed, but whom he
now treated as a spiritual oracle, and a sort of medium of
communication with the spirit-world, writing down the nonsense which
the charlatan talked. Mrs. Unwin, being no longer in a condition to
control the expenditure, the housekeeping, of course, went wrong; and
at the same time her partner lost the protection of the love-inspired
tact by which she had always contrived to shield his weakness and to
secure for him, in spite of his eccentricities, respectful treatment
from his neighbours. Lady Hesketh's health had failed, and she had
been obliged to go to Bath. Hayley now proved himself no mere
lion-hunter, but a true friend. In conjunction with Cowper's
relatives, he managed the removal of the pair from Weston to Mundsley,
on the coast of Norfolk, where Cowper seemed to be soothed by the sound
of the sea, then to Dunham Lodge, near Swaffham, and finally (in 1796)
to East Dereham, where, two months after their arrival, Mrs. Unwin
died. Her partner was barely conscious of his loss. On the morning of
her death he asked the servant "whether there was life above stairs?"
On being taken to see the corpse, he gazed at it for a moment, uttered
one passionate cry of grief, and never spoke of Mrs. Unwin more. He
had the misfortune to survive her three years and a half, during which
relatives and friends were kind, and Miss Perowne partly filled, the
place of Mrs. Unwin. Now and then, there was a gleam of reason and
faint revival of literary faculty, but composition was confined to
Latin verse or translation, with one memorable and almost awful
exception. The last original poem written by Cowper was _The
Castaway_, founded on an incident in Anson's Voyage.

Obscurest night involved the sky,
The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined, wretch as I,
Wash'd headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast;
Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion's coast
With warmer wishes sent.
He loved them both, but both in vain;
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine
Expert to swim, he lay,
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
Or courage die away;
But waged with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted; nor his friends had fail'd
To check the vessel's course,
But so the furious blast prevail'd,
That pitiless perforce
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford,
And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
Delay'd not to bestow;
But he, they knew, nor ship nor shore,
Whate'er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem'd, could he
Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent power,
His destiny repelled:
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried--"Adieu!"

At length, his transient respite past,
His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in every blast,
Could catch the sound no more:
For then by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him; but the page
Of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Anson's tear;
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

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.

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.

The despair which finds vent in verse is hardly despair. Poetry can
never be the direct expression of emotion; it must be the product of
reflection combined with an exercise of the faculty of composition
which in itself is pleasant. Still _The Castaway_ ought to be an
antidote to religious depression, since it is the work of a man of whom
it would be absurdity to think as realty estranged from the spirit of
good, who had himself done good to the utmost of his powers.

Cowper died very peacefully on the morning of April 25, 1800, and was
buried in Dereham Church, where there is a monument to him with an
inscription by Hayley, which, if it is not good poetry, is a tribute of
sincere affection.

Any one whose lot it is to write upon the life and works of Cowper must
feel that there is an immense difference between the interest which
attaches to him, and that which attaches to any one among the far
greater poets of the succeeding age. Still there is something about
him so attractive, his voice has such a silver tone, he retains, even
in his ashes, such a faculty of winning friends that his biographer and
critic may be easily beguiled into giving him too high a place. He
belongs to a particular religious movement, with the vitality of which
the interest of a great part of his works has departed or is departing.
Still more emphatically and in a still more important sense does he
belong to Christianity. In no natural struggle for existence would he
have been the survivor, by no natural process of selection would he
ever have been picked out as a vessel of honour. If the shield which
for eighteen centuries Christ by His teaching and His death has spread
over the weak things of this world should fail, and might should again
become the title to existence and the measure of worth, Cowper will be
cast aside as a specimen of despicable infirmity, and all who have said
anything in his praise will be treated with the same scorn.


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