Page images
PDF
EPUB

- whose savage

ing for a brief period of nine months, when he was eighteen years of age.

When only six years of age, he was sent to the school of Dr Pitman, in Market Street, on the borders of Hertfordshire. Here he continued two years—a period embittered by the cruelty of a boy of fifteen years of age, treatment,” says Cowper, “ impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift up my eyes upon him higher than his knees; and that I knew him by his shoe-buckles better than any other part of his dress.” It is characteristic of the gentle spirit of the poet, that he refrains from mentioning the name of his persecutor.

In consequence of an affection in the eyes which threatened to deprive him of sight, he was sent to an eminent oculist in London, in whose house he remained until he was ten years of age, when he had so far recovered as to be able to attend Westminster School. An attack of smali-pox, three years afterwards, completed the restoration of his eyesight. At Westminster he continued till he was eighteen, having acquired a considerable know ledge of the Latin and Greek classics. He was then apprenticed for three years to an attorney ; but, in an uncongenial employment, and under & careless master, he derived few advantages from his situation. “I was bred to the law," he writes; “ a profession to which I was never much inclined, and in which I engaged, rather because I was desirous to gratify a most indulgent father, than because I had any hope of success in it myself.” “I did actually live three years with Mr Chapman, a solicitor,” he says; “ there was I and the fature Lord Chancellor" (Thurlow) “constantly employed, from morning to night, in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law.”

It was at this period that he formed an attachment to his cousin, Theodora Cowper, the sister of Lady Hesketh, to whom so many of his letters are addressed. Though this affection was returned, obstacles, arising from her father's

a

aversion to the marriage of parties so nearly related, and from his own limited income, prevented their union. She was never married, and lived until the year 1824.

On leaving Mr Chapman, he took chambers in the Inner Temple, London, where he lived for twelve years. Here, instead of devoting himself to the study of the law, he yielded to the natural bent of his disposition, and amused himself with literature, and occasionally contributed verses and essays (none of which are now known) to the periodi. cals of the day.

Shortly after entering the Temple, the first symptoms of that malady appeared from which he was destined to suffer so dreadfully. “I was struck,” he says, “ with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.“ This despondency lasted for nearly twelve months.

Cowper’s melancholy has been attributed to his religious views; but at this time he was entirely ignorant of true re. ligion. Men of science in modern times will not hazard the unphilosophical opinions which were once entertained on this subject; derangement is now understood to be a disease which has its principal seat in the nervous system, and in which accident determines the particular mental delusion by which the patient is oppressed.

When thirty-one years of age, he was appointed readingclerk and clerk of the private committees of the House of Lords, a situation which he resigned for the inferior post of clerk of the journals in the same house of parliament. This appointment seemed at first to afford him considerable pleasure. “ If I succeed,” he writes to Lady Hesketh, "in this doubtful piece of promotion, I shall have at least this satisfaction to reflect upon, that the volumes I write will be treasured up with the utmost care for ages, and will last as long as the English constitution, a duration which ought to satisfy the vanity of any author who has a spark of love for his country.”

These prospects were destroyed by a party dispute, regard. ing the right of appointment, which rendered it necessary that he should appear at the bar of the House of Lords. The idea of appearing in such a situation entirely unhinged his mind, and drove him to repeated attempts to commit suicide. His friends, on learning his condition, immediately surrendered the appointment; and, as his malady still con: tinued, put him under the care of Dr Cotton, in St Alban's, a physician equally fitted to minister to the mind and the body.

With him he remained for two years. It is from this period he dates his conversion. His religious education had been almost entirely neglected. He had made himself acquainted with the evidences of Christianity, but was ignorant of Christianity itself. So early as his schoolboy days at Market Street, indeed, he had serious impressions on his mind, which returned very vividly at intervals while in the Temple; but until now, he was without any clear understanding of the nature of the gospel as a proclamation of mercy from God to sinners through Christ Jesus, and had no personal experience of its power to confer peace.

From St Alban's he removed to lodgings in Huntingdon The chief recommendation of Huntingdon was, that being within fifteen miles of Cambridge, he was enabled to meet once a week with his brother John, a young man of great ex: cellence; but it was too dull a residence to detain him long, had Providence not thrown in his way the family of the Unwins, whose friendship proved the greatest happiness of his life. To their mutual satisfaction, he became a boarder in the family, which at this time consisted of Mr Unwin and his wife, their son and daughier. Cowper thus describes his first impressions of them :-“ The old gentleman is a man of learning and good sense, and as simple as Parson Adams. His wife has a very uncommon understanding, has read much to good purpose, and is more polite than a duchess. The son, who belongs to Cambridge, is a most amiable young man; and the daughter quite of a piece with the rest of the family.” There must have been something

a

66

remarkably attractive about Cowper, for, with all his shy. ness, he had more and better friends than almost any poet we could name. To know him was to love him, and few loved him by halves; indeed, the devotion paid to him partook more of the mingled respect and affection which is rendered to an accomplished female than what are enjoyed by his sex. With the Unwins he lived on the most cordial terms. I am much happier,” he writes to Major Cowper, “ than the day is long, and sunshine and candle-light alike see me perfectly contented.”

No certain information has been obtained of his means of subsistence. He inherited some money from his father; and a subscription made at this time by his friends placed him in comfortable circumstances. It is believed that Miss Theodora Cowper privately contributed fifty pounds a year. He does not seem to have obtained much for the copyright of his poems. The crown granted him £300 a year in 1794 ; but too late to be of much advantage.

The sudden death of Mr Unwin, by a fall from his horse, caused the removal of the Unwins from Huntingdon; and Cowper removed with them. The Rev. John Newton, whose acquaintance they had recently made, engaged for them a house in Olney, to which they removed in October 1767. The warmest friendship grew out of this connexion; there was a private passage between the vicarage and the house in which they lived, and seven hours, we are told, rarely passed without the two families being together. Here Cowper spent two or three years in great comfort. His employments were various,--he learned to draw, he cultivated flowers, and he handled the tools of the carpenter with considerable address. “ There is not a squire in all the country," he writes, “ who can boast of having made better squirrel-houses, hutches for rabbits, or bird-cages, than myself. I had even the hardiness to take in hand the pencil. Many figures were the fruit of my labours, which had at least the merit of being unparallelled by any produce tion of art or nature.” And he talks of sending tables,

[ocr errors]

such as they were, and joint-stools, such as never were.” Three hares which he tamed afforded him much amusement. His account of them, which was inserted in the Gentleman's Magazine, has often been reprinted. He also visited the houses of the villagers, administering spiritual counsel and relieving the wants of the poor, which he was the better enabled to do from a fund placed at his disposal by the benevolent Thornton, to celebrated for his philanthropy. At the suggestion of Newton, he began his contributions to that collection so well known as the “ Olney Hymns.” These were commenced in the year 1771, but, owing to a return of the melancholy disease under which he laboured, not completed till 1779.

The death of his brother, to whom he was warmly attached, and which took place in 1770, has been supposed to furnish the cause of the new attack of his malady; but he never was entirely free from it,--his mind was like the coast of Holland, which requires the embankments to be constantly renewed to exclude the encroachments of the tide; and it is scarcely worth while, when so many causes were in operation, to ask which was the greatest. The attack lasted for four years, during which he was watched by Mrs Unwin with a self-devotion and tenderness which happily found its reward in seeing him restored to the full measure of his former powers, though it left him with weakened nerves and a constant tendency to relapse into moodiness. Thus, afier Newton had left Olney for London, he writes“ It is no attachment to the place that binds me here, but an unfitness for every other. I lived in it once, but now I am buried in it, and have no business with the world on the outside of my sepulchre.”

Cowper had now reached the age of fifty, and was as yet unknown to the world: “A few light and agreeable poems, two hymns written at Huntingdon, with about sixty others composed at Olney, are almost the only known poetical productions of his pen between the years 1749 and 1780." The long pert-up stream of his genius was now to break

« PreviousContinue »