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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 continued, 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 excellence; 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 daughter. 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 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 produc. tion of art or nature.” And he talks of sending “tables,
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, so 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, after 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 pent-up stream of his genius was now to break out. At the suggestion of Mrs Unwin, he wrote “Table Talk,” the first poem in the present collection of his works, to which were afterwards added, “The Progress of Error,” “Truth,” “Expostulation,” “Hope,” “Charity,” “Conver. sation,” and “Retirement.” These were all written in little more than a year, and were published in one volume in 1781. It met with a favourable reception from the critics of the day, and slowly found its way into the esteem of the public. The vein thus opened was not allowed to remain unwrought. “Dejection of spirits,” he informs Lady Hes. keth, “which may have prevented many a man from becom. ing an author, made me one. I find constant employment necessary, and therefore take care to be constantly em. ployed.” “When I can find no other occupation, I think; and when I think, I am very apt to do it in rhyme. Hence it comes to pass, that the season of the year which generally pinches off the flowers of poetry unfolds mine, such as they are, and crowns me with a wintry garland.” About this time he formed an acquaintance with a highlyaccomplished woman, Lady Austen; she was wealthy, had. seen much of the world, and possessed a liveliness of manner which charmed away his melancholy. After three years' intimacy, this friendship was unfortunately broken up by the not unnaturaljealousy of Mrs Unwin, who was afraid it might end in a nearer connexion. To Lady Austen we owe the amusing ballad of “John Gilpin,” and his great poem the “Task.” A merry tale which she told to amuse the poet was the groundwork of the first; it soon became a universal favourite, though few suspected the melancholy Cowper to be the author. Surprise has been expressed that it should have been written while suffering from despondency; but it is the very nature of this disease to admit of violent alternations from the liveliest gaiety to the deepest gloom. The “Task” was begun in the summer of 1783, and completed before the close of 1784. Lady Austen, who, as an admirer of Milton, was partial to blank verse, had often solicited Cowper to try his power in that species of
composition. To his objection that he knew of no suitable subject, she replied, “Oh, you can never be in want of a subject—you can write upon any; write upon this sofa.” The idea struck him, he took up the pen and began,—
“I sing the Sofa, I who lately sung
The poem thus casually suggested grew into six books, and is deservedly the most popular of his larger poems. Many passages in his first volume are not inferior to the best pieces of the “Task; ” but in the “Task” he takes a wider range, and flies with freer and bolder wing. This work brought him into immediate notice, and drew attention to his former publications. His attached cousin, Lady Hesketh, who had been abroad, hastened to renew her corre. spondence. His letters to her are the most finished and delightful specimens of epistolary writing in the language. The strong aversion which John Foster expressed to composition was unknown to Cowper. He wrote from choice, and was quite capable of extracting amusement from the most trivial incidents of daily life; so that, though he was almost a recluse in his habits, and his letters sometimes embraced no other subjects than the death of a viper, or the loss of one of his hares, or the overturning of a market-woman's cart, they are full of wit and sensibility. Lady Hesketh proved a most valuable friend. Finding his residence at Olney neither commodious nor cheerful, she rented and furnished for him a house bordering on a handsome park at the neighbouring village of Western Underwood, and throughout his life her purse and her services were always at his disposal. He says touchingly, on leaving Olney—“I found that I not only had a tenderness for that ruinous abode, because it had once known me happy in the presence of God, but that even the distress I had suffered for so long time on account of His absence, had endeared it to me as much.” In 1785 he began a translation of Homer's Poems, and worked with great assiduity and pleasure at the task. It