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ILLIAM COWPER was born on
the 26th of November 1731. His father, the Rev. John Cowper, D.D., was chaplain to King George II., and rector of Berk
hampstead ; and the parsonagehouse of this little Hertfordshire town was the birthplace of the poet. His mother was a distinguished woman, of considerable amiability and power. Her maiden name was Anne Donne, and Dr. Johnson declared that this lady was descended from the several noble houses of West, Knollys, Carey, Bullen, Howard, and Mowbray ; and so, by four different lines, from Henry III., King of England. The Doctor added, that “distinctions of this kind can shed no additional lustre on the memory of Cowper ; yet genius, however exalted, disdains not, while it boasts not, the splendour of ancestry; and royalty itself may be pleased, and perhaps benefited, by discovering its kindred to such piety, such purity, and such talents as his." Cowper had the misfortune to lose his mother when he was only six years old, yet so deep and lasting was her influence upon his character and mind, that nearly fifty years after her death he said, “Not a week passes in which I do not think of her—such was the impression her tenderness made upon me, though the opportunity she had for showing it was so short.” The beautiful and pathetic poem written on the receipt of his mother's picture reveals the reverence which he felt for her. This loss was the more to be deplored on Cowper's account, because from his infancy he was a delicate child, with the tendency to melancholy which was afterwards so painfully developed. He was sent, immediately after his mother's death, to a school kept by Dr. Pitman, at Market Street, in Hertfordshire. The school was large, and he suffered many things in it, especially at the hands of a young bully about fifteen years old, who treated the weak child with more than the usual school-boy barbarity. Cowper always remembered the fear with which this young tyrant inspired him, and said that he was afraid to lift his eyes upon him higher than his knees, and knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any
other part of his dress. The cruelty of this boy was eventually discovered, and he was expelled from the school, where Cowper himself spent only two years. He was removed because he was threatened with blindness, specks having appeared on both eyes ; and the next two years were passed in the house of an eminent oculist, where he was so far cured that he was able at ten years old to be sent to Westminster School. At fourteen he had an attack of the small-pox, which he said proved the best oculist, for after it had passed off, the specks in his eyes were found to have gone with it. He was not unhappy at Westminster School, although in after-life, when he wrote his scathing censure of public schools, he doubtless recalled some trials that he had endured there.
He held a high place among the boys as an expert at cricket and football ; and his poems are proofs that he had pleasant associations connected with his boyhood :
“ Be it a weakness, it deserves some praise,
We love the play-place of our early days.” It is true that with the morbid self-reproach which did much to rob his manhood of strength and beauty, he afterward described himself as a wicked boy, without any sentiments of contrition, and as a great adept in “the infernal art of lying ; but
those who were his school-fellows and teachers described him as a gentle, inoffensive boy, with a mild and amiable temper, far more kindly disposed and good than the average school-boy. He greatly lamented his own lack of religion, and also the absence of religious teaching in the school, although he bore testimony to the pains which Dr. Nichols took to prepare the boys for confirmation. He had some school-mates who became notable men afterward ; and at school he first exhibited his poetic tendency
“ At Westminster, where little poets strive
To set a distich upon six and five,
Cowper remained at Westminster until he was seventeen years old; he then spent nine months at home, and was next sent to acquire the practice of the law with an attorney. That his master did not teach him religion as well as law was one of his causes of complaint in after years, when he complained of everything. He was articled to Mr. Chapman for three years, and his fellowclerk was the young man who afterwards became Lord Chancellor Thurlow, and was ever the poet's friend. Cowper said of this time—“ I did actually live three years with Mr. Chapman, a solicitorthat is to say, I slept three years at his house ; but I lived—that is to say, I spent-my days in Southampton Row” (with an aunt).
“ There was I and the future Lord Chancellor constantly employed, from morning to night, in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law." It has been supposed by some that the melancholy of which he was later the subject was promoted by his study of the law; but this confession by the poet himself does not support the idea. He used to declare that he was unfitted for the law; but he also said—“ What nature expressly designed me for I have never been able to conjecture, I seem to myself so universally disqualified for the
and customary occupations and amusements of mankind.”
When he left the solicitor's office, he had attained his majority, and he took chambers in the Middle Temple in 1752; and it was then, while living alone, that the malady which overshadowed so much of his life was developed. In 1754 he was called to the bar; but Southey says—“That he had taken no pains to qualify himself for his profession is certain, and it is probable that he had as little intention to pursue it, resting in indolent reliance upon his patrimonial means, and in the likely expectation that some official appointment would be found for