The Gallery of Portraits: with Memoirs. Vol 5 (of 7) online

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it were but a kitten playing with its tail.”

Early in 1780, Cowper lost a valued friend, and almost his only
associate, by the removal of Mr. Newton to London. In the following year
he became acquainted with Lady Austen, who, for a short time, fills a
prominent place in the poet’s history. We must refer to fuller memoirs
for the tale of her introduction, and the gradual growth of that strict
intimacy which ensued between herself, Mrs. Unwin, and Cowper. For some
time the three friends spent a considerable portion of every day in each
other’s society; and Cowper was indebted to Lady Austen’s liveliness in
conversation and varied accomplishments for a great alleviation of his
mental sufferings. The famous history of John Gilpin owes its birth to a
story told by her one evening, to rouse the poet out of a fit of
despondency; and it engaged his fancy so strongly, that in the course of
the night, during which he was kept awake by fits of laughter, he turned
it into verse. The ballad soon got abroad, and obtained unusual
popularity: it was long before the author was known. “The Task” was
composed at Lady Austen’s request. She saw the benefit which Cowper
derived from earnest literary employment, and often urged him to try his
strength in blank verse. After some pressing, he promised to comply, if
she would furnish him with a subject. “Oh, you can write on anything,”
she said; “write on this sofa.” The lively answer chimed in with his
peculiar humour, and he adopted it literally: his sofa forms the subject
of the poem; the first book of which is entitled “The Sofa,” and opens
with a history of the invention and merits of that piece of furniture,
which is unsurpassed in its peculiar vein of humour. But the author soon
rises into a higher strain, and in his discursive range paints the
beauty of the country with that fidelity and exquisite sense of natural
beauty which constitutes his chief poetic merit; describes the peculiar
appearances and occupations of the winter season; weighs the evils and
advantages attendant on a high state of civilization; exhibits, in
reproving the faults of the age, his power both in the lighter
skirmishing of satire, and in the stern outpouring of an honest
indignation; inculcates the doctrines of that religion of peace and love
from which it was his own singular and melancholy lot to derive no
peace; and all with a beauty and facility of versification, and power of
illustration, sufficient to attract many whom the grave nature of the
subjects to be discussed would rather deter. The scope and conduct of
the work is well described in the following lines from the conclusion,
in which, anticipating death, he says—

It shall not grieve me then, that once, when call’d
To dress a sofa with the flowers of verse,
I played awhile, obedient to the fair,
With that light task: but soon, to please her more,
Whom flowers alone I knew would little please,
Let fall the unfinish’d wreath, and roved for fruit;
Roved far and gather’d much: some harsh, ’tis true,
Pick’d from the thorns and briers of reproof,
But wholesome, well digested, grateful some
To palates that can taste immortal truth;
Insipid else, and sure to be despised.

“The Task” was accompanied by a shorter poem, entitled “Tirocinium,”
written expressly in dispraise of the existing system of public schools
in England; and prompted by Cowper’s bitter recollection of his
sufferings at Westminster. The volume was published in 1785.

As soon as this was completed, Cowper engaged in another more laborious
undertaking, the translation of Homer. This also was suggested by Lady
Austen; and it had a most beneficial effect in furnishing the poet with
constant employment from this time forward to the end of his life, with
the exception of those periods in which the pressure of disease was too
severe to admit of any exertion. He spared no pains in the execution of
this great work; and after his version was made, subjected it to a most
careful revision, amounting nearly to a re-translation. It was published
in 1791, and was preceded by a list of subscribers, whose number and
individual eminence bear testimony to the high esteem in which Cowper
was then held. His translation, however, has never been popular: he has
avoided Pope’s errors, but he has failed in giving life and interest,
and in catching the vital spirit of his author.

During the long period which the literary labours above-mentioned
occupied, Cowper’s domestic history is characterized by the same general
depression and the same seclusion as we have above described. In 1784
his friendship with Lady Austen was interrupted by a disagreement
between her and Mrs. Unwin, who seems to have feared that the former
might obtain an influence over the poet paramount to her own; and to
have been justly hurt at the prospect of becoming second in the
affections of him, to whom, for so many years, she had devoted herself
with a zeal which merited the utmost return. Cowper felt this, and he
himself broke off his intercourse with Lady Austen, in a way which was
admitted by herself to do credit to his delicacy and judgment, no less
than to his generosity. In about a year after the termination of this
valuable friendship, he received the best amends that could be made, in
the renewal of intercourse, after it had been interrupted for
twenty-three years, with his cousin Lady Hesketh, to whom from childhood
he had been strongly attached. She visited Olney in June, 1786; and from
that time forwards her purse and her personal exertions were unsparingly
bestowed to promote the comfort of her beloved cousin. At her instance
his confined and ruinous abode at Olney was exchanged in November, 1786,
for a commodious house in the pretty neighbouring village of Weston,
which was especially recommended to Cowper as being the residence of his
esteemed friends Mr. and Mrs. Throckmorton. Here Lady Hesketh commonly
spent part of the year. The state of Cowper’s spirits during his
residence at Weston was variable; but he made a few new acquaintance,
and among them his correspondent, Mr. Rose, and his biographer, Mr.
Hayley. He also enjoyed a vivid pleasure in the renewal of intercourse
with his maternal relations, among whom his young cousin Johnson, who
afterwards became his tender and devoted guardian, obtained an especial
place in his affections. Still, however, his mental malady continued
unabated; and a new cause of uneasiness beset him in the growing
infirmities of Mrs. Unwin. In March, 1792, the disease which had been
for some time sapping her strength, manifested itself in a paralytic
attack, from which she never entirely recovered. From thenceforward
Cowper’s time and attention were devoted, as his primary object, to
contributing to her comfort and amusement. In her company he quitted his
home, the first time for twenty-seven years, to visit Mr. Hayley’s seat
at Eartham, in Sussex. Two important works had engaged his attention:
one a poem on the four ages of man’s life, the other an edition of
Milton. These, however, were successively laid aside; and such time as
his weak spirits and melancholy occupation allowed him, be employed in
revising his Homer for a second edition. But Mrs. Unwin became more and
more enfeebled in mind and body; and in the beginning of 1794 Cowper
relapsed into a gloom as deep as that which he had endured at the
commencement of his malady. To watch over him in this melancholy Lady
Hesketh made Weston her constant, instead of her occasional abode, until
the middle of the following year, when her health gave way under the
constant pressure of anxiety. Mr. Johnson, who had taken orders, and
resided at East Dereham in Norfolk, then undertook the charge of his
unhappy relation; removed him and Mrs. Unwin into his own neighbourhood,
and watched over their decline with the most unwearied and judicious
tenderness. But little could now be done to give Cowper pleasure. The
pathetic poem, “To Mary,” is supposed by Mr. Hayley to have been the
last thing written by him before quitting Weston; and the only original
verses which he composed afterwards were some Latin lines, which he
translated into English, on the appearance of some ice islands in the
German Sea, and the touching poem called the “Cast-away,” founded on the
loss of a man overboard in Anson’s voyage, and alluding in an affecting
strain to his own unfortunate condition. After his departure from
Weston, he who had been so diligent a correspondent only wrote three or
four letters; nor could he be excited to converse by the visits even of
his most intimate friends, as Mr. Rose and Sir John Throckmorton. In
January, 1800, his final illness, which was dropsy, commenced. He died
April 25th in the same year; nor to the last did one gleam of hope break
through the darkness which had surrounded him for twenty-seven years.

It was Cowper’s especial merit as a poet to cultivate simplicity and
nature. He set the example of throwing aside conventional affectations
and unmeaning pomp of diction, and in consideration of this great
service may well be pardoned for occasionally incurring the opposite
fault of being tame and prosaic. His genius was truly original: all his
writings, whether moral, satirical, or descriptive, bear the legible
impress of his own peculiar constitution of mind and habits of thinking.
His minor and occasional poems are very happy, for his imagination could
extract a deep and beautiful moral from slight occurrences, which
commonly pass unnoticed in the bustle of life. Many of his letters are
published in Hayley’s Life of Cowper; and these are embodied with the
Private Correspondence afterwards given to the world by Mr. Johnson, in
the edition of Cowper’s works by Mr. Grimshawe now in the press. As a
letter writer Cowper appears to us to be unequalled in the English
language. His correspondence is the genuine intercourse of friend with
friend; full of wit and humour, but a humour that never vents itself in
the depreciation of others; and abounding in passages of graver beauty,
expressed in the most easy, yet elegant and correct language. When once
a man knows that his letters are admired, he is in great danger of
writing for admiration. Cowper was aware of this, and occasionally
alludes to the temptation in lively terms. “I love praise dearly,
especially from the judicious, and those who have so much delicacy
themselves as not to offend mine in giving it. But then I found this
consequence attending, or likely to attend, the eulogium you bestowed.
If my friend thought me witty before, he shall think me ten times more
witty hereafter; where I joked once, I will joke five times; and for
every sensible remark, I will send him a dozen. Now this foolish vanity
would have spoiled me quite, and have made me as disgusting a letter
writer as Pope, who seems to have thought that unless a sentence was
well turned, and every sentence pointed with some conceit, it was not
worth the carriage. I was willing therefore to wait until the impression
that your commendation had made on the foolish part of me was worn off,
that I might scribble away as usual, and write my uppermost thoughts,
and those only.” (June 8, 1780. To the Rev. W. Unwin.) No one ever
avoided this danger better. It is strange and wonderful that these
compositions, which bear the stamp of so much cheerfulness and
benevolence, should have been written, most of them, in his deepest
gloom, and avowedly for the purpose of withdrawing his thoughts from his
own misery.

[Illustration: [Tomb of Cowper, in East Dereham Church, Norfolk.]]

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1. Changed “better” to “letter” on p. 28.
2. Changed “the placing the” to “the placing of the” on p. 128.
3. Silently corrected typographical errors.
4. Retained anachronistic and non-standard spellings as printed.
5. Enclosed italics font in _underscores_.
6. Superscripts are denoted by a carat before a single superscript
character or a series of superscripted characters enclosed in
curly braces, e.g. M^r. or M^{ister}.

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Online LibraryAnonymousThe Gallery of Portraits: with Memoirs. Vol 5 (of 7) → online text (page 21 of 21)