William Cowper.

The life and works of William Cowper (Volume 4) online

. (page 16 of 23)
Online LibraryWilliam CowperThe life and works of William Cowper (Volume 4) → online text (page 16 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

nal influence of a poet's reputation on the spirit of a liberal
innkeeper, that it surely ought not to be suppressed. — Haiiley.


Who says that fame is only empty breath ? On
the contrary, it is good ale, and cold beef into the


Weston Underwood, Feb. 26, 1791.
My dear Friend —

It is a maxim of much weight,

Worth conning o'er and o'er,
He who has Homer to translate,

Had need do nothing more.

But, notwithstanding the truth and importance of
this apophthegm, to which I lay claim as the original
author of it, it is not equally true that my applica-
tion to Homer, close as it is, has been the sole cause
of my delay to answer you. No. In observing so
long a silence I have been influenced much more
by a vindictive purpose, a purpose to punish you
for your suspicion that I could possibly feel myself
hurt or offended by any critical suggestion of yours,
that seemed to reflect on the purity of my nonsense
verses. Understand, if you please, for the future,
that, whether I disport myself in Greek or Latin,
or in whatsoever other language, you are hereby,
henceforth and for ever, entitled and warranted to
take any liberties with it to which you shall feel
3'ourself inclined, not excepting even the lines
themselves, which stand at the head of this letter !


You delight me when you call blank verse the
English heroic ; for I have always thought, and
often said, that we have no other verse worthy to
be so entitled. When you read my preface, you
will be made acquainted with my sentiments on
this subject pretty much at large, for which reason
I will curb my zeal, and say the less about it at
present. That Johnson, who wrote harmoniously
in rhyme, should have had so defective an ear as
never to have discovered any music at all in blank
verse, till he heard a particular friend of his read-
ing it, is a wonder never sufficiently to be won-
dered at. Yet this is true on his own acknowledg-
ment, and amounts to a plain confession, (of which
perhaps he was not aware when he made it,) that
he did not know how to read blank verse himself.
In short, he either suffered prejudice to lead him in
a string whithersoever it would, or his taste in poetry
was worth little. I don't believe he ever read any
thing of that kind with enthusiasm in his life ; and
as good poetry cannot be composed without a con-
siderable share of that quality in the mind of the
author, so neither can it be read or tasted as it
ought to be without it.

I have said all this in the morning fasting, but
am soon going to my tea. When therefore I shall
have told you that we are now, in the course of our
printing, in the second book of the Odyssey, I shall
only have time to add that I am, my dear friend.
Most truly yours,

w. c.

I think your Latin quotations very applicable to


the present state of trance. But France is in a si-
tuation new and untried before.


Weston, Feb. 27, 1791.

Now, my dearest Johnny, I must tell thee in few
words how much I love and am obliged to thee for
thy affectionate services.

My Cambridge honours are all to be ascribed to
you, and to you only. Yet you are but a little man,
and a little man, into the bargain, who have kicked
the mathematics, their idol, out of your study.
So important are the endings, which Providence
frequently connects with small beginnings. Had
you been here, I could have furnished you with
much employment; for I have so dealt with your
fair MS. in the course of my polishing and im-
proving, that I have almost blotted out the whole-
Such, however, as it is, I must now send it to the
printer, and he must be content with it, for there
is not time to make a fresh copy. We are now
printing the second book of the Odyssey.

Should the Oxonians bestow none of their notice
on me on this occasion, it will happen singularly
enough that, as Pope received all his University
honours in the subscription way from Oxford, and
none at all from Cambridge, so I shall have re-
ceived all mine from Cambridge, and none from
Oxford. This is the more likely to be the case,
because I understand that, on whatsoever occasion


either of those learned bodies thinks fit to move, the
other always makes it a point to sit still, thus prov-
ing its superiority.

I shall send up your letter to Lady Hesketh in
a day or two, knowing that the intelligence con-
tained in it will afford her the greatest pleasure.
Know, likewise, for your own gratification, that
all the Scotch Universities have subscribed, none

We are all as well as usual ; that is to say, as well
as reasonable folks expect to be on the crazy side of
this frail existence.

I rejoice that we shall so soon have you again at
our fireside.

w. c.


Weston, March 2, 1791.

My dear Friend — I am sick and ashamed of my-
self that I forgot my promise ; but it is actually
true that I did forget it. You, however, I did not
forget; nor did I forget to wonder and to be alarmed
at your silence, being perfectly unconscious of my
arrears. All this, together with various other
trespasses of mine, must be set down to the ac-
count of Homer; and wherever he is, he is bound
to make his apology to all my correspondents, but
to you in particular. True it is that, if Mrs. Un-
win did not call me from that pursuit, I should for-
* Private Correspondence.



get, in the ardour with which I persevere in it,
both to eat and to drink and to retire to rest. This
zeal has increased in me regularly as I have pro-
ceeded, and in an exact ratio, as a mathematician
would say, to the progress I have made toward the
point at which I have been aiming. You will believe
this, when I tell you that, not contented with my
previous labours, I have actually revised the whole
work, and -have made a thousand alterations in it,
since it has been in the press. I have now, how-
ever, tolerably well satisfied myself at least, and
trust that the printer and I shall trundle along
merrily to the conclusion. I expect to correct the
proof-sheets of the third book of the Odyssey to-

Thus it is, as I believe I have said to you before,
that you are doomed to hear of nothing but Homer
from me. There is less of gallantry than of nature
in this proceeding. "When I write to you, I think
of nothing but the subject that is uppermost, and
that uppermost is always Homer. Then I consider
that though, as a lady, you have a right to expect
other treatment at my hands, you are a lady who
has a husband, and that husband an old schoolfellow
of mine, and who, I know, interests himself in
my success.

I am likely, after all, to gather a better harvest
of subscribers at Cambridge than I expected. A
little cousin of mine, an under-graduate of Caius
College, suggested to me, when he was here in the
summer, that it might not be amiss to advertise the
work at Merril's the bookseller. I acquiesced in


the measure, and at his return he pasted me on a
board, and hung me up in the shop, as it has
proved in the event, much to my emolument. For
many, as I understand, have subscribed in conse-
quence, and among the rest several of the College

I am glad that you have seen the last Northamp-
ton dirge, for the rogue of a clerk sent me only
half the number of printed copies for which I sti-
pulated with him at first, and they were all ex-
pended immediately. The poor man himself is
dead now ; and whether his successor will continue
me in my office, or seek another laureat, has not
yet transpired.

I am, dear Madam,

Affectionately yours,



Weston, March 6, 1791.
After all this ploughing and sowing on the plains
of Troy, once fruitful, such at least to my trans-
lating predecessor, some harvest, I hope, will arise
for me also. My long work has received its last,
last touches ; and I am now giving my preface its
final adjustment. We are in the fourth Odyssey in
the course of our printing, and I expect that I and
the swallows shall appear tegether. They have
slept all the winter, but I, on the contrary, have
been extremely busy. Yet if I can " virum volitare



/3^' ora,'' as swiftly as they through the air, I shall
account myself well requited.

Adieu !

W. C.

The Rev. James Hurdis, to whom the next letter
is addressed, was formerly Professor of Poetry in
the university of Oxford, and considered to have
established his claim to the title of poet, by his
popular work, " The Village Curate." But there is
an observation which has frequently suggested itself
to us, in recording the names of writers in the
correspondence of Cowper, how few have acquired
more than an ephemeral celebrity, and been trans-
mitted to the present day ! Authors resemble the
waves of the sea, which pass on in quick succession,
and engage the eye, till it is diverted by those which
follow. Each in its turn yields to a superior impel-
ling force. Some tower above the rest, and yet all,
by their collective strength and energy, form one
grand and mighty expanse of ocean.

Such are the vicissitudes of literature, the effects
of competition, and the appetite for novelty, that
\e\v productions outlive the generation in which they
are written, unless they bear a certain impress of
immortality, a character of moral or intellectual
superiority. They then survive to every age, and
are the property of every country, so long as taste,
genius, or religion preserve their empire over man-

Cowper, having received an obliging letter from


Mr. Hurdis, though not personally acquainted with
him, addressed the following reply.

Weston, March 6, 179.

Sir — I have always entertained, and have occa-
sionally avowed, a great degree of respect for the
abilities of the unknown author of " The Village
Curate," — unknown at that time, but now well
known, and not to me only, but to many. For,
before I was favoured with your obliging letter, I
knew your name, your place of abode, your pro-
fession, and that you had four sisters ; all which I
neither learned from our bookseller, nor from any
of his connexions. You will perceive, therefore,
that you are no longer an author incognito. The
writer indeed of many passages that have fallen
from your pen could not long continue so. Let
genius, true genius, conceal itself where it may, we
may say of it, as the young man in Terence of his
beautiful mistress, " Diu latere non potest"

I am obliged to you for your kind offers of service,
and will not say that I shall not be troublesome to
you hereafter ; but at present I have no need to be
so. I have within these two days given the very
last stroke of my pen to my long translation, and
what will be my next career I know not. At any
rate we shall not, I hope, hereafter be known to
each other as poets only, for your writings have
made me ambitious of a nearer approach to you.
Your door however will never be opened to me.
My fate and fortune have combined with my natural


disposition to draw a circle round me, which I can-
not pass ; nor have I been more than thirteen miles
from home these twenty years, and so far very
seldom. But you are a younger man, and therefore
may not be quite so immoveable ; in which case
should you choose at any time to move Weston-
ward, you will always find me happy to receive you ;
and in the mean time I remain, with much respect,
Your most obedient servant, critic, and friend,

w. c.

p. S. — I wish to know what you mean to do with
" Sir Thomas." * For, though I expressed doubts
about his theatrical possibilities, I think him a very
respectable person, and, with some improvement,
well worthy of being introduced to the public.


Weston, March 10, 1791.

Give my affectionate remembrances to your sis-
ters, and tell them I am impatient to entertain them
with my old story new dressed.

I have two French prints hanging in my study,
both on Iliad subjects : and I have an English one
in the parlour, on a subject from the same poem.
In one of the former, Agamemnon addresses Achilles
exactly in the attitude of a dancing-master turning
miss in a minuet : in the latter, the figures are plain,
and the attitudes plain also. This is, in some con-
siderable measure, I believe, the difference between
* " Sir Thomas More," a tragedy.


my translation and Pope's ; and will serve as an
exemplification of what I am going to lay before you
and the public.

w. c.


Weston, March 18, 1791.

My dear Friend — I give you joy that j'ou are
about to receive some more of my elegant prose,
and I feel myself in danger of attempting to make
it even more elegant than usual, and thereby of
spoiling it, under the influence of your commenda-
tions. But my old helter-skelter manner has al-
ready succeeded so well, that I will not, even for
the sake of entitling myself to a still greater portion
of your praise, abandon it.

I did not call in question Johnson's true spirit of
poetry, because he was not qualified to relish blank
verse, (though, to tell you the truth, I think that
but an ugly symptom,) but, if I did not express it,
I meant however to infer it, from the perverse
judgment that he has formed of our poets in general;
depreciating some of the best, and making honour-
able mention of others, in my opinion, not unde-
servedly neglected. I will lay you sixpence that, had
he lived in the days of Milton, and by any accident
had met with his " Paradise Lost," he would neither
have directed the attention of others to it, nor have
much admired it himself. Good sense, in short, and
strength of intellect, seem to me, rather than a fine


taste, to have been his distinguishing characteristics
But should you think otherwise, you have my free
permission ; for, so long as you have yourself a taste
for the beauties of Cowper, I care not a fig whether
Johnson had a taste or not.

I wonder where you find all your quotations, pat
as they are to the present condition of France. Do
you make them yourself, or do you actually find
them ? I am apt to suspect sometimes that you
impose them only on a poor man who has but
twenty books in the world, and two of them are
your brother Chester's. They are, however, much
to the purpose, be the author of them who he may.

I was very sorry to learn lately, that my friend at
Chichely has been some time indisposed, either with
gout or rheumatism, (for it seems to be uncertain
which,) and attended by Dr. Kerr. I am at a loss
to conceive how so temperate a man should acquire
the gout, and am resolved therefore to conclude that
it must be the rheumatism, which, bad as it is, is in
my judgment the best of the two, and will aftbrd
me, besides, some opportunity to sympathize with
him, for I am not perfectly exempt from it myself.
Distant as you are in situation, you are yet, per-
haps, nearer to him in point of intelligence than I,
and if you can send me any particular news of him,
pray do it in your next.

I love and thank you for your benediction. If
God forgive me my sins, surely 1 shall love him
much, for I have much to be forgiven. But the
quantum need not discourage me, since there is One
whose atonement can suffice for all.


Te 5e Kad' oi/ua pfev, Kai r^n, koll i/jJoi, Kai 'a5f\(pois
'tifi.tT€pois, avrS crofb/ifn < davdrco.

Accept our joint remembranc"' ^ and believe me
affectionately yours,

W. C.


Weston, March, 19, 1791.

My dearest Johnny — You ask, if it may not be
improper to solicit Lady Hesketh's subscription to
the poems of the Norwich maiden ? To which I
reply, it will be by no means improper. On the con-
trary, I am persuaded that she will give her name
with a very good will : for she is much an admirer
of poesy that is worthy to be admired, and such I
think, judging by the specimen, the poesy of this
maiden, Elizabeth Bentley of Norwich, is likely to
prove. ^

Not that I am myself inclined to expect in general
great matters in the poetical way from persons whose
ill-fortune it has been to want the common advan-
tages of education : neither do I account it in
general a kindness to such to encourage them in the
indulgence of a propensity more likely to do them
harm in the end, than to advance their interest.
Many such phenomena have arisen within my re-
membrance, at which all the world has wondered for
a season, and has then forgot them.*

* See a similar instance, recorded in the Memoirs of Mrs
Hannah More, of the Bristol milk-woman, Mrs. Yearslev.


The fact is, that though strong natural genius is
always accompanied with strong natural tendency to
its object, yet it often happens that the tendency is
found where the genius is wanting. In the present
instance, however, (the poems of a certain Mrs.
Leapor excepted, who published some forty years
ago,) I discern, I think, more marks of true poetical
talent than I remember to have observed in the
verses of any other male or female, so disadvantage-
ously circumstanced. I wish her therefore good
speed, and subscribe to her with all my heart.

You will rejoice when I tell you, that I have some
hopes, after all, of a harvest from Oxford also ; Mr.
Throckmorton has written to a person of consider-
able influence there, which he has desired him to
exert in my favour, and his request, I should imagine,
will hardly prove a vain one.


W. C.


Weston, March 24, 1791.
My dear Friend — You apologize for your silence
in a manner which affords me so much pleasure, that
I cannot but be satisfied. Let business be the cause,
and I am contented. That is a cause to which I
would even be accessary myself, and would increase
yours by any means, except by a law-suit of my own,
at the expense of all your opportunities of writing
oftener than thrice in a twelvemonth.


Your application to Dr. Dunbar reminds me of
two lines to be found somewhere in Dr. Youn? —


" And now a poet's gratitude you see,
Grant him two favours, and be'll ask for three."

In this particular, therefore, I perceive, that a poet
and a poet's friend bear a striking resemblance to
each other. The Doctor will bless himself that the
number of Scotch universities is not larger, assured
that if they equalled those in England in number of
colleges, you would give him no rest till he had en-
gaged them all. It is true, as Lady Hesketh told
you, that I shall not fear, in the matter of subscrip-
tions, a comparison even with Pope himself; con-
sidered (I mean) that we live in days of terrible
taxation, and when verse, not being a necessary of
life, is accounted dear, be it what it may, even at
the lowest price. I am no very good arithmetician,
yet I calculated the other day in my morning walk,
that my two volumes, at the price of three guineas,
will cost the purchaser less than the seventh part of
a farthing per line. Yet there are lines among them,
that have cost me the labour of hours, and none that
have not cost me some labour.

W. C.


Friday-night, March 25, 1791.

My dear Coz.^ — Johnson writes me word, that he
has repeatedly called on Horace Walpole, and has
never found him at home. He has also written to


him and received no answer. I charge thee there-
fore on thy allegiance, that thou move not a finger
more in this business. My back is up, and I cannot
bear the thought of wooing him any farther, nor
would do it, though he were as pig a gentleman
(look you !) as Lucifer himself. I have Welsh blood
in me, if the pedigree of the Donnes say true, and
every drop of it says — "Let him alone !"

I should have dined at the Hall to day, having
engaged myself to do so. But an untoward occur-
rence, that happened last night or rather this morn-
ing, prevented me. It was a thundering rap at the
door, just after the clock struck three. First, I
thought the house was on fire. Then I thought
the Hall was on fire. Then I thought it was a
house-breaker's trick. Then I thought it was an
express. In any case I thought, that if it should be
repeated, it would awaken and terrify Mrs. Unwin,
and kill her with spasms. The consequence of all
these thoughts was the worst nervous fever I ever
had in my life, although it was the shortest. The rap
was given but once, though a multifarious one. Had
I heard a second, I should have risen myself at all
adventures. It was the only minute since you went,
in which I have been glad that you were not here.
Soon after I came down, I learned that a drunken
party had passed through the village at that time,
and they were, no doubt, the authors of this witty
but troublesome invention.

Our thanks are due to you for the book you sent
us. Mrs. Unwin has read to me several parts of it,
which I have much admired. The observations are


shrewd and pointed ; and there is much wit in the
similes and illustrations. Yet a remark struck me,
which I could not help making viva voce on the oc-
casior?. If the book has any real value, and does in
truth deserve the notice taken of it by those to whom
it is addressed, its claim is founded neither on the
expression, nor on the style, nor on the wit of it,
but altogether on the truth that it contains. Now
the same truths are delivered, to my knowledge,
perpetually from the pulpit by ministers, whom the
admirers of this writer would disdain to hear. Yet
the truth is not the less important for not being ac-
companied and recommended by brilliant thoughts
and expressions ; neither is God, from whom comes
all truth, any more a respecter of wit than he is of
persons. It will appear soon whether they applaud
the book for the sake of its unanswerable arguments,
or only tolerate the argument for the sake of the
splendid manner in which it is enforced. I wish as
heartily that it may do them good as if I were my-
self the author of it. But, alas ! my wishes and
hopes are much at variance. It will be the talk of
the day, as another publication of the same kind has
been ; and then the noise of vanity-fair will drown
the voice of the preacher.

I am glad to learn that the Chancellor does not
forget me, though more for his sake than my own :
for I see not how he can ever serve a man like me.
Adieu, my dearest Coz.

W. C.



Weston, March 29, 1791.

My dear Friend — It affords me sincere pleasure
that you enjoy serenity of mind after your great
loss. It is well in all circumstances, even in the
most afflictive, with those who have God for their
comforter. You do me justice in giving entire credit
to my expressions of friendship for you. No day
passes in which I do not look back to the days that
are fled ; and, consequently none in which I do not
feel myself affectionately reminded of you and of her
whom you have lost for a season. I cannot even see 01-
ney spire from any of the fields in the neighbourhood,
much less can I enter the town, and still less the
vicarage, without experiencing the force of those
mementoes, and recollecting a multitude of passages
to which you and yours were parties.

The past would appear a dream were the remem-
brance of it less affecting. It was in the most im-
portant respects so unlike my present moments that
I am sometimes almost tempted to suppose it a
dream. But the difference between dreams and re-
alities long since elapsed seems to consist chiefly in
this — that a dream, however painful or pleasant at
the time, and perhaps for a few ensuing hours,
passes like an arrow through the air, leaving no
trace of its flight behind it ; but our actual expe-
riences make a lasting impression. We review those
which interested us much when they occurred, with

* Private Correspondence.


hardly less interest than in the first instance ; and
whether few years or many have intervened, our
sensibility makes them still present, such a mere
nullity is time to a creature to whom God gives a
feeling heart and the faculty of recollection.

That you have not the first sight and sometimes,
perhaps, have a late one of what I write, is owing
merely to your distant situation. Some things I
have written not worth your perusal ; and a few, a
very few, of such length that, engaged as I have
been to Homer, it has not been possible that 1

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryWilliam CowperThe life and works of William Cowper (Volume 4) → online text (page 16 of 23)