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ART.I.-The Life, and posthumous Writings, of William Cowper, Esq. With an introductory Letter to the Right Honourable Earl Cowper. By William Hayley, Esq. 2 Vols. 4to. Large Paper 3l. 138. 6d. Small Paper 21. 12s. 6d. Boards. Johnson. 1803.
DISTINGUISHED for a peculiar power to raise in the mind images of benevolence, patriotism, and piety, rather than for correct taste, unsullied diction, or enchanting numbers, the poems of Cowper have obtained a popularity honourable to the feelings of our countrymen.
His virtues formed the magic of his song.'
These virtues rengin with us no more--to record their memory is the melancholy lot of Mr. Hayley, whose copious and interesting narrative will often delight and often agitate the sensibility of his readers....
An introductory letter; addressed to earl Cowper, explains the motives of this undertaking, and invites the noble earl to estimate a poem of his relative-The Task-as a jewel of preeminent lustre in the coronet of his own nobility. Poetical distinctions, worthily obtained, to the eye of Mr. Hayley,
eclipse all common honours.'
With an amiable impatience-after he has enlarged on the poet's lively sweetness and sanctity of spirit, his tenderness and purity of heart-the biographer proceeds, in language not entirely unaffected, to characterise his own labours.
'I have endeavoured to execute what I regard as a mournful duty, as if I were under the immediate and visible direction of the most pure, the most truly modest, and the most gracefully virtuous mind, that I had ever the happiness of knowing in the form of a manly friend.' Vol. i. p.
In these applauses we cheerfully unite; but we cannot raise Cowper to the level of Spenser, without passing the boundary of just commendation*.
*The Poems of Cowper were reviewed in vols. 53 and 60; and the translation of Homer in the 4th vol. New Arr.
CRIT. REV. Vol. 33. May, 1803.
The events of the poet's life-his talents, his virtues, his singularities, and his misfortunes, related by a biographer of varied literary attainments-have a powerful claim on our attention, and induce us to epitomise an extended narra
Mr. Hayley divides the life of Cowper into three parts, of which the first ends with his fiftieth year, the period of his appearing before the public as an author: the second part concludes with the publication of his Homer; and his death terminates the third.
Lady Hesketh, related and attached to Cowper in infancy, and during his last illness, prevailed on Mr. Hayley to assume an office which she was herself well qualified to execute, and entrusted to him many private letters, poems, and posthumous papers, the prominent objects of this work.
The ancestors of Cowper were anciently of respectable rank among the merchants and gentry of Sussex. In the beginning of the last century, two brothers of this family, eminent in the law, obtained seats in the house of peers. Wilham became, in 1707, lord-chancellor; and Spencer Cowper, the immediate ancestor of the poet, a judge in the court of common pleas. Dr. John Cowper, the judge's second son, married Ami; daughter of Roger Donne, esq. of Ludham-hall in Norfolk; and of this narriage two sons, Wilham the poet, and John, werd the offspring. Dr. Cowper was chaplain to George the Son, and resided at the rectory of Great Berkhiristead, indfordshire, the scene of the poet's infancy,' recalled. indid.pathetic verses on the portrait of his mother, who died in 1737, in child-bed, at the age of thirty-four.
The early loss of a mother, so necessary to a weak and sensitive child, was perhaps the source of that gloom which obscured his subsequent life. His constitution was naturally delicate; and diffidence and despondency, as he advanced in life, darkened into a periodical mental disorder. Among other corporcal ills, he was subject to inflammation of the
In the year of his mother's death he was sent to school, under the care of Dr. Pitman, of Market-street, Hertfordshire, and afterwards to Westminster; where, esteemed as a scholar, and acquainted with persons since conspicuous in the world, his moments were embittered by the persecution and puerile tyranny of his companions. To this circumstance may be attributable his aversion to public schools,
In 1749 he left Westminster, and, at the age of eighteen, was articled to Mr. Chapman, an attorney-a situation propitious neither to sensibility nor to literature.
He was doomed, at this time, to disappointment in a
youthful passion, the object of which Mr. Hayley has over. looked. Of his feeling, these tender lines, addressed to a female relative, will afford a proof.
O prone to pity, generous, and sincere,
The office of the attorney he exchanged for chambers in the Inner-Temple, where he resided as a student of law until the age of thirty-three, occasionally amusing himself with literature and poetry. Colman, Bonnel Thornton, and Lloyd, were among his acquaintance, and were assisted by hin, particularly Lloyd, in their compositions. He wrote three papers in the, Connoisseur, Nos. 134. 138. Amidst the sprightliness.cf an epistle to Lloyd, written at the age of twenty-three, we discover apprehensions of that dejec tion which clouded his Hfe. His reasons for addressing the Muse are
(Sworn foes to every thing that's witty!)
That, with a black, infernal train,
And daily threaten to drive thence
The fierce banditti, which I mean,
Are gloomy thoughts, led on by Spleen.' Vol. i. r. 15. The history which he has given of himself to Mr. Park, in 1792, is modest and unassuming.
"From the age of twenty to thirty-three, I was occupied, or ought to have been, in the study of the law; from thirty-three to sixty, I have spent my time in the country, where my reading has been only an apology for idleness, and where, when I had not either a magazine, or a review, I was sometimes a carpenter, at others a bird-cage maker, or a gardener, or a drawer of landscapes. At fifty years of age I commenced an author :-it is a whim, that has served me longest, and best, and will probably be my last." Vol. i. p. 19.
In his thirty-first year he was nominated to the offices of reading-clerk and clerk of the private committees in the
house of lords; but his diffidence was alarmed at the mere idea of exhibiting himself in public. His friends procured for him the appointment of clerk of the journals in the same house, where an appearance in person was thought unneces sary: but a parliamentary dispute required his attendance at
Speaking of this important incident in a sketch, which he once formed himself, of passages in his early life, he expresses, what he endured at the time, in these remarkable words: "They, whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horrors of my situationothers can have none."
His terrors on this occasion arose to such an astonishing height, that they utterly overwhelmed his reason for altho' he had endcavoured to prepare himself for his public duty, by attending closely at the office, for several months, to examine the parliamentary journals, his application was rendered useless by that excess of diffidence, which made him conceive, that, whatever knowledge he might previously acquire, it would all forsake him at the bar of the house. This distressing apprehension encreased to such a degree, as the time for his appearance approached, that when the day so anxiously dreaded arrived, he was unable to make the experiment. The very friends, who called on him, for the pose of attending him to the house of lords, acquiesced in the cruel osity & his ringing the prospect of a station so severely formidable to a frame of such singular sensibility.' Vol. i. P. 24.
His faculties were overwhelmed by this conflict; and it became necessary to price him a St Alban's, under the care of Dr. Cotton, where, from December 1763 until the July following, he suffered under a mental derangement, removed, at length, by the skill and amiable manners of Dr. Cotton. A delicate silence veils the minute particulars of this awful calamity.
In June 1765 he resolved to abandon his profession; and, by the advice of his brother John, took lodgings at Huntingdon, where he accidentally engaged the notice of Mr. W. C. Unwin, and was introduced to the father, formerly master of the free-school, to the mother and sister of this benevolent family. Mr. Unwin, Cowper describes as a man of learning and good sense, and as simple as parson Adams.' The poet fascinated all the Unwins, who prevailed on him to leave a solitary lodging, and become part of their family. From this accident arose an extraordinary attachment to Mrs. Unwin, which death alone dissolved. She is invoked in The Task, as—
'the dear companion of my walks, Whose arm, this twentieth winter, I perceive Fast lock'd in mine.'