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in producing her misery. But Cowper felt that the corrupted and corrupting influence of London society had actively and, in some measure, wittingly destroyed him. He resolved, therefore, not only on instant flight, but on measures of reprisal against that “great Babel," at the very first opportunity. He left with the feeling of Lot leaving Sodom, and he kept his twofold resolution,-he never again saw, though he often shot his vengeful shafts at, its haughty towers, “ crowned with darkness.” London
itself no concern at his retreat. He had as yet made no name, and not one of its public journals or public men cried “stole away” to this wounded hare, or cared to track, by the spilt blood-drops, the “stricken deer that left the herd.”
He fixed his abode in Huntingtown, where he lived a quiet retired life in lodgings ;—walked much, bathed often, resumed his attendance on church, corresponded with Lady Hesketh and with Hill, lived partly on supplies from his relations, partly on the rent of his lodgings in the Temple, which were let, admired the blue willows of the Ouse, and—important event in his history—became acquainted with the family of the Unwins. William Cawthorne Unwin, a Cambridge student, and son of Morley Unwin (who had been a clergyman in Grimstone, but had been persuaded by his wife, Mary Cawthorne, to take a house in Huntingtown, and prepare a few pupils for the university), had often met Cowper in his walks, and been struck with the mild melancholy of his aspect, and with the traces of genius which were engraven on his face. After long desiring and delaying to accost him, he at last, one Sunday afternoon, on the way from morning service, under a row of trees, mustered courage to do so. They became instantly intimate; Cowper was introduced to the family, formed speedily an affection, pure as heaven, long as life, and strong as death, to Mary Cawthorne Unwin, and in November 11, 1765, became domesticated in their house. It was, on the whole, the most fortunate circumstance in his history. They were all amiable, gentle, intelligent, and Christian people; their religious opinions, domestic habits, and intellectual tastes, were identical; and this “pre-established harmony" between them was never disturbed till the close. At this time, some of his
relatives began to tire of, and withdraw, their contributions to his support, and it was then that Theodora Cowper stept in, through an anonymous communication, and nobly offered to supply any deficiency in his funds; proving thus that many waters had not quenched her love, neither had the floods, and such floods! drowned it.
His life in Huntingtown continued of the same even equable tenor, till interrupted by the death of the elder Unwin, who was killed by a fall from a horse. This led to the removal to the neighbouring village of Olney of the whole family, including the poet. Olney had no particular attractions, in point of scenery; it was simply a dull, disagreeable English village, surrounded by tame marshy scenery; without a real hill to diversify the sameness, or even one nook of romantic interest to beautify the surrounding district. The sole magnet, leading this accomplished family to it, lay in that remarkable man, then its vicar, John Newton. He was certainly a singular person, -almost a John Bunyan in his blended romance and commonplace, in his combination of genius and shrewd sagacity of mind, in the intense imagination which influenced his perceptions, and in the picturesque simplicity of his style, not to speak of the kindred struggles and misadventures through which both had attained peace. His “Narrative" is quite a novel in interest, as well as a psychological curiosity. And those conversational remarks of his, preserved by Cecil, are very fresh and sagacious in thinking, and very pointed and poignant in style. He visited the Unwins after the death of Morley, and proposed that they and their friend should remove to Olney, He engaged a house for them so near his own vicarage, that by opening a doorway in the garden wall, they were able to communicate together without going out into the street of the village.
For two or three years nothing worth recording took place in our poet's life, unless it were the removal of John Cowper by a rapid illness, which, of course, deeply affected his brother. He wrote a sketch of his history and character, under the title of “ Adelphi,” which was published after he too had departed. His own life became still more recluse. He dropped correspondence both with Lady Hesketh, and nearly with Hill, and
surrendered himself more and more thoroughly to the influence of John Newton and Mrs Unwin. Both these excellent persons did a great deal to make him happy, and if they did not succeed, who could have done much better? If there was a certain sameness in their mode of preparing that “ Balm of Gilead,” which is the great cure to a mind diseased, let us rather pity than blame the physicians, and at all events, in God's name, let us not reflect upon the remedy! The malady was beyond them, and beyond man, and beyond time, and so afterwards it was abundantly proved.
Mr Newton, finding other methods vain, tried to awaken Mr Cowper's long slumbering muse, and the “ Olney Hymns were the result. In 1773 he was again seized with derangement, owing, some say, to the preparation of these hymns; others say, still less probably, to the refusal of a proposal of marriage on his part to Mrs Unwin; and others to his brother's death. At all events, he became very ill, and Dr Cotton had again to be consulted. This, however, was a much gentler attack than the former. It was characterised by great submission on the part of the sufferer, and what was remarkable, his dreams were throughout quite tranquil and sane.
We have heard of cases in which the original simplicity and virtue of a character, which had degenerated through bad society and habits, were generally retained in sleep, so that a man who was a sinner all the day, was a saint all the night. Cowper's was a case of the same order, although in a different way. In the first access of his frenzy he left Mrs Unwin's house for Newton's, and could not, for two years, be prevailed on to return. The first symptom he gave of returning reason was, writing verses on his own imaginary doom. That, in his notion, implied, that he was singled out by a special decree as the victim of eternal destruction. He began next to amuse himself with keeping leverets, the history of which, as written by himself, is one of the most pleasing passages in his story. His love of literature, too, revived, and he resumed his old habits of reading, and was particularly delighted with Cook's Voyages, and Vincent Bourne's Poems.
Meanwhile, Newton, owing in part to the severity of his doctrine and life, was compelled to leave Olney for London,
but before his departure published the Olney Hymns, and introduced Cowper to the Rev. William Bull, the amiable dissenting minister of Newport-Pagnell, to whom he soon became much attached. He felt, however, Mr Newton's departure keenly, and the more as it was followed by the death of Sir Thomas Hesketh, his cousin's husband. But his friend Thurlow had now become chanceller, and Cowper began to flatter himself with hopes of a pension. He strove, too, in every method, by gardening, bathing, walking, birdcaging, and at last by writing rhyme, to divert his mind from gloomy thoughts. Mrs Unwin urged him to write something of moment, and he commenced the “Progress of Error." This poem, after having been subjected to Newton's criticism and approved of, was followed in rapid succession by “ Truth,” “ Table Talk,” and “Expostulation.” Johnson, in St Paul's Churchyard, became the publisher of his first volume, which contained ultimately several other pieces, large and small, and after various vexatious delays, was fairly launched in 1781. It met with a tolerable reception and nothing more. The Critical Review discovered that it had no original genius! The Monthly Review, then the supreme ruler of the World of Letters, praised it rather highly, and admitted the author to be a poet. Newton wrote a preface to it, very characteristic both of himself and Cowper, which, in the first instance, was suppressed, although it has been restored in many succeeding editions. But now a fair and splendid vision, like some
gay creature of the elements,” burst across the dim sphere of Cowper and of his Olney circle, and made both for a season glad. This was Lady Austen, the wealthy widow of a baronet-a lady who had many accomplishments and talents, and possessed, moreover, that inimitable vivacity of manner, that airy charm and buoyant ease, for which French ladies are so distinguished, and which she had cultivated during her residence in France. The poet had seen her in company with her sister, Mrs Jones, a clergyman's widow from a neighbouring village, visiting a friend in Olney, and might have used—had Burke's “Reflections” then been written—the words of the orator—"Never did there light upon this orb, which she scarcely seemed to touch,
a more delightful vision.” By a stretch of courtesy, strange in so shy a man, he requested Mrs Unwin to invite her to the house, and speedily there sprung up an intimacy of the most interesting kind between the melancholy bard and this graceful and lively lady. If it was not exactly love, the word friendship still less avails to characterise it fully; let us call it a mutual fascination. The poet felt captivated by the beauty, charmed by the manners, attracted by the mind, cheered by the wit, and overpowered by the sympathies of this lady; and she, on her side, admired to enthusiasm the genius, adored the virtues, felt the force of the gentleness, and pitied the calamities of the poet. She became, for a period, his blameless mistress—his new muse—his inspiring genius; and although it was partly a delusion, who so cruel as to grudge one short and innocent dream of happiness to a man whose usual life was so dark, solitary, and forlorn ? Let those who are disposed to blame either party in this little Platonic interlude, remember that, but for the apparition of Lady Austen in Olney, “ The Task” would never have instructed, nor
1 John Gilpin " delighted, the world. She told Cowper the story of the one, and suggested to him the subject of the other. He said_“I want a subject for a poem.” She answered " Write on any–write on this sofa.” The good-humoured and fascinated poet obeyed; and the sofa, and himself, and the fair suggester became straightway immortal. It is well known that certain little disputes and jealousies between Mrs Unwin and Lady Austen terminated this delightful episode in Cowper's history. She left Olney for ever, and Cowper, although he subunitted without a murmur, and even tried to fancy that her departure was a blessing, often, we doubt not, sighed in secret at the memory of the halcyon days when “ her conversation had as happy an effect upon his melancholy spirit as the harp of David
Saul." She had told him the old story of John Gilpin. It had amused him exceedingly, and he spent a sleepless night in turning it into a ballad. This immortal humourism, after making his own circle merry, was sent to the Public Advertiser, the readers of which it made merrier still; was copied into many newspapers, and all their readers joined in the laugh;