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and was, in fine, recited by Henderson the actor to crowds in the capital, and then from London to John o' Groat's House, the whole country dissolved into one grin. Except in the case of Hood's “ Song of the Shirt,” we do not remember any instance of such rapid and richly-deserved popularity won by one short strain. Best of all, it paved the way for “The Task,” which would never have gained such a sudden reputation but for “John Gilpin,” which seemed a little cock-boat sent ashore to announce the approach and secure the favourable reception of a large and wealthy galleon of genius.
This fine poem appeared in 1785, and became not only popular, but served to buoy up the first volume of his poems. Upon reading it, Lady Hesketh wrote him; and their correspondence was renewed. His letters to her are the most delightful of all his letters—in other words, the most delightful letters in the world. He told her in one of the first of these, as a great secret, that he was busy translating Homer. Many have regretted that Cowper spent so much of his time in this translation; but we think that the mixture of mechanical, literary, and manual work which a translation implies, made it the very task for him. “ The Tale of Troy” took his thoughts far, far away from his personal agony, and in the work of collating, editing, transcribing MSS., and turning lines, there was nothing to fret his heart, or rouse from its lair the demon of his memory.
Lady Hesketh proved an essential ally. Through her, or at least with her knowledge, an anonymous friend-probably the faithful Theodora-sent him an annuity of £50, besides many other presents. At last she came down to visit himspent some months in Olney—and before returning persuaded him to remove his dwelling to Weston, a much cleaner and prettier village in the neighbourhood. This was in 1786. About the same time the clerk of a church in Northampton applied to him to write annual verses for his bills of mortality, and with great good-nature Cowper complied.
He had scarce established himself in his new abode when his friend, William Unwin, was seized with typhus fever, and died. Shortly after, his malady returned in full force, and for
six months he could bear the sight of no human face except Mrs Unwin.
On his recovery, Samuel Rose, a young Englishman, who had been studying at Edinburgh, came as “ a pilgrim of his genius ” to his dwelling, bearing with him the thanks of the Scottish professors for his volumes, and a copy of Burns' Poems. “Hero-worshippers” in those days were scarce, and Rose, besides, was an intelligent and warm-hearted youth. Cowper loved him warmly, and appreciated Burns' Poems, although he said his light was hid in a dark-lantern-alluding to the Scottish dialect. It is pleasing to remember, that Burns reciprocated the feeling, and cried, in his frank, fireblooded style, “ What a glorious poem is Cowper's “ Task'!" One is tempted to wish that these two truest men, and most popular poets of their day, had met, and to fancy the particulars of their meeting—the timid and gentlemanly recluse of Olney shrinking somewhat at first from the brawny gauger, with his swarthy visage, his slouching gait, his buckskin breeches, his strong Ayrshire accent, and his wild daring talk-but, ere the interview was over, giving him the right hand of fellowship, and his blessing to boot; while Burns' black flashing eyes are filled with tears, as he compares his own miseries-past, present, and to come—with those still darker woes which were overwhelming his gentle brother bard.
Thus for several years ran the still dim current of Cowper's existence. Regular occupation with Homer, diversified by correspondence with, or visits from, Newton, Lady Hesketh, Rose, and young John Johnson, a distant relative of his who sought him out, and became his steadfast friend; anxious watchings over Mrs Unwin's declining health, the writing of songs on the slave-trade, and occasional articles for the Analytical Review, along with deep but fitful sinkings of heart and spirits, filled up the complete round of his days-days serener than any that he was to krow during the remaining part of his pilgrimage.
In 1791 his translation of Homer, which had occupied him for six years, and had been extensively subscribed for, was published. He was now again at sea for a subject, and several were suggested to him by his friends. Lady Hesketh
mentioned the Mediterranean, as the topic of a great poem-a topic which Paoli had suggested to Boswell long before— which Cowper could never have adequately treated, but which Byron, in his “ Childe Harold,” in effect, although not in name, since has. Another spoke of the “ Four Ages of Man” -infancy, youth, manhood, and old age-a subject much more congenial to Cowper's mind, but which he never was permitted to finish, although some lines of an attempt towards it are extant. Perhaps no man can properly, or with good result, suggest the subject of a poem to any other man. It must come from the spirit within the poet himself. At all events, Cowper preferred an Oak in Yardley Chase, which he saw every day, and which was said to be as old as the Norman Conquest, and commenced to write those fine lines about it we now have under the title of " Yardley Oak.”
But, meanwhile, Johnson, his bookseller, wished him to undertake the editorship of a splendid illustrated edition of Milton, with a translation of his Latin poems. This engagement he agreed to accept, and did in part accomplish ; but it was never finished. A rival edition had been projected, under the editorship of Hayley. This led to a correspondence between the two-Hayley disclaiming all unhandsome feelings towards Cowper, and Cowper reciprocating civilities. The result was, that Hayley visited Cowper at Weston, and was visited by him in return—became his firm friend, and ultimately his kind and elegant biographer.
Mrs Unwin began now to be seized with successive fits of paralysis, and, as if the two had been the Siamese twins, each attack sent a shock instantly from her system to that of the susceptible poet. He had not recovered so fully from his last, as from his former attacks, and his nerves continued in a state of diseased activity. He now imagined that he heard voices speaking to him in the morning, or through the night, and that these voices were of oracular import. For the explanation of these, as well as for general instructions with regard to his spiritual state, he began to consult a poor weakling, called Teedon, a teacher in Olney, and reputed a man of great piety. In this folly he was encouraged by Newton, and a large portion of the biography of the Poet's later days
is taken up in an account of this humiliating display of imbecility, on the part of one of the most strong-minded and gifted men that ever lived. He consulted this poor, proud, silly creature, as a kind of spiritual fortune-teller, sent him a regular bulletin of his dreams, and would take no literary step without his concurrence. We know not if the annals of human fatuity contain another case so lamentable as this.
Shame, horror, and deep, deep commiseration induce us to hurry over the remaining part of Cowper's life. He fell into thicker and thicker gloom. A pension was granted him by the king, but came too late to cheer his mind.
He was removed by Johnson to Norfolk, took up his residence at North Tuddenham, and was conveyed thence to various other places, and finally to Dereham, but to no purpose. In 1796 Mrs Unwin died. “In the dusk of the evening he attended Johnson to survey her corpse, and after looking a very few moments, he started suddenly away, with a vehement, but unfinished sentence of passionate sorrow. He spake of her no more.” His last poem was the “ Castaway,” a fitting finis to such a career. The last reading he listened to was his own works—but when the reader came to John Gilpin, he desired him to pass
On the 25th April 1800, this poor unhappy poet closed his eyes in death. He had said some days before, when asked how he felt, “ Feel! I feel unutterable de
His last words were, to a lady who offered him a cordial,“ What does it signify ?” He was buried in Dereham Church, Lady Hesketh erecting a monument, and Hayley supplying an inscription.
Words are wanting to describe the sense of relief with which we close this saddest, most mysterious narrative. The man were granite who could refrain from sympathy, amounting to bitter anguish, with this poor unfortunate. And then, there are questions arising out of his story, which descend into the very depths of those awful relations which connect us with God and Eternity. Why did this man suffer thus? Why was he ever born to endure such wretchedness? What the rationale of his long martyrdom and darkness ? From these questions we abstain, but must be indulged with one or two closing remarks.
The genius of Cowper and its fruits we reserve for an after prefatory essay.
Nor need we dwell at length upon his private character. He was confessedly an amiable, modest, generous, temperate, honest, upright, and pious man. He had faults indeed, but they seemed all more or less related to his dark life-long companion — disease. He was somewhat testy in temper, and his feelings were easily wounded. He had a morbid craving, latterly, for stimulus, and his excessive use of tea decidedly tended to increase his melancholy. In his youth he had probably dipped his shoe in the prevailing licentiousness of the London of that age. But subtracting all this, he was confessedly one of the best of mortal men, and might be said to have lived and died without an enemy. And yet he was supremely, unutterably, demoniacally wretched ! What a paradox this would appear, if it were not a stern fact ! Many explanations have been attempted. Many have cried out “ Calvinism,” and have sought to attach Cowper's case as a blot to the countenance of a sublime theological system. This is altogether unfair. Cowper was not at all a rigid Calvinist. He maintained, for example, strongly the salvation of the virtuous heathen--and besides, his special delusion had no connexion with the general doctrines of the system of Calvin. Calvinism admits of no such arbitrary and capricious decree, as Cowper imagined to be hanging over his single head. Others have laid all the blame on John Newton. We do not certainly think that he displayed the profoundest wisdom in his management of the poet. But his intentions were good, and even when Cowper, latterly, escaped from his influence, it was with no better result, and he might have said of all who sought to cure and cheer him, “Miserable comforters are ye all.” His case, from the beginning, admitted of but one thorough cure, namely, Death. The dark disarrangement of his being could not be altered, unless by being taken down. We grant that the disease in his blood was susceptible of increase, as well as of modification. Some have said that the “ Watercure," had it then existed, might have made him a happy
No doubt it might have modified the symptoms, but the whole case lay beyond it. That was, in a single sentence, the case of an entirely and ab origine deranged nervous sys