« ForrigeFortsett »
SKETCH OF THE LIFE
WILLIAM COWPER, Esq.
THE life of this excellent man, and original poet, has been often written; and, in several instances, by persons of no ordinary pretensions to literary distinction. Justice to his pre-eminent genius and taste has at length been awarded. His merits as a poet were, at first, rather reluctantly conceded, by several of the literary judges of the day; but the critic who laboured with the bitterest invective, on the publication of Cowper's first volume, to write him down, was afterwards forced to join the current of public opinion in his favour. By this time, anonymous critics had no longer any merit in commending a work which had secured the praises of Johnson, and the encomiums of Franklin.
But, while a pretty fair estimate of his intellectual endowments and poetical talents has been made by almost all his biographers, on one point, they have nearly all coincided in error-that point is, his christian character. Not understanding the nature of that religion, of which he was, in his seasons of sanity, so bright, though, to himself, unconscious an ornament, they have branded his name, (a name dear to genius, and sacred to piety !) with the revolting epithet of fanatic; and have, through ignorance or hatred of genuine godliness, assigned the healing balm of Cowper's mental malady, as the cause of that mysterious and dreadful disease, under which he ultimately sunk an unresisting victim. While we, then, attempt a brief narrative of the life of this most amiable and interesting man, we shall try to disen
gage his religious principles and conduct, from that tissue artful misrepresentation, in which genius, in union with cold-hearted scepticism, has stooped to involve both.
William Cowper was of noble descent, being the sixth son of John Cowper, D. D. rector of Berkhamstead, and chaplain to George the Second; Dr Cowper being son to Spencer Cowper, a judge of the court of common pleas, and nephew to the first Earl Cowper, lord high Chancellor of England. The poet's mother was Ann, daughter to Rodger Donne, Esq. of Ludham-hall, Norfolk. The family of the Donnes, if they possessed less splendid titles than that of the Cowpers, could trace, from connection with several noble houses, their pedigree up to Henry III. King of England. But Cowper would have been the last person in the world to pique himself on the splendour of his connections apart from moral worth. He was born on the 15th of November, (old style) 1731. Before he had reached his sixth year, he suffered an irreparable loss in the death of his excellent mother, at the early age of thirty-four. She had survived all her seven children, except William, and John, afterwards a clergyman. From the imperishable record of her virtues by her son William, it appears she was a person of transcendent worth, both in regard to her intellectual and moral powers. One is at loss which to admire most-the mother or the son. Her image lay so long embalmed in the affections of the poet, that, on unexpectedly receiving from an affectionate relative, a striking likeness of her whom he so tenderly loved at the distance of more than fifty years after her death, his feelings found vent in that burst of genuine sensibility "O that those lips had language;"* Such was his exquisite feeling, and such the permanence of his affection. portrait," he writes, at the time of receiving it, " 1 had rather possess than the richest jewel in the Brit
* Vide Poems, page 387.
ish crown. But to return from this digression, he was now sent to school, under the care of Dr Pitman, at Market-Place, a few miles distant from his father's residence. Here he remained scarcely two years, and had good cause to retain the remembrance-not so much of what he acquired, as of what he suffered. He appears to have possessed from constitution a singular timidity of mind and mildness of temper→→ joined to the most susceptible feelings. At Dr Pitman's seminary, a number of young gentlemen prosecuted their studies. Among these, there were few of minds congenial or of habits similar to young Cowper. One boy, several years older, was the very counterpart of his character-and who was the petty tyrant of this "noisy mansion." This boy, with a refinement of cruelty not common in youth, selected the most inoffensive and retired of the whole school, as the object of his causeless malice. Such was the barbarous treatment Cowper met with from this little savage, that the very figure of him was associated in the poet's mind with the most overwhelming terror. He afterwards writes, that he was afraid to lift his eyes upon him higher than his knees; and knew him by his shoe-buckles better than by any other part of his dress; and such was the uncomplaining passiveness of his mind that he never appealed to his preceptor for redress. Being afflicted with specks on both his eyes, no small calamity in most cases, but viewed by him as the happy cause of removal from a scene of such cruel suffering. He was now placed under the care of an eminent oculist in London, with whom he remained a year without any sensible benefit. His preliminary education was, by this time, considered sufficient to enable him to commence his studies at Westminster school; whither he had been removed, only a very short time, when he was seized with the small-pox, which, by the blessing of Providence, that often "brings good out of evil," instead of aggravating the disease in his eyes, almost entirely removed it;-though they
remained weak, and occasionally troubled him through life. In this celebrated school he continued eight years. The quickness of his apprehension, and the energy of his mind, delicately constituted as it was, must have been great at this time; for, in after life, he constantly regrets his desultory application, while prosecuting his education in this seminary; and it is well known that his tutor, Vincent Bourne, a very learned man, was not more remarkable for his literary talents, than for his general indolence,and yet, we have the irresistible evidence of Cowper's attainments being very eminent, in general literature, from the display of them afterwards made by him, both as an accurate linguist, a sound reasoner, and a man of refined and cultivated taste. If these acquisitions were not made at this period-when were they made? not surely afterwards, when wasting his time with Coleman, the Duncombes, Lloyd, and Thurlow, the future Lord Chancellor of England. Being now eighteen years of age, his friends judged it time to form some plan for his future conduct in life, and he was accordingly fixed with Mr Chapman, a solicitor in London. This gentleman, though respectable in his profession as a lawyer, was, unfortunately for Cowper, of the same indolent habits as his last master,and the study of the law having no charms for the poet's lively imagination and inac tive disposition, it is easy to conceive that he made little progress in legal knowledge. From his own account of the matter to Lady Hesketh, it appears, that he did not give even personal attendance, and that he was rather a lodger with Mr Chapman, than an apprentice, for three years. His term of engagement having expired, he took chambers in the Inner Temple, where he continued to reside till the year 1763. Of the manner in which this period of his life was spent, we learn from what he afterwards writes to Mr Rose. "Three years mispent in an attorney's office, were almost of course followed by several more equally mispent in the Temple." The