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1. "The Pastoral House."—1731-37.
HE distinction of being the birth-place of the celebrated poet and charming letter-writer, William Cowper, belongs to the Hertfordshire town of Great Berkhamsted, a town that also boasts of having been slightly connected with the poet Chaucer. Formerly, the name of the place was spelt Berkhampstead, but as its inhabitants have of late dispensed with a couple of its letters, we may pardonably do
The poet was born at the Rectory House of this town on November 26, 1731, his father being the Rev. John Cowper, D.D., rector of the parish, and his mother, Anne, daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Ludham Hall, in Norfolk. Of the ancestors of both his father and mother one or two words may be said. The family of the Rev. John Cowper had for many generations been a distinguished one. Sir William Cowper, who died in 1664 at the age of 82, is remembered on account of his loyalty to the unfortunate
Charles, and from having erected a monument to Hooker, the celebrated divine, with an epitaph of his own composition in verse. His grandson and successor, the second Sir William, was the father of the first Earl Cowper, and also of Spencer Cowper, one of the judges of the Court of Common Pleas. The Rev. John Cowper, the poet's father, was the judge's son. Mrs. Cowper could trace her descent through several noble families to Henry III., King of England, and numbered among her ancestors Dr. Donne, the poet. It is pleasant to be able to connect the one poet with the other, and it is not uninteresting to take note that the first Earl Cowper was uncle to the poet's father.
Dr. Cowper's first three children, Spencer, born in 1729, and Ann and John (twins), born in 1730, died in their infancy. The entry of William's baptism is in his father's handwriting in the parish register :
ye 13, Willm ye son of John Cow-
Two other children, Theodora and Thomas, born respectively in 1733 and 1734, like the first three, died very young.
At the old "Pastoral House," as he lovingly calls it, William Cowper spent the happy days of his early childhood, becoming attached to every tree, gate, and stile in the neighbourhood, preferring his own house to a palace, and supposing as a matter of course that he and his father and mother were going to live in it always. Cowper ever retained a very vivid recollection of these early days at Berkhamsted. We are all familiar with
the description of his progress to the dame-school in the lines, "On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture":
"The Gardener Robin," says he
Day by day drew me to school along the publie way,
In scarlet mantle warm, and velvet capped."
The site of the school to which Cowper was drawn by Robert Pope, to give Robin his full name, is still pointed out.
Who does not remember, too, the allusions to the tenderness of his mother?
"Thy nightly visits to my chamber made,
That thou mightest know me safe and warmly laid;
Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,
All this, and more endearing still than all,
An equally pleasant picture is that of the little William standing at his mother's side and pricking the pattern of her dress into paper.
"When playing with thy vesture's tissued flowers,
I pricked them into paper with a pin,
And thou wast happier than myself the while,
In order to understand this, we must remember that a lady's dress in those days consisted, beside the gown proper, of a pair of folds reaching from the waist to the feet, and it was with these folds that children were wont to amuse themselves in the way related.