Sidebilder
PDF

to this way of murdering our time, and by so doing have acquired the name of Methodists. Having told you how we do not spend our time, I will next say how we do. We breakfast commonly between eight and nine; till eleven we read either the Scriptures or the sermons of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries; at eleven we attend Divine Service, which is performed here twice everyday; and from twelve to three we separate and amuse ourselves as we please. During that interval I either read in my own apartment, or walk, or ride, or work in the garden.* We seldom sit an hour after dinner, but, if the weather permits, adjourn to the garden, where, with Mrs. Unwin and her son, I have generally the pleasure of religious conversation till tea-time. If it rains, or is too windy for walking, we either converse within-doors, or sing some hymns of Martin'st collection, and by the help of Mrs. Unwin's harpsichord make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope, are the best and most musical performers. After tea we sally forth to walk in good earnest. Mrs. Unwin is a good walker, and we have generally travelled about four miles before we see home again. When the days are short, we make this excursion in the former part of the day, between church-time and dinner. At night we read and converse, as before, till supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon, and, last of all, the family are called to prayers. I need not tell you that such a life as this is consistent with the utmost cheerfulness; accordingly we are all happy, and dwell together in unity as brethren."

We must give one more extract—a proof of his sensitiveness, or rather of his high-minded conscientiousness. William Unwin was going to London, and Cowper gave him an introduction to Mrs. Cowper. In writing afterwards to thank her for her courteous reception of his friend, he goes on to denounce his own vile and deceitful heart. He had wanted Unwin to call on her, because there were people who looked down upon him, and had even gone the length of calling him "that fellow Cowper;" so he could not resist the opportunity of furnishing the Unwins with ocular demonstration of his high connexion. Upon this discovery of his own heart he bursts out;

"Oh Pride! Pride ! it deceives with the subtlety of a serpent, and seems to walk erect, though it crawls upon the earth. How will it twist and twine itself about to get from under the Cross which it is the glory of our Christian calling to be able to bear with patience and good-will. They who can guess at the heart of a stranger, and you especially, who are of a compassionate temper, will be more ready, perhaps, to excuse me, in this instance, than I can be to excuse myself. But, in good truth, it was abominable pride of heart, indignation, and vanity, and deserves no better name. How should such a creature be admitted into those pure and sinless mansions, where nothing shall enter that defileth, did not the blood of Christ, applied by the hand of faith, take away the guilt of sin, and leave no spot or stain behind it? Oh what continual need have I of an Almighty, \ll-sufficient Saviour!" (April 3, 1767.)

* He says in another letter: "I am become a great florist and shrub-doctor. 'If the Major can make up a small packet of seeds for a garden where there is little but jessamine and honeysuckle, I will promise to take great care of them."

t Martin Madan, Mrs. Cowper's brother. He had some musical skill. The popular tune Heljnsley, "Lo! He comes with clouds descending," was composed by him.

The tranquil life at Huntingdon was destroyed by a sudden blow. On the 28th June, 1767, Mr. Unwin, while riding to church, was thrown from his horse, fractured his skull, and died four days afterwards. The two children were started in life. William was ordained to a curacy, and his sister* was soon afterwards married to the Rev. Matthew Powley, Vicar of Dewsbury. It was necessary for Mrs. Unwin to remove, and Cowper determined^ go with her, as her behaviour to him had "always been that of a mother to a son," and, moreover, "Mr. Unwin had intimated to his wife his desire that if she survived him, Mr. Cowper might still dwell with her." t

A few days after Unwin's death, the Rev. John Newton, Curate of Olney, on his way thither from Cambridge, had stayed at Huntingdon, and called on Mrs. Unwin, at the request of a friend. Much interested both in her and Cowper, he agreed, at their request, to look out for a house for them. He soon found them one at Olney, and they removed thither on the 14th of September, 1767.

The Rev. John Newton, under whose influence Cowper was thus brought, was about five years his senior. He had passed through the strangest vicissitudes of fortune. In his youth he had been a sailor of idle and vicious habits, had been flogged for desertion, and was only prevented from drowning himself by fearing that the lady whom he afterwards married would form a bad opinion of him. He suffered frightful miseries in a slave plantation at Sierra Leone, and after being released was shipwrecked on his way home, and barely saved his life. This event, which he was always wont to call his "Great Deliverance," changed his character altogether. He resolved to lead a new life, and kept the resolution. Looking upon this as a special interposition of Providence on his behalf, he was a Calvinist from that time. He soon became master of a vessel, and for the next four years was engaged on the sea. From this time until his death, he kept a diary, of which the following passage is the opening, dated Dec. 22, 1751:—

"I dedicate unto Thee, most blessed God, this clean, unsullied book; and at the same time renew my tender of a foul, blotted, corrupt heart. Be pleased, O Lord, to assist me with the influences of Thy Spirit to fill the one in a manner agreeable to Thy will, and by Thy all-sufficient grace to overpower and erase the ill impressions sin and the world have from time to time made in the other, so that both my public converse and retired meditation may testify that I am indeed Thy servant, redeemed, renewed, and accepted in the sufferings, merit, and mediation of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, honour, and dominion, world without end. Amen."

Then he goes on to detail the holy resolutions which he has made; amongst them is one to set apart a special day "to recommend himself and his concerns, his journey and his voyage," to the blessing of God. He speaks of his devotions with his crew, and ever and anon writes down prayers of intense and unquestionable earnestness. And at the end of his voyage he expresses his thankfulness to God for having prospered him so well. It may not have occurred to the reader to ask what was the business in which he was engaged. But it was the slave-trade.

* She lived till 1835, dying at the age of eighty-nine,
f This latter statement is made by Newton. (Bull's Memorials, p. 157.)

Forty years later, when Wilberforce was moving heaven and earth for abolition, Newton preached on the same side, and wrote his "Thoughts upon the African Slave-Trade," denouncing it unsparingly. "I am bound in conscience," he says, '' to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and mischief to which I have formerly been accessory." And he adds,—what is probably just,—"Perhaps what I have said of myself may be applicable to the nation at large. The slave-trade was always unjustifiable, but inattention and self-interest prevented for a time the evil from being perceived." Newton's religiousness was unquestionably sincere and real, but his morality in this matter cannot be said to be of the highest kind, and both now and after he displays a want of deep reflection, as well as some selfishness of character. His "Cardiphonia" contains passages which are hardly surpassed for their beauty and earnest zeal towards God. And there, more than anywhere else that I know of, the large-heartedness of the man appears. He has come to the conclusion, even in the first letter (1775), that "observation and experience contribute, by the grace of God, gradually to soften and sweeten our spirits;" that Protestants, Papists, Socinians, are all his neighbours; and that he must not expect them to see with his eyes. Here speaks the man, not the theologian; for his sight was narrow as his heart was large. He is always seeking to interpret every "dispensation ;" if he cannot do it at the moment, he is sure the interpretation will soon come. He cannot understand why Molly P. should have the small-pox at such an inconvenient time, and is surprised that his prayers for her have not yet been heard. In short, no man perhaps ever had a stronger faith in God's personal love for him ; but that "the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof," was more apparently than had taken possession of his mind. The same kind of spirit is shown in his taking a lottery ticket some years afterwards, supposing that "his vow and his design of usefulness therein sanctioned his hope that the Lord would give him a prize."*

Severe illness brought Newton's seafaring life to an end, and he obtained the post of tide surveyor at Liverpool. During the time that he held it he was brought much into contact with Whitefield, and to some degree also with Wesley. In 1764, after difficulties which he showed great courage in overcoming, he was ordained to the curacy of Olney. There can be no question that the step was taken from a love for the souls of men, and that it was done at a great personal sacrifice. The same year he made the acquaintance of Wilberforce, and of John Thornton, t

* I cannot forbear referring to Sir James Stephen's wise and weighty words concerning Newton. I had not read them until the above was in type, but it is gratifying to be able to claim him in support of my view. Essay on the Evangelical Succession, p. 114.

t John Thornton was born in 1720, and succeeded his father as a Russian merchant. He was remarkably keen and skilful in business, and to the end of his life was always on the look-out for good investments. There is a story that he strolled along Cork harbour, when an old man, saw a freight of tallow come in, and made a vast sum by buying it at once, then strolled into a nursery ground, and with the profits he had just made set an impoverished man on his feet. But his greatest acts of generosity, whether wise or unwise, were towards ministers of religion. He The latter formed so high an opinion of him that he made him an allowance of £200 a year, mainly with the view of enabling him to keep open house, and so to influence the more people for good.

The labours of Newton (who lived till 1807) are of course no part of our subject, except so far as they illustrate Cowper's life. To the latter we therefore now pass on.

The house in which he now took up his residence is in the market-place at Olney. It was called Orchard Side. The vicarage, in which Newton lived, was close by, and he said afterwards that for twelve years he and Cowper were hardly ever twelve hours apart. "The first six," he adds, "were spent in admiring and trying to imitate him; during the second six I walked with him in the shadow of death."

Olney lies on the Ouse at the northern extremity of Buckinghamshire.* It is not an attractive town, and the staple occupations of its inhabitants, and whole neighbourhood, lacemaking and strawplaiting, were, and still are, very prejudicial to health, wealth, and godliness. The vicar, Moses Browne, was an absentee through debt, and there were no gentry. Cowper was commonly known there as "Sir Cowper." Newton fell in with the popular appellation, and calls him so often in his letters. Cowper says, later, in one of his letters, "We have

"One parson, one poet, one bellman, one crier,
And the poor poet is the only squhe."

To minister among the poor here was a task requiring great energy and courage, arduous and, as far as this world is concerned, thankless. Newton, who had wonderful bodily strength and nerve, enjoyed it thoroughly, but certainly it was not suitable labour for the nervous, sensitive invalid, who now under Newton's guidance undertook it. He visited indefatigably, and read and prayed with the sick. Newton had started prayer-meetings at an uninhabited house in the town belonging to Lord Dartmouth,—the "Great House" it was called,—and the heat and excitement of these may be judged by any one who reads Newton's account. We need not say what a contrast such devotions were to the daily prayers in Huntingdon Church, and few will doubt that the change was not for the better to Cowper. But who would not tremble for the result when we add to this that he himself was called to take part in, sometimes to lead, the extempore prayers—he who had said of himself, when called on to qualify for his clerkship, "that doing anything in public was mortal poison" to him!Mr. Bull quotes the saying of some one who was there, that he "'nevei heard praying that equalled Mr. Cowper's." But it was at a terrible cost. Nor was this all. He lost his regular exercise. He had been accustomed to a quiet evening walk, but "now," he says to Lady Hesketh, "we have sermon or lecture every evening, which lasts till supper-time."

bought up livings, and bestowed them on "truly religious" ministers. His sister married Wilberforce's uncle, and the Evangelicalism of Wilberforce was owing to this connexion. Thornton died in 1790. It was his brother-in-law, Dr. Convers, who introduced Newton to Cowper

* The most interesting description which has been written of Olney and its neighbourhood is that of Hugh Miller, in his " First Impressions of England."

Mr. Bull gives several letters from Mr. Newton belonging to this period. That they breathe real piety needs not to be said; but they are not altogether pleasing to read. Instead of enlarging upon God's care for His creatures, and His mercy toward every soul which seeks after Him, he gives highly-wrought pictures of particular providences, and searches after God's love in religious excitement. The Lord is to be found not in the still small voice, but in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. Where these are not, so it might seem, God is not. As long as these feelings were kept alive by the unhealthful religious stimulants, Cowper could boast of his "decided Christian happiness." But a time comes when stimulants fail to act, and then reaction comes, and ruin with it.

Threatenings appeared from a very early period of his residence at Olney. In a letter to Hill, for instance, dated June 16, 1768, he expresses his belief that his life is drawing to an end. All his letters are upon religious topics, and generally gloomy in tone; he drops his old friends, and even writes chilling letters to Hill—one declining an invitation, another in reply to the announcement of his marriage. The common idea that his first years at Olney were happy ones is certainly not well-founded.

His melancholy was greatly increased by the death of his brother, which took place at Cambridge in March 1770. Their affection from infancy had been unbroken, and Cowper mourned for him deeply. He gave expression to his feelings by writing a memoir of him, which was afterwards published by Newton. (No. 9 in List of Works, p. xviii. See also the "Time Piece," 780—787.) His brother left £700, but .£350 were owed to his college; the rest was transferred to Cowper's account by Hill. But he speaks of himself as being a considerable loser by his brother's death. He must therefore have received a regular allowance from him as well as from his other relatives.*

In 1771 Mr. Newton proposed that they should jointly compose a volume of hymns, partly "fcrthe promotion of the faith and comfort of sincere Christians," partly to perpetuate the memory of their friendship. The work was undertaken, but not completed for 8 years. It was then published with this title :—

OLNEY HYMNS. In Three Books.

Book I.On Select Texts of Scripture.
II.Oh Occasional Subjects.
Ill On the Spiritual Life.

Cantabitis, Arcades, inquit,
Montibus ha:c vestris; soli cantare periti
Arcades. O mihi tum quam molliter ossa quiescant,
Vestra meos olim si fistula dicat amores.

Virg. Eel x. 31.

Rev. xiv. 3.
2 Cor. vL 10.

* See letters to Hill, Nov. 5 and 17, 1772.

« ForrigeFortsett »