Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

for the individual, admit into the records of ordinary life little that is instructive, and less that is interesting ; and while it would have been much more favourable to Cowper's worldly happiness to have been what his modes of feeling and habits of life would have made him, in the absence of any powerfully disturbing influence, an Isaak Walton, or a GILBERT WHITE;- it is to the very perversion or aberration of mind, which mingled like poison in his cup of life, chilling all that is genial, and overclouding all that is bright, that posterity is indebted for lessons of the purest morality, conveyed, not only in the form of manly, nervous, animated, and often majestic verse, but in a garb attractive even to those who have no sympathy with the concord of sweet sounds—no music in the soul. Cowper's correspondence was, in the earlier, what his poetry became more especially in the later, years of his life, the relief and refuge of a mind that must otherwise have preyed upon itself, and perished, so to speak, in the flames of its own intelligence. We purpose, therefore, in executing the task which has been assigned to us, of adding one more to the notices of this great poet and good man, to whom the worthiest of his successors in the walk of christian poetry have combined to do honour, to attempt the illustration of his personal and literary history through the medium of his own correspondence. Presumptuous, indeed, would it be, did we attempt to occupy the ground which has been trodden before us by the ablest of biographers, Souther, and one of the most candid of critics, as well as the most christian of poets, MontgomERY.

The family of Cowper was distinguished, in the last century, by producing two brothers, who both obtained seats in the House of Peers by their eminence in the profession of the law. The chief distinction of the family, in this, and through all succeeding centuries, will be to have numbered among its members William CowPER, the sub

ject of the present essay; though he was only the son of a . country clergyman, and incompetent, in the judgment of his contemporaries, to follow the profession that had established the fortunes of his house. William Cowper was born at Berkhampstead, of which parish his father was rector, on the 26th of November, 1731; and in 1737, when only six years old, he experienced the first sorrow, which seems to have imparted a dark tinge of colouring to the whole of his subsequent life. His mother, who was peculiarly qualified to watch, as only mothers can, over the developments of a delicate frame, and sensitive mind, like Cowper's, died in childbed, at the early age of thirty-four. The exquisite lines which he wrote “ on receiving her picture out of Norfolk,” after an interval of fifty years, sufficiently indicate how lively was his recollection of maternal kindness; how different from the ordinary tears of childhood, “forgot as soon as shed,” his sorrow for her loss :

“The record fair,
That memory keeps of all thy kindness there,
Still outlives many a storm, that has effaced
A thousand other themes less deeply traced.
Thy nightly visits to my chamber made,
That thou mightst know me safe and warmly laid ;
Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,
The biscuit, or confectionary plum;
The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestow'd
By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glow'd :
All this, and more endearing still than all,
Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall,
Ne'er roughen'd by those cataracts and breaks
That humour, interposed, too often makes;
All this still legible in memory's page,
And still to be so to my latest age.”

Vol. ii. p. 228. Nor let it be imagined that this was the language of poetic fiction, or exaggeration. In a letter of condolence to

his friend, Joseph Hill, Esq., dated Olney, Nov. 1784, he thus expresses his remembrance of this calamity, in language equally touching, and never intended to meet any eye but that of the friend to whom it was written :

“To condole with you on the death of a mother aged eighty-seven, would be absurd; rather, therefore, as is reasonable, I congratulate you on the almost singular felicity of having enjoyed the company of so amiable and so near a relation so long. Your mother lived to see you well, at least to see you comfortably, established in the world : mine, dying when I was six years old, did not live to see me sink in it. You may remember with pleasure, while you live, a blessing vouchsafed to you so long; and I, while I live, must regret a comfort of which I was deprived so early. I can truly say that not a week passes (perhaps I might, with equal veracity, say a day) in which I do not think of her. Such was the impression her tenderness made upon me, though the opportunity she had for showing it was so short. But the ways of God are equal ; and when I reflect on the pangs she would have suffered, had she been a witness of all mine, I see more cause to rejoice than to mourn that she was hidden in the grave so soon."

Nor had any diminution taken place in the freshness and fulness of his filial reminiscences when he received his mother's picture six years after this date. He thus writes, in 1790, to his cousin, Mrs. Bodham, who had sent it to him, out of Norfolk :

"The whole world could not have furnished you with a present so acceptable to me as the picture you so kindly sent me. I received it the night before last, and viewed it with a trepidation of nerves and spirits somewhat akin to what I should have felt, had the dear original presented herself to my embraces. I kissed it, and hung it where it

what a trepidation ved it the nighs the picture

is the last object which I see at night, and, of course, the first on which I open my eyes in the morning. She died when I had completed my sixth year; yet I remember her well, and am an ocular witness of the great fidelity of the copy. I remember, too, a multitude of the maternal tendernesses which I received from her, and which have endeared her memory to me beyond expression. There is in me, I believe, more of the Donne than of the Cowper; and though I love all of both races, and have a thousand reasons to love those of my own name, yet I feel the bond of nature draw me inherently to your side.”

When the mother of a young family is prematurely removed, we are apt to draw consolation from the circumstance, that the children who survive her are only, or chiefly, of the other sex; on the principle, that nothing can supply to the youthful female the absence of a mother's tenderness and care. It is possible, however—and this is a case in point—that the bereavement may be attended with even more disastrous consequences to the motherless boy, when there are peculiarities in his temperament with which the mother alone could sympathize— frailties and infirmities which he could acknowledge to none but her; for to her alone could the acknowledgment be made without humiliation, since by her alone it would be received without reproach. A tender and sympathizing mother, - combining gentleness with judgment, and knowing when to apply the timely stimulant, as well as when to pour in the soothing balm,-may, under particular circumstances, do more to strengthen and impart a manly tone to the mind and character, than a Spartan or a Roman matron, with her unnatural and impassive heroism, which, after all, is nothing better than "pride, rank pride, and haughtiness of soul;" — and a woman of sense, discernment, and gentleness, such as Mrs. Cowper is recorded to have been, possessing the unlimited confidence of her son, might have gently lopped away, one by one, those offshoots of a morbid and sensitive organization, which, in the absence of such maternal vigilance, grew with his growth, and strengthened with his strength, till they affected the vitality of the parent tree. That in her he had lost the only human being towards whom he could feel confidence, and who could feel sympathy with him, is manifest from the following lines :

“My Mother! when I learn'd that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hover'd thy spirit o'er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life's journey just begun?
Thus many a sad to-morrow came and went,
Till, all my stock of infant sorrow spent,
I learn'd at last submission to my lot;
But, though I less deplored thee, ne'er forgot.”

Vol. ii. p. 227. Of Cowper's father, we know or hear comparatively little. It is no reflection upon his memory, however, that being occupied with the charge of a parish, inconsiderable neither in extent nor in population, he could not supply to his motherless infants the place of the wife whom he had lost. He probably did the best his circumstances allowed, in placing his elder boy at a boarding-school, not being aware how little his son William's gentle spirit was fitted to encounter the asperities inseparable from the best institutions of this class, where the number of boys is considerable. The academy of his choice, however, was far from being one of the best. Moral discipline was there but little regarded ; and “here,” said Cowper, “ I had hardships of various kinds to compete with, which I felt more sensibly, in proportion to the tenderness with which I had been treated at home. But my chief affliction consisted in being singled out from all the other boys, by a lad of about fifteen years of age, as a proper object on whom he might

« ForrigeFortsett »