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BOTH by father and mother Cowper was of gentle blood. His father's family is e traced back without interruption to the time of Edward IV., when the Cowpers were possessors of land at Strode, in the parish of Slinfold, in Sussex. His mother was Ann, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk, of the same family じ as Dr. Donne, the Dean of St. Paul's, and said to be "descended through four ch different lines from King Henry III."
A younger member of the Cowper family, leaving Strode in the possession of his elder brother, settled in London in the reign of Henry VIII., married an heiress, Margaret Spencer, and bought an estate at Nonington, in Kent. His son John,+ Alderman of London, who died in 1609, was the father of Sir William, the first baronet. Sir William is noteworthy for his love and reverence for Hooker, "his spiritual father," as Walton calls him. It was he who erected the monument to the great divine in Bishopsbourne Church, and composed the epitaph for it, which will not be out of place here.
"Though nothing can be spoke worthy his fame,
And God in me this lesson did inspire,
To bid this humble man, Friend, sit up higher.'"
Sir William was an ardent Churchman and Royalist, and was imprisoned with his son John during the Commonwealth. The latter died in prison, leaving an
* Johnson's Memoir, p. xii.
Up to this time the name was spelt Cooper, and it has never been pronounced otherwise by the family; He altered it, probably in affectation of the Norman spelling "Cupere," or Coupre," as the names appear in the roll of Battle Abbey. Many of the family, however, retained the old spelling for some time after. In Lord Campbell's Life of Chancellor Cowper, we have one or two letters signed "Wm. Cooper."
infant son, who on Sir William's death in 1664 succeeded to the title, and by his marriage with one Sarah Holled became father of two sons, William and Spencer. The former became Lord Chancellor, and an Earl, in 1706. Spencer having been tried for murder and acquitted,* became Chief Justice of Chester, and a Judge of the Common Pleas. He died in 1728, leaving three sons, William, John, and Ashley, and several daughters. One of these married Colonel Madan, and became the mother of Martin Madan, whose name will occur several times in this volume, and of Frances Maria, who married her cousin Major Cowper, and became one of Cowper's constant correspondents.
The second of the three sons became the Rev. John Cowper, Chaplain to King George II., and Rector of Great Berkhamstead. He married Ann Donne; and at the rectory (or as her son afterwards called it, "the pastoral house") she gave birth to the future poet on the 26th of November (0. S. 15th), 1731. The house was pulled down to make room for a new rectory about thirty years ago. His parents had five other children, all of whom died in infancy except John. He lived until manhood, but his birthday was a heavy day for Berkhamstead parsonage. The mother died at the age of thirty-four. It was the 14th of November, 1737. William therefore was just six years old. In what sacred remembrance the gentle child held her love and care of him we shall find in more than one passage of his life. When heavy clouds gathered round his spirit in years after, and seemed altogether to hide the blessing of God from him, the image of his mother remained clear in his memory, one bright spot which told him that there was a Heaven above. The gift of her picture, which he received fifty-three years after her death, gave him the occasion to pour out all his love and gratitude in what is probably the most touching elegy in the English language.
The death of his mother, generally the heaviest loss which a child can have, was a more than ordinary calamity here. He was delicate in body, sensitive and nervous in mind. His father, zealous towards his flock, and, according to his son's testimony, labouring to do them good, appears not to have understood his child's extreme need of sympathy and care. Within a year of his mother's death the poor boy was sent to school at a Dr. Pitman's, at Markyate Street, a straggling, unattractive village between St, Alban's and Dunstable. There he remained for two years, the victim of systematic bullying from some of his school companions. His shyness, sensibility, ill-health, were all converted into means of tormenting him. There was one boy in particular who persecuted him so relentlessly that Cowper writes in his autobiography, "I had such a dread of him, that I did not dare lift my eyes to his face. I
* Lord Campbell gives the case at length (Chancellors, iv. 260). He decides that the verdict was a righteous one, though the case was not without suspicion. Macaulay (History of England, chapter xxv.) holds the charge to be absolutely groundless, got up out of nothing but political spite.
+ She is buried within the altar-rails of Berkhamstead Church.
knew him best by his shoe-buckle."
This cruelty was at length discovered, the brute was expelled, and Cowper was removed from the school. Meanwhile another trouble had fallen upon the child, inflammation of the eyes. Accordingly, he spent the next two years in the house of an oculist, leading a dull, and apparently not a healthy, life. However, his sight became better, and at ten years of age his father sent him to Westminster.
Cowper has spoken at great length in his autobiography of the religious feelings and fancies of his boyish days. These need not detain us. Most children have strong though often transient religious impressions, and there is little in his account of his own which has not probably befallen other boys. Later in life he looked back upon his feelings through the light of his morbid fancies, and exaggerated their significance.
It would be more to the purpose if we could discover anything concerning the religious teaching which he received in his childhood, for unquestionably it left its mark upon him for many a year. All writers agree in holding that it was an evil time both in faith and practice. The company in which Mr. Pattison found himself in his excellent Essay on the Religious Thought of the 18th Century,* has somewhat discredited that essay. But it is at any rate valuable for our present purpose, as gathering up into short compass the characteristics of the time in which young Cowper was brought up. "It was a period," writes Mr. Pattison in the opening of his essay, "of decay of religion, licentiousness of morals, public corruption, profaneness of language,—a day of rebuke and blasphemy. Even those who look with suspicion on the contemporary complaints from the Jacobite clergy of 'decay of religion,' will not hesitate to say that was an age destitute of depth and earnestness; an age whose poetry was without romance, whose philosophy was without insight, and whose public men were without character; an age of 'light without love,' whose very merits were of the earth, earthy."
This is certainly true in the general, though there are certain qualifications which the author makes in the course of his essay. Our concern at this moment is with the theology of the period. And that may be summed up in a word—it was the period of the Evidences. Let us hear Mr. Pattison once more. 'Dogmatic theology had ceased to exist; the exhibition of religious truth for practical purposes was confined to a few obscure writers. Every one who had anything to say on sacred subjects drilled it into an array of arguments against a supposed objector. Christianity appeared made for nothing else but to be 'proved;' what use to make of it when it was proved was not much thought about. The only quality in Scripture which was dwelt on was its credibility."
We may, then, fairly suppose that the worthy Rector of Berkhamstead was on a par with his brother clergy--that he would preach against the Deists, and marshal his arguments as well as he could; but that he would not go beyond
* No. VI. in "Essays and Reviews."
this, nor exhibit in his sermons the depth and experience of the Christian life. If we add to this the tenderness and gentle piety of his wife, with little knowledge of religious differences or dogmatics, we shall probably be very near the mark in estimating the influences under which the child received his first religious instruction. That the Established religion was the true one, and could be proved so, that it promoted virtue and morality, this the boy must have been taught from the beginning; and probably not much beyond it. The death of his mother removed the last chance which remained of anything beyond intellectual teaching. And that this is not theology, but only the surrounding of it, that it cannot satisfy the spirit of man, many a one besides Cowper has found. He mentions in one of his letters, that when he was eleven years old his father gave him a treatise in favour of Suicide, and requested him to give his opinions upon it. It does not seem a high proof of parental wisdom. The oculist's household too, if the autobiography is not hard upon him, was unfavourable to religious feeling, and the atmosphere of Westminster School not much less so. The head master, Dr. Nicholls, in preparing him for Confirmation, made some impression upon him, he says, but it was transient. It had no root, and withered away. He did not apparently commit any great acts of sin, but he grew careless about religious things, and ceased to pray. Let it be considered that the mocking laughter of Fielding was now in full vigour, in entire harmony with a wide-spread public opinion, and that it was holding up to unsparing ridicule what the boy had been taught to look upon as religion, and we shall hardly wonder that he was fascinated by the daring and recklessness of it, and, conscious of that, began to look upon himself as a young reprobate, at enmity with God.
Such thoughts, however, would be soon done with, and his life at Westminster seems to have been a very happy one. He not only became an excellent scholar, but was a good cricketer and football player; * and was popular both with masters and boys. The usher of his form was Vincent Bourne (celebrated for his Latin poetry), another usher was Dr. Pierson Lloyd. Among his schoolfellows were Robert Lloyd (son of the doctor), Warren Hastings and his future enemy Impey, | George Colman, Charles Churchill, George Cumberland, and William Russell. His intimacy with these at school was for the most part brought to an end, as is usual in such cases, by their parting: But we shall see how various passages in the course of his life brought back the memory of old times. Of all his friendships here the warmest were those with Russell and Lloyd. The former was, a few years later, drowned while bathing, at a time when Cowper was in deep distress from another cause. He has blended both sorrows together in an effusion which shows how deep the love between them was (p. 15).
Lloyd was a clever, showy youth, who in due course graduated at Cambridge, and became, like his father, an usher at Westminster. But the irregularities of his life,
* See Tirocinium, p. 294.
See pp 172 and 472, and notes on them.
and his impatience of steady work, brought this to an end, and he betook himself to the precarious profession of literature. A clever poem called “The Actor” gained a very favourable reception; and Cowper, who made swans, not unfrequently, of very small geese, called him "the successor of Prior." Public taste has not ratified the verdict, and Lloyd is no longer reckoned among the English poets. His poetical abilities were undoubtedly good, but his habitual indolence, which prevented him from seeking worthy materials, as well as from bestowing the needful labour upon what he wrote, blighted his hopes.
Churchill's poems were of a much higher order. What can be said in mitigation of the follies and excesses of his life has been said admirably by Mr. Forster.* Lloyd, who is said to have been attached to Churchill's sister, took to his bed on hearing of his death, saying, "Ah! I shall soon follow poor Charles." The one died in November, the other in December, 1764. The way in which Cowper afterwards spoke of these friends is very characteristic of him. In the abstract he was not only most indignant at wrong-doing, but he was censorious; ready to take an unfairly bad view of motives, as well as to condemn trivial faults without measure. He denounces oratorios, chess, whist-playing, and smoking, as severely as he does breaches of the moral law. But when he afterwards came across a smoker in the person of his friend Bull, his anger and scorn were over and done with directly. In the estimate of all his personal acquaintances he was the most charitable of men. And so when the voice of society pronounced Churchill only a good-for-nothing rake, Cowper took occasion to express his hearty admiration of the man.† Macaulay, speaking of his chivalrous sonnet to Warren Hastings, attributes it to Cowper's partiality. No doubt; yet Cowper's estimate is still, not improbably, a righteous one. Intimate knowledge of men shows that none are devils, and the tone of affection which comes natural to us need not be out of unison with the voice of heavenly love, which has bidden us judge none, but hope the best of all. So different as these two men were, Cowper learned his poetic style from the works of Churchill. The versification is very similar, and the realism which Churchill revived with such felicitous results to our literature was taken up by Cowper. It may be mentioned here that his first poem (p. 1), written while he was still at Westminster, was an imitation of John Philips' “Splendid Shilling." Its easy and finished rhythm proves that it was by no means the only attempt of the kind. He says in one of his letters, that he translated an elegy of Tibullus when he was fourteen. He also read the English poets with delight, especially Milton and Cowley. With regard to Milton, he says that he was quite unhappy because he had not made his acquaintance till he was fourteen, and so the previous years had suffered a loss which could never be made up. He appears to have known Milton nearly by heart.
* "Defoe and Churchill." Two Essays, by John Forster
Essays, vol. ii. p. 183.