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About this time he was advised to make application to Lord Thurlow, who had been one of his juvenile companions, for some situation of emolument, but he declined this from motives of highly justifiable delicacy, intimating that he had hopes from that quarter, and that it would be better not to anticipate bis patron's favours by solicitation. He afterwards sent a copy of his first volume of poems to his lordship, accompanied with a very elegant letter, and seems to murmur a little, on more occasions than one, at his lordship’s apparent neglect. A correspondence took place between them at a more distant period, but whether from want of proper representation of his situation, or from forgetfulness, this nobleman's interest was employed when too late for the purpose which Cowper's friends hoped to promote. It will be difficult to impute a want of liberality to Lord Thurlow, while his voluntary and generous offer to Dr. Johnson remains on record.
In the mean time, Cowper continued to amuse himself by reading such new books as his friends could procure, with writing slrort pieces of poetry, tending his tame hares, and birds, and drawing landscapes, a talent which he discovered in himself very late in life, and which he employed with considerable skill. In all this perhaps there was not much labour, but it was not idleness. A short passage
in one of liis letters to the Rev. William Unwin, dated May, 1780, will serve to make the distinction. “Excellence providentially placed beyond the reach of indolence, that success may be the reward of industry, and that idleness may be punished with obscurity and disgrace. So long as I am pleased with an employment, I am capable of unwearied application, because my feelings are all of the intense kind. I never received a little pleasure from any thing in my life: if I am delighted it is in the extreme. The unhappy consequence of VOL. XXXVI.
this temperature is, that my attachment to any of cupation seldom outlives the novelty of it.
Urged, however, by his amiable friend and companion, Mrs. Unwin, he employed the winter of 1780–1, in preparing his first volume of poems for the press, consisting of the Table Talk, Hope, the Progress of Error, Charity, &c. But such was his diffidence of their success, that he appears to have been in doubt whether any bookseller would be willing to print them on his own account. He was fortunate enough, however, to find in Mr. Johnson of St. Paul's Church-yard, (his friend Mr. Newton's publisher,) one whose spirit and liberality immediately set his mind at rest. The volume was accordingly completed, and Mr. Newton furnished the preface, a circumstance which his biographer attributes to “his extreme diffidence in regard to himself, and his kind eagerness to gratify the af. fectionate ambition of a friend whom he tenderly esteemed." It was published in 1782.
The success of this volume was undoubtedly not equal to its merit, for his biographer has justly observed, “it exhibits such a diversity of poetical powers, as have heen given very rarely, indeed, to any individual of the modern, or of the ancient world.” As an apology for the inattention of the public to a present of such value, Mr. Hayley has supposed that he gave offence by his bold eulogy on Wbitfield, “whom the dramatic satires of Foote in his comedy of the Minor, had taught the nation to deride as a mischievous fanatic;" and that he hazarded sentiments too precise and strict for pub. lic opinion. The character of Whitfield, however, had been long rescued from the buffooneries of Foote, and the public could now bear his eulogium with tolerable pacience.
It may be ad'ed that the volume was introduced into the worl without any of the quackish parade so frequentsy adopted, and had none of those em
bellishments by which the eye of the purchaser is caught at the expense of his pocket. The periodi. cal critics, whose opinions Cowper watched with more anxiety than could have been wished in a man so superior to the common candidates for poetic fame, were divided, and even those who were most favourable betrayed no extraordinary raptures. In the mean time the work crept slowly into notice, and acquired the praise of those who knew the value of such an addition to our stock of English poetry.
Some time before the publication of this volume, Mr. Cowper made a most important acquisition in the friendship and conversation of Lady Austen, (widow of Sir Robert Austen) whom he found a woman of elegant taste, and of such critical powers as enabled her to direct his studies by her judga ment and encourage them by her praise. An accidental visit which this lady made to Olney served to introduce her to the poet, whose shyness generally gave way to a display of mental'excellence and polished manners. In a short time, Lady Austen shared his esteem with his older friend Mrs. Unwin, although not without exciting some little degree of jealousy, which Mr. Hayley has noticed with his usual delicacy. Cowper, without at first suspecting that the feelings of Mrs. Unwin could be hurt, “considered the cheerful and animating society of his new accomplished friend, as a blessing conferred on him by the signal favour of Providence.” Some months after their first interview, Lady Austen quitted her house in London, and having taken up her residence in the parsonage
house of Olney, Cowper, Mrs. Unwin, and she, became almost one family, dining always together alternately in the houses of the two ladies.
Among other small pieces which he composed at the suggestion of Lady Austen, was the celebrated ballad of John Gilpin, the origin of which Mr. Hay.
ley thus relates :' “It happened one afternoon, that Lady Austen observed him sinking into increasing dejection : it was her custom, on these occasions, to try all the resources of her sprightly powers for his immediate relief. She told him the story of John Gilpin (which had been treasured in her memory from her childhood) to dissipate the gloom of the passing hour. Its effect on the funcy of Cowper had the air of enchantment: he informed her the next morning, that convulsions of laughter brought on by his recollection of her story, had kept him waking during the greatest part of the night, and that he had turned it into a ballad.” Mrs. Unwin sent it to the Public Advertiser, where the late Mr. Henderson, the player, first saw it, and conceiving it might serve to display his comic powers, read it at Free-Mason's Hall, in a course of similar entertainments given by himself and Mr. Thomas Sheridan. It became afterwards popular among all classes of readers, but was not generally known to be Cowper's until it was added to his second volume.
The public was soon laid under a far higher obligation to Lady Austen, for having suggested our author's principal poem, The Task, “a poem," says Mr. Hayley, “of such infinite variety, that it seems to include every subject, and every style, without any dissonance or disorder: and io have flowed without effort, from inspired philanthropy, eager to impress upon the hearts of all readers, whatever may lead them, most happily, to the full enjoyments of human life, and to the full attainment of heaven.”
This admirable poem appears to have been written in the years 1783 and 1784, and underwent many careful revisions. The public had not done much for Cowper, but he had too much regard for it and for his own character, to obtrude what was incorrect, or might be made better. It was his opinion, an opinion of great weight from such a
critic, that poetry, in order to attain excellence, must be indebted to labour; and it was his correspondent practice to revise bis poems with scrupulous care and severity. In a letter to his friend Mr. Bull, on this poem, he says "I find it severe exercise to mould and fashion it to my mind.” Much of it was written in the winter, a season ge. nerally unfavourable to the author's health ; but tbere is reason to think that the encouragement and attention of his amiable and judicious friends animated him to proceed, and that the regularity of his progress was favourable to his health and spirits. Disorders, like his, have been known to give way to some species of mental labour, if voluntarily undertaken, and pursued with steadiness, The Task filled up many of those leisure hours, for which rural walks and employments would have amply provided at a more favourable season. It may be added, likewise, that no man appears to have had a more keen relish for the snugness of a winter fire-side, and that, free from ambition or the love of grand and tumultuous enjoyments, his heart was elated with gratitude for those humbler comforts which a mind like his would be apt to magnify, by reflecting on the misery of ihose who want them.
In November 1784, The Task was sent to the press, and he began the Tirocinium, the purport of which, in his own words, was, “to censure the want of discipline, and the scandalous inattention to morals, that obtain in public schools, especially in the largest : and to recommend private tuition as a mode of education preferable on all accounts: to call upon fathers to become tutors of their own sons, where that is practicable ; to take home a domestic tutor where it is not: and if neither can be done, to place them under the care of some rural clergyman, whose attention is limited to a few." In this year, when he was beginning his transla