Imágenes de páginas

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 fancy 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 bim 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 bave 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 bis opinion, an opinion of great weight from such a

[ocr errors]

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 there 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 lis, 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

[ocr errors]

tion of Homer, the quiet and even tenor of his life was disturbed by the necessity he felt of parting with Lady Austen. A short extract from Mr. Hayley, will give this matter as clear explanation as delicacy can permit. They who cannot find an apology for the feelings of both ladies on this occasion, know but little of the human heart.

“Delightful and advantageous as his friendship with Lady Austen had proved, he now began to feel, that it grew impossible to preserve that triple cord, which his own pure heart had led him to suppose not speedily to be broken. Mrs. Unwin, though by no means destitute of mental accomplishments, was eclipsed by the brilliancy of the poet's new friend, and, naturally, became uneasy, under the apprehension of being so: for, to a woman of sensibility, what evil can be more afflicting, than the fear of losing all mental influence over a man of genius and virtue, whom she had long been accustomed to inspirit and to guide ?

“ Cowper perceived the painful necessity of sacrificing a great portion of his present gratifications. He felt that he must relinquish that ancient friend, whom he regarded as a venerable parent : or the new associate whom he idolized, as a sister of a heart and mind peculiarly congenial to his own. His gratitude for past services of unexampled magnitude, would not allow him to hesitate : with a resolution and delicacy, that do the highest honour to his feelings, he wrote a farewell letter to Lady Austen, explaining and lamenting the circumstances, that forced him to renounce the society of a friend whose enchanting talents and kindness had proved instrumental to the revival of his spirits, and to the exercise of his fancy.

“In those very interesting conferences with which I was honoured by Lady Austen, I was irre. sistibly led to express an anxious desire for the sight of a letter written by Cowper, in a situation


that must have called forth all the finest powers of his eloquence as a monitor and a friend. The lady confirmed me in my opinion that a more admirable letter could not be written, and had it existed at that time, I am persuaded, from her noble frankness and zeal for the honour of the departed poet, she would have given me a copy ; but she ingenuously confessed, that in a moment of natural mortification, she burnt this very tender effusion. Had it been confided to my care, I am persuaded I should have thought it very proper for publication, as it displayed both the tenderness and magnanimi. ty of Cowper, nor could I have deemed it a want of delicacy towards the memory of Lady Austen, to exhibit a proof that, animated by the warmest admiration of the great poet, whose fancy she could so successfully call forth, she was willing to devote her life and fortune to his service and protection. The sentiment is to be regarded as honourable to the lady: it is still more honourable to the poet, that, with such feelings as rendered him perfectly sensible of all Lady Austen's fascinating power, he could return her tenderness with innocent gallantry, and yet resolutely preclude himself from her society, when he could no longer enjoy it without appearing deficient in gratitude towards the compassionate and generous guardian of his sequestered life. No person can justly blame Mrs. Unwin for feeling apprehensive that Cowper's intimacy with a lady of such extraordinary talents, might lead him into perplexities of which he was by no means aware. This remark was suggested by a few elegant and tender verses, addressed by the poet to Lady Austen, and shown to me by that lady.

“ Those who are acquainted with the unsuspect. ing innocence, and sportive gaiety of Cowper, would readily allow, if they had seen the verses to which I allude, that they are such as he might have ad:


dressed to a real sister : but a lady only called by that endearing name, may be easily pardoned, if she was induced by them to hope that they might possibly be a prelude to a still dearer alliance. To me they appeared expressive of that peculiarity in liis character, a gay and tender gallantry perfectly distinct from amorous attachment. If the lady who was the subject of the verses, had given them to me with a permission to print them, I should have thought the poet himself might have approved of their appearance, accompanied with such a commentary."

Notwithstanding this interruption to his tranquillity, for such it certainly proved, although he was conscious that he had acted the part which was most honourable to him, he proceeded with the Ti. rocinium, and the other pieces which composed his second volume. These were published in 1785, and soon engaged the attention and admiration of the public in a way that left him no regret for the cool reception and slow progress of his first volume. Its success also obtained for him another female friend and associate, Lady Hesketh, his cousin, who had long been separated from him. Their intercourse was first revived by a correspondence, of which Mr. Hayley has published many interesting specimens, and says, with great truth, that Cowper's letters " are rivals to his poems in the rare excel. lence of representing life and nature with graceful and endearing fidelity.” In explaining the nature of his situation to Lady Hesketh, who began to reside at Olney in the month of June, 1786, he informs her, that he had lived twenty years with Mrs. Unwin, to whose affectionate care it was owing that he lived at all, and that for thirteen of those years he had been in a state of mind which made all her care and attention necessary. He informs her at the same time that dejection of spirits, which may have prevented many a man from be

« AnteriorContinuar »