« AnteriorContinuar »
early life, he expresses what he endured at the time, in these remarkable words: “They whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horrors of my situation-others can have none.'
“ His terrors on this occasion arose to such an astonishing height that they utterly overwhelmed his reason : for although he had endeavoured to prepare himself for his public duty, by attending closely at the office for several months, to examine the parliamentary journals, his application was rendered useless by that excess of diffidence which made him conceive, that, whatever knowledge he might previously acquire, it would all forsake him at the bar of the house. This distressing apprehension increased to such a degree, as the time for his appearance approached, that when the day, so anxiously dreaded, arrived, he was unable to try the experiment. The very friends who called on him for the purpose of attending him to the house of lords, acquiesced in the cruel necessity of his relinquishing the prospect of a station so severely formidable to a frame of such singular sensibility.
“The conflict between the wishes of just, affectionate ambition and the terrors of diffidence, so entirely overwhelmed his health and faculties, that after two learned and benevolent divines (Mr. John Cowper, his brother, and the celebrated Mr. Martin Madan, his first cousin) had vainly endeavoured to establish a lasting tranquillity in his mind, by friendly and religious conversation, it was found necessary to remove him to St. Alban's, where he resided a considerable time, under the care of that eminent physician, Dr. Cotton.",
The period of his residence here was from December 1763, to July 1764, and the mode of his insanity appears to have been that of religious despondency; but this, about the last mentioned date,
gave way to more cheering views, which at first presented themselves to his mind during a perusal of the third chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
After bis recovery from this awful visitation, he determined to retire from the busy world altogether. Finding his mind alienated from the con. versation and company, however select, in which he had hitherto delighted, and looking back with particular horror on some of his former associations, by the advice of his brother, the Rev. John Cowper, of Bennet College, Cambridge, he removed to a private lodging in Huntingdon. He had not, however, resided long in this place, before he was introduced into a farnily that had the honourfor many years of administering to his happiness, and of evincing a' warmth of friendship of which there! are few examples.
This intercourse was begun by Mr. Cawthorn Unwin, a young man then a student of Cambridge, and son to the Rev. Mr. Unwin, rector of Grimston. Mr. Unwin the younger, was one day so attracted by Cowper's uncommon and interesting appearance, that he attempted to solicit his acquaintance, and achieved his purpose with such reciprocity of delight, that Cowper was finally induced to take up his abode with his new friend's amiable family, which then consisted of the Rev. Mr. Unwin, Mrs. Unwin, the son just mentioned, and a daughter. It appears to have been about the month of Sep. tember 1765, that he formed this acquaintance, and about February 1766, he became an inmate in the family. In July 1767, Mr. Unwin senior, was killed by a fall from his horse. The letters which Mra Hayley has published, describe in the clearest light the singularly peaceful and devoted life of the amiable writer, during his residence at Huntingdon, and this melancholy accident which occasioned his removal to a distant country.
About this time he added to the number of his friends, the venerable and pious John Newton, rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, but then curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire, who being consulted by Mr. Cowper as to an eligible residence for Mrs. Unwin, recommended a house at Olney, to which the lady, her daughter, and our poet removed on the 14th of October, 1767. At this residence, endeared to them by the company and public services of a man of congenial sentiments, Cowper for some years continued to enjoy those blessings of a retired and devotional life which had constituted his only happiness since his recovery. His correspondence at this era evinces a placid train of sentiment, mixed with an air of innocent gaiety, that must have afforded the highest satisfaction to his friends. Among other pleasures of the purest kind, he delighted in acts of benevolence, and as he was not rich, he had the additional felicity of being employed as an almoner in the secret benevolences of that most charitable of all human beings, the late John Thornton, Esq. an opulent merchant of London, whose name he has immortalized in his poem on Charity, and in some verses on bis death, which Mr. Hayley first published. Mr. Thornton allowed Mr. Newton the sum of 2001. per annum, for the use of the poor of Olney, and it was the joint concern of Mr. Newton and Mr. Cowper to distribute this sum in the most judicious and useful manner. Such a bond of union could not fail to increase their intimacy. “Cowper,” says Mr. Newton “ loved the poor: he often visited them in their cottages, conversed with them in the most condescending manner, sympathized with them, counselled and comforted them in their distresses; and those who were seriously disposed, were often cheered and animated by bis prayers." of their intimacy, the same writer speaks in these emphatic terms--"For nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time, when we were awake and at home. The first six í passed in daily admiring and aiming to imitate him : during the second six, I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death.” Among other friendly services about this time, he wrote for Mr. Newton some beautiful hymns, wbich the latter introduced in public worship, and published in a collection long before Cowper was known as a poet.
In 1770, his brother John died at Cambridge, an event which made a lasting, but not unfavourable impression on the tender and affectionate mind of our poet. While the circumstances of this event were recent he committed them to paper, and they were published by Mr. Newton in 1802. Cowper afterwards introduced some lines to his memory in the Task :
“ I bad a brother once.
A man of letters, and of manners too,” &c. For some years his brother withstood, but finally adopted, our author's opinions in religious matters; and severely as the survivor felt the loss of so amiable a relative, it produced no other effect on his mind than to increase his confidence in the princi. ples he bad adopted, and to rejoice in the consolations he derived from them.
From this period, his life affords little for narrative until 1773, when, in the language of his biographer, “bé sank into such severe paroxysms of religious despondency, that he required an attendant of the most gentle, vigilant, and inflexible spirit. Such an attendant he found in that faithful guardian (Mrs. Unwin) whom he had professed to love as a mother, and who watched over him, during this long fit of depressive malady, extended through several years, with that perfect mixture of tenderness and fortitude, which constitutes the inestimable influence of maternal protection. I wish to pass rapidly over this calamitous period, and shall only observe, that nothing could surpass the sufferings of the patient, or excel the care of the nurse. That meritorious care received from heaven the most delightful of all rewards, in seeing the pure and powerful mind to whose restoration it contributed so much, not only gradually restored to the common enjoyments of life, but successively endowed with new and marvellous funds of diversified talents, and courageous application."
His recovery was slow, and he knew enough of his malady to abstain from literary employment while his mind was in any degree unsettled. The first amusement which engaged his humane affections, was the taming of three hares, a circumstance that would have scarcely deserved notice unless among the memoranda of natural history, if he had not given it an extraordinary interest in every heart by the animated account he wrote of this singular family. In the mean time, his friends (Mrs. Unwin and Mr, Newton) redoubled their efforts to promote his happiness, and to reconcile him to the world, in which he had yet a very important part to act: but as, in 1780, Mr. Newton was obliged to leave Olney, and accept of the living of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, he contrived to introduce Cowper to the friendship of the Rev. Mr. Bull, of Newport Pagnell. This gentleman, who had many excellent qualities to recommend bim as a fit successor to Mr. Newton, soon acquired the unreserv. ed confidence of our author.' It was at Mr. Bull's request that he translated several spiritual songs from the French of Madame De La Mothe Guion, which have since been published separately. His recovery from this second illness may be dated from the summer of 1778, after which he began to meditate those greater exertions upon which his fame rests.