« הקודםהמשך »
versation, display an acute observation of men and manners, and are replete with the keenest, but, at the same time, the most polished satire ; while his John Gilpin is a master-piece of quiet and unforced, but, at the same time, strong and racy humor.
William COWPER belonged emphatically to the aristocracy of England. His father, the Rev. Dr. Cowper, chaplain to George the Second, was the son of Spencer Cowper, one of the judges of the court of common pleas, and a younger brother of the first Earl Cowper, the lord chancellor. His mother was allied to some of the noblest families in England, descended, by four different lines, from King Henry the Third. This lofty lineage, though it does not add to the lustre of the poet's fame, still sheds additional grace on his piety and humility.
Dr. Cowper, besides his royal chaplaincy, held the rectory of Great Berkhamstead, in Hertford, and there the poet was born on the fifteenth of November, 1731. In the sixth year of his age he lost his mother, and was placed at a boarding-school, where he continued two years. The tyranny of one of his school-fellows led to his removal from this seminary, and undoubtedly prejudiced him against the whole system of public education. He was next placed at Westminster school, where, as he says, he served a seven years' apprenticeship to the classics ; and at the age of eighteen was articled to an attorney. In 1754 Cowper was called to the bar, but he had never made the law his study; for, in the solicitor's office he and Thurlow, afterwards lord chancellor, were constantly employed, from morning to night, in giggling and making giggle. After he had taken chambers in the Temple, instead of devoting himself to his profession, he passed his time in company with Lloyd and other wits, contributing an occasional paper to the Connoisseur, and to St. James's Chronicle.
In 1762 Cowper lost his father; and now, in the thirty-second year of his age, with a small patrimony, he was almost unprovided with an aim ;' for the law was with him a mere nominal profession. In this crisis of his fortunes his kinsman, Major Cowper, presented him to the office of clerk of the journals to the House of Lords—a desirable and lucrative appointment. Cowper readily accepted the situation; but the labor of studying the forms of procedure, and the dread of qualifying himself by appearing at the bar of the House of Lords, plunged him into the deepest misery. The seeds of insanity were then in his frame; and after brooding over his fancied ills till reason had fled, he attempted to commit suicide. Happily this desperate effort failed; and the appointment being given up, Cowper was placed in the private insane asylum, kept by Dr. Cotton, to which we alluded in our notice of that author. The cloud of horror gradually passed away, and on his recovery he resolved to retire from the society and business of the world. He had still a small portion of his funds left, and his friends subscribed a farther sum, to enable him to live frugally in retirement.
The bright hopes of Cowper's youth seemed thus to have all vanished:
his prospects of advancement in the world were gone; and in the new-born zeal of his religious fervor, his friends might well doubt whether his reason had been completely restored. He retired to the town of Huntingdon, near Cambridge, where his brother resided, and there formed an intimacy with the family of the Rev. Mr. Unwin, a clergyman resident in the place. He was adopted as one of the family; and when Mr. Unwin was removed, soon after, by death, the same connection was continued with his widow. Death only could sever a tie so strongly knit-cemented by mutual faith and friendship, and by sorrows of which the world knew nothing. To the latest generation the name of Mary Unwin will be associated with that of Cowper, partaker of his fame as of his sad decline
By seraphs writ with beams of heavenly light.
On the death of Mr. Unwin, in 1767, the family were advised, by the Rev. John Newton, to fix their abode at Olney, in the northern part of Buckinghamshire, where Mr. Newton himself was settled. This was accordingly done, and Cowper removed with them to a spot which he has consecrated by his genius. The river Ouse was still before him, and with more varied and attractive scenery than at Huntingdon. His life was that of a religious recluse; he ceased to correspond with his friends, and associated only with Mrs. Unwin and Newton. The latter engaged his assistance in writing a volume of hymns, and of those which Cowper furnished we present the following as a specimen :
SUFFICIENCY OF THE ATONEMENT.
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
Lose all their guilty stains.
That fountain in his day;
Wash'd all my sins away.
Shall never lose its power,
Be saved to sin no more.
Thy flowing wounds supply,
And shall be till I die.
I'll sing thy power to save;
Lies silent in the grave.
6. Lord, I believe thou hast prepared
(Unworthy though I be)
A golden harp for me!
And form'd by power divine;
No other name but thine.
Cowper's morbid melancholy had been, for some time, increasing, and in 1773, it became a case of decided insanity. He passed about two years in this unhappy state ; and after his recovery, he occupied his time alternately with gardening, rearing hares, drawing landscapes, and composing poetry. The latter was fortunately the most permanent source of enjoyment; and its fruits appeared in a volume of poems, published in 1783. The reception of these poems, though not enthusiastic, was such as to revive his spirits : he resumed his correspondence, and cheerfulness again became an inmate of his retreat at Olney. This happy change was augmented by the presence of a third party, Lady Austen, a widow, who came to reside in the imme diate neighborhood of Olney, and whose conversation charmed away, for a time, Cowper's melancholy spirit. She told him the story of John Gilpin, and the famous horseman and his feats were an inexhaustible source of merriment.' Lady Austen also prevailed upon him to try his powers in blank verse, and from her suggestion sprung the noble poem, The Task. This great work appeared in 1785, and its success was instant and decided. The public rejoiced to hear again the true voice of poetry and of nature, and in the rural descriptions and fireside scenes of The Task,' they saw the features of English scenery and domestic life faithfully delineated.
Cowper had no sooner completed the Task, than he resolved to undertake the translation of Homer. He had gone through the great Grecian at Westminster school, and afterwards read him critically in the Temple; and by translating forty lines a day he at length completed the laborious undertaking, which, in 1791, appeared, in two volumes quarto. As a translation the work is faithful to the original; but it wants the infusion of the old Ionian bard's spirit, and hence it has failed to become popular. This, with the exception of the Castaway, one of his minor poems, was his last literary performance. On the seventeenth of December, 1796, Mrs. Unwin died suddenly at Norfolk, whither Cowper had accompanied her on a visit. When the mournful intelligence was imparted to the unhappy poet, he refused to believe that his long-tried friend was actually dead. He went to see the body, and on witnessing the unaltered placidity of death, flung himself to the other side of the room with a passionate expression of feeling, and from that time forward he never mentioned her name. He lingered on in lonely life, however, for more than three years; but death at length came to his relief, on the twenty-fifth of April, 1800.
The mind uniformly turns from contemplating the life of Cowper with
deep melancholy. So sad and strange a destiny never has, before or since, attended a man of genius. With wit and humor at all times at his command, he was, for the most part of his life, bordering on despair. Though innocent, pious, and confiding, he lived in constant dread of everlasting punishment: he could only see between him and heaven a high wall, which he despaired of ever being able to scale. Yet who can doubt that the spirit that breathed forth such strains as the following, is not now in heavenly bliss !
Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
That leads me to the Lamb!
When first I saw the Lord ?
Of Jesus and his word ?
How sweet their mem'ry still !
The world can never fill.
Sweet messenger of rest;
And drove thee from my breast:
Whate'er that idol be,
And worship only thee.
Calm and serene my frame;
That leads me to the Lamb.
The almost universal popularity of Cowper's poetry, renders the task of selecting particular poems or passages from it, a very delicate and difficult
We shall first present, without reference to their relative merit, his verses addressed to Mrs. Unwin, in 1793, and then his sketch of the Greenland Missionaries, in “Conversation. These shall be followed by his Lines on his Mother's Picture, after which some extracts from The Task,' will find an appropriate place.
The twentieth year is well nigh past
Thy spirits have a fainter flow, I see thee daily weaker grow; 'Twas my distress that brought thee low,
My Mary! Thy needles, once a shining store, For my sake restless heretofore, Now rust disused, and shine no more,
My Mary! For though thou gladly wouldst fulfil The same kind office for me still, Thy sight now seconds not thy will,
My Mary! But well thou play'dst the housewife's part, And all thy threads, with magic art, Have wound themselves about this heart,
My Mary! For, could I view nor them nor thee, What sight worth seeing could I see ? The sun would rise in vain for me,
My Mary! Partakers of thy sad decline, Thy hands their little force resign, Yet gently pressed, press gently mine,
My Mary! Such feebleness of limbs thou prov'st, That now at every step thou mov'st Upheld by two; yet still thou lov'st,
My Mary! And still to love, though pressed with ill, In wintry age to feel no chill, With me is to be lovely still,
My Mary! But ah! by constant heed I know, How oft the sadness that I show, Transforms thy smiles to looks of woe,
My Mary! And should my future lot be cast With much resemblance of the past, Thy worn-out heart will break at last,