Page images



William CowPER is the most important figure in English poetry between Pope and Wordsworth. Regarded as a literary force, his position is not altogether unlike that of Milton, for Cowper's poetry is as much imbued with the spirit of the Evangelical movement of the eighteenth century as Milton's is with the Puritan spirit of the seventeenth century.

The story of Cowper's life may best be learned from his poems and letters, wherein he draws a picture of himself, the excellence of which no biographer can expect to approach. We must be content here to set down the most important facts connected with his career as a poet. He was born on 15th November 1731, at Great Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire. His father was rector of the place, and lived in what Cowper calls the “pastoral house." His mother died in 1737 at the birth of another son, John. In a poem written many years later, on the occasion of receiving a portrait of his mother, the poet beautifully described his childish sensations at her death and funeral, his great affection for her, and something of the manner of his life at that early period. 1

The boy was sent first to a boarding-school at Market Street, Hertfordshire, where he was cruelly treated, and spent a very unhappy time. In 1785 Cowper published a poem called the “Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools," in which he advocated home education as preferable to that obtained at public schools. His early and unfortunate experience at Market Street probably influenced his opinion. An affection of the eyes compelled him to spend two years in the house of an oculist, who cured the disorder ; but throughout his life Cowper was subject to weakness and inflammation of the eyes. At ten years of age he entered Westminster School, where he seems to have spent some fairly happy years. Among his teachers was Vincent Bourne,2 many of whose Latin poems he afterwards translated; and for companions he had Warren Hastings, George Colman, and Charles Churchill. He saw little of them, however, when schooldays were past. He became an excellent cricketer and football player, and acquired while still at school a liking for literature. References to this period of his life may be found in the “ Task"; 3 and in the “Tirocinium” he writes :

“Be it a weakness, it deserves some praise,

We love the play-place of our early days.
The scene is touching, and the heart is stone
That feels not at that sight, and feels at none.
The wall on which we tried our graving skill,
The very name we carved subsisting still ;

1 Cf. “On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture,” pp. 166, 167, 11. 46-67. 2 Cf. Notes, p. 282.

3 Cf. “ Task,” I. 11. 114-122.

The bench on which we sat while deep employed,
Though mangled, hacked, and hewed, not yet destroyed :
The little ones, unbuttoned, glowing hot,
Playing our games, and on the very spot;
As happy as we once, to kneel and draw
The chalky ring, and knuckle down at taw;
To pitch the ball into the grounded hat,
Or drive it devious with a dexterous pat ;
The pleasing spectacle at once excites
Such recollection of our own delights,
That, viewing it, we seem almost to obtain
Our innocent, sweet, simple years again.”]

At leaving school Cowper was articled to a solicitor, in order that he might study that side of the law preparatory to keeping his terms. Thurlow, the future Lord Chancellor, was his fellow-clerk. The two young men spent much of their leisure at the house of Cowper's uncle, Ashley Cowper, "giggling and making giggle" with his daughters. With one of them, Theodora, Cowper fell in love.

He was called to the bar in 1754, took chambers in the Temple, and for some years led the ordinary life of a young and briefless barrister. The loneliness of his existence did not suit him, and tended to increase the depression of spirits which was constitutional with him. Neither did the course of true love run smoothly. Theodora's father forbade a marriage on prudential grounds, for the would-be bridegroom had neither present means nor future prospects, and his morbid melancholy augured ill for his mental and physical health. Cowper addressed poems to his lady-love in which, following an earlier literary fashion, he called her by the fanciful name of Delia. They were first published in 1825, and do not express a very deep passion. Theodora never married, and in after years assisted

1 Cf. Gray, “Ode on Eton College.”

Cowper with anonymous gifts of money. He now associated with men of letters, and contributed five papers 1 to the 'Connoisseur,' a weekly periodical conducted by Bonnell Thornton and George Colman. Since no remunerative work at the bar was forthcoming, his cousin, Major Cowper, nominated William to a clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords ; but some discussion arising as to the right of appointment, it became necessary for Cowper to undergo examination by the Peers. The notion of thus appearing in public increased his fits of depression to such an extent that they culminated in madness and an attempt at suicide. From 1763 to 1765 he was confined in an asylum at St Alban's.

On his recovery Cowper took lodgings in Huntingdon, in order to be near his brother John, who lived at Cambridge, and soon made the acquaintance of the family of Morley Unwin, a parson and private tutor at Huntingdon. Before long he became their boarder, a connection which was only severed by death. Mrs Unwin, the “Mary” of the poems, acquired a most salutary influence over Cowper's mind, and became his life-long monitress and friend. In her society he began to lose the belief that he was forsaken by God and marked out for eternal punishment-one of the particular tortures his mania imposed on him—and to take a sounder view of religion. “She is a blessing to me,” he wrote, “and I

i Nos. 111, 115, 119, 134; and 138.

2 Cf. “Task,” I. 11. 144-153; Sonnet, “To Mrs Unwin,” p. 171; “ To Mary,” p. 169.

3 Mary Unwin (1724-1796) was the daughter of William Cawthorne, a draper of Ely. She married Morley Unwin in 1744. She had two children, a son and a daughter. Some of Cowper's most delightful letters were written to the former,

never see her without being the better for her company.

[She] has a very uncommon understanding, has read much to excellent purpose, and is more polite than a duchess.” The life suited him perfectly, and he thus described it :

“We breakfast commonly between eight and nine; till eleven we read either the Scriptures or the sermons of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries ; at eleven we attend Divine Service, which is performed here twice every day; and from twelve to three we separate and amuse ourselves as we please. During that interval I either read in my own apartment, or walk, or ride, or work in the garden. We seldom sit an hour after dinner, but, if the weather permits, adjourn to the garden, where, with Mrs Unwin and her son, I have generally the pleasure of religious conversation till teatime. If it rains, or is too windy for walking, we either converse within-doors, or sing some hymns of Martin's collection, and by the help of Mrs Unwin's harpsichord make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope, are the best and most musical performers. After tea we sally forth to walk in good earnest. Mrs Unwin is a good walker, and we have generally travelled about four miles before we see home again. When the days are short we make this excursion in the former part of the day, between church-time and dinner. At night we read and converse, as before, till supper, and commonly finish the evening either with hymns

a sermon, and, last of all, the family are called to prayers.

On Mr Unwin's death in 1767, the family, and Cowper with them, removed to Olney in Buckinghamshire, în order to be near the Rev. John Newton, whose acquaint


« PreviousContinue »