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LIFE OF WILLIAM COWPER.
WILLIAM COWPER was born on the 26th of November 1731, at Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, of which village his father, the Rev. John Cowper, was rector. He was of noble ancestry, and many of his immediate relatives moved in the upper ranks of life. His mother, Ann Donne, a daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Ludham Hall in Norfolk, died when he was only six years of age, leaving two children,
- William, the subject of this memoir, and a younger brother, Jobn. Her affection and tenderness made a deep impression on his young mind. Fifty years afterwards, on receiving her picture, he dwells as fondly on the cherished features as if he had just mourned her death. He writes to his cousin, Mrs Bodham, who had sent him the portrait“I received it the night before last, and viewed it with a trepidation of nerves and spirits somewhat akin to what I should have felt had the dear original presented herself to my embraces. I kissed it, and hung it where it is the last object that I see at night, and, of course, the first on which I open my eyes in the morning.” His feelings, indeed, were all of the intense kind. “I never received a little pleasure from anything in my life," he writes ;“ if I am pleased, it is in the extreme."
Few incidents of his early-life have been preserved, and much obscurity rests on the circumstances which made him a stranger from his father's house almost immediately after his mother's death. Though his father lived to the year 1756, Cowper appears never to have lived at home, except
ing for a brief period of nine months, when he was eighteen years of age.
When only six years of age, he was sent to the school of Dr Pitman, in Market Street, on the borders of Hertfordshire. Here he continued two years—a period embittered by the cruelty of a boy of fifteen years of age, treatment,” says Cowper, “ impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift up my eyes upon him higher than his knees; and that I knew him by his shoe-buckles bettur than any other part of his dress.” It is characteristic of the gentle spirit of the poet, that he refrains from mentioning the name of his persecutor.
In consequence of an affection in the eyes which threatened to deprive him of sight, he was sent to an eminent oculist in London, in whose house he remained until he was ten years of age, when he had so far recovered as to be able to attend Westminster School. An attack of small-pox, three years afterwards, completed the restoration of his eyesight. At Westminster he continued till he was eighteen, having acquired a considerable knowledge of the Latin and Greek classics. He was then apprenticed for three years to an attorney; but, in an uncongenial employment, and under a careless master, he derived few advantages from his situation. “I was bred to the law," he writes; a profession to which I was never much inclined, and in which I engaged, rather because I was desirous to gratify a most indulgent father, than because I had any hope of success in it myself.” I did actually live three years with Mr Chapman, a solicitor," he says ; “there was I and the future Lord Chancellor” (Thurlow) “ stantly employed, from morning to night, in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law.”
It was at this period that he formed an attachment to his cousin, Theodora Cowper, the sister of Lady Hesketh, to whom so many of his letters are addressed. Though this affection was returned, obstacles, arising from her father's
aversion to the marriage of parties so nearly related, and from his own limited income, prevented their union. She was never married, and lived until the year 1824.
On leaving Mr Chapman, he took chambers in the Inner Temple, London, where he lived for twelve years. Here, instead of devoting himself to the study of the law, he yielded to the natural bent of his disposition, and amused himself with literature, and occasionally contributed verses and essays (none of which are now known) to the periodi. cals of the day.
Shortly after entering the Temple, the first symptoms of that malady appeared from which he was destined to suffer 80 dreadfully. “I was struck,” he says, “with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.” This despondency lasted for nearly twelve months.
Cowper's melancholy has been attributed to his religious views; but at this time he was entirely ignorant of true religion. Men of science in modern times will not hazard the unphilosophical opinions which were once entertained on this subject; derangement is now understood to be a disease which has its principal seat in the nervous system, and in which accident determines the particular mental delusion by which the patient is oppressed.
When thirty-one years of age, he was appointed readingclerk and clerk of the private committees of the House of Lords, a situation which he resigned for the inferior post of clerk of the journals in the same house of parliament. This appointment seemed at first to afford him considerable pleasure. “ If I succeed,” he writes to Lady Hesketh, “ in this doubtful piece of promotion, I shall have at least this satisfaction to reflect upon, that the volumes I write will be treasured up with the utmost care for ages, and will last as long as the English constitution, a duration which ought to satisfy the vanity of any author who has a spark of love for his country.”
These prospects were destroyed by a party dispute, regarding the right of appointment, which rendered it necessary that he should appear at the bar of the House of Lords. The idea of appearing in such a situation entirely unhinged his mind, and drove him to repeated attempts to commit suicide. His friends, on learning his condition, immediately surrendered the appointment; and, as his malady still continued, put him under the care of Dr Cotton, in St Alban's, a physician equally fitted to minister to the mind and the body. With him he remained for two years.
It is from this period he dates his conversion. His religious education had been almost entirely neglected. He had made himself acquainted with the evidences of Christianity, but was ignorant of Christianity itself. So early as his schoolboy days at Market Street, indeed, he had serious impressions on his mind, which returned very vividly at intervals while in the Temple; but until now, he was without any clear understanding of the nature of the gospel as a proclamation of mercy from God to sinners through Christ Jesus, and had no personal experience of its power to confer peace.
From St Alban's he removed to lodgings in Huntingdon. The chief recommendation of Huntingdon was, that being within fifteen miles of Cambridge, he was enabled to meet once a week with his brother John, a young man of great excellence; but it was too dull a residence to detain him long, had Providence not thrown in his way the family of the Unwins, whose friendship proved the greatest happiness of his life. To their mutual satisfaction, he became a boarder in the family, which at this time consisted of Mr Unwin and his wife, their son and daughter. Cowper thus describes his first impressions of them :-" The old gentleman is a man of learning and good sense, and as simple as Parson Adams. His wife has a very uncommon understanding, has read much to good purpose, and is more polite than a duchess. The son, who belongs to Cambridge, is a most amiable young man; and the daughter quite of a piece with the rest of the family." There must have been som hin