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But when he had returned to town, and was required to attend the office and prepare for the examination, his madness all came back upon him, and he made several attempts to commit suicide rather than endure the ordeal. On the night before he was to appear at the bar of the House, he nearly succeeded in his efforts ; and when the last had failed, and he sent to his kinsman to tell him what he had done, he said, “My dear Mr. Cowper, you terrify me ! To be sure you cannot hold the office at this rate.” It was evident that the poet was seriously ill, and the physician was sent for, while all thought of his holding a parliamentary office was abandoned. Then followed a terrible time of darkness and pain, from the sense of sin and the expectation of punishment. He read religious books, and held conversation with religious people, but all to no purpose ; he could find no comfort, but the gloom that oppressed him became yet more impenetrable. It was then that he wrote the terrible poem commencing— “Hatred and vengeance—my eternal portion Scarce can endure delay of execution— Wait with impatient readiness to seize my Soul in a moment.” The friends of Cowper felt that it was absolutely necessary to place him under restraint, and he was taken to a private lunatic asylum kept by Dr. Colton at St. Albans. Dr. Colton was a Christian and a man of letters; and so tenderly and wisely did he deal with his patient, that Cowper got much better in course of time, and was able to leave the asylum. In the calm that followed the fever through which he had passed, he wrote the beautiful hymns beginning—
“How blest Thy creature is, O God,
A great peace had now settled down upon him ; but it was still felt that it would be dangerous to subject him to any mental strain, and accordingly lodgings were procured for him at Huntingdon. He had spent more than eighteen months at St. Albans, “partly in bondage,” he wrote “and partly in the liberty wherewith Christ had made me free.” At Huntingdon he at once commenced again to correspond with his friends, notably with his cousin, Lady Hesketh, and his friend Hill. The letters of this time were most beautiful, poetic, humorous, and altogether delightful reading—indeed, William Cowper's letters are among the most finished productions of his genius. It was during his life at Huntingdon that he found some of his best friends. He announced to Lady Hesketh the fact that he had made acquaintance “with the race of the Unwins, consisting of father and mother, and son and daughter—the most comfortable and social folks you ever knew. The father is a clergyman, and the son is designed for orders. The design, however, is quite his own, proceeding merely from his being, and having always been, sincere in his belief and love of the gospel.” Soon after, in the first place from motives of economy, he went to reside with the Unwins, and what this was to him, even from the beginning, may be seen from the following extract:“I here found a place of rest, prepared for me by God's own hand, where He has given me abundant means of furtherance in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, both by the study of His Word and communion with His dear disciples. May nothing but death interrupt it.” He was a little perplexed at this time, because his expenditure had outrun his income, and he was on the verge of bankruptcy; but his friends generously came forward and made up the deficit. He thus described his life with the Unwins:—“We breakfast commonly between eight and nine ; till eleven, we read either the Scripture or the sermons of some faithful preacher; at eleven we attend divine service, which is here performed twice a-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.” The rest of the day was divided between walking and holding religious services and conversations. At this time Cowper ceased writing to Lady Hesketh, who did not altogether appear to sympathise with his religious ideas and practices, believing, no doubt, that it was not good for her cousin to be so constantly dwelling on this theme; and he therefore poured out his thoughts to another cousin, the wife of Colonel Cowper.
The happy home at Huntingdon was broken up in consequence of the death of the head of the family. Mr. Unwin was riding to church on one Sunday morning, when he was thrown from his horse, and received injuries from which, a few days later, he died. It was now necessary for Mrs. Unwin to remove, and Mr. Newton of Olney, with whom they were slightly acquainted, was asked to look out a place for them. They subsequently removed to Olney, the sole reason being that by living there they would be under the pastoral care of Newton. This remarkable man and Cowper
soon became close friends : they were seldom apart for many hours together, and the poet assisted the preacher by visiting the sick and dying, and leading prayer-meetings, etc. The excitement of this could not have been good for Cowper, who had many attacks of nervous agitation in consequence ; but he declared that he “had entered upon a course of decided Christian happiness.” Lady Hesketh especially was afraid of the result. “Mr. Newton is an excellent man, I make no doubt,” said she, “and to a strong-minded man like himself might have been of great use ; but to such a tender mind, and to such a wounded yet lively imagination as our cousin's, I am persuaded that eternal praying and preaching were too much.” In 1770 Cowper lost his brother, the Rev. John Cowper, under circumstances which made a deep impression upon him. Soon after this he was engaged with Mr. Newton in producing a volume called The Olney Hymns. To read those of our poet is to see that the happy peace of mind which he had been enjoying was passing away, for sorrow and doubt are in such verses as these—