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LIFE OF WILLIAM COWPER, ESQ.
OF TIIE INNER TEMPLE.
WILLIAM Cowper was born at Berkhamstead, Herts, November 26th, 1731. His father, the rector of the parish, was the reverend John Cowper, D. D., son of Spencer Cowper, one of the justices of the common pleas, a younger brother of the lord chancellor Cowper. He received his early education at a school in his native county, whence he was removed to that of Westminster. Here he acquired a competent portion of classical knowledge; but, from the delicacy of his temperament, and the timid shyness of his disposition, he seems to have endured E. species of martyrdom from the rudeness and tyranny of his more robust companions, and to have received, indel ibly, the impressions that subsequently produced his Tirocinium, in which poem his dislike to the system of public education in England is very strongly stated. On leaving Westminster, he was articled, for three years, to an eminent attorney, during which time he appears to have paid very little attention to his profession; nor did he alter on this point after his entry at the Temple, in order to qualify himself for the honourable and lucrative place of clerk to the house of lords, which post his family interest had secured for him. While he resided in the temple, he appears to have been rather gay and social in his intercourse, numbering among his companions Lloyd, Churchill, Thornton and Colman, all of whom had been his companions at Westminster school, and the two latter of whom he assisted with some papers in the Connoisseur. His natural disposition, however, remained timid and diffident, and his spirits so constitutionally infirm, that, when the time arrived for his assuming the post to which he had
been destined, he was thrown into such unaccountable terror at the idea of making his appearance before the assembled peerage, that he was not only obliged to resign the appointment, but was precipitated, by his agitation of spirits, into a state of great mental disorder. At this period, he was led into a deep consideration of his religious state ; and, having imbibed the doctrine of election and reprobation in its most appalling rigor, he was led to a very dismal state of apprehension. We are told, " that the terror of eternal judgment overpowered and actually disordered his faculties; and he remained seven months in a con. tinual expectation of being instantly plunged into eternal misery.” In this shocking condition confinement became necessary, and he was placed in a receptacle for lunatics, kept by the amiable and well-known doctor Cotton of St. Alban's. At length, his mind recovered a degree of serenity, and he retired to Huntingdon, where he formed an acquaintance with the family of the reverend Mr. Unwin, which ripened into the strictest intimacy. In 1773, he was again assailed by religious despondency, and endured a partial alienation of mind for some years, during which anfiction he was highly indebted to the affectionate care of Mrs. Unwin. In 1778 he again recovered ; in 1780 he was persuaded to translate some of the spiritual songs of the celebrated madame Guion. In the same and the following year, he was also induced to prepare a volume of poems for the press, which was printed in 1782. This volume did not attract any great degree of public attention. The principal topics are, Error, Truth, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, Retirement and Conversation; all of which are treated with originality, but, at the same time, with a portion of religious austerity, which, without some very striking recommendation, was not, at that tirne, of a nature to acquire popularity. They are in rhymed heroics; the style being rather strong than poetical, although never flat or insipid. A short time before the publication of this volume, Mr. Cowper became acquainted with lady Austen, widow of Sir Robert Austen, who subsequently resided, for some time, at the parsonage-house at Olney. To the influence of this lady, the world is indebted for the exquisitely humorous ballad of John Gilpin, and the au
thor's master-piece, the Task. The latter admirable poem chiefly occupied his second volume, which was published in 1785, and rapidly secured universal admiration. The Task unites minute accuracy with great elegance and pic. turesque beauty; and, after Thomson, Cowper is probably the poet who has added most to the stock of natural imagery. The moral reflections in this poem are also exceedingly impressive, and its delineation of character abounds in genuine nature. His religious system, too, although discoverable, is less gloomily exhibited in this than in his oiher productions. This volume also contained his l'irocinium—a piece strongly written, and abounding with striking observations, whatever may be thought of its decision against public education. About the year 1784, he began his version of Homer, which, after many impediments, appeared in July, 1791,
This work possesses much exactness, as to sense, and is certainly a more accu. raic representation of Homer than the version of Pope ; bu: English blank verse cannot sufficiently sustain the less poetical parts of Homer, and the general effect is bald and prosaic. Disappointed at the reception of this laborious work, he meditated a revision of it, as also the superintendence of an edition of Milton, and a new didactic poem, 10 be entitled the Four Ages; but, although he occasionally wrote a few verses, and revised his Cdyssey, amidst bis glimmerings of reason, those and all other undertakings finally gave way to a relapse of his malady. His disorder extended, with little intermission to the close of life; which, melancholy to relate, ended in a state of absolute despair. In 1794, a pension of 300l. per annum was granted him by the crown. In the beginning of 1800, this gifted, but afflicted man of genius, exhibited symptons of dropsy, which carried him off on the 25th of April following. Since his death, Cowper has, by the care and industry of his friend and biographer, Haley, beconie known to the world, as one of the most easy and elegant letter-writers on record.