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WILLIAM COWPER, the most popular poet of his generation, and the best of English letter-writers, was born on the 15th of November (old style), 1731, in the Rectory, at Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire. His father, John Cowper, D. D., chaplain to George II., and rector of Great Berkhamstead, was the second son of Spencer Cowper, one of the judges of the court of Common Pleas.
Dr. Cowper married Anne, daughter of Roger Donne, Esq. of Ludham Hall, in Norfolk. She died in 1737, at the age of thirty-four, in child-bed, leaving, of several children, only two sons. Cowper was old enough to feel his loss poignantly, and he has recorded his feelings on this occasion in the most beautiful of his minor poems; see page 484. He was old enough, too, if not to understand the greatness of his loss, to be made sensible of its immediate consequences, by being sent at six years of age from home to a boarding-school, at Market Street in Hertfordshire, kept by a Dr. Pitman ; the first of those sad changes through which a gentle spirit has to pass in this uneasy and disordered world. “Here,” says Cowper, “I had hardships of various kinds to conflict with, which I felt more sensibly in proportion to the tenderness with which I had been treated at home. But my chief affliction consisted in being singled out from all the other boys, by a lad of about fifteen years of age, as a proper object upon whom he might let loose the cruelty of his temper. I choose to conceal a particular recital of the many acts of barbarity, with which he made it his business continually to persecute me.
It will be sufficient to say, that his savage treatment of me impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift my eyes upon him higher than his knees; and that I knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any other part of his dress. May the Lord pardon him, and may we meet in glory!”
The tyranny under which Cowper, for two years, suffered there, made, as well it might, a deep and lasting impression upon him; and to this it is that the strong dislike with which, in the latter part of his life, he regarded all schools, must be ascribed. When Cowper was removed from Dr. Pitman's, he was in some danger of losing his sight, specks having appeared on both eyes, which it was feared might cover them. He was therefore placed in the house of an eminent oculist,
whose wife also had obtained great celebrity in the same branch of medical science. With them he remained two years, and it appears that the progress of the disease was stopped there, for when he left their house he was placed at Westminster school. He was ten years old; at fourteen he was seized with the small-pox; he was severely handled by it, and in imminent danger, but this disease, he says, proved the best oculist, it removed the specks entirely.
The years which Cowper passed at Westminster were probably the happiest in his life. They were years in which he was not disquieted with any foresight of the obstacles which afterwards impeded his happiness; neither had he any cause, real or imaginary, for regret, or self-reproach. He was exactly one of those boys who choose for themselves the good that may be gained at a public school, and eschew the evil, being preserved from it by their good instincts, or by the influence of virtuous principles inculcated in childhood. Being equally fond of his studies and his sports, he was a proficient in both. “When I was a boy," he says in one of his letters, “ I excelled at cricket and football ; but the fame I acquired by achievements that way is long since forgotten, and I do not know that I have made a figure in any thing else.” The figure, however, which he afterwards made in the field of literature showed the benefit which he had derived both from the discipline of Westminster and its indiscipline, .. from the instruction which a man of genius willingly imparts to an apt and docile pupil in the regular course of school business; and from that play and exercise of the intellect which, in the little less profitable hours of school-idleness, he enjoyed with those schoolfellows who may properly be called his peers, Lloyd, Churchill, and Colman. Among his other contemporaries at Westminster who distinguished themselves in after life, were Cumberland, Impey, and Hastings; for the latter he had a particular value. His favourite school friend is said to have been Sir William Russell, the representative of a family often allied by intermarriages with the Cromwells. This is the friend to whom Cowper alludes in some of the earliest of his verses which have been preserved :
Still, still, I mourn with each returning day
Him snatch'd by fate in carly youth away. “At the age of eighteen," says Cowper, “ being tolerably well furnished with grammatical knowledge, but as ignorant of all kinds of religion as the satchel at my back, I was taken from Westminster; and having spent about nine months at home, was sent to acquire the practice of the law with an attorney. Having fixed on his study, or the law having been fixed on for him, he was articled for three years to a Mr. Chapman, and resided with him during that time. The transition from the sixth form in Westminster to a solicitor's office, was likely to be as great, and as little agreeable, in the point of society as of the employment to be pursued there.
He had, however, for fellow-clerk, no less a person than the after Lord Chancellor Thurlow, who had been educated at Canterbury school. Writing to Lady Hesketh many years afterwards, and reminding her of those days, he says, “There was I and the future Lord Chancellor constantly employed, from morning to night, in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law. O fie, cousin ! how could you do so ?”
Cowper had been entered at the Middle Temple (April 29, 1748) before he left school; and upon leaving the solicitor's office in his twenty-first year, and becoming, as he says, in a manner, complete mastes of himself, he took chambers there in 1752. And here, when he first began to live alone, that malady began, which at different times, and under different symptoms, darkened so much of his life. Its commencement he has thus described in his own melancholy Memoirs :"I was struck, not long after my settlement in the Temple, 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. I presently lost all relish for those studies to which I had before been closely attached; the classics had no longer any charms for me; I had need of something more salutary than amusement, but I had no one to direct me where to find it." In this state of mind he continued near a twelvemonth, when a change of scene was recommended to him, and he embraced an opportunity of going with some friends to Southampton, where he spent several months. Soon after his arrival, he tells us, on one beautiful morning, he felt the weight of all his misery taken off; his heart became light and joyful in a moment; he could have wept with transport had he ween alone.
On the 14th of June, 1754, Cowper was called to the bar. That he had taken no pains to qualify himself for his profession is certain, and it is probable that he had as little intention as inclination to pursue it, resting in indolent reliance upon his patrimonial means, and in the likely expectation that some official appointment would be found for him in good time. In 1756 he lost his father. “At that time I was young," he says, “ too young to have reflected much. It had never occurred to me that a parson has no fee-simple in the house and glebe he occupies. There was neither tree, nor gate, nor stile, in all that country, to which I did not feel a relation, and the house itself I preferred to a palace. I was sent for from London to attend him in his last illness, and he died just before I arrived. Then, and not till then, I felt, for the first time, that I and my native place were disunited for ever; I sighed a long adieu to fields and woods, from which I once thought I never should be parted, and was at no time so sensible of their beauties, as just when I left them all behind me, to return no more.”
Three years after his father's death, he removed from the
Middle to the Inner Temple, and purchased chambers there, in an airy situation. About this time he was made a Commissioner of Bankrupts; but he was more employed with literature than law, and perhaps more with love than literature. He had fixed his affections on one of those cousins with whom he and Thurlow used to giggle and make giggle in Southampton Row, . . Theodora Jane, second daughter of his uncle, Ashley Cowper. She was an accomplished woman, her person elegant, and her understanding more than ordinarily good. When the lady's father perceived their mutual inclination, he objected to it at first, on the score of want of means, and said to his daughter, “ If you marry William Cowper, what will you do?" "Do, sir?" she replied ; "wash all day, and ride out on the great dog at night !" Such an answer rather indicated a light spirit and a playful temper, than the deep affection which was really felt, and which, when it had been rendered hopeless, was faithfully retained through life. For when the passion became more serious, Mr. Ashley Cowper refused his consent, upon the ground that marriage was improper between persons so nearly related. From that time Cowper and the cousin whom he had loved so dearly never met again. Many years afterward, when his intimacy with Lady Hesketh was renewed, he said to her, “I still look back to the memory of your sister, and regret her; but how strange it is, if we were to meet now, we should not know each other!” The effect on Theodora was more durable. Neither time nor absence diminished her attachment to the object of her first and only love; the poems which, while their intercourse continued, he had transcribed for her as they were composed, she carefully preserved during many years; and then, for reasons known only to herself, sent them in a sealed packet to a lady, her particular friend, with directions not to be opened till after her decease.*
The power of versifying is sometimes hereditary. Cowper's father, his uncle Ashley, and his brother, all wrote verses. He himself had been “a dabbler in rhyme,” he said, ever since he was fourteen years of age, when he began with translating an elegy of Tibullus. The earliest of his compositions that has been preserved is an imitation of the Splendid Shilling, written at Bath in 1748, on finding the heel of a shoe : he was then in his seventeenth year, and the diction and versification are such that no one would suppose it to have been a juvenile production. During his residence in the Temple, he belonged to the Nonsense Club, consisting of seven Westminster men, who dined together every Thursday. Bonnell Thornton, Colman, Lloyd, and Joseph Hill were members; the latter no otherwis wn than as having been Cowper's correspondent and constant friend through life,.. but this is to be well known. Of these, Thornton and Colman were the most distinguished;
* These poems, though coryright, are reprinted in the present edition, pages 357-369.
the former was four years his senior, the latter two years his junior. In January, 1754, they had commenced the publication of the “Connoisseur,” to which Cowper contributed a few papers.
One of them is upon the subject of keeping secrets; and, though written in a strain of levity, it had so good an effect upon himself, that he says, “ from that day he believed he had never divulged one.” He was also an occasional contributor to the “St. James's Chronicle," of which they were two of the original proprietors. Another of Cowper's friends was Robert Lloyd. One of the earliest of his existing poems is an Epistle addressed to Lloyd, while he was an under-graduate, and written in his own manner, .. for that, at the age of one-and-twenty, had already been formed. These verses will be found at p. 354. Of Churchill, the friend of Lloyd, Cowper had a higher opinion than of any other contemporary writer. “ It is a great thing,” he said, “ to be indeed a poet, and does not happen to more than one man in a century; but Churchill, the great Churchill, deserved that name. Cowper made him, more than any other writer, his model. No two poets could be more unlike each other in habits, temper, and disposition. Their only sympathy was in a spirit of indignation, taking in both the form of satire, but which the one directed against individuals for what he deemed their political turpitude, or for offence given to himself or his friends; the other, against the prevailing sins and errors of
No intimacy, however, appears to have subsisted between them, notwithstanding these points of sympathy, and their acquaintance at school, though they were of the same standing there.
During his residence in the Temple, Cowper, though he exercised himself in only the lighter branches of composition, took more than ordinary pains to keep up his classical knowledge. He had read through the Iliad and Odyssey at Westminster with Sutton, afterwards Sir Richard; and now he went through these poems again with a friend, Alston by name, and compared Pope's translation throughout with the original. He also assisted his brother in translating the Henriade into heroic couplets for some periodical work. The translation did not extend beyond eight books, of which he supplied four, and his brother received twenty guineas for their joint labours. But sad thoughts were crowding upon him. He was now in the thirty-second year of his age, his patrimony was well-nigh spent, and to use his own words) there was no appearance that he should ever repair the damage by a fortune of his own getting. He began to be a little apprehensive of approaching want; and under that apprehension, talking one day of his affairs with a friend, he expressed his hope that if the clerk of the journals of the House of Lords should die, his kinsman, Major Cowper, who had the place in his disposal, would give him the appointment. The clerk of the journals died shortly afterwards; and at the same time the