Page images

them into verse, was a healthful and amusing occupation rather than an irksome labor. But his resources for original composition appear to have been mainly exhausted when he had finished the Task. For a man of literature, his reading was limited; he had seen but little; and though he saw clearly and felt strongly, what he saw and felt at all, and transferred his impressions with admirable dis tinctness to the minds of others, yet his sympathies were not extensive ; and where he was not attracted, he was to often repulsed. At the request of friends, he wrote a few ballads on Slavery, and he was repeatedly urged to make this the subject of an extended poem; but he rejected the theme as “odious and disgusting ;" one which he could not bear to contemplate. Poet of nature as he was, his enjoyment, even, of natural scenery was limited ; and he com plained, on his visit to Haley, that the wildness of the hills and woods around Eartham oppressed his spirits. “Cowper,” says Sir James Mackintosh,“ does not describe the most beautiful scenes in nature; he discovers what is most beautiful in ordinary scenes. His poetical eye and nis moral heart detected beauty in the sandy flats of Buckinghamshire."

Another design, which he undertook, at the request of Johnson, his bookseller, and which was also left unfinished, was a new edition of Milton, which was intended to rival in splendor, Boydell's Shakspeare. But Cowper was now beginning to feel the effects of age as well as of dis

Not only this, but his old and dear friend, and faithful and affectionate nurse, Mrs. Unwin, “who had known no wish but his for the last twenty years," had now fallen into a state of hopeless imbecility. “Their relatiro. situation to each other,” says Southey, “was now revert ed. She was the helpless person, and he the attentive purse. As her reasoning faculties decayed, her character vaderwent a total charge, and she exacted constant atten


tion from him without the slightest consideration for his health or state of mind. Poor creatures that we are, eren the strength of religious principle and virtuous habit, fai? us, if reason fails.”

This circumstance sensibly affected his spirits; and though no sadden and striking change henceforth took place in his demeanor, it now became evident that reason was gradually losing its influence over his mind. This was especially shewn by a correspondence which he commenced, about this time, with one Teedon, a poor, conceited schoolmaster, of Olney. Cowper had long been troubled, not only with hideous dreams, but with audible illusions. During the night, and on waking in the morning, he frequently heard, as he said, some sentence uttered in a distinct voice, to which he gave implicit credit, as having some relation either to his temporal or spiritual concerns. He had long known Teedon, and understood his character; and in former days, had sometimes been amused with his vanity and conceit. But he had now, by some means, become persuaded that this man was especi ally favored by Providence; and to him, the sentences which he heard, with an account of his dreams and other nocturnal experiences, were regularly sent off; and the result of these “pitiable consultations," Cowper carefully wrote in a book till he had filled several volumes. Tho following will serve as specimens of these letters. “Dear Bir-I awoke this morning, with these words relating to my work [Milton] loudly and distinctly spoken - Apply assistance in my case indigent and necessitous."" Again : “ This morning, at my waking, I heard these Fulfil thy promise to me."" On another occasion, he writes Teedon as follows. I have been vieited with a horrible dream, in which I seemed to be taking a final leave of my dwelling. I felt the tenderest regret at the separation, and locked about fo: something durable to carry with we wa

memorial. The iron hasp of the garden-ducr presenting itself, I was ou the point of taking that, but recollecting that the heat of the fire, in which I was going to be tormented, would fuse the metal, and that it would only servo to increase my insupportable misery, I left it. I thes aroke in all the horror with which the reality of such circumstances would fill me." Thus,“ hunted by spiritual hounds in the night season," and by day, “forecasting the fashion of uncertain evils.” the gloom of despair was now settling down on Cowper for the last time. His temporal wants were, however, now amply provided for; a pension of three hundred pounds having been granted him by government.

In the summer of 1795, his friends thought it advisable that he and Mrs. Unwin, (for it would have been cruel to separate them,) should visit the coast for the benefit of the sea air. After a short sojourn at Mundsley, productive of iittle advantage, they finally went to reside at East Dereham, in Norfolk, at the house of Cowper's cousin, the Rev. John Johnson, the relative mentioned in a former part of this narrative, who procured for him the portrait of his mother. Here Cowper remained to the end of his life, and here Mrs. Unwin died some time before him. When his health and spirits would permit, Cowper occupied himself at Dereham with the revisal of his Homer, and he sometimes wrote a few verses. The last original piece that he composed was the Castaway; and in the words of Southey, “all circumstances considered, it is one of the most affecting that ever was composed.” At length, huwever, he refused either to read or write, and his only employment afterwards, was in listening to works of fiction -almost the only books that appeared to interest him: and “so happy,” says Mr. Johnson, “ was the influence of these in riveting his attention, that he discovered peculiar satisfactior when any one of more than ordinary length was introduced.” This being perceived by his kinsman, the novels of Richardson were obtained, and they afforded him the more pleasure on account of his former personal acquaintance with the author. “ Perhaps too,” Southey adds, “there may be more satisfaction in re-perusing good book after an interval of many years, than is felt in reading it for the first time." These readings did not, however wholly abstract Cowper's mind from the contemplation of his own wretched state. In one of the few most melancholy letters which he wrote during these years to Lady Hesketh, he says, “I expect that in six days, at the latest, I shall no longer foresee, but feel the accomplishment of all my fears. 0, lot of unexampled misery incurred in a moment! O wretch! to whom death and life are alike impossible! Most miserable at present in this, that being thus miserable I have my senses continued to me, only that I may look forward to the worst. It is certain, at least, that I have them for no other purpose,

and but very imperfectly for this. My thoughts are like loose and dry sand, which, the closer it is grasped, slips the sooner away. Mr. Johnson reads to me, but I lose every other sentence through the inevitable wanderings of my mind, and experience, as I have these two years, the same shattered mode of thinking on every subject, and on all occasions. If I seem to write with more connexion, it is only because the gaps do not appear.

« Adieu.- I shall not be here to receive your answer, neither shall I ever see you more. Such is the expectation of the most desperate, and the most miserable of all beings.

W.C." The last reading which Cowper heard was that of his own Poems. He listened in silence to Mr. Johnson, till they came to John Gilpin, but this he begged his kinsman to omit. In February, 1800, he was taken with dropsy, which in a sliort time confined him to his chamber. The physician who was called to attend him, asking him “how he felt?” “Feel!” said Cowper, “I feel unutterablo despair !” To the consolations of religion he refused to listen; and when, on one occasion, Mr. Johnson spoke to him of a “merciful Redeemer, who had prepared unspeakable happiness for all his children,-and therefore for him,” Cowper, with passionate entreaties, begged him to desist from any further observations of a similar kind. A few days after this sad scene, the attendant offering him a cordial, he rejected it, saying, “What can it signify;" and these were the last words he was heard to utter. He died on the following morning, the 25th of April, 1800.

No one, it would seem, can read Southey's Biography of this blameless and suffering man of genius, without strong feelings of regret that he did not, earlier in life, resort to literature as a serious employment. Full and congenial occupation was absolutely indispensible, not merely, as in ordinary cases, to his enjoyment of life, but to his exemption from the most cruel disease ; and to any other pursuits than those of literature, his wretched nervous system rendered him utterly inconi petent. What Göethe says of Hamlet, may, with some modification, apply to Cowper. Any of the common avoca tions, and any of the onerous and vexatious duties of life were to him as “an oak tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom ; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.” It is scarcely probable that any combination of circumstances could have availed, wholly to avert the malaily which poisoned his existence. His whole system, both of mind and body was so peculiar in its organization,-so admirable in some of its parts, and 90 feeble and defective in others,--that too much, or .00 little, or any uncongenial action was sure to disturb or destroy its balance. But literature, though tried late, proved to be infinitely the best remedy to soothe and regu

« PreviousContinue »