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Johnson and Franklin. His correspondence was resumed, and cheerfulness again became an inmate of his retreat at Olney. This happy change was augmented by the presence of a third party, Lady Austen, a widow, who came to reside in the immediate neighbourhood of Olney,and whose conversation for a time charmed away the melancholy spirit of Cowper. She told him the story of John Gilpin, and 'the famous horseman and his feats were an inexhaustible source of merriment. Lady Austen also prevailed upon the poet to try his powers in blank verse, and from her suggestion sprung the noble poem of “The Task.' This memorable friendship was at length dissolved. The lady exacted too much of the time and attention of the poet-perhaps a shade of jealousy on the part of Mrs. Unwin, with respect to the superior charms and attractions of her rival, intervened to increase the alienation and before 'The Task'was finished, its fair inspirer had left Olney without any intention of returning to it." In 1785 the new volume was published. Its success was instant and decided. The public were glad to hear the true voice of poetry and of nature, and in the rural descriptions and fireside scenes of "The Task,' they saw the features of English scenery and domestic life faithfully delineated. “ The Task," says Southey, ‘was at once descriptive, moral, and satirical. The descriptive parts everywhere bore evidence of a thoughtful mind and a gentle spirit, as well as of an observant eye; and the moral sentiment which pervaded them gave a charm in which descriptive poetry is often found wanting. The best didactic poems, when compared with “ The Task,” are like formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery. As soon as he had completed his labours for the publication of his second volume, Cowper entered upon an undertaking of a still more arduous nature-à translation of Homer. He had gone through the great Grecian at Westminster School, and afterwards read him critically in the Temple, and he was impressed with but a poor opinion of the translation of Pope. Setting himself to a daily task of forty lines, he at length accomplished the forty thousand verses. He published by subscription, in which his friends were generously active. The work appeared in 1791, in two volumes quarto. In the interval the poet and Mrs. Unwin had removed to Weston, a beautiful village about a mile from Olney. His cousin, Lady Hesketh, a woman of refined and fascinating manners, had visited him; he had also formed a friendly intimacy with the family of the Throckmortons, to whom Weston belonged, and his circumstances were comparatively easy.' His malady, however, returned upon him with full force, and Mrs. Unwin being rendered helpless by palsy, the task of nursing her fell upon the sensitive and dejected poet. A careful revision of his Homer, and an engagement to edit a new edition of Milton, were the last literary undertakings of Cowper. The former he completed, but without improving the first edition : his second task was never finished. A deepening gloom settled on his mind, with occasionally bright intervals. A visit to his friend Hayley, at Eartham, produced a short cessation of his mental suffering, and in 1794 a pension of £300 was granted to him from the crown. He was induced, in 1795, to remove with Mrs. Unwin to Norfolk, on a visit to some relations, and there Mrs. Unwin died on the 17th of December 1796. The unhappy poet would not believe that his long-tried friend was actually dead; he went to see the body, and on witnessing the unaltered placidity of death, flung himself to the other side of the room with a passionate expression of feeling, and from that time he never mentioned her name or spoke of her again. He lingered on for more than three years, still under the same dark shadow of religious despondenoy and terror, but occasionally writing, and listening attentively to works read to him by his friends. His last poem was the 'Castaway,' a strain of touching and beautiful verse, which shewed no decay of his poetical powers: at length death came to his release on the 25th of April 1800.
So sad and strange a destiny has never before or since been that of a man of genius. With wit and humour at will, he was nearly all his life plunged in the darkest melancholy. Innocent, pious, and confiding, he lived in perpetual dread of everlasting punishment: he could only see between him and heaven a high wall which he despaired of ever being able to scale; yet his intellectual vigour was not subdued by affliction. What he wrote for amusement or relief in the midst of 'supreme distress,' surpasses the elaborate efforts of others made under the most favourable circumstances; and in the very winter of his days, his fancy was as fresh and blooming as in the spring and morning of existence. That he was constitutionally prone to melancholy and insanity, seems undoubted; but the predisposing causes were as surely aggravated by his strict and secluded mode of life. Lady Hesketh was a better guide and companion than John Newton; and no one can read his letters without observing that cheerfulness was inspired by the one, and terror by the other. The iron frame of. Newton could stand unmoved amidst shocks that destroyed the shrinking and apprehensive mind of Cowper. All, however, have now gone to their account—the stern yet kind minister, the faithful Mary Unwin, the gentle high-born relations who forsook ease, and luxury, and society to soothe the misery of one wretched being, and that immortal being himself has passed away, scarcely conscious that he had bequeathed an imperishable treasure to mankind. We have greater and loftier poets than Cowper, but none so entirely incorporated, as it were, with our daily existence—none so completely a friend-our companion in woodland wanderings, and in moments of serious thought-ever gentle and affectionate, even in his transient fits of ascetic gloom-a pure mirror of affections, regrets, feelings, and desires which we have all felt or would wish to cherish. Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton are spirits of ethereal kind; Cowper is a steady and valuable friend, whose society we may sometimes neglect for that of more splendid and attractive associates,
but whose unwavering principle and purity of character, joined to rich intellectual powers, overflow upon us in secret, and bind us to him forever.
It is scarcely to be wondered at that Cowper's first volume was coldly received. The subjects of his poems (" Table Talk,' The Progress of Error,' Truth,' * Expostulation,' Hope,''Charity,'&c.) did not promise much, and his manner of handling them was not calculated to conciliate a fastidious public. He was both too harsh and too spiritual for general readers. Johnson had written moral poems in the same form of verse, but they possessed a rich declamatory grandeur and brilliancy of illustration which Cowper did not attempt, and probably would, from principle, have rejected. There are passages, however, in these evangelical works of Cowper of masterly execution and lively fancy. His character of Chatham has rarely been surpassed even by Pope or Dryden :
A. Patriots, alas! the few that have been found,
B. Not so: the virtue still adorns our age,
Felt himself crushed at the first word' he spoke. Neither has the fine simile with which the following retrospect closes :
Ages elapsed ere Homer's lamp appeared,
Then shew far off their shining plumes again. . The poem of Conversation' in this volume is rich in Addisonian humour and satire, and formed no unworthy prelude to 'The Task.' In 'Hope' and 'Retirement,' we see traces of the descriptive powers and natural pleasantry afterwards so finely developed. The highest flight in the whole, and the one most characteristic of Cowper, is his sketch of
The Greenland Missionaries.
O blest within the inclosure of your rocks,
From which our nicer optics turn away. In this mixture of argument and piety, poetry and plain sense, we have the distinctive traits of Cowper's genius. The freedom acquired by composition, and especially the presence of Lady Austen, led to more valuable results; and when he entered upon The Task,' he was far more disposed to look at the sunny side of things, and to launch into general description. His versification underwent a simi. lar improvement. His former poems were often rugged in style and expression, and were made so on purpose to avoid the polished uni. formity of Pope and his imitators. He was now sensible that he had erred on the opposite side and accordingly “The Task' was made to unite strength and freedom with elegance and harmony. No poet has introduced so much idiomatic expression into a grave poem of blank verse; but the higher passages are all carefully finished, and rise or fall, according to the nature of the subject, with inimitable grace and melody. In this respect, Cowper, as already mentioned, has greatly the advantage of Thomson, whose stately march is never relaxed, however trivial be the theme. The variety of The Task' in style and manner, no less than in subject, is one of its greatest charms. The mock-heroic opening is a fine specimen of his humour, and from this he slides into rural description and moral reflection so naturally and easily, that the reader is carried along apparently without an effort. The scenery of the Ouse-its level plains and spacious meads—is described with the vividness of painting, and the poet then elevates the character of his picture by a rapid sketch of still nobler features:
And only there, please highly for their sake. The freedom of this versification, and the admirable variety of pause and cadence, must strike the most uncritical reader. With the same playful strength and equal power of landscape-painting, he describes
The Diversified Character of Creation.