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Many lives of Cowper have already been published. Why, then, it may be asked, add to their number? Simply because, in the opinion of competent judges, no memoir of him has yet appeared that gives a full, fair, and unbiassed view of his character.
It is remarked by Dr. Johnson, the poet's kinsman, in his preface to the two volumes of Cowper's Private Correspondence, “that Mr. Hayley omitted the insertion of several interesting letters in his excellent Life of the poet, out of kindness to his readers. In doing this, however amiable and considerate his caution must appear, the gloominess which he has taken from the mind of Cowper, has the effect of involving his character in obscurity. People read · The Letters' with · The Task' in their recollection (and vice versa), and are perplexed. They look for the Cowper of each in the other, and find him not. Hence the character of Cowper is undetermined; mystery hangs over it; and the opinions formed of him are as various as the minds of the inquirers.'
In alluding to these suppressed letters, the late highly-esteemed Rev. Legh Richmond once emphatically remarked— Cowper's character will never be clearly and satisfactorily understood without them, and they should be permitted to exist for the demonstration of the case. I know the importance of it from numerous conversations I have had both in Scotland and in England, on this most interesting subject. Persons of truly religious principles, as well as those of little or no religion at all, have greatly erred in their estimate of this great and good man.'
Dr. Johnson's two volumes of Private Correspondence satisfactorily supplied this deficiency to all those who have the means of consulting them, and the four volumes by Mr. Hayley. The author of this memoir has attempted not only to bring the substance of these six volumes into one, but to communicate information respecting the poet which cannot be found in either of those works. He is fully aware of the peculiarities of Cowper's case, and has endeavoured to exhibit them as prominently as was compatible with his design, without giving to the memoir too much of that melancholy tinge by which the life of its subject was so painfully distinguished.
In every instance where he could well accomplish it, he has made Cowper his own biographer; convinced that it is utterly impossible to narrate any circumstance in a manner more striking, or in a style more chaste and elegant, than Cowper has employed in his inimitable letters.
To impart ease and perspicuity to the memoir, and to compress it into as small a compass as was consistent with a full developement and faithful record of the most interesting particulars of Cowper's life, the author has, in a few cases, inserted in one paragraph remarks extracted from different letters, addressed more frequently, though not invariably, to the same individual. He has, however, taken care to avoid doing this where it could lead to any obscurity.
He has made a free use of all the published records of Cowper within his reach, besides availing himself of the valuable assistance and advice of the Rev. Dr. Johnson, Cowper's kinsman, to whom he hereby respectfully tenders his grateful acknowledgements for his condescension and kindness, in undertaking to examine the manuscript, and for the useful and judicious hints respecting it he was pleased to suggest.
Without concealing a single fact of real importance, the author has carefully avoided giving that degree of prominence to any painful circumstance in the poet's life, which would be likely to excite regret in the minds of any of his surviving relatives, and which, for reasons the most amiable and perfectly excusable, they might have wished had been suppressed ; and he hopes it will be found that he has admitted nothing that can justly offend the most fastidious.
It is particularly the wish of the author to state, that he makes no pretensions to originality in this memoir. He wishes it to be regarded only as a compilation; and all the merit he claims for it, if indeed he has any, is for the arrangement of those materials which were already furnished for his use.
He has attempted to make the work interesting to all classes, especially to the lovers of literature and genuine piety, and to place within the reach of general readers, many of whom have neither the means nor the leisure to consult larger works, all that is really
interesting respecting that singularly afflicted individual, whose productions, both poetic and prose, can never be read but with delight.
Availing himself of some remarks kindly made by some of his friends, and of the hints of the different reviewers who have noticed the work, the author has, in this edition, made a few trifling alterations to some parts of the memoir; and besides adding an entire new chapter, of what may be called the Christian philosophy of the volume, he has inserted a number of additional extracts from the poet's correspondence, all of which he hopes will be found illustrative of his character.
For the flattering manner in which the work has been noticed by the reviewers, and received by the public, the author begs to express his grateful acknowledgements; ascribing it much less to any merit of his work, than to their unabated, and he hopes, increasing attachment to the memory and productions of Cowper.
Sept. 14, 1833.
THE LIFE OF
His parentage-Loss of his mother-Verses to her
Memory-First school-Cruelty he experienced there -First serious impressions— Entrance upon Westminster School - Character while there - Removal thence~Entrance upon an attorney's office-Want of employment there - Unfitness for his professionEarly melancholy impressions.
WILLIAM Cowper was born at Great Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, November 15, 1731. His father, Dr. John Cowper, chaplain to King George the Second, was the second son of Spencer Cowper, who was Chief Justice of Chester, and afterwards a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas, and whose brother William, first Earl Cowper, was, at the same time, Lord High Chancellor of England. His mother