« PreviousContinue »
be traced up to the first families in England, but it was his boast, not
"To have drawn his birth
From loins unthroned and rulers of the earth,
Cowper commenced his education at the village day-school. He was but six years old when he lost his beloved mother: after which he was removed and placed under the care of Dr. Pitman, a few miles distant from the parsonage.
At six years of age he was sent to London, and resided some time at the house of an eminent female occulist, for a complaint in his eyes; of which, however, the small-pox effectually relieved him. He exchanged this residence for Westminster School, which he left in 1749, with great classical attainments. He was shortly after articled for three years to a Mr. Chapman, an eminent solicitor in the metropolis. Legal studies, however, seemed to have few charms for him; and, according to his own confession to his biographer, Hayley, he spent the greater part of his time at the house of a near relation, and in the company of, the future Lord Chancellor, Thurlow.
The term for which he was articled to Mr. Chapman having expired, he took chambers in the Inner Temple, where, instead of devoting himself to the dry study of the law, he enjoyed his literary leisure with his former companions and school-fellows.
In the thirty-first year of his age, through the interest of friends, he procured a nomination to the offices of Reading Clerk, and Clerk of the Private Committees in the House of Lords; but the idea of a public exhibition of himself, in so conspicuous a situation, made such a deep impression on his excessively tender and delicate spirit, as utterly to disqualify him for it. His friends endeavoured to exchange this for a less irksome, though less lucrative office, the Clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords: but this he was also obliged to decline, from the same cause. His feelings and intellectual powers had received such a shock, that it became necessary to place him, in December, 1763, under the care of Dr. Cotton of St. Alban's; his disorder, says his kinsman, the Rev. Dr. Johnson, having in a very early stage of it assumed the shape of hypochondriasis, which converted divine truth into a source of " intellectual poison."
Through the blessing of God upon the skill and tender care of his excellent medical friend, he experienced deliverance from rational bondage, and immediately the prison-doors were also opened, and he enjoyed spiritual liberty, and "that peace" and cheerfulness, “which passeth all understanding." Dr. Cotton's devotional feelings were so completely in unison with those of Cowper, that the latter did not take his departure from St. Alban's till June, 1765; nearly a twelvemonth after his cure. Here he composed some of his first excellent hymns,
The same year he paid an affectionate visit to his brother John, at Cambridge; and on his return, went to reside at Huntingdon, where his acquaintance commenced with young Mr. W. Cawthorne Unwin, in whose family he soon after found a most agreeable residence.
About a twelvemonth afterwards, the Rev. Mr. Unwin, the father of his young friend, was unfortunately killed by a fall from his horse, when Providence removed the family to Olney, in Buckinghamshire, where Cowper became acquainted with that excellent man, the Rev. John Newton, then curate of that parish. This friendship brought to light that esteemed collection of hymns, called “Olney Hymns,” as a monument of their congenial piety, and joint labours.
In February, 1770, Cowper's fraternal feelings received another shock, by a summon to attend the death-bed of his beloved brother, John, whose eyes he closed, and whom he saw die full of faith and hope in the gospel.
In 1780, he lost the company of Mr. Newton, who was called to the rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth, in London: but this vacuum in friendship was supplied by the Rev. William Bull, of Newton Pagnell, a learned and worthy dissenting minister, at whose suggestion Cowper translated Madam Guion's Poems. In the spring of 1782, he published the first volume of his Poems. Notwithstanding the gloom of mind into which he had relapsed at the death of his brother, in 1785, he published that beautiful poem the Task, which
was undertaken in compliance with the request of a lady, who gave him for a subject the Sofa. This work established his reputation. In 1787, to divert his melancholy, he received an invitation from Mr. Throckmorton, to reside at his seat at Weston Underwood, about a mile from Olney, whither he was accompanied by his tender friend, Mrs. Unwin, whose affectionate friendship neither time nor circumstance could diminish.
In 1790, he completed his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. In 1792, the death of his friend, Sir Robert Throckmorton, occasioned the removal of the family to a seat in Oxfordshire, when he was introduced to his amiable biographer, Mr. Hayley, his kinsman, the Rev. Mr. Johnson, and other literary acquaintances, who kept his mind continually engaged in poetical avocations.
Owing to the interest of friends his finances were now increased by a grant from Royal munificence of three hundred pounds a year; but such was the state of his mind, that he was disabled from receiving any enjoyment at the disclosure of the circumstance.
In the summer of 1795, the poet and his aged companion, Mrs. Unwin, who had had a shock of the palsy, was taken by their friends, by gentle stages, to Mundsley, on the Norfolk coast. Here one of his greatest comforts was in the family devotions, the church being at a great distance.
From Mundsley, the two invalids retired to Dere ham, where, on the 17th December, the excellent Mrs. Unwin closed a long and exemplary life; the best part of which had been devoted to alleviate the sufferings, and sooth the wounded spirit of our poet
At the close of the winter 1799, his unhappy despondency brought on a rapid decline; and on the 25th of April, 1800, after remaining several hours in a state of insensibility, he resigned his "spirit into the hands of God who gave it," in the sixty-ninth year of his age. His remains
were buried in East Dereham Church, on the 2d of May, and a monument was erected over his grave, on which was inscribed an elegant epitaph, from the pen of his friend Mr. Hayley.
Cowper has justly been called, the Poet of Domestic Life; but his writings are so diversified, as to have a charm for every taste, and for every age. They are calculated not only to awaken the genuine sympathies of the mind, but to rectify the morals, and shed the brightest lustre round the divine realities of our most holy faith.