Page images
PDF
EPUB

died, Cowper and his widow left Huntingdon, and settled at Olney inBuckinghamshire, taking the house in which they were to live for more than twenty years. It has lately been bought by Mr. Collingridge, who has generously presented it to the town, to be maintained as it is in memory of its having been the home of Cowper. The attraction which took them there was the curate of the parish, who inhabited the vicarage in the absence of the vicar, In no profession, I suppose, are there so few men with an adventurous or eccentric past as among the clergy of the Church of England; and the Rev. John Newton, who, from being captain of a slave-ship, had become one of the leading Evangelical clergy, would have been a remarkable man anywhere. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin only made his acquaintance after Mr. Unwin's death, but the friendship grew so rapidly that they chose their house largely because its garden communicated with that of the vicarage. In the next few years they were rarely many hours apart. Mr. Newton, with the best intentions and the worst result, induced Cowper to take a public part in his prayer-meetings, to visit among his parishioners and discuss their religious experiences, and to write hymns. For some years this highly charged atmosphere was the only one the poet had any opportunity, or indeed desire, of breathing. Mrs. Unwin's son and daughter had married and removed; Cowper's brother had died, and with his other relations the receipt of his allowance became almost his only link. He had sold his books on leaving the St. Alban's asylum. The result was the inevitable one in such a case as his. With a society limited to two persons one of whom was extremely busy, and with all his interests and occupations confined to one subject, he was thrown back upon himself in fatal introspection, the old sad delusions returned, as some of the hymns are there to show, and, by January, 1773, he was once more definitely insane. He insisted on remaining in Mr. Newton's house, where Mrs. Unwin, nobly scorning evil tongues, and disregarding Cowper's fancy that she hated him, was his constant attendant by day and by night. He was a prey to the most awful despair, and again attempted suicide. In May, 1774, the change at last came, and he went back to his own house. He amused himself with gardening and with the hares he has made famous; but the central delusion remained fixed, and was fatal to more social and intellectual occupations. It was not till November, 1776, that he resumed communication with the most faithful of his old friends, Joseph Hill, with whom he had once read Tasso, and who now helped him back to his literary tastes, so that six months later we find him reading Gray, and calling him “the only poet since Shakespeare entitled to the character of sublime”-a very curious statement in view of the intimate knowledge of Milton shown everywhere in his poetry. Mr. Newton would have had him write some more hymns, but his delusions about his spiritual condition made

him think this out of the question. The “Olney Hymns” were published in 1779, and had a large sale. The letter “C” was affixed to those written by Cowper, and Newton's Preface mentioned his co-operation. Its publication was almost immediately followed by Mr. Newton's departure from Olney, to become Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, in the City of London. There is no doubt that, in an age of idle or absentee clergymen, he had put himself to heroic labours for the good of his parishioners; but men of his iron temperament are always slow to understand that what is life to them may be death to weaker natures. He himself records that one result of his sermons was that “near a dozen truly gracious people" had become “disordered in their heads” and I, at least, cannot doubt that his departure was a great gain to Cowper, the man and the invalid, and that it, and it alone, made possible the appearance of Cowper the poet.)

The Reverend Josiah Bull, in his autobiography of Newton, and in some articles contributed to the Sunday at Home in 1866, has defended Newton's management of Cowper, and argued that it was not the cause of the catastrophe of the year 1773. But though he gives us some interesting information, such as that the central hallucination which afflicted Cowper for the rest of his life was a persuasion that he had received the Divine command to destroy himself, and was excluded from mercy for his disobedience, he will not convince most people of Newton's wisdom. It is true that before Cowper ever saw Newton he was already, as may be seen from a letter of October 20, 1766, living a life in which religion excluded all other interests, and religious exercises all other occupations; and it is true that all accounts show the years from 1765 to 1772 to have been happy ones. But that does not prove that Newton used wisely the immense influence he possessed over Cowper between 1767 and his departure from Olney in 1779. No one, it is to be remembered, accuses Newton of anything worse than want of judgment, and narrowness of sympathy. The proof of that exists, not only in Cowper's hand, in a well-known letter rejecting his interference in the matter of the friendship with the Throckmortons, but in the letters of Newton himself. I have had before me some which he wrote to John Johnson in the last years of Cowper's life. And they afford the most conclusive proof of his blindness to the facts. If over thirty years of experience of Cowper taught him so little that he could write, in December 1798, as he does, “ I have but little expectation, that he will so far recover as to appear much in public in his former character during the first seven years of his residence at Olney, when he was indeed a burning and a shining light,” it is not difficult to be sure how complete his misunderstanding of what was possible and desirable in 1770 must have been. And when we see him so entirely without eyes for any activities or interests but those of his own religious party, we do not feel obliged to think he gives us the whole truth when he says, in another of these letters: “For six or seven years after he (Cowper) left St. Albans he seemed to live a life of heaven upon earth,” or “ I believe he never had a comfortable hour since New Year's Day 1773, the last day of his attendance upon public worship.” Such a man is sure to have exaggerated both the early happiness and the later unhappiness. With the innocent pleasures which brightened Cowper's later life he had less than no sympathy: “Nothing surprises or indeed grieves me more,” he writes to Johnson on November 28, 1795, “ than what you intimate of his attachment to novels. O quam dispar sibi !" Things, he adds, were very different in the years when they were together at Olney, but after his “removal to Weston and other concurrent circumstances,” he "associated with gay people, wore a green coat, and became an archer. He gave in to many things of which I once thought him incapable, and of which I doubt not he would have been incapable to this day had he continued in his right mind.” It is scarcely worth while to go beyond this last startling statement, unless it be to add that he immediately says of the Homer translation : “ I know the time when he would no more have attempted it than he would to translate the history of Jack the Giant Killer into Greek.” Such a man, with such views of life and literature, could never have helped Cowper to become the happy human being and successful poet he became after 1780, and it was a good day for his friend and for us when he became Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, and left Olney.

Few are the poets who reach fifty before their first volume sees the light, and fewer still those who, coming so late into the arena, carry off the prize. Cowper was born in 1731, and putting aside his share in some translations and his contribution to the “Olney Hymns," he published nothing till his first volume appeared in 1782. On his recovery, gardening, sketching, walking and reading had been his amusements. To these, writing verses gradually began to be added, and he soon found that the exercise it gave his mind was the best of all antidotes to his melancholy. After he had composed a tew trifles, Mrs. Unwin urged him to attempt something more considerable, and suggested it should be a moral satire, and be called “The Progress of Error.” It appears from an expression used by Cowper in a letter to Newton, December 21, 1780, that her enthusiasm did not carry her very far, and that she was soon alarmed at the success of her own advice. But she had discovered for the poet, not only the work of his life, but the best antidote to his melancholy, and he would not be deprived of it. Mr. Newton, on being informed, did not disapprove, though he was more concerned that the morality should be edifying than that the satire should be brilliant. He was consulted throughout, arranged with Johnson the bookseller for the publication, and proposed a good many corrections and excisions, nearly all, if not all, of which, as well as some made by the bookseller, were accepted by the modesty of the poet. Mr. Newton also wrote a preface, but it was not then printed, as Johnson thought it would frighten away readers who were not of Newton's religious school.

The book was fairly well received. A few discerning critics saw that the new poet was indeed a new poet, with a mind and a manner of his own; and that was all that could be expected. It was not the kind of volume that could have a wide circulation, and it brought Cowper neither money, nor friends, nor fame. But, as he himself says, "once an author, always an author,” and two of his most famous productions were written, and a third-his greatestbegun, before another year was over. Neither the pride of authorship, however, nor the experience of its practical advantages in his particular case, can have the chief credit of this year of fertility. That belongs to a woman. Some time in the summer of 1781, when the negotiations about his first volume were going on, the happy accident which brought Lady Austen to Olney gave Cowper just

that more genial inspiration which Mrs. Unwin could not supply, s and gave Lady Austen a place in literary history which she cannot lose so long as there are readers of the “ Task," “ John Gilpin," and the “ Royal George.”

Lady Austen came to Olney, or rather to the charming village of Clifton on the hill above the town, on a visit to her sister, who was the wife of the clergyman there. Cowper saw her when the two ladies called on Mrs. Unwin, in June or July, 1781, was at once taken with her, asked Mrs. Unwin to invite her to tea, and was soon on such intimate terms as to give her the name of “Sister Ann.” To his returning mental energy her arrival in Olney was evidently a miracle of good fortune. “A person that has seen much of the world, and understands it well, has high spirits, a lively fancy, and great readiness of conversation, introduces a sprightliness into such a scene as this, which, if it was peaceful before, is not the worse for being a little enlivened.” So the poet himself described the new arrival to William Unwin, and it meant even more to him than he realized. In fact, it was the beginning of a new era of his life. For the sixteen years that had passed since he left St. Albans he had lived in the most complete seclusion, entirely cut off from all social and intellectual life outside what was to be found in the very narrow circle of Newton and the Unwins. It was never to be so again. No one who loves Cowper can ever speak with anything but gratitude and affection of Mrs. Unwin. She gave her life to him. For thirty years she was the staff on which he leaned, and her tender care never failed him till she had ceased to be able to care even for herself. What she could do she did from first to last, but the thing wanted to be done now was to lift Cowper out of this limited provincial atmosphere, out of Olney, out of himself. That she could not do. She could not show him how to look beyond the horizon of Olney and its little religious world, because she did not look beyond it herself; she could not take him out of himself, because it was in her company that he had come to be what he was. To call him back to himself as he was in the best of the days before the catastrophe, to call him forward to what he might be and was to be in the future, required some one who had some knowledge of the old world he had lived in, and some conception of what might be expected of such a mind as his. Above all, he needed livelier company to give him back the spirits on which all depended. And, happily, he was never again altogether without it till the final cloud settled on him which extinguished his reason and his life. His whole acquaintance with Lady Austen did not extend beyond three years at the most. But during that short time she had stimulated his mind, renewed his sense of the pleasures of social life, and victoriously charmed away his occasional fits of depression. The result was that before she left “ John Gilpin ” was printed, and the “ Royal George ” and the “ Task ” written. The mystery which led to their parting has never been cleared up. They had one quarrel in the spring of 1782, but a reconciliation followed, and the final breach did not occur till the spring of 1784. From Cowper's own account she seems to have been a somewhat exacting Muse, and when he had got interested in the “ Task” he may have let her see that he grew weary of being left so rarely free to work at it. And Hayley's explanation that Mrs. Unwin felt some jealousy of the brilliant rival seems, in spite of Southey, to have so much probability in it that it is difficult not to accept it as at least partially true. The story of two women and one man is a very old one, and it is not the less likely to have its usual ending where one of the two, and that one in the unique position we now know to have been that of Mrs. Unwin, is much older than the other, and the younger exacts and obtains a great deal of attention.* And, no doubt, the vulgar gossip which speculated on the relations between Cowper and Mrs. Unwin was not rendered less active by the arrival of Lady Austen. In any case, Lady Austen disappeared from the world of the poet, to whom she had been so much, and Cowper plainly says that the fault was hers. But she did not leave him to the solitude in which she found him. Not long after Lady Austen took her final departure, Cowper became acquainted with a Roman Catholic family, the Throckmortons, who owned the neighbouring estate of Weston Underwood. Their descendants owned it till a year or so ago, and one may still trace all the details, introduced by the poet into the “ Task,” of his walks in Weston Park and gardens. The Wilderness, the temple, the monument to Fop, the avenue of limes, the Alcove, the Shrubbery, the Rustic Bridge, and the rest of his beloved haunts

• For a startling proof of how far Cowper carried his attentions to Lady Austen, see the remarkable lines on p. 501.

« PreviousContinue »