« PreviousContinue »
With Life, Critical Dissertation, and
THE TEXT EDITED BY CHARLES COWDEN CLARKE.
IN TWO VOLUMES.
WILLIAM P. NIMMO.
THE LIFE OF WILLIAM COWPER.
Ir is with a singular emotion that we have jotted down the words, "THE LIFE OF WILLIAM COWPER." The terms seem almost a contradiction. The word "life" usually suggests ideas of bustling energy, and gladness. But, as applied to an existence which was, on the whole, a long tissue of disappointment, misery, or despair, the word seems a misnomer. Shall we not rather call it "The living death for seventy years of William Cowper"?
The author of "The Task" was born on the 26th of November (an appropriate birth-time for one whose years were all winters, and each of his months a November) 1731, at the rectory, Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire. He was descended from an ancient and highly honourable house. His father was John Cowper, D.D., son of Spencer Cowper, one of the Judges of the Court of Common Pleas, nephew of Lord Chancellor Cowper, and rector of Great Berkhamstead. His mother was Anne, daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Ludham Hall, Norfolk-of the same family with the celebrated Dr Donne, the quaint poet and eloquent sermon-writer-the friend of Walton and of George Herbert. This lady, whose memory, as the mother of the poet Cowper and the heroine of the lines "On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture," will ever be so warmly cherished by the world, seems to have been a person of the most amiable dispositions. Her picture, which now lies before us, expresses much feminine delicacy, and not a
little of that trembling sensibility and timid anxiety which assumed a darker form in her son. She died in 1737, at the age of thirty-four, in childbirth, leaving, of several children, only William and a brother. Young as Cowper was, he felt her loss keenly-wept bitter tears as he saw her hearse slowly leaving the parsonage, and never passed a week, he assures us, and scarce a day, without thinking of her. Soon after his mother's decease he was sent, at the age of six years, to a boarding-school, and here, originally of a morbid disposition, deprived of her watchful and gentle guidance, and flung abruptly among strangers, he imbibed the first prelibation of that deep cup of misery which his whole after-life was employed in drinking. The school was at Market Street, in Hertfordshire, and was kept by a Dr Pitman. The character of the master is not recorded; but the society of the rude boys, and the general atmosphere of the life pursued, disgusted and repelled Cowper. He was continually contrasting the rough treatment he met with in this " Do-the-boys'-hall" with the tenderness of his dear mother and the elegant comforts of his native roof. One brutal lad, especially, conceived a wicked delight in maltreating him. He "fancied" him, as a demon might fancy a special victim of his ire, and treated him with a revolting barbarity, which haunted Cowper's memory till the latest hour of his life, came back upon his dreams, and deepened the dark horrors of his derangement. He says, "I well remember being afraid to lift my eyes upon him higher than his knees, and that I knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any other part of his dress. May the Lord pardon him, and may we meet in glory!" This cruel usage was carried on for a while in secret, the victim being afraid to reveal, lest he should aggravate it; but it was at last discovered. The wretch was expelled, and Cowper was taken away from the school. Had it continued a little longer, we had not now been employed upon this biography ; the poor boy would have sunk into hopeless idiocy, or died of a broken heart. And it had been far better for him, humanly speaking, that he had!
As it was, he remained two years at this seminary-long enough to have his native tendency to mental disease greatly