Page images
PDF
EPUB

54

Characteristics of

of good sense and fine feeling, they are, at the same time, full of fun, anecdote, and gentle sarcasm, 'toned down (as has been said) by a tender shadow of melancholy,' and sometimes strangely display the union of humour and despair.

Cowper's letters are well described by a writer in an early volume of the Quarterly Review, as possessing excellencies of a very opposite character,—'a naïve simplicity, arising from perfect goodness of heart and singleness of purpose, contrasted with a deep acquaintance with the follies and vices of human nature, and a keen sense of humour and ridicule. They unite,' he continues, “the playfulness of a child, the affectionateness of a woman, and the strong sense of a man; and, after enumerating their other good qualities, he pronounces the verdict to which I have already referred, that Cowper is the most delightful letter-writer in the English language. In point of style, moreover, these letters are entitled to the highest praise, being, in the words of Archdeacon Hare, the pattern of pure, graceful, idiomatic English.'

Friendly correspondence is happily defined by Cowper as 'talking upon paper ;' and some

Cowper's Letters.

55

a

one else has said that a good letter ought to be 'the mirror of one's conversation. Unquestionably that quality is abundantly exhibited in the case of Cowper's own letters, which are nothing more nor less than a faithful picture of his daily life; and almost every word that flows from his pen is a distinct reflection of his mind. One of his most frequent correspondents, Lady Hesketh, when referring to the same subject, enforces the propriety of always writing 'what comes uppermost, in accordance with the opinion and occasional practice of Edmund Burke, who thus expresses himself in a letter to his friend Richard Shackleton:-'I do not know to whom I could write with greater freedom and less regularity than you ; for as the thoughts come crowding into my head, I cannot forbear putting them down, be they in what order or disorder they will.' The best edition of Cowper's Works, embracing his extensive correspondence and accompanied by an admirable biography, is that of Southey, in fifteen volumes 12mo, published in 1837-8.

56

Letters to Lady Hesketh, etc.

WILLIAM COWPER TO LADY HESKETH.1

WESTON LODGE, Feb. 4, 1789. MY DEAR Cousin,-A letter of mine is no sooner sealed and sent than I begin to be dissatisfied with,

and to hate it. I have accordingly hated the two letters that I have sent to you since your departure, on many accounts, but principally because they have neither of them expressed any proportion of what I have felt. I have mourned for the loss of you, and they have not said so. Deal with them, as you desire me, for another reason, to deal with yours,—burn them, for they deserve it. With Mrs. Unwin's best compliments, I remain, my beloved coz, most truly thine,

WM. C.

THE SAME TO SAMUEL ROSE, ESQUIRE.

THE LODGE, June 8th, 1790. MY DEAR FRIEND,—Among the many who love and esteem you, there is none who rejoices more in your felicity than myself. Far from blaming, I commend you much for connecting yourself, young as you are, with a well-chosen companion for life. Entering on the state with uncontaminated morals, you have the best possible prospect of happiness, and will be secure against a thousand and ten thousand temptations, to which, at an early period of life, in such a Babylon as you must necessarily inhabit, you would otherwise have been exposed. I see it too in the light you do, as likely to be advantageous to you in your profession. Men of business have a better opinion of a candidate for employment who is married, because he has given bond to the world, as you observe,

1 Lady Hesketh was the daughter of the poet's uncle, Mr. Ashley Cowper, to whose other daughter, Theodora, he was at one time deeply attached.

Horace Walpole.

57

and to himself, for diligence, industry, and attention. It is altogether, therefore, a subject of much congratulation ; and mine, to which I add Mrs. Unwin's, is very sincere. Samson at his marriage proposed a riddle to the Philistines. I am no Samson, neither are you a Philistine ; yet expound to me the following, if you can : —What are they which stand at a distance from each other, and meet without ever moving ? Should you be so fortunate as to guess it, you may propose it to the company when you celebrate your nuptials ; and if you can win thirty changes of raiment by it, as Samson did by his, let me tell you they will be no contemptible acquisition to a young beginner. You will not, I hope, forget your way to Weston, in consequence of your marriage, where

you
and

yours will be always welcome.

Probably the largest published correspondence in the English language, and the last to which I shall refer at any length, is that of Horace Walpole, third son of the Prime Minister, and ultimately fourth Earl of Orford, who was born in 1717, and died in 1797, at the age of fourscore. Mr. Peter Cuningham's edition of his Letters, in nine vols. 8vo, published in 1859, contains no fewer than 2665 epistles, extending over a period of upwards of sixty years. Walpole's letters have been described as 'inimitable pictures of society and of human character, drawn by the hand of one who was a master in the delineation of scenes from familiar life ; 58

Leading Features of

not, it is true, inspiring his figures with poetic truth or serious significance, but shedding over all of them a gaily comic light. They are a kind of satires; and few compositions claiming that name are equal to them in lively wit, in striking grasp of character, in picturesque colouring of incidents, and in apposite, epigrammatic, vigorous language.' Whatever may be thought of Walpole's tastes and friendships in the present day, they were certainly quite sincere ; and accordingly it is to be hoped that no impartial reader will acquiesce in Macaulay's estimate of his character, to the effect that affectation is the essence of the man, and if it were taken away nothing would be left.' No doubt, his earliest letters are overloaded with classical quotations; but it ought to be borne in mind, that he wrote at a period when every man of letters considered that an idea was greatly enhanced in value when expressed in Latin ; and moreover, the blemish in question entirely disappears in his later life. “The bulk, as well as the best of his letters,' in the opinion of Mr. Cuningham, ‘are addressed to people at a distance: to Mann, in Florence; to Montagu, on the skirts of a Northamptonshire

a

« PreviousContinue »