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William Cowper, 1731-1800

by Duncan Campbell

William CowperDryden's line, "Great wits are sure to madness near allied," has passed into a proverb, but Cowper was not an illustration of this proverb, though an undoubted genius and often insane.

The writings that reveal his genius have nothing of the "fine frenzy" usually associated with that word, but are of the simplest, sanest type. His madness had no relation to his genius, coming only as a dark interlude to cloud it. From boyhood he was subject to fits of depression, and though he fought bravely against them and had many loyal friends who sought by various devices to ward them off, they too frequently recurred — sometimes in acute and painful forms — leading him to attempt his life more than once while under their mastery. But when the dark moods passed he was bright and gay — a genial companion, an eager student, an earnest Christian worker. It is indeed singularly pathetic to read of the sensitive, gentle, lovable poet, now the prey of remorse and depression, now visiting and comforting the sick or writing the hymns that have inspired so many with faith and hope; now composing the poems that mark the passage from Artificialism to Naturalism in English literature, now busy in his garden or playing with the pet hare he has immortalized:—

I kept him for his humour's sake,
  For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
  And force me to a smile.

Cowper was born at Berkhampstead, the birthplace also of Bishop Ken. His mother died when he was only six; and when sixty, he wrote, on receipt of her picture, the exquisite tribute to her memory beginning:—

Oh that those lips had language; life has passed
With me but roughly since I heard thee last.1

(1In Tennyson's Memoir, F. T. Palgrave mentions that the Laureate when asked to read Cowper's "Lines on my Mother's Portrait" said in a faltering voice that he would do so if wished, but that "he knew he should break down.")

He was educated at Westminster School. One of his companions was Warren Hastings, to whom he addressed some kindly lines when great orators were crying for vengeance on him as the oppressor of India. On leaving school he entered a solicitor's office, where he had as fellow-clerk the future Lord Thurlow. Cowper, recognizing his powers, said to him one day, "Thurlow, I am nobody, and shall always be nobody, and you will be Lord Chancellor. You shall provide for me when you are!" Thurlow smiled and said, "I surely will!" The prophecy was fulfilled, but not the promise. When little over thirty Cowper had the offer of an appointment as clerk to the House of Lords, but it involved an examination, the dread of which brought on his first attack of insanity.

Reference has been made to his many friends. Among these were the Unwins, with whom he lived for more than thirty years; Lady Austen, to whose suggestion we owe the Task and the inimitable John Gilpin; his cousin, Lady Heskett, to whose sister Theodora he had at one time been engaged; and John Newton, from whom for twelve years he was scarcely ever twelve hours apart. This was the happiest period of the poet's life. The Olney hymns, however, which he wrote in co-operation with Newton, are evidence that his friend's stern theology was dangerous for a man of Cowper's temperament, and tended to aggravate the gloom of his despondent moods. Had Wesley been his spiritual counsellor, his hymns and life might have been brighter. As it is, his hymns are mostly plaintive, and never give us the idea of one singing out of pure gladness, as those of Watts and Wesley often do. Even in what is perhaps his brightest strain, Sometimes a light surprises, there is a subconsciousness of sadness, the poet, as it were, singing himself out of doubt into trust. We have the same minor note in Far from the world, O Lord, I flee, and in O for a closer walk with God! with its sad reminiscence—

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
  How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
  The world can never fill,

while the loveliest of all his hymns, Hart, my soul! it is the Lord, has the wail—

Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint.

But no doubt it is this very plaintiveness that gives his hymns their spell, especially over minds more sensitive to the shadows than to the brightness of life. The hymn which contains the verse which has cheered so many a sad soul—

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
  The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
  In blessings on your head

is, strange to say, connected with one of his own darkest moods, having been written "in the twilight of departing reason." One would fain record that there was light at evening time: the end, however, came in a mood of "fixed despair" that found tragic expression in his last poem The Castaway. But a relative who loved him well says "that from the moment that his spirit passed until the coffin was closed, the expression into which his countenance had settled was that of calmness and composure, mingled as it were with holy surprise."

Two stanzas from Mrs. Browning's beautiful elegy on "Cowper's grave," may fitly close this sketch:—

O poets, from a maniac's tongue was poured the deathless singing!
O Christians, at your cross of hope a hopeless hand was clinging,
O men, this man, in brotherhood, your weary hearts beguiling,
Groaned inly while he taught you peace, and died while ye were
smiling.
With quiet sadness and no gloom I learn to think upon him
With meekness that is gratefulness to God whose heaven hath
won him,
Who suffered once the madness-cloud to his own love to blind him,
But gently led the blind along where breath and bird could find
him.

From Hymns and Hymn Makers by Duncan Campbell. London: A & C Black, 1898.


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