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version in blank verse of the immortal works of “ the blind old man of Scio's rocky isle," a version which destitute of the vigour of Chapman, of the polished diction of Pope, of the minute accuracy of Hobbes, of the florid magnificence of Sotheby, of the scholarly correctness of Worsley, and of the spirited liveliness of the Earl of Derby, may yet be ranked as a respectable and creditable performance, although it must be allowed to be but a poor substitute for the works of genius with which if Cowper had been engaged in original composition for these six years of his life, he might have enriched the world. Flaxman supplied the designs for this translation of Homer, a translation which, although it was commended by such capable critics as Warton, Martyn, and Mrs. Carter, did not meet with any extensive popular favour. The poet himself indeed was so dissatisfied with this version that he began soon after its publication to re-write the whole work, a task however that he was never destined to bring to completion.
Cowper's relatives had for a long time ceased to hold any communication with him or to contribute anything towards his support. His beloved cousin Theodora was the only one who remembered him, and she still continued to send to him anonymously occasional donations of fifty pounds each. After the production of “The Task," his writings returned to him a sufficient annual income for his small requirements, and his relatives and friends suddenly became aware of his existence. Even his former schoolfellow Thurlow, who had become Lord Chancellor, found time, now that the poet had become famous, to bethink him of their former intimacy. Thurlow, who was rough in manner and profane in speech, was yet generous. He offered Dr. Johnson a donation of four hundred pounds, and promoted Crabbe the poet to a living in his gift. Cowper, however, he seemed for many years to have forgotten, and when a little help would have proved most useful to have entirely disregarded him. Now, however, he renewed by letter his acquaintance with the poet.
In the summer of 1785, just before he moved to Weston, Cowper received a pleasant visit from his cousin Harriet, now Lady Hesketh, by whose presence when she was afterwards at Weston, and by whose letters when she was absent Cowper for a few following years was greatly cheered.
Various subjects for poems were now suggested to him by kind friends. Lady Hesketh proposed the Mediterranean—a topic which
Paoli had suggested to Boswell, and which Byron may be considered to have treated in his Childe Harold. “The four Ages of Man” was dwelt on as a suitable subject for his muse. “ The Oak in Yardley Chase” was recommended to him as a subject by others. Fragments treating of these last two subjects were written by Cowper, but were never elaborated into any finished poem. Deep melancholy, first for the space of about six months, and after a short time for a protracted period, began to settle down upon the poet. Rose, a student from Edinburgh, paid him a visit, bringing with him an edition of Burns' Poems. Cowper admired as much as he could understand of the poetry of the Ayrshire ploughman, but he declared that “ his light was hid in a dark lantern,” meaning that his ideas were obscured by the Scottish dialect. Burns reciprocated Cowper's good opinion, and on more than one occasion of his life exclaimed, “ What a glorious poem is Cowper's Task.'”
It seemed probable to Lady Hesketh that if some public dignity were conferred on Cowper it might arouse him from his morbid love of seclusion and of introspection. He appeared to take a little interest in producing even the annual poem which for several successive years the parish clerk at Northampton had succeeded in inducing him to indite as a rhyming chronicle of passing events. When therefore the poet laureate Warton, author of the “Essay on English Poetry," died, Lady Hesketh wished to have used her influence to obtain the laureateship for her cousin. Cowper, however, begged her not to make any such effort on his behalf, as he detested the idea of having to produce poems to order for public ceremonials and for royal birthdays. This decision of Cowper’s is to be regretted, as it is very likely that to have had his attention aroused and his energies called forth at more or less regular intervals by some passing events of interest would have proved eminently beneficial to the mental ailment of the poet. The Laureateship moreover would have received more dignity if it had been represented by Cowper than it was likely to acquire from its tenure by such an obscure rhymester as Pye, who was elected in succession to Warton, and who is known only as the author of a mass of poetical rubbish that has long been forgotten.
Immediately after the publication of Cowper's Homer, Johnson the bookseller applied to him to request him to undertake the editorship of a magnificent edition of Milton, which it was proposed to put forth with illustrations by the celebrated Swiss designer, Fuseli, the friend
TO “HYMNS ANCIENT AND MODERN."
of the painters Reynolds and Lawrence, of the authors “Monk” Lewis and Rogers, and of the physiognomist Lavater. As Cowper considered that Dr. Johnson in his “Lives of the Poets” had unduly censured Milton, he gladly undertook the production of an edition of his works in the hope that an opportunity would thus be afforded to him of defending the poet's memory. This work Cowper never brought to completion, although he advanced so far in it as to translate all the Latin and Italian sonnets of Milton. The undertaking, however, is remarkable, as it led to the formation of a friendship between Cowper and Hayley, author of "The Triumphs of Temper," who afterwards wrote Cowper's life. Hayley had been engaged by a publisher, Boydell, to produce an edition of Milton, and it was hinted in the newspapers that this edition was intended to be the rival of the edition that Cowper had undertaken to produce. Hayley wrote to Cowper to express a hope that he would not consider that Boydell's Milton was intended to oppose Johnson's Milton. The letter having been carelessly detained by Johnson, it did not reach Cowper until an interval of six weeks had elapsed. He wrote at once to Hayley, expressing his regret that a reply had not been sent to him before, and reciprocating in courteous tones his kindly feelings. A friendly correspondence ensued : Hayley paid a visit to the poet at Weston, and obtained from him a promise to come and see him, Hayley, at Eartham as soon as Mrs. Unwin, who had recently had an attack of paralysis, should have sufficiently recovered to render it possible for her to travel. Cowper was enabled soon to fulfil his promise. He started for Eartham, in Sussex, with Mrs. Unwin. They went viá Barnet, where they lodged for a night at the Mitre, Ripley and Kingston, and returned, after a few weeks' visit, vid Stone, London, where Cowper visited his former chambers in the Temple, and S. Alban's. In his return passage through London he was met by several relations and friends; amongst others, by that Major, now General Cowper, whose well-meant patronage had proved so disastrous to the shy poet in his early years. His stay at Eartham was very pleasant. Hayley was a kindly and cultivated poet, and he had gathered together in his house several agreeable literary friends to meet Cowper. Charlotte Smith, the author of the romance, “The Old English Manor House," who dedicated her poem, “The Emigrant,” to Cowper, was there; 80 also was Hurdis, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and author of a now forgotten poem, "The Village Curate.” Romney, to whom he wrote a complimentary sonnet, drew
his portrait during his stay. Hayley discoursed with him about Milton. Hayley's son, a bright promising youth, the favourite pupil of Flaxman, showed him all the surrounding beauties of scenery. Gibbon, the historian of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” who was a great friend of Hayley's, was prevented by circumstances from being present at the time, in the circle collected at Eartham.
The bright sunshine of this visit was, however, as fleeting as was the life of young Hayley, who, full of promise, was cut off by a premature death, at the age of twenty-three, only a week after the decease of Cowper himself. On his return to Weston, Cowper sank into a settled melancholy, which gradually increased in intenseness, until eventually universal darkness shrouded his soul. Short fugitive pieces were all that his mind was able to produce during the remainder of his life. His poetic fancy had blossomed late. He was over fifty years of age when his first volume of poetry was put forth. In a few years
his genius reached its culminating point, and then began to decline, or rather, to become clouded and obscured. He became a prey to that most hopeless form of mental alienation, religious melancholia. He became filled with fear about his own spiritual condition, with a horror of and yet an attraction to death; with a despondency about his future, both in this life and in the next. There was nothing now that could “minister to a mind diseased,” or “pluck from the memory a rooted terror.”
Mrs. Unwin had become a confirmed invalid. She was no longer the companion, however dull, and the caretaker, however despotic, of the poet, but had lapsed into a fretful and peevish valetudinarian, to whom Cowper had to sacrifice every moment of his time, and who treated him in a most arbitrary and imperious manner. The trifling interests that Cowper had ever taken in the public events of his day did not afford any sufficient counterbalance for the dulness of his daily life, or any sufficient incentive to arouse him from the torpor of gloom and despair into which he was now fast sinking. Had Cowper been an ardent politician or an eager social reformer, there might have been some chance, that in the consideration of the more extensive field of politics or philanthropy, an oblivion of the petty troubles of private life and of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of individual character might have been attained. The term idiot, which originally meant a private citizen, as distinguished from one who took part in public affairs, became degraded to its present meaning, because the Greeks quickly perceived that the man who secluded himself from the society of his fellow-men, and from the sympathetic currents of active life, became inert in mind as well as in body, and sank into fatuity.
Cowper never mixed himself up with any public movement. He had indeed views and opinions on some of the questions of the day, but he never formulated them into distinct utterances, or expressed them in any more conspicuous manner than in some passing phrase of a private letter. Thus, by an attentive study of his epistolary correspondence, we learn that he disapproved of all Test Acts as profane and immoral; that he would have assented to Catholic Emancipation had the question arisen in his time, and that he approved, with certain modifications, of the American War. Only twice during his life, however, did he display any passionate interest in public affairs; once at the time that Wilberforce and Clarkson and Sharpe were struggling to obtain the emancipation of the slaves, and once when his relative, Henry Cowper, clerk in the House of Lords, a speaker noted for the melodiousness of his voice, was pleading on behalf of the poet's old schoolfellow, Warren Hastings, against whom Burke and Sheridan thundered in fervid rhetoric the charge of maladministration in India. In aid of the former movement, the Abolition of Slavery, Cowper produced “The Negro's Complaint,” “Pity for Poor Africans,” and a sonnet to Wilberforce. In the poem, also, “On the Burning of Lord Mansfield's Library” by a mob, he exhibits his admiration for that able judge, who had declared in the celebrated Somerset case, that a slave on landing in England became ipso facto free. In commendation of the latter cause, the defence of Warren Hastings, Cowper wrote his sonnet to Henry Cowper, in which he declares
“ Thou art not voice alone, but hast beside
Both heart and head,” and his sonnet to Warren Hastings.
Taking, then, with these two exceptions, little or no interest in public affairs, Cowper had nothing to fall back upon when the death of some friends, the decrepitude of other friends, the monotonous dulness of domestic life, and an over-excited religious sensibility combined to aggravate the weaknesses of a morbid mind that was constitutionally prone to melancholy. His nature was a peculiar one, as in it were to be found at one and the same time great mental power and great mental feebleness. His case was, as Gilfillan says, “ the case of an entirely and ab origine deranged pervous system ; much tried by cir