Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Augustine Birrell's Essay on William Cowper


The large and weighty family of Gradgrinds may, from their various
well-cushioned coigns of advantage, give forcible utterance to their
opinions as to what are the really important things in this life; but
the fact remains, distasteful as it may be to those of us who accomplish
the disciplinary end of vexing our fathers' souls by other means than
'penning stanzas,' that the lives of poets, even of people who have
passed for poets, eclipse in general and permanent interest the lives of
other men. Whilst above the sod, these poets were often miserable
enough. But charm hangs over their graves. The sternest pedestrian, even
he who is most bent on making his inn by the precise path he has, with
much study of the map, previously prescribed for himself, will yet often
veer to the right or to the left, to visit the lonely churchyard where,
as he hears by the way, lie the ashes of some brother of the tuneful
quill. It may well be that this brother's verses are not frequently on
our lips. It is not the lot of every bard to make quotations. It may
sometimes happen to you, as you stand mournfully surveying the little
heap, to rack your brains unavailingly for so much as a single couplet;
nay, so treacherous is memory, the very title of his best-known poem
may, for the moment, have slipped you. But your heart is melted all the
same, and you feel it would indeed have been a churlish thing to go on
your original way, unmindful of the fact that

    'In yonder grave a Druid lies!'

And you have your reward. When you have reached your desired haven, and
are sitting alone after dinner in the coffee-room, neat-handed Phyllis
(were you not fresh from a poet's grave, a homelier name might have
served her turn) having administered to your final wants, and
disappeared with a pretty flounce, the ruby-coloured wine the dead poet
loved, the bottled sunshine of a bygone summer, glows the warmer in
your cup as you muse over minstrels now no more, whether

    'Of mighty poets in their misery dead,'

or of such a one as he whose neglected grave you have just visited.

It was a pious act, you feel, to visit that grave. You commend yourself
for doing so. As the night draws on, this very simple excursion down a
rutty lane and across a meadow, begins to wear the hues of devotion and
of love; and unless you are very stern with yourself, the chances are
that by the time you light your farthing dip, and are proceeding on your
dim and perilous way to your bedroom at the end of a creaking passage,
you will more than half believe you were that poet's only unselfish
friend, and that he died saying so.

All this is due to the charm of poetry. Port has nothing to do with it.
Indeed, as a plain matter of fact, who would drink port at a village
inn? Nobody feels a bit like this after visiting the tombs of soldiers,
lawyers, statesmen, or divines. These pompous places, viewed through the
haze of one's recollections of the 'careers' of the men whose names
they vainly try to perpetuate, seem but, if I may slightly alter some
words of old Cowley's, 'An ill show after a sorry sight.'

It would be quite impossible, to enumerate one half of the reasons which
make poets so interesting. I will mention one, and then pass on to the
subject-matter. They often serve to tell you the age of men and books.
This is most interesting. There is Mr. Matthew Arnold. How impossible it
would be to hazard even a wide solution of the problem of his age, but
for the way he has of writing about Lord Byron! Then we know

    'The thought of Byron, of his cry
    Stormily, sweet, his Titan agony.'

And again:

    'What boots it now that Byron bore,
      With haughty scorn which mocked the smart,
    Through Europe to the Ætolian shore,
      The pageant of his bleeding heart?'

Ask any man born in the fifties, or even the later forties, what he
thinks of Byron's Titan agony, and his features will probably wear a
smile. Insist upon his giving his opinion about the pageant of the
Childe's bleeding heart, and more likely than not he will laugh
outright. But, I repeat, how interesting to be able to tell the age of
one distinguished poet from his way of writing of another!

So, too, with books. Miss Austen's novels are dateless things. Nobody in
his senses would speak of them as 'old novels.' _John Inglesant_ is an
old novel, so is _Ginx's Baby_. But _Emma_ is quite new, and, like a
wise woman, affords few clues as to her age. But when, taking up _Sense
and Sensibility_, we read Marianne Dashwood's account of her sister's

'And besides all this, I am afraid, mamma, he has no real taste. Music
seems scarcely to attract him, and though he admires Elinor's drawings
very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their
worth. He admires as a lover, and not as a connoisseur. Oh, mamma! how
spiritless, how tame was Edward's manner in reading last night! I felt
for my sister most severely. I could hardly keep my seat to hear those
beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced
with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!' 'He would
certainly [says Mrs. Dashwood] have done more justice to simple and
elegant prose. I thought so, at the time, but you _would_ give him
Cowper.' 'Nay, mamma, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!'--when we
read this, we know pretty well when Miss Austen was born. It is surely
pleasant to be reminded of a time when sentimental girls used Cowper as
a test of a lover's sensibility. One of our modern swains is no more
likely to be condemned as a Philistine for not reading _The Task_ with
unction, than he is to be hung for sheep-stealing, or whipped at the
cart's tail for speaking evil of constituted authorities; but the
position probably still has its perils, and the Marianne Dashwoods of
the hour are quite capable of putting their admirers on to _Rose Mary_,
or _The Blessed Damosel_, and then flouting their insensibility. The
fact, of course, is, that each generation has a way of its own, and
poets are interesting because they are the mirrors in which their
generation saw its own face; and what is more, they are magic mirrors,
since they retain the power of reflecting the image long after what was
pleased to call itself the substance has disappeared into thin air.

There is no more interesting poet than Cowper, and hardly one the area
of whose influence was greater. No man, it is unnecessary to say,
courted popularity less, yet he threw a very wide net, and caught a
great shoal of readers. For twenty years after the publication of _The
Task_ in 1785, his general popularity never flagged, and even when in
the eyes of the world it was eclipsed, when Cowper became in the opinion
of fierce Byronians and moss-trooping Northerners, 'a coddled Pope' and
a milksop, our great, sober, Puritan middle-class took him to their warm
firesides for two generations more. Some amongst these were not, it must
be owned, lovers of poetry at all; they liked Cowper because he is full
of a peculiar kind of religious phraseology, just as some of Burns'
countrymen love Burns because he is full of a peculiar kind of strong
drink called whisky. This was bad taste; but it made Cowper all the more
interesting, since he thus became, by a kind of compulsion, the
favourite because the only poet, of all these people's children; and the
children of the righteous do not wither like the green herb, neither do
they beg their bread from door to door, but they live in slated houses
and are known to read at times. No doubt, by the time it came to these
children's children the spell was broken, and Cowper went out of fashion
when Sunday travelling and play-going came in again. But his was a long
run, and under peculiar conditions. Signs and tokens are now abroad,
whereby the judicious are beginning to infer that there is a renewed
disposition to read Cowper, and to love him, not for his faults, but for
his great merits, his observing eye, his playful wit, his personal

Hayley's _Life of Cowper_ is now obsolete, though since it is adorned
with vignettes by Blake it is prized by the curious. Hayley was a kind
friend to Cowper, but he possessed, in a highly developed state, that
aversion to the actual facts of a case which is unhappily so
characteristic of the British biographer. Southey's _Life_ is horribly
long-winded and stuffed out; still, like Homer's _Iliad_, it remains
the best. It was long excluded from strict circles because of its
worldly tone, and also because it more than hinted that the Rev. John
Newton was to blame for his mode of treating the poet's delusions. Its
place was filled by the Rev. Mr. Grimshaw's _Life_ of the poet, which is
not a nice book. Mr. Benham's recent _Life_, prefixed to the cheap Globe
edition of _Cowper's Poems_, is marvellously good and compressed. Mr.
Goldwin Smith's account of the poet in Mr. Morley's series could not
fail to be interesting, though it created in the minds of some readers a
curious sensation of immense distance from the object described. Mr.
Smith seemed to discern Cowper clearly enough, but as somebody very far
off. This, however, may be fancy.

The wise man will not trouble the biographers. He will make for himself
a short list of dates, so that he may know where he is at any particular
time, and then, poking the fire and (his author notwithstanding)
lighting his pipe--

    'Oh, pernicious weed, whose scent the fair annoys--'

he will read Cowper's letters. There are five volumes of them in
Southey's edition. It would be to exaggerate to say you wish there were
fifty, but you are, at all events, well content there should be five. In
the course of them Cowper will tell you the story of his own life, as it
ought to be told, as it alone can be told, in the purest of English and
with the sweetest of smiles. For a combination of delightful qualities,
Cowper's letters have no rivals. They are playful, witty, loving,
sensible, ironical, and, above all, as easy as an old shoe. So easy,
indeed, that after you have read half a volume or so, you begin to think
their merits have been exaggerated, and that anybody could write letters
as good as Cowper's. Even so the man who never played billiards, and who
sees Mr. Roberts play that game, might hastily opine that he, too, could
go and do likewise.

To form anything like a fair estimate of Cowper, it is wise to ignore as
much as possible his mental disease, and always to bear in mind the
manner of man he naturally was. He belonged essentially to the order of
wags. He was, it is easy to see, a lover of trifling things, elegantly
finished. He hated noise, contention, and the public gaze, but society
he ever insisted upon.

    'I praise the Frenchman, his remark was shrewd,
    How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude!
    But grant me still a friend in my retreat,
    Whom I may whisper--"solitude is sweet."'

He loved a jest, a barrel of oysters, and a bottle of wine. His
well-known riddle on a kiss is Cowper from top to toe:

    'I am just two and two; I am warm, I am cold,
    And the parent of numbers that cannot be told.
    I am lawful, unlawful, a duty, a fault,
    I am often sold dear, good for nothing when bought,
    An extraordinary boon, and a matter of course,
    And yielded with pleasure when taken by force.'

Why, it is a perfect dictionary of kisses in six lines!

Had Cowper not gone mad in his thirty-second year, and been frightened
out of the world of trifles, we should have had another Prior, a wittier
Gay, an earlier Praed, an English La Fontaine. We do better with _The
Task_ and the _Lines to Mary_, but he had a light touch.

    ''Tis not that I design to rob
    Thee of thy birthright, gentle Bob,
    For thou art born sole heir and single
    Of dear Mat Prior's easy jingle.
    Not that I mean while thus I knit
    My threadbare sentiments together,
    To show my genius or my wit,
    When God and you know I have neither,
    Or such as might be better shown
    By letting poetry alone.'

This lightness of touch, this love of trifling, never deserted Cowper,
not even when the pains of hell got hold of him, and he believed himself
the especially accursed of God. In 1791, when things were very black, we
find him writing to his good Dissenting friend, the Rev. William Bull
('Charissime Taurorum'), as follows:

'Homer, I say, has all my time, except a little that I give every day to
no very cheering prospects of futurity. I would I were a Hottentot, or
even a Dissenter, so that my views of an hereafter were more
comfortable. But such as I am, Hope, if it please God, may visit even
me. Should we ever meet again, possibly we may part no more. Then, if
Presbyterians ever find their way to heaven, you and I may know each
other in that better world, and rejoice in the recital of the terrible
things that we endured in this. I will wager sixpence with you now, that
when that day comes you shall acknowledge my story a more wonderful one
than yours; only order your executors to put sixpence in your mouth when
they bury you, that you may have wherewithal to pay me.'

Whilst living in the Temple, which he did for twelve years, chiefly it
would appear on his capital, he associated with a race of men, of whom
report has reached us, called 'wits.' He belonged to the Nonsense Club;
he wrote articles for magazines. He went to balls, to Brighton, to the
play. He went once, at all events, to the gallery of the House of
Commons, where he witnessed an altercation between a placeman and an
alderman--two well-known types still in our midst. The placeman had
misquoted Terence, and the alderman had corrected him; whereupon the
ready placeman thanked the worthy alderman for teaching him Latin, and
volunteered in exchange to teach the alderman English. Cowper must at
this time have been a considerable reader, for all through life he is
to be found quoting his authors, poets, and playwrights, with an easy
appositeness, all the more obviously genuine because he had no books in
the country to refer to. 'I have no English History,' he writes, 'except
Baker's _Chronicle_, and that I borrowed three years ago from Mr.
Throckmorton.' This was wrong, but Baker's _Chronicle_ (Sir Roger de
Coverley's favourite Sunday reading) is not a book to be returned in a

After this easy fashion Cowper acquired what never left him--the style
and manner of an accomplished worldling.

The story of the poet's life does not need telling; but as Owen Meredith
says, probably not even for the second time, 'after all, old things are
best.' Cowper was born in the rectory at Great Berkhampstead, in 1735.
His mother dying when he was six years old, he was despatched to a
country academy, where he was horribly bullied by one of the boys, the
reality of whose persecution is proved by one terrible touch in his
victim's account of it: 'I had such a dread of him, that I did not dare
lift my eyes to his face. I knew him best by his shoe-buckle.' The
odious brute! Cowper goes on to say he had forgiven him, which I can
believe, but when he proceeds to ejaculate a wish to meet his persecutor
again in heaven, doubt creeps in. When ten years old he was sent to
Westminster, where there is nothing to show that he was otherwise than
fairly happy; he took to his classics very kindly, and (so he says)
excelled in cricket and football. This is evidence, but as Dr. Johnson
once confessed about the evidence for the immortality of the soul, 'one
would like more.' He was for some time in the class of Vincent Bourne,
who, though born in 1695, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge,
ranks high amongst the Latin poets. Whether Cowper was bullied at
Westminster is a matter of controversy. Bourne was bullied. About that
there can be no doubt. Cowper loved him, and relates with delight how on
one occasion the Duke of Richmond (Burke's Duke, I suppose) set fire to
the greasy locks of this latter-day Catullus, and then, alarmed at the
spread of the conflagration, boxed his master's ears to put it out. At
eighteen Cowper left Westminster, and after doing nothing (at which he
greatly excelled) for nine months in the country, returned to town, and
was articled to an attorney in Ely Place, Holborn, for three years. At
the same time, being intended for the Bar, he was entered at the Middle,
though he subsequently migrated to the Inner Temple. These three years
in Ely Place Cowper fribbled away agreeably enough. He had as his
desk-companion Edward Thurlow, the most tremendous of men. Hard by Ely
Place is Southampton Row, and in Southampton Row lived Ashley Cowper,
the poet's uncle, with a trio of affable daughters, Theodora Jane,
Harriet, afterwards Lady Hesketh, and a third, who became the wife of
Sir Archer Croft. According to Cowper, a great deal of giggling went on
in Southampton Row. He fell in love with Theodora, and Theodora fell in
love with him. He wrote her verses enough to fill a volume. She was
called Delia in his lays. In 1752, his articles having expired, he took
chambers in the Temple, and in 1754 was called to the Bar.

Ashley Cowper, a very little man, who used to wear a white hat lined
with yellow silk, and was on that account likened by his nephew to a
mushroom, would not hear of his daughter marrying her cousin; and being
a determined little man, he had his own way, and the lovers were parted
and saw one another no more. Theodora Cowper wore the willow all the
rest of her long life. Her interest in her cousin never abated. Through
her sister, Lady Hesketh, she contributed in later years generously to
his support. He took the money and knew where it came from, but they
never wrote to one another, nor does her name ever appear in Cowper's
correspondence. She became, so it is said, morbid on the subject during
her latter days, and dying twenty-four years after her lover, she
bequeathed to a nephew a mysterious packet she was known to cherish. It
was found to contain Cowper's love-verses.

In 1756 Cowper's father died, and the poet's patrimony proved to be a
very small one. He was made a Commissioner of Bankrupts. The salary was
£60 a year. He knew one solicitor, but whether he ever had a brief is
not known. He lived alone in his chambers till 1763, when, under
well-known circumstances, he went raving mad, and attempted to hang
himself in his bedroom, and very nearly succeeded. He was removed to Dr.
Cotton's asylum, where he remained a year. This madness, which in its
origin had no more to do with religion than it had with the Binomial
Theorem, ultimately took the turn of believing that it was the will of
God that he should kill himself, and that as he had failed to do so he
was damned everlastingly. In this faith, diversified by doubt, Cowper
must be said henceforth to have lived and died.

On leaving St. Albans, the poet, in order to be near his only brother,
the Rev. John Cowper, Fellow of Corpus, Cambridge, and a most delightful
man, had lodgings in Huntingdon; and there, one eventful Tuesday in
1765, he made the acquaintance of Mary Unwin. Mrs. Unwin's husband, a
most scandalously non-resident clergyman--whom, however, Cowper
composedly calls a veritable Parson Adams--was living at this time, not
in his Norfolk rectory of Grimston, but contentedly enough in
Huntingdon, where he took pupils. Cowper became a lodger in the family,
which consisted of the rector and his wife, a son at Cambridge, and a
daughter, also one or two pupils. In 1767 Mr. Unwin was thrown from his
horse and fractured his skull. Church-reformers pointed out, at the
time, that had the Rector of Grimston been resident, this accident could
not have occurred in Huntingdon. They then went on to say, but less
convincingly, that Mr. Unwin's death was the judgment of Heaven upon
him. Mr. Unwin dead, the poet and the widow moved to Olney, where they
lived together for nineteen years in a tumble-down house, and on very
slender means. Their attraction to Olney was in the fact that John
Newton was curate-in-charge. Olney was not an ideal place by any means.
Cowper and Mrs. Unwin lived in no fools' paradise, for they visited the
poor and knew the manner of their lives. The inhabitants were mostly
engaged in lace-making and straw-plaiting; they were miserably poor,
immoral, and drunken. There is no idyllic nonsense in Cowper's poetry.

In 1773 he had another most violent attack of suicidal mania, and
attempted his life more than once. Writing in 1786 to Lady Hesketh,
Cowper gives her an account of his illness, of which at the time she
knew nothing, as her acquaintance with her cousin was not renewed till

'Know then, that in the year '73, the same scene that was acted at St.
Albans opened upon me again at Olney, only covered with a still deeper
shade of melancholy, and ordained to be of much longer duration. I
believed that everybody hated me, and that Mrs. Unwin hated me most of
all; was convinced that all my food was poisoned, together with ten
thousand megrims of the same stamp. Dr. Cotton was consulted. He replied
that he could do no more for me than might be done at Olney, but
recommended particular vigilance, lest I should attempt my life; a
caution for which there was the greatest occasion. At the same time that
I was convinced of Mrs. Unwin's aversion to me, I could endure no other
companion. The whole management of me consequently devolved upon her,
and a terrible task she had; she performed it, however, with a
cheerfulness hardly ever equalled on such an occasion, and I have often
heard her say that if ever she praised God in her life, it was when she
found she was to have all the labour. She performed it accordingly, but
as I hinted once before, very much to the hurt of her own constitution.'

Just before this outbreak, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin had agreed to marry,
but after it they felt the subject was not to be approached, and so the
poor things spoke of it no more. Still, it was well they had spoken out.
'Love me, and tell me so,' is a wise maxim of behaviour.

Stupid people, themselves leading, one is glad to believe, far duller
lives than Cowper and Mary Unwin, have been known to make dull,
ponderous jokes about this _ménage_ at Olney--its country walks, its
hymn tunes, its religious exercises. But it is pleasant to note how
quick Sainte Beuve, whose three papers on Cowper are amongst the glories
of the _Causeries du Lundi_, is to recognise how much happiness and
pleasantness was to be got out of this semi-monastic life and close
social relation.

Cowper was indeed the very man for it. One can apply to him his own
well-known lines about the winter season, and crown him

              'The King of intimate delights,
    Fireside enjoyments, and homeborn happiness.'

No doubt he went mad at times. It was a terrible affliction. But how
many men have complaints of the liver, and are as cheerful to live with
as the Black Death, or Young's _Night Thoughts_. Cowper had a famous
constitution. Not even Dr. James's powder, or the murderous practices of
the faculty, could undermine it. Sadness is not dulness.

    'Dear saints, it is not sorrow, as I hear,
    Nor suffering that shuts up eye and ear
    To all which has delighted them before,
    And lets us be what we were once no more!
    No! we may suffer deeply, yet retain
    Power to be moved and soothed, for all our pain,
    By what of old pleased us, and will again.
    No! 'tis the gradual furnace of the world,
    In whose hot air our spirits are upcurled
    Until they crumble, or else grow like steel,
    Which kills in us the bloom, the youth, the spring,
    Which leaves the fierce necessity to feel,
    But takes away the power--this can avail
    By drying up our joy in everything,
    To make our former pleasures all seem stale.'

I can think of no one to whom these beautiful lines of Mr. Arnold's are
so exquisitely appropriate as to Cowper. Nothing could knock the
humanity out of him. Solitude, sorrow, madness, found him out, threw him
down and tore him, as did the devils their victims in the days of old;
but when they left him for a season, he rose from his misery as sweet
and as human, as interested and as interesting as ever. His descriptions
of natural scenery and country-side doings are amongst his best things.
He moralises enough, heaven knows! but he keeps his morality out of his
descriptions. This is rather a relief after overdoses of Wordsworth's
pantheism and Keats's paganism. Cowper's Nature is plain county Bucks.

              'The sheepfold here
    Pours out its fleecy tenants o'er the glebe.
    At first progressive as a stream, they seek
    The middle field; but scattered by degrees,
    Each to his choice, soon whiten all the land.'

The man who wrote that had his eye on the object; but lest the quotation
be thought too woolly by a generation which has a passion for fine
things, I will allow myself another:

    'Nor rural sights alone, but rural sounds,
    Exhilarate the spirit and restore
    The tone of languid nature, mighty winds
    That sweep the skirt of some far-spreading wood
    Of ancient growth, make music not unlike
    The dash of ocean on his winding shore
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    . . . . . . . . . of rills that slip
    Through the cleft rock, and chiming as they fall
    Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length
    In matted grass, that with a livelier green
    Betrays the secret of their silent course.'

In 1781 began the episode of Lady Austen. That lady was doing some small
shopping in Olney, in company with her sister, the wife of a
neighbouring clergyman, when our poet first beheld her. She pleased his
eye. Whether in the words of one of his early poems he made free to
comment on her shape I cannot say; but he hurried home and made Mrs.
Unwin ask her to tea. She came. Cowper was seized with a fit of shyness,
and very nearly would not go into the room. He conquered the fit, went
in and swore eternal friendship. To the very end of her days Mrs. Unwin
addressed the poet, her true lover though he was, as 'Mr. Cowper.' In a
week, Lady Austen and he were 'Sister Ann' and 'William' one to another.
Sister Ann had a furnished house in London. She gave it up. She came to
live in Olney, next door. She was pretty, she was witty, she played, she
sang. She told Cowper the story of John Gilpin, she inspired his _Wreck
of the Royal George_. _The Task_ was written at her bidding. Day in and
day out, Cowper and Lady Austen and Mrs. Unwin were together. One turns
instinctively to see what Sainte Beuve has to say about Lady Austen.
'C'était Lady Austen, veuve d'un baronet. Cette rare personne était
douée des plus heureux dons; elle n'était plus très-jeune ni dans la
fleur de beauté; elle avait ce qui est mieux, une puissance d'attraction
et d'enchantement qui tenait à la transparence de l'âme, une faculté de
reconnaissance, de sensibilité émue jusqu'aux larmes pour toute marque
de bienveillance dont elle était l'objet. Tout en elle exprimait une
vivacité pure, innocente et tendre. C'était une créature _sympathique_,
et elle devait tout-à-fait justifier dans le cas présent ce mot de
Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: "Il y a dans la femme une gaieté légère qui
dissipe la tristesse de l'homme."'

That odd personage, Alexander Knox, who had what used to be called a
'primitive,' that is, a fourth-century mind, and on whom the Tractarian
movement has been plausibly grandfathered, and who was (incongruously)
employed by Lord Castlereagh to help through the Act of Union with
Ireland, of which we have lately heard, but who remained all the time
primitively unaware that any corruption was going on around him--this
odd person, I say, was exercised in his mind about Lady Austen, of whom
he had been reading in Hayley's _Life_. In October, 1806, he writes to
Bishop Jebb in a solemn strain: 'I have rather a severer idea of Lady A.
than I should wish to put into writing for publication. I almost suspect
she was a very artful woman. But I need not enlarge.' He puts it rather
differently from Sainte Beuve, but I dare say they both meant much the
same thing. If Knox meant more it would be necessary to get angry with
him. That Lady Austen fell in love with Cowper and would have liked to
marry him, but found Mrs. Unwin in the way, is probable enough; but
where was the artfulness? Poor Cowper was no catch. The grandfather of
Tractarianism would have been better employed in unmasking the
corruption amongst which he had lived, than in darkly suspecting a
lively lady of designs upon a penniless poet, living in the utmost
obscurity, on the charity of his relatives.

But this state of things at Olney did not last very long. 'Of course
not,' cackle a chorus of cynics. 'It could not!' The Historical Muse,
ever averse to theory, is content to say, 'It did not,' but as she
writes the words she smiles. The episode began in 1781, it ended in
1784. It became necessary to part. Cowper may have had his qualms, but
he concealed them manfully and remained faithful to Mrs. Unwin--

            'The patient flower
    Who possessed his darker hour.'

Lady Austen flew away, and afterwards, as if to prove her levity
incurable, married a Frenchman. She died in 1802. English literature
owes her a debt of gratitude. Her name is writ large over much that is
best in Cowper's poetry. Not indeed over the very best; _that_ bears the
inscription _To Mary_. And it was right that it should be so, for Mrs.
Unwin had to put up with a good deal.

_The Task_ and _John Gilpin_ were published together in 1785, and some
of Cowper's old friends (notably Lady Hesketh) rallied round the now
known poet once more. Lady Hesketh soon begins to fill the chair vacated
by Lady Austen, and Cowper's letters to her are amongst his most
delightful. Her visits to Olney were eagerly expected, and it was she
who persuaded the pair to leave the place for good and all, and move to
Weston, which they did in 1786. The following year Cowper went mad
again, and made another most desperate attempt upon his life. Again Mary
Unwin stood by the poor maniac's side, and again she stood alone. He got
better, and worked away at his translation of Homer as hard and wrote
letters as charming as ever. But Mrs. Unwin was pretty well done for.
Cowper published his Homer by subscription, and must be pronounced a
dab hand in the somewhat ignoble art of collecting subscribers. I am not
sure that he could not have given Pope points. Pope had a great
acquaintance, but he had barely six hundred subscribers. Cowper scraped
together upwards of five hundred. As a beggar he was unabashed. He
quotes in one of his letters, and applies to himself patly enough,
Ranger's observation in the _Suspicious Husband_, 'There is a degree of
assurance in you modest men, that we impudent fellows can never arrive
at!' The University of Oxford was, however, too much for him. He beat
her portals in vain. She had but one answer, 'We subscribe to nothing.'
Cowper was very angry, and called her 'a rich old vixen.' She did not
mind. The book appeared in 1791. It has many merits, and remains unread.

The clouds now gathered heavily over the biography of Cowper. Mrs. Unwin
had two paralytic strokes, the old friends began to torture one another.
She was silent save when she was irritable, indifferent except when
exacting. At last, not a day too soon, Lady Hesketh came to Weston.
They were moved into Norfolk--but why prolong the tale? Mrs. Unwin died
at East Dereham on the 17th of December, 1796. Thirty-one years had gone
since the poet and she first met by chance in Huntingdon. Cowper himself
died in April, 1800. His last days were made physically comfortable by
the kindness of some Norfolk cousins, and the devotion of a Miss
Perowne. But he died in wretchedness and gloom.

The _Castaway_ was his last original poem:

    'I therefore purpose not or dream
      Descanting on his fate,
    To give the melancholy theme
      A more enduring date;
    But misery still delights to trace
    Its semblance in another's case.'

Everybody interested in Cowper has of course to make out, as best he
may, a picture of the poet for his own use. It is curious how sometimes
little scraps of things serve to do this better than deliberate efforts.
In 1800, the year of Cowper's death, his relative, a Dr. Johnson, wrote
a letter to John Newton, sending good wishes to the old gentleman, and
to his niece, Miss Catlett; and added: 'Poor dear Mr. Cowper, oh that he
were as tolerable as he was, even in those days when, dining at his
house in Buckinghamshire with you and that lady, I could not help
smiling to see his pleasant face when he said, "Miss Catlett, shall I
give you a piece of cutlet?"' It was a very small joke indeed, and it is
a very humble little quotation, but for me it has long served, in the
mind's eye, for a vignette of the poet, doomed yet _debonnaire_.
Romney's picture, with that frightful nightcap and eyes gleaming with
madness, is a pestilent thing one would forget if one could. Cowper's
pleasant face when he said, 'Miss Catlett, shall I give you a piece of
cutlet?' is a much more agreeable picture to find a small corner for in
one's memory.

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