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In presenting to the public this new and complete edition of the Life, Correspondence, and Poems of Cowper, it may be proper for me to state the grounds on which it claims to be the only complete edition that has been, or can be published.
After the decease of this justly admired author, Hayley received from my lamented brotherin-law, Dr. Johnson, (so endeared by his exemplary attention to his afflicted relative,) every facility for his intended biography. Aided also by valuable contributions from other quarters, he was thus furnished with rich materials for the execution of his interesting work. The reception with which his Life of Cowper was honoured, and the successive editions through which it passed, afforded unequivocal testimony to the industry and talents of the biographer and to the epistolary merits of the Poet. Still there were many, intimately acquainted with the character and principles of Cowper, who considered that, on the whole, a very erroneous impression was conveyed to the public. On this subject no one was perhaps more competent to form a just estimate than the late Dr. Johnson. A long and familiar intercourse with his endeared relative had afforded him all the advantages of a daily and minute observation. His possession of documents, and intimate knowledge of facts, enabled him to discover the partial suppression of some letters, and the total omission of others, that, in his judgment, were essential to the developement of Cowper's real character. The cause of this procedure may be explained so as fully to exonerate Hayley from any charge injurious to his honour. His mind, however literary and elegant, was not precisely qualified to present a religious character to the view of the British public, without committing some important errors. Hence, in occasional parts of his work, his reflections are misplaced, sometimes injurious, and often injudicious; and in no portion of it is this defect more visible than
where he attributes the malady of Cowper to the operation of religious causes.
It would be difficult to express the painful feeling produced by these facts on the minds of Dr. Johnson and of his friends. Hayley indeed seems to be afraid of exhibiting Cowper too much in a religious garb, lest he should either lessen his estimation, alarm the reader, or compromise himself. To these circumstances may be attributed the defects that we have noticed, and which have rendered his otherwise excellent production an imperfect work. The consequence, as regards Cowper, has been unfortunate. “ People,” observes Dr. Johnson, “ read the Letters with the Task’ in their recollection, (and vice versa,) and are perplexed. They look for the Cowper of each in the other, and find him not; the correspondency is destroyed. The character of Cowper is thus undetermined; mystery hangs over it, and the opinions formed of him are as various as the minds of the inquirers.” It was to dissipate this illusion, that my lamented friend collected the “ Private Correspondence,” containing letters that had been previously suppressed, with the addition of others, then brought to light for the first time. Still there remains one
more important object to be accomplished: viz., to present to the British public the whole Correspondence in its entire and unbroken form, and in its chronological order. Then, and not till then, will the real character of Cowper be fully understood and comprehended; and the consistency of his Christian character be found to harmonize with the Christian spirit of his pure and exalted productions.
Supplemental to such an undertaking is the task of revising Hayley's Life of the Poet, purifying it from the errors that detract from its acknowledged value, and adapting it to the demands and expectations of the religious public. That this desideratum has been long felt, to an extent far beyond what is commonly supposed, the Editor has had ample means of knowing, from his own personal observation, and from repeated assurances of the same import from his lamented friend, the Rev. Legh Richmond.*
The time for carrying this object into effect is now arrived. The termination of the copyright of Hayley's Life of Cowper, and access to the Private Correspondence collected by Dr. Johnson, enable the Editor to combine all these objects, and to present, for the first time, a Complete Edition of the Works of Cowper, which it is not in the power of any individual besides himself to accomplish, because all others are debarred access to the Private Correspondence. Upwards of two hundred letters will be thus incorporated with the former work of Hayley, in their due and chronological order.
* Of the letters contained in the “ Private Correspondence” he emphatically remarked, “Cowper will never be clearly and satisfactorily understood without them.”
The merits of “ The Private Correspondence” are thus attested in a letter addressed to Dr. Johnson, by a no less distinguished judge than the late Rev. Robert Hall.—“ It is quite unnecessary to say that I perused the letters with great admiration and delight. I have always considered the letters of Mr. Cowper as the finest specimen of the epistolary style in our language; and these appear to me of a superior description to the former, possessing as much beauty, with more piety and pathos. To an air of inimitable ease and carelessness they unite a high degree of correctness, such as could result only from the clearest intellect, combined with the most finished taste. I have scarcely found a single word which is capable of being exchanged for a better. Literary errors I can discern none. The selection of words, and the construction of periods,