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of insult. I purchased a ballad which was sung in the streets, because I imagined that it was composed in derision of me. I dined alone at a tavern, where I never went till night, and where I endeavoured to conceal myself in the obscurest corner. I slept an hour every evening, or rather, I was persecuted during an hour by the most frightful dreams, and on awaking, my limbs appeared incapable of supporting my weight. I staggered like a drunken man. I could not support the looks of my fellow-creatures; but the idea that the eye of God was fixed upon me, filled me with inexpressible affliction.” His brother and his friends resolved to take him to St. Alban's, and place him in a private madhouse, conducted by Dr. Cotton, an agreeable poet, and, moreover, a humane physician. At the end of nine months, his delirium grew composed, and his pious remorse gave way to the emotions of a more consoling faith. At the conclusion of a conversation with his brother, a ray of hope descended into his heart, and he beheld in a dream an angel, whose smile occasioned him the most delightful sensation. Having opened his bible at the first place which occurred, he applied to himself a verse, which gave promise of divine mercy, and from that time the name alone of Jesus Christ drew tears of pious emotion from his eyes. When he was completely convalescent, he resolved to abandon London, and withdraw to Huntingdon, accompanied by his brother and a VOL. II. E
servant, who grew attached to him by an instinct of affection in the house at St. Alban’s ; but as soon as his brother was gone, depression took possession of his mind. Solitude afflicted him ; “I was,” says he, “like a traveller in the midst of a wilderness, without friend to console me, or guide to direct my way.” One cannot avoid remarking here that monastic institutions were especially made for minds like Cowper's; and had Cowper been a catholic, he would have recovered composure in these asylums which are alike open to all who are compelled to say, “The world is not fit for me ; and I am not fit for the world.” Happily the poor solitary gradually associated with a family, with which he finally connected his destinies. This was the Unwin family, the head of which was the parochial clergyman. Mrs. Unwin, the mother, was a mystic devotee, a sort of Madame Guyon. The following is the manner in which Cowper describes the edifying occupations of the day. It is a little picture of a regular household in Great Britain. “Webreakfasted between eight and nine o'clock. Till eleven we read the scriptures, or the sermons of some orthodox preacher. At eleven we assisted at divine service, which is here celebrated twice a day; and from twelve to three we separated, in order to divert ourselves, each according to his fancy. For myself, I spend the interval in reading
* Lord Byron. This phrase would suffice to raise the cry of papist in England, where Cowper is more read as a rigid protestant than as a poet. I beg pardon of the most tolerant Church-of-Englandism.
in my apartment, where I walk about or tend my flowers. We seldom remain more than an hour at table; but if time permits we resort to the garden, where generally I enjoy the happiness of a religious conversation with Mrs. Unwin, or her son. If it rains, or if the wind be too high, we converse in the parlour, or sing hymns ; and, thanks to Mrs. Unwin's harp, we get up a tolerable concert, in which, I trust, our hearts at least are in unison. After tea, we take a walk, and seldom return till after extending it to three or four miles. At night-fall we read, and chat as before till supper, and generally end the evening with hymns or the lecture of a sermon.” After the death of Mr. Unwin, the father, in 1767, Cowper accompanied Mrs. Unwin and her daughter to their new residence at Olney, formed an acquaintance with the curate, Mr. Newton, and composed some hymns, published in a miscellany a considerable time before he was known as a poet. At Olney, unhappily, his fatal malady recovered possession of him, and his reason remained eclipsed during five years. Mrs. Unwin lavished the tender cares of a mother upon him ; and during the rest of his life Cowper endeavoured to discharge the sacred debt which he had thus contracted. After this sad aberration of reason, Cowper resorted to the pencil for amusement. He painted some of the views in the neighbourhood; he also amused himself with making cages: but his favourite occupation was the education of three hares, of which he has left a very detailed bio
graphy, and which he has immortalized by their epitaphs. How many heroes are there who have no other title than this to protect them from oblivion. One cannot avoid being interested with the agreeable description he has left of the familiar graces of docile and caressing Puss, the coyness and solemn airs of Tiney, a less sociable character, and the gambols of courageous Bess, the Vestris of the three. Let me hasten to avow, that similarity of taste renders these details, perhaps, more interesting to me than to another. I readily sympathize with Don Juan.
“He had a kind of inclination,
Don Juan, C. x.
And if sometimes I surprise myself dreaming of the glory of the poet, I readily rank my paro quet among the number of those with whom I could share my” immortality.
Cowper had already reached his fiftieth year when he cultivated his taste for poetry. He did not publish his first volume till 1781, the greatest success of which was the admiration it inspired to Dr. Johnson and Franklin. But the greater number of readers considered his verses too serious ; and it required all the reputation of his second volume to recall the attention of the world to his first. In the course of the same year, Mr. Unwin received a visit from an amiable and still youthful widow, Lady Austen, with whom Cowper, surmounting his almost invincible timidity, united himself in the bonds of a strict friendship. The influence of her witty gaiety, of her agreeable manners, and her elegant taste, doubtless imparted unaccustomed graces to the muse of the solitary. She even suggested some subjects; the Task was composed in deference to one of her caprices; and the translation of Homer was also the result of her recommendation. One evening that she perceived him relapsing insensibly into his sombre reveries, she took it into her head to relate to him the adventures of John Gilpin, a story with which her nurse, she said, had sometimes lulled her to sleep. This comic narrative operated like a charm on Cowper's imagination ; he laughed at it so heartily, that, yielding during the night to the irresistible demon of versification, he composedaballad which will consecrate the humourous style. This little poem would seem to be an anticipated parody of Lord Byron's Mazeppa.” Instead of the Hetman of the Cossacks, it is a city shopkeeper, who is about to spend the Sunday with his wife and family. His wife and children are conveyed by coach, and he mounts a hack horse in order to escort the equipage. Un
* It is true that it is also the paroquet of my mother; and, if the reader be tempted to smile, I refer him to the elegant chapter of Buffon on the paroquet.