Page images
[graphic][ocr errors][ocr errors]


WILLIAM COWPER was born at Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, November 26, 1731. His father was rector of that parish, and had been chaplain to George II. The poet's mother died in childbirth when he was six years old. The event made a deep impression upon him, which ultimately found expression in his wellknown lines on receipt of her picture. He was a sensitive and delicate child, disposed to melancholy, and had the misfortune to be sent to a school where he was somewhat harshly treated. This naturally aggravated his fits of despondency, and his unpleasant remembrance of those days appears in his poem "Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools." He finished his studies at Westminster School, and then was articled to an attorney in London. In 1752 he went to reside in the Middle Temple, and two years later was called to the bar; but he never practised.

According to his own story, Cowper was not a very devoted student of the law. He says he spent the greater part of his time with a relative, where he and the future chancellor (Lord Thurlow) amused themselves in "giggling and making giggle." Later, he read the classics attentively, began to write poetry, and with his brother translated a portion of Voltaire's "Henriade."

per, went to reside at Olney, in Buckinghamshire.

In December, 1763, he went to reside with Dr. Colton, at St. Albans, being considerably deranged, if not absolutely insane. It is said that his mind was agitated chiefly by religious questions, and that for seven months he was in momentary terror of being plunged into eternal misery. But this has been disputed by some of his biographers, who say that his religious belief and meditation were his sole consolation. In 1765 he removed to Huntingdon, where he lived in complete retirement for four months. Then he made the acquaintance of Mr. Unwin, son of the clergyman of the parish, and ere long was taken into the house of the Unwins as a boarder. The acquaintance was most congenial, and became a life-long friendship. The Mary of his poems is Mrs. Unwin. After the death of the elder Mr. Unwin, in 1767, the widow and her daughter, accompanied by Cow

While he was on a visit to Rev. Mr. Newton in 1773, he suffered a return of his malady, from which he recovered but slowly. When convalescent, he began writing hymns with Mr. Newton, and amused himself with domesticating hares and making bird-cages.

In December, 1780, he began work on a volume of poems, and finished it by the next March. It contained "Truth," "Table-Talk," "The Progress of Error," and "Expostulation," and was published in 1782.

In 1781 Cowper became acquainted with Lady Austen, who was visiting at Olney. She told him the story of "John Gilpin," which he versified in a single night, urged him to translate Homer, and suggested "The Task."

"John Gilpin " was published anonymously, and for three years failed to attract attention. Suddenly it became popular, and Henderson the actor read it to large audiences.

Lady Austen is described as a most accomplished, agreeable, and somewhat fascinating woman, and Cowper appreciated the charm of her conversation. But Mrs. Unwin looked upon the fair intruder in a different light altogether, and ere long gave the poet his choice of renouncing either Lady Austen's friendship or her own. He decided to retain the older attach

His father died in 1756, leaving him a small property, and soon afterward he was appointed a commissioner of bankrupts, but he never dis-ment, and wrote Lady Austen a formal letter charged the duties of the office. His friends of farewell. It was a matter of deep regret also procured him an appointment as reading with him, though there is little reason to supclerk, and clerk of private committees, in the pose that any romantic affection existed beHouse of Lords. But when he learned that he tween them. must undergo an examination before the House, he became so nervous that he was unable to appear, and resigned the office. At this time he became so despondent as to attempt suicide, but lacked the courage to carry out any such intention.

On the publication of "The Task," in 1784, Lady Hesketh, a cousin of Cowper's, whom he had not seen for thirty years, wrote him a congratulatory letter; and two years later she visited him at Olney, and then settled at Weston, near by. She gave Cowper and the Unwins a more commodious house, and lent him her carriage for longer excursions about the country than he had been accustomed to. As soon as "The Task" was sent to press, he wrote "Tirocinium," and began his translation of Homer, which was completed and published in 1791. The second edition of this translation was so thoroughly revised as to be almost a new one.

After this, Cowper undertook to edit Milton's works; but his faculties were rapidly giving way, and he was entirely unfitted for such work. In 1795 he and Mrs. Unwin removed to North Tuddenham, Norfolk, under the care of a relative, where Mrs. Unwin died the next year. His last original poem was "The Castaway," written in 1799, and he died at East Dereham on the 25th of April, 1800. Southey edited his complete works, with a biography, in fifteen volumes, 1838.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

Her unctuous olives, and her purple vines.
(Unfelt the fury of those bursting mines,)
The peasant's hopes, and not in vain, assur'd,
In peace upon her sloping sides matur'd.
When on a day, like that of the last doom
A conflagration lab'ring in her womb,
She teem'd and heav'd with an infernal birth
That shook the circling seas and solid earth.
Dark and voluminous the vapors rise,
And hang their horrors in the neighb'ring skies,
While through the Stygian veil, that blots the day,
In dazzling streaks the vivid lightnings play.
But oh! what muse, and in what pow'rs of song
Can trace the torrent as it burns along?
Havoc and devastation in the van,

It marches o'er the prostrate works of man,
Vines, olives, herbage, forests disappear,
And all the charms of a Sicilian year.

Revolving seasons, fruitless as they pass,
See it an uninform'd and idle mass;
Without a soil t'invite the tiller's care,
Or blade, that might redeem it from despair.
Yet time at length (what will not time achieve?)
Clothes it with earth, and bids the produce live.
Once more the spiry myrtle crowns the glade,
And ruminating flocks enjoy the shade.
O bliss precarious, and unsafe retreats,

O charming Paradise of short-liv'd sweets!
The self-same gale, that wafts the fragrance round,
Brings to the distant ear a sullen sound:

Again the mountain feels th' imprison'd foe.
Again pours ruin on the vale below.
Ten thousand swains the wasted scene deplore.
That only future ages can restore.

Ye monarchs, whoin the lure of honor draws,
Who write in blood the merits of your cause,
Who strike the blow, then plead your own defence
Glory your aim, but justice your pretence;
Behold in Etna's emblematic fires

The mischiefs your ambitious pride inspires!

Fast by the stream, that bounds your just domain And tells you where ye have a right to reign, A nation d.vells, not envious of your throne, Studious of peace, their neighbors', and their own Ill-fated race! how deeply must they rue Their only crime, vicinity to you!

The trumpet sounds, your legions swarm abroad,
Through the ripe harvest lies their destin'd road;
At every step beneath their feet they tread
The life of multitudes, a nation's bread!
Earth seems a garden in its loveliest dress
Before them, and behind a wilderness.
Famine, and Pestilence, her first-born son,
Attend to finish what the sword begun;
And echoing praises, such as fiends might earn
And Folly pays, resound at your return.
A calm succeeds-but Plenty, with her train
Of heart-felt joys, succeeds not soon again,
And years of pining indigence must show
What scourges are the gods that rule below.

Yet man, laborious man, by slow degrees,
(Such is his thirst of opulence and ease,)
Plies all the sinews of industrious toil,
Gleans up the refuse of the gen'ral spoil,
Rebuilds the tow'rs, that smok'd upon the plain,
And the Sun gilds the shining spires again.

Increasing commerce and reviving art Renew the quarrel on the conqu'ror's part; And the sad lesson must be learn'd once more, That wealth within is ruin at the door.

What are ye, monarchs, laurel'd heroes, say,
But Etnas of the suff'ring world ye sway?
Sweet Nature, stripp'd of her embroider'd robe,
Deplores the wasted regions of her globe;
And stands a witness at Truth's awful bar,
To prove you there destroyers as ye are.

O place me in some Heav'n-protected isle,
Where Peace, and Equity, and Freedom smile;
Where no volcano pours his fiery flood,
No crested warrior dips his plume in blood;
Where Pow'r secures what Industry has won ;
Where to succeed is not to be undone;
A land, that distant tyrants hate in vain,
In Britain's isle, beneath a George's reign!


O THAT those lips had language! Life has pass'd
With me but roughly since I heard thee last.
Those lips are thine-thy own sweet smile I see,
The same, that oft in childhood solac'd me;
Voice only fails, else how distinct they say,
"Grieve not, my child, chase all thy fears away!"
The meek intelligence of those dear eyes
(Blest be the art that can immortalize,
The art that baffles Time's tyrannic claim
To quench it,) here shines on me still the same.
Faithful remembrancer of one so dear,
O welcome guest, though unexpected here!
Who bidd'st me honor with an artless song,
Affectionate, a mother lost so long.
I will obey, not willingly alone,

But gladly, as the precept were her own.
And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief,
Shall steep me in Elysian reverie,
A momentary dream that thou art she.

Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall,
Ne'er roughen'd by those cataracts and breaks,

ON THE RECEIPT OF MY MOTHER'S PICTURE That humor interpos'd too often makes;


My mother! when I learn'd that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hover'd thy spirit o'er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life's journey just begun?
Perhaps thon gav'st me, though unfelt, a kiss ;
Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss-
Ah, that maternal smile! it answers-Yes.
I heard the bell toll'd on thy burial day,

I saw the hearse, that bore thee slow away,
And, turning from my nurs'ry window, drew
A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu!
But was it such ?-It was.-Where thou art gone,
Adieus and farewells are a sound unknown.
May I but meet thee on that peaceful shore,
The parting word shall pass my lips no more!
Thy maidens, griev'd themselves at my concern,
Oft gave me promise of thy quick return.
What ardently I wish'd, I long believ'd,
And, disappointed still, was still deceiv'd.
By expectation ev'ry day beguil'd,
Dupe of to-morrow even from a child.
Thus many a sad to-morrow came and went
Till, all my stock of infant-sorrow spent,
I learn'd at last submission to my lot,
But, though I less deplor'd thee, ne'er forgot.
Where once we dwelt our name is heard no more
Children not thine have trod my nurs'ry floor
And where the gard'ner Robin, day by day,
Drew me to school along the public way,

Delighted with my bauble coach, and wrapp'd
In scarlet mantle warm, and velvet cap,
"Tis now become a hist'ry little known,
That once we call'd the past'ral house our own.
Short-liv'd possession! but the record fair,
That mem'ry keeps of all thy kindness there
Still outlives many a storm, that has effac'd
A thousand other themes less deeply trac'd.
Thy nightly visits to my chamber made,
That thou might'st know me safe and warmly laid
Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,
The biscuit, or confectionary plum;

The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestow'd

By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glow'd All this, and more endearing still than all,

All this still legible in mem'ry's page,
And still to be so to my latest age,
Adds joy to duty, makes me glad to pay
Such honors to thee as my numbers may;
Perhaps a frail memorial, but sincere,
Not scorn'd in Heav'n, though little notic'd here.

Could Time, his flight revers'd, restore the hours When, playing with thy vesture's tissued flow'rs, The violet, the pink, and jessamine,

I prick'd them into paper with a pin,
(And thou wast happier than myself the while,
Wouldst softly speak, and stroke my head, and smile;
Could those few pleasant days again appear,
Might one wish bring them; would I wish them here?
I would not trust my heart-the dear delight
Seems so to be desir'd, perhaps I might.-
But no-what here we call our life is such,
So little to be lov'd, and thou so much,
That I should ill requite thee to constrain
Thy unbound spirit into bonds again.

Thou, as a gallant bark from Albion's coast
(The storms all weather'd and the ocean cross'd)
Shoots into port at some well-haven'd isle,
Where spices breathe, and brighter seasons smile,
There sits quiescent on the floods, that show
Her beauteous form reflected clear below,
While airs impregnated with incense play
Around her, fanning light her streamers gay;

So thou, with sails how swift! hast reach'd the shore

[ocr errors]

Where tempests never beat, nor billows roar,"*

And thy lov'd consort on the dang'rous tide
Of life long since has anchor'd by thy side.
But me, scarce hoping to attain that rest,
Always from port withheld, always distress'd-
Me howling blasts drive devious, tempest-toss'd,
Sails ripp'd, seams op'ning wide, and compass lost
And day by day some current's thwarting force
Sets me more distant from a prosp'rous course.
Yet O the thought, that thou art safe, and he!
That thought is joy, arrive what may to me.
My boast is not, that I deduce my birth
From loins enthron'd, and rulers of the Earth;
But higher far my proud pretensions rise-
The son of parents pass'd into the skies.
And now, farewell-Time unrevok'd has run
His wonted course, yet what I wish'd is done.
By contemplation's help, not sought in vain,
I seem t'have liv'd my childhood o'er again;
To have renew'd the joys that once were mine,
Without the sin of violating thine;

* Garth.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]
« PreviousContinue »