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covered spirits to employ his mind in composttion: to which he was urged by Mrs. Unwin, as the most effectual mode of relieving his thoughts from the despair by which they were continually agitated. She suggested, as a subject, “ The Progress of Error;" and the poem under that title, was the first fruits of his renewed application. “ Truthi," as a pleasing constrast, became bis next topic. “ Expostulation" was formed upon the ground-work of a sermon repeated to him by Mr. Newton. “ Hope, Charity,Conversation, and Retirement," which were subjects either peculiarly familiar, or highly interesting to his mind, succeeded; and having determined upon publishing a volume, by the persuasion of his friends, he introduced it with a colloquial poem on popular subjects, and augmented it with a number of smaller pieces, written upon various occasions. The whole, except a few of the latter, were written during the winter of 1780.
At that period Mr. Cowper had the greater need of occupation for his mind, on account of the removal of his only fainiliar associate, Mr. Newton, from the curacy of Olney to the rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth, in London; where he superintended the publication of his friend's poems in the summer of 1781. Previously to his departure from the former place, he insisted on introducing to Mr. Cowper, his intimate acquaint. ance, Mr. Bull, of Newport Pagnel, as his substitute in social
Nr. Cowper had always shrunk back from intercourse with strangers; and the gloom which siill depressed his mind, rendered him, at that time, peculiarly reluctant to admit a new visitor. Mr. Newton, who dreaded to leave Mr. Cowper wholly destitute of a confidential friend, used, in this instance, an affectionate violence, which was attended with all the success he could hope for. The afflicted bard soon formed a strong attachment to Mr. Bull, whose extensive knowledge and natural vivacity tended greatly to alleviate Mr. Cowper's habitual dejection. They regularly spent together one day every fortnight: the only seasons, for five years, in which Mr. Cowper admitted any company, except during his friendship with the late Lady Austen, which commenced in September 1781. This lady, whose brilliancy of wit and uncommon talents in conversation, were admirably adapted to the relief of a mind like Mr. Cowper's, then resided with her sister, who was married to Mr. Jones, the clergyman of Clifton : a village about one mile from Olney. Mrs. Jones had long known and loved the gospel, and was intimate with Mrs. Unwin. Her sister had chiefly lived in France, during her union with Sir Robert Austen; after whose death she had again settled in England. She also had received the truth as it is in Christ, and had been useful to the enlightening of an endeared friend, who was married to a gentleman in France, named Billacoys. Their singular history is sketched in the Theological Miscellany for August 1787, under the names. ef Aspasia and Clara ; and extracts from several letters of the latter, as well as a poetical epistle to her from Mr. Cowper, were published in the subsequent numbers of that Magazine, and in another, called “ The Divine Treasury.” Lady Austen, accompanying Mrs. Jones on a visit to Mrs. Unwin, Mr. Cowper, though with much hesitation, joined the party; and he shortly discovered, in Lady Austen's animated conversation, a powerful antidote to his melancholy. Their mutual visits soon became very frequent; and Lady Austen removing to the vicaragehouse, then occupied by Mr. Scott, who bad succeeded Mr Newton at Olney, her intercourse with Mrs. Unwin and Mr. Cowper was made as easy and as constant as Mr. Newton's had been. She exerted her unequalled powers to rouse Mr. Cowper from dejection, which often seized his mind, even in company; and the first printed poem which he produced after the publication of his volume, the well-known ballad of John Gilpin, resulted from a story which she repeated for his diversion at such a crisis. Many short poetical effusions likewise were occasioned by their intimacy; among others, “ The Rose," and several which are now first published. Mr. Bull also, in 1789, suggested employment for Mr. Cowper, which resulted in his beautiful translations from Madam Guion. In the following year he began, at the instance of Lady Austen, his grand work, * The Task ;" which was finished and committed to the press in 1784. Immediately on closing it, he wrote his “ Tirocinium," with a desire to avert from the rising generation the evils he had experienced, or observed, at public schools. The connection of Lady Austen with him and Mrs. Unwin, was suddenly terminated about that period, by the apprehensions of the latter, that Lady Austen had formed an attachment to Mr. Cowper, inconsistent with the engagements which subsisted between herself and bim. As these remained profoundly secret, Lady Austen might inadvertently afford ground for the suspicion; but she soon became aware of its consequences, by a farewellletter from Mr. Cowper, whom she never afterwards met. Previously, however, to the cessation of their intercourse, she had suggested to him an undertaking that occupied the remainder of his life. Many of their social hours had been amused with literary information or entertainment. Among the numerous books which Mr. Cowper read, in the long evenings of winter, to his female friends, was Pope's elegant version of Homer. His own familiar and accurate knowledge of the original, prompted him frequently to complain of the translator's deviations from his author; and to express his wish, that some person, equal to the performance, would produce a more exact version. Lady Austen naturally urged him to undertake it; and he followed her advice after he had relinquished her company. He began to translate the Iliad in November 1784, immediately upon completing the Tirocinium.
The constant exercise of his mind in composition, so far’suc ceeded to divert him from habitual despair, that he became more attached to society; and in the spring of 1785, he invited Mr. Greatheed to participate with Mr. Bull in their stated interviews. It was not, however, by arguing against bis inveterate melancholy, that his religious friends could promote its relief. An allusion to the subject was usually productive of its symptoms ; although, upon any other spiritual topic than that of bis own prospect of futurity, Mr. Cowper would converse freely and profitably. The necessity, however, of avoiding so interesting a theme, could not but make an essential difference, both in his conversation and correspondence, from what either had been previous to his unhappy relapse. In writing to his friends, to whom he again became gradually habituated as his poetical exercises advanced, he touches sparingly and cautiously upon religion.' He more freely indulges a vein of humour, which contributed to the momentary dissipation of his gloom; while he could scarcely advert to spiritual subjects without approximating the source of his distress. This remark applies to most of his subsequent letters, as well as to the sportive sallies of his poctical writings. The flow of wit, which, in both instances, displays the peculiar powers of his mind, and fascinates the lite rary reader, was employed by him merely as a substitute for spiritual reflection, in which he esteemed it presumptuous to indulge himself, or as a forcible effort to resist the intrusion of distress and terror. The following passage, in a much later epistle to Mr. Hayley, affords a general key to his correspondence, from the time of its revival at Olney:
“ Non sum quod simulo, -"I am not what I affect to be," my dearest brother. I seem cheerful upon paper sometimes, when I am absolutely the most dejected of all creatures. Desirous, however, to gain something myself by my own letters, unprofitable as they may, and must be, to my friends, I keep melancholy out of them as much as I can, that I may, if possible, by assuming a less gloomy air, deceive myselt, and, by feigning with a continuance, improve the fiction into reality.” His habitual conversation was, as might be apprehended from this passage, very different from the style of his letters. It was serious, sensible, and affectionate; but usually dejected, and seldom brilliant. In his letters, as printed, there are many obvious chasms, which were most probably occupied with expressions of religious despondency.
His correspondence, and his sphere of society, was greatly enlarged, in consequence of the publication of his second volume of poems, which appeared in June 1785. The height to which it raised his reputation as an author, rouzed the attention of his polite relations; with whom, during his more depressed condition, his intercourse had been wholly suspended; and the Bilarity of his lighter productions, encouraged them to renew
their communications with the poet. In October that year, he received an affectionate letter from his cousin, Lady Hesketh, who, in the interval that had occurred, was deprived, by death of her husband, Sir Thomas Hesketh. The fortune he had left her, enabled her generously to offer to Mr. Cowper any addition that might be desirable to his income. It could not have been made more seasonably, as Mrs. Unwin's fortrine, which was equally shared between them, had recently been much reduced. From a person whom Mr. Cowper had so highly esteemed from their days of childhood, he did not scruple to receive an obligation of this nature. In June 1786, after a separation of three-and-twenty years, these endeared relations met at Olney; when some apartinents in the vicarage, which had been occupied by Lady Austen, were prepared for Lady Hesketh. In order, however, that, when she rencwed her visits, they might compose but one family, Mr. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin removed, in the following November, to a more commodious habitation in the pleasant village of Weston, a mile and an half distant from 'Olney. Mr. (now Sir John) Throckmorton and his lady, to whom the house, and most of the parish belonged, had, in the preceding summer, cultivated the acquaintance of Mr. Cowper; and they neglected no means of rendering their vicinity to him agreeable and useful., This accession of local comforts was very shortly embittered by the premature decease of Mrs. Unwin's only son, whose friendship with Mr. Cowper had subsisted and increased from their first interview at Huntingdon. Soon afterwards, Mr. Rose, a gentleman of London, passing near Weston, introduced himself to Mr. Cowper, although he was then peculiarly difficult of access, bis habitual dejection having been aggravated by the loss of Mr. Unwin. Mr. Rose's zeal surmounted every obstacle; and the ardour of his attachment to the author of the Task, excited in him a reciprocal friendship, which was fostered by, frequent correspondence, the active services of Mr. Rose at London, and his occasional visits at Weston.
Mr. Cowper's spirits did not recover their usual tone till Sept. 1787, when he resunai his application to Homer. A great majority among his acquaintance and his readers, earnestly wished bim rather to have been employed in original composition ; and some of his intimate friends were, moreover, apprehensive that the vast extent of his undertaking might prove detrimental to his health and comfort. A short letter to his constant and affectionate correspondent J. Hill, Esq. in Novemher the same year, satisfactorily explains bis reasons for perseverance in the work he had begun. “ Assure yourself,” says 'be, “ of one thing, that though to a bye-stander it may seem an occupation surpassing the powers of a constitution never very athletic, and at present not a little the worse for wear, I can invent for myself no employment that does not exhaust
my spirits more. I have even found those plaything avocations, which one may execute almost without any attention, fatigue me, and wear me away, while such as engage me much, and attack me closely, are rather serviceable to me than otherwise." He frequently, nevertheless, composed short pieces to gratify. his friends, and to record domestic incidents, that interested his feelings. At the request of some advocates of justice and humanity, he wrote about this time some popular Lyrics against the detestable Slave-Trade; and he obliged the inhabitants of Northampton with several copies of verses for bills of mortality; but his attention to his great undertaking was so little remitted, that he completed the first sketch of liis translation of the iliad in September 1788, and finished the seventeenth book of the Odyssey in the following May. He derived great help, in transcribing, froin his zealous friends; the number of whom was increased, about that time, by the important accession of bis young kinsman Mr. Johnson, of Norfolk, who repeatedly spent some time at Weston, in the intervals of his studies at Cambridge. For him, Mr. Cowper entertained a a truly paternal regard; and it was requited by a degree of affcction too seldom manifested by a son to his own father. Mr. Cowper's intercourse with others of his maternal kindred, was also thus renewed; and he was indebted to it for the highly acceptable present of her picture. A good resemblance of it is engraved in Mr. Ilayley's work. In September 1790, Ir. Johnson had the satisfaction of transmitting to the bookseller, a corrected copy of the whole translation of Homer. After it had undergone a fresh revisal, while passing through the press, it was published in July the following year. Häring prosecuted this laborious occupation, though closely, yet with a inoderation that adınired of needful exercise and relasation, he accomplished it, in the possession of his health and spirits, at least equal to what he had enjoyed at its con, mencement.
His religious state during this period, was no otherwise likely to be improved than as the diversion of his thoughts from despair tended to relieve his constitutional malady: The nature of his employinents were such, as would probably have been, in some nieasure, detrimental to any person capable of religious enjoyment. It is much to be regretted, that his correspondence with Mr. Newton, by which alone the real state of his mind was likely to be unfolded, is yet involved in impe, netrable secrecy; and still more, that it probably will never be communicated to the religious world. 'Ii is only known, from Mr. Greatheed's sermon, that Mr, Cowper was not destitute, at times, of gliminering hope and dawning consolation, and that he repeatedly resumed his intercourse with the throne of divine grace: but these seasons were, unhappily, too transient to numit of his renewed attendance on public worship, or of bis