repartee recommended to him the sofa they were sitting on as a subject for his pen, and thus gave birth to the "Task ;" and at her suggestion he engaged in a blank-verse translation of Homer. At last, the two ladies, either from jealousy or some other cause, could no longer live in harmony together; and the removal of Lady Austen was the consequence. The void, thus made, was soon filled by his cousin, the widow of Sir Thomas Hesketh and sister of Theodora Cowper. She had shared the gaiety of his youth; and now, after the death of her husband, returned to cheer the sadness and adversity of his declining life. There appears to have been in the conversation of Cowper as in that of Swift, a fascination not easy for the female heart to resist. In both it was exerted involuntarily; but of one the influence was disastrous, of the other gentle and serene. Lady Hesketh was first his guest, and then took a house, that she might be near him, at Olney. The two other ladies had prompted his muse to some of her happiest flights. To Lady Hesketh is due the praise of having been one of those who most succeeded in calling forth the epistolary talent, in which he so much excelled. The easy and unaffected style of his letters, the gratitude and tenderness they discover for his friends, the exquisite sallies of humour always regulated by a nice sense of decorum, the graceful and unexpected turns given to the most trivial things, his just manner of thinking on all subjects of a more serious kind, excepting that in which his delusion is concerned, and even the interest excited by that strange delusion itself, all contribute to make these writings, never intended to be read by any but those to whom they were addressed, the most delightful in their way of any that the English language has produced.

In November 1786, he removed with Mrs. Unwin to a more commodious habitation in the adjacent village of Weston. Some of the sprightliest and most pleasing of his shorter poems are addressed to the Throckmortons, a Roman Catholic family, who were now his near neighbours, and for whom he felt the utmost cordiality; so little did his religious sentiments abate his kindness for those of a different persuasion.

About this time, Mr. Rose, a gentleman on his way from the University of Glasgow to London, called on him, partly as he supposed out of curiosity, but with the ostensible motive of returning him the thanks of the Scotch Professors for his two volumes. A repetition of the visit led to a correspondence productive of mutual esteem.

In 1787 he had a violent attack of his constitutional malady, that lasted about eight months, during which time any face, except Mrs. Unwin's, was an insupportable grievance to him. By an illusion in the sense of hearing, incidental to his disorder, he imagined that he heard words addressed to him from without, which were indeed the shaping of his own organs, or rather (for they usually came to him at first waking out of sleep) the relic of his dreams. These sounds he was naturally inclined to interpret in accordance with his predominant fancy, how little relation soever they might have borne to it in the perception of an indifferent hearer. For his better assurance, he communicated them to a schoolmaster at Olney, named Teedon, who seems to have

been as incapable of judging as himself; and by the construction put on them by this man, he was partly determined as to their real import.

On recovering, his hours were again given to Homer; and when so employed, went on, as he tells us in the Preface, with a smooth and easy flight.

The translation having been completed and published by subscription in 1791, his next engagement was an edition of Milton, to be embellished with the designs of Fuseli, already known to him as a scholar and critic, by some brief but excellent remarks on his Homer. For the edition of Milton he undertook to select notes from preceding commentators, to add some of his own, to translate the Latin and Italian poems, and to give a correct text. This brought him acquainted with Hayley, who, happening at the same time to have entered on a similar undertaking, proposed to him a junction of their labours, in which he readily concurred. There were some points in which the character of Hayley bore a resemblance to that of Cowper; a lively sympathy, a devotional turn, an extreme fondness for literary retirement, and a high tone of gentlemanly good-breeding. On his first visit, when Mrs. Unwin was seized with a paralytic attack, he won the affections of his host by his anxiety for her recovery, and the means he suggested for effecting it. In the following summer, they were both prevailed on to leave their quiet home for the first and only time when they were able to exercise a will of their own, on a long expedition to Eartham in Sussex, the beautiful residence of Hayley. But the journey was reluctantly undertaken, and performed with difficulty. Cowper, who had never seen a mountain, thought himself on mountains among the hills of Sussex, and longed again for the flats of Olney and the Ouse. Here, in pursuance of their work on Milton, the two poets joined in translating the Adamo of Andreini, an Italian drama, from which it was first suggested by Voltaire that the original conception of Paradise Lost might have been derived. Two years after this, when I visited Hayley at Eartham, he was full of Cowper and Milton; he led me to an eminence crowned with laburnums, where his friend delighted to walk, and showed me the characteristic portrait of him painted by Romney. In twenty-five years more, when I found him in old age and solitude at Felpham, the same picture was before him, and he pointed to it and said, "There is our idol."

In 1794, after much solicitation from his friends, a pension of three hundred pounds was obtained for Cowper from government, through the intervention of Lord Spencer. But it came too late; Mrs. Unwin had now fallen into a state of insensibility, and he cared not for good fortune in which she could not participate. Much of her little property had been already consumed; although their slender means of subsistence were helped out by the contributions of friends, and by the profits derived from his works.

For the remainder of his life, he was either sunk in despondency, or haunted by imaginary terrors. In the same year it was thought advisable by Dr. Willis, that he should be removed from Weston. His young kinsman, John Johnson, who had been

his frequent guest, his amanuensis, and his favourite companion, undertook to convey him and Mrs. Unwin into Norfolk, where many of his maternal relations were settled, and henceforth tended him with the care of an affectionate son. Sometimes he beguiled him of his sorrows by putting in his way the translation of Homer, which he had before begun to revise and alter, and on which he now continued to occupy himself; at other times, by reading to him his own poems, or some lighter works of fiction, the only books he could listen to. The translation, when he had corrected or rather re-written it, lost much of its original vigour. He was, till within a short time of his end, master of himself enough to translate many Greeks epigrams, and to compose some Latin verses and a few short pieces in English not inferior to those he had formerly produced, but deeply marked with the melancholy that oppressed him.

Mrs. Unwin died at Dereham in Norfolk, in December 1796. He went to take a last view of her corpse, started away with a vehement expression of sorrow, and never after spoke of her. No object now was able to give him pleasure. Fear and regret assailed him by turns. He would fain have recalled days which, while they were passing, appeared to be loaded with misery; and was filled with apprehensions lest he should either be deserted or carried off suddenly, he knew not by whom or whither.

After trying a residence at different places in Norfolk, he was, in December 1799, fixed at Dereham. The beginning of the next year, symptoms of dropsy appeared in his feet and ancles. Soon after, he became so feeble as not to bear motion in a carriage, and by the end of March was confined to his bedroom. As his sufferings through life had been alleviated by female tenderness, the same care followed him to the last. On the night of April the twenty-fourth, Miss Perowne, a lady who assisted Johnson in watching over him, offered him a cordial which he declined, saying, "What can it signify?" After this, he spoke no more. The next day he was released by a quiet expiration. He was buried at Dereham, in the same church with Mrs. Unwin, where each has a monument, and an epitaph by Hayley.

Cowper was of a middle height, with limbs strongly framed; hair of light brown, eyes of a bluish grey, and ruddy complexion. It is impossible to regard without wonder the mixture of imbecility and power exhibited in his mind. With the weakness of an infant, scared at shadows and agonised by dreams; when the pen was in his hand, he became another being, who could give a charm to the homeliest features of nature, or the commonest objects of domestic life; could raise sport out of trifles, and in his graver moods exert a force like that of the prophet sent to awaken mankind out of delusions more serious than his own.

« VorigeDoorgaan »