« VorigeDoorgaan »
incumbent died, seemingly at an opportune or death. The former, as he thought, came moment; and about the same time the joint too slowly, so he took refuge in the latter. offices of reading clerk and clerk of the com- | He bought laudanum to poison himself. He mittees were vacated by resignation. Major | went down to the Custom-house quay to Cowper, who was patentee of these appoint- drown himself. Finally, he banged himself ments, made his cousin an offer of “the two in his chambers ; but falling to the ground, most profitable places”-in other words, the just as strangulation was commencing, he joint office—and the latter thoughtlessly ac was baffled in this last attempt. He seems cepted it. On reflection, however, the idea then to have awakened to a sense of his guilt. of a public exhibition in the House of Lords But mind and body, thus cruelly exercised quite overcame him, and he sought permis- thus rent and shattered and convulsed, were sion to exchange his office for the less lucra- now giving way. It was impossible that tive post of clerk of the journals. The ex- they could much longer withstand this conchange was effected, but the object was not tinued tension. “A numbness," he wrote in obtained. Cowper was “bid to expect an his own painful Memoir of these sad events, examination at the bar of the House touching “seized upon the extremities of my body, his sufficiency for the post be had taken." and life seemed to retreat before it; my The thought of such an exbibition was so hands and feet became cold and stiff; a cold appalling, that in time it overthrew his rea- sweat stood upon my forehead; my heart son.
seemed at every pulse to beat its last, and There is nothing very astonishing in this. my soul to cling to my lips as if on the very There are many men—men, too, in other re brink of departure. No convicted criminal spects not wanting in courage and confi- ever feared death more, or was more afraid dence—who would rather forfeit a lucrative of dying. At eleven o'clock, my brother appointment than make a public exhibition called upon me, and in about an hour after of themselves, and stand an examination be | bis arrival, that distemper of mind which I fore such a tribunal as the House of Lords. bad so ardently wished for actually seized It may be asked, then, why Cowper could me....... A strange and horrible darkness not relieve his mind at once by throwing up fell upon me. If it were possible that a the appointment? The answer is, that his | heavy blow could light upon the brain, withabandonment of the office would have been out touching the skull, such was the sensaa confession of incompetency, and that such tion I felt." a confession would bave compromised his He was conveyed to a private asylum, kinsman. He endeavored, therefore, to qualkept at St. Albans by Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, ify and to brace himself up for the threat an excellent and accomplished man. His ened examination. It need not be said how mental alienation was of the most terrible, hopeless are all such attempts. It would but not the most uncommon kind. After have been nothing short of a miracle if he | what had happened, it was almost a neceshad succeeded. Had his organization been sary consequence that his insanity should be far less delicate—had he never been subject of the gloomiest type, and that he should to an excess of nervous irritability almost believe himself beyond the pale of salvation, amounting to insanity—the experiment would Under the judicious treatment of Dr. Cotton, have disastrously failed. As it was, the however, he slowly recovered. His terrible horror of the impending trial only increased delusions began in time to clear away, and upon him. The more he struggled to obtain after eighteen months spent in the St. Albans light, the more hopeless was the darkness. Asylum, he was sufficiently restored to be It is unnecessary to enter into any details removed to Huntingdon, where a lodging illustrative of this miserable period of Cow- bad been secured for bim by his brother. per's life. All the frightful circumstances His spirit was becoming every day more are fully on record, as narrated by the poet tranquil. He found solace in prayer. He himself. His excessive anxiety brought on attended divine service. His heart was full a "nervous fever,” which was somewhat of unspeakable gratitude and joy. The goodallayed by a visit to Margate, where change ness of God was the continual theme of his of scene and cheerful company enabled bim meditations. At Huntingdon he made the for a wbile to shake off his terrors. But on acquaintance of the Unwins. The family returning to London and the journals, his old consisted of Mr. Unwin, a non-resident clermisery came back upon him, and he was gyman; his wife; a son, intended for boly more grievously tormented than before. He orders; and a daughter, whom Cowper de. saw no escape from his agony, but madness ( scribed as “ rather handsome and genteel."
How this acquaintance ripened into intimacy, I mischief at last, as the following passages of and how Cowper became an inmate of the l a letter to Mrs. Unwin's son clearly indicate. Unwins' house, is too well known to need re- | Need we look any further for the source of cital. He seems at this period of his life to Cowper's sufferings at Olney ?have been happy and cheerful. He took sufficient exercise-even riding upon horse- '" When you first contemplated," he wrote, back. He wrote, indeed, that he had “be “the front of our abode, you were shocked. In come a professed horseman :”) and nothing | your eyes it had the appearance of a prison ; and was better calculated to strengthen his health
you sighed at the thought that your mother lived and cheer his spirits. But a melancholy ac
in it. Your view of it was not only just, put pro
phetic. It had not only the aspect of a place cident brought this peaceful interval of life built for the purpose of incarceration, but it has to a close. Mr. Unwin was thrown from his actually served that purpose through a long, long horse and killed.
period, and we have been the prisoners. ... How the survivors-that is, how Mrs. Un- | Here we have no neighborhood ..... Here win and Cowper-determined not to forsake
we have a bad air in winter, impregnated with each other, but to dwell together and to ad
the fishy-smelling fames of the marsh miasma. ...
Here we are confined from September to March, minister to each other's wants, is known to
and sometimes longer. .... Both your mother's all who are acquainted with even the merest
constitution and mine have suffered materially by outline of the poet's life. Of this curious such close and long confinement; and it is high compact, which Mr. Bell truly describes as time, unless we intend to retreat into the grave, “an exceptional case, not to be judged by that we should seek out a more wholesome reordinary standards," we purpose to offer no
sidence." opinion, further than that, beautiful as was
In another letter, addressed to Mr. Newthe constancy of the friendship which was so long maintained between them, the union
ton, he wrote :was in some respects unfortunate in its re- |
| A fever of the slow and spirit-oppressing kind sults to both. But the most unfortunate
seems to belong to all, except the natives, who thing of all was the choice of their residence. have dwelt in Olney many years; and the natives They were attracted to Olney—a small town have putrid fevers. Both they and we, I believe, let on the banks of the Ouse, in Buckingham- are immediately indebted for our respective malshire—by that remarkable man, Mr. Newton, | adies to an atmosphere encumbered with raw who, then at the commencement of bis dis
vapors issuing from flooded meadows; and we
in particular, have fared the worse for sitting so tinguished evangelical career, was acting as
often, and sometimes for weeks, over a cellar curate of the parish. He recommended Mrs.
Mrs. filled with water. Unwin to remove to Olney, and offered to secure a house for her. To this she readily To the evil effects of climate and situation, assented, and her companion willingly ratified far more than to the companionship of Mr. the choice.
Newton, and to the pursuits into which he So, in the autumn of 1767, Cowper went was led by that exemplary divine, are we to to live at Olney. It would have been diffi attribute the return of his malady. Mr. Bell, cult to select, from one end of the kingdom with the highest respect for Newton's charto another, a more unfortunate place of re- acter, is, however, of a different opinion. sidence for a nervous invalid. The house itself resembled a prison. The principal “The change to Olney," he says, “materially sitting-room was over a cellar filled with disturbed the tranquillity which Cowper had water. The surrounding country was low, hitherto enjoyed, and which was so essential to damp, miasmatic. During several months
his mental health. The calm daily prayers of of the year it was almost impossible to go
Huntingdon, which shed a balm upon his spirit
that at once strengthened and composed him, out of doors. There was no pleasant neigh
were displaced by more frequent evangelical worborly society. All the influences, external
ship; prayer-meetings were established in the and internal, to which he was subjected at
parish, at which Cowper actually assisted; he this time, were enervating and depressing; was called upon to visit the sick; to pray by the and they abundantly fed his disease. A bedside of the dying; to investigate the condition slow fever began gradually to consume both of the poor of a populous and extensive parish, Cowper and his companion, but although and to administer to their wants, which he was
enabled to do by a fund placed at his disposal by they suffered miserably from its effects, it
Mr. Thornton, a rich merchant; and, drawn was long before they began thoroughly to gradually into the duties of a spiritual adviser, understand the cause.
he exchanged the quiet and the leisure of the last But they saw the whole extent of the I few years,—the cheerful conversation, the mid
day relaxation, the evening walk, for the onerous | fever; and we have already cited an equally and agitating labors of a sort of lay-curate to Mr. distinct recognition of the fact that his neryNewton. The effect of this change on a delicate long fever was mainly occasioned by the un. organization, already shattered by a disease which
healthiness of the climate of Olney. The the slightest excitement, especially of a religious character, was likely to bring back, could not be
same atmospheric poison acts differently otherwise than injurious.”
upon different constitutions. It has, how
ever, one general rule of action. It attacks To this we cannot but ask in reply, “Is it the weakest place. It lodges itself wherever
| there is a predisposition to receive it. We Is it so, Festus ?
need take no trouble to explain why the fever He speaks so calmly and wisely-is it so ? which in the poorer class of inhabitants as
sumed a putrid type, should in one so organOur own belief is, that visiting tlie poor | ized as William Cowper attack the nerves and relieving their wants is any thing but a and affect the brain. dreary and depressing occupation; and that When he wrote about “the nervous fever" “quiet and leisure” were not precisely what I creeping silently into the citadel, he had been Cowper most wanted. What he wanted was nine years resident at Olney, the three last active occupation-occupation both for body l of which had been passed under the influence and mind; something, too, to draw him out of the most terrible depression. Still, for of himself. The contemplation of such scenes
three years longer he continued under the as he witnessed in the houses of the poor, as same influence, but considerably mitigated by Newton's lay- curate, must have largely 1 time. In 1776 the fury of the storm had awakened that sympathy with others' suffer
expended itself, and in 1779 it had well-nigh ings, which more than any thing else perhaps, blown over. He said afterwards, that he saves a man from dwelling upon his own. did not quite lose his senses, but that he lost We are not sure that if we were called upon
the power of exercising them. “I could reto prescribe for the worst forms of bypo- turn,” he said. "a rational answer to a diffichondriasis, we should not recommend the
cult question ; but a question was necessary, sufferer to fill his purse and go out to visit or I never spoke at all. This state of mind the poor. Such an occupation must in it was accompanied, as I suppose it to be in self have been salutary even in Cowper's most instances of the kind, with misapprecase.* But it was not sufficient to counter- hensions of things and persons, which made act the other evil influences of which we have
uences of which we have me a very untractable patient. I believed spoken. The marsh miasma of Olney was that every body hated me, and that Mrs. Undoing its sure work upon Cowper’s irritable win hated me most of all; was convinced constitution. He was continually inhaling that all my food was poisoned; together with the slow poison of the place. A nervous
ten thousand vagaries of the same stamp." fever was preying upon him. “Having suf- | There is nothing here that may not be--infered so much by nervous fevers myself,” |
deed, that has not been-clearly traced to he wrote in 1776, “I know how to congratu-derangement of the physical constitution. late Ashley on his recovery. Other distem- But the disease was suffered to make propers only batter the walls; but they creep
gress under a mistaken sense of its import, silently into the citadel, and put the garrison until the enemy could with difficulty be disto the sword.” It need not be explained to lodged. Southey says that Mr. Newton the dullest reader, that the citadel here
and Mrs. Unwin, being clearly of opinion spoken of is the head-arx formæ facies,
that their poor friend was torn by an unclean and that the garrison is the brain, or the spirit, would not for many months seek that reason. We have here therefore a distinct
professional aid which before had been exeravowal of Cowper's opinion that his reason
cised with such salutary results. was destroyed by the operation of nervous
I During the season of his slow recovery,
he amused himself by taming hares, carpen• We are entirely of opinion, however, that it
tering, gardening, and painting landscapes; was extremely injudicious to call upon Cowper, to whom a public exhibition of himself way, as he
and when, in 1780, his mind seemed to have himself said, in any state, mortal poison-to take an recovered its original strength, it was sugactive and outward part in the prayer-meetings of gested to him that he would do well to culOlney. Mr. Greathead, who preached his funeral tivate his poetical powers. He frequently sermon, said, “I have heard him say, that when ex
wrote slight occasional pieces; and now he pected to take the lead in this social worship, his mind was always 'greatly agitated for some hours
was stimulated to more sustained efforts by preceding."
| the affectionate solicitude of his friends.
They sent him to court the muses, not in a comfort to me, but in the present day I am search of fame, but of health.
doubly sensible of its value. She leaves nothing Suffering, indeed, made him a poet, as it unsaid, nothing undone, that she thinks will be
conducive to our well-being; and, so far as she is has made many others. “Encompassed by
concerned, I have nothing to wish, but that I could the midnight of absolute despair," he wrote
believe her sent hither in mercy to myself; then I long afterwards to Mr. Newlon, “and a thou should be thankful." sand times filled with unspeakable horror, I first commenced as an author. Distress drove 1 Lady Hesketh saw, at the first glance, the me to it; and the impossibility of subsisting fatal mistake that had been committed when without some employment still recommends Cowper and Mrs. Unwin were prevailed upon it.” But there was something wanted to to fix their residence in the Olney Bastile. give effect to the proposed remedy. Cowper They needed little persuasion or encourage. himself well knew what it was. In the poem ment to induce them to remove to a more of “Retirement,” he significantly says, - cheerful abode, though without any, they
would probably have continued to stagnate Virtuous and faithful Heberden, whose skill
in the old place. Lady Hesketh's warnings Attempts no task it cannot well fulfill,
were quite sufficient to fix the resolution of Gives melancholy up to Nature's care, And sends the patient into purer air.
both. "In the course of June, Cowper wrote
to his old friend Joseph Hill—the honest Cowper ought to have been removed from
man close buttoned to the chin" of the well
| known “ Epistle,”-that he had determined Olney on the first appearance of his malady. But he remained there throughout nineteen
to break his chains. “Olney," he said, "will long years, at the end of which it bad be
not be much longer the place of our habitacome intolerable to him. It is probable,
tion. At a village two miles distant (Weston however, that he would not have had suffi
Underwood) we have hired a house of Mr. cient energy and resolution to effect a change,
Throckmorton. It is situated very near to but for a circumstance which in the course
our most agreeable landlord and his agreeof the year 1786 exercised a happy influence
able pleasure-grounds. In him and his wife over the remainder of his life. In that year
we shall find such companions as will always his cousin, Lady Hesketh, with whom he bad
make the time pass pleasantly whilst they been in a familiar and affectionate corres
are in the country, and his grounds will afford pondence for a quarter of a century, arrived
us good air and walking-room in the winter on a visit at Olney. She brought an admir
-two advantages which we have not enjoy. able physician with her, in the shape of a
ed at Olney, where I have no neighbors with carriage and horses; and Cowper, who had
whom I can converse, and where seven been, for many years, literally incarcerated
months in the year I have been imprisoned in a dreary prison-house, with a companion
by dirty and impassable ways, till both my who, like himself, was wasting away under
health and Mrs. Unwin's have suffered mathe destroying influences to which they were
terially.” Many passages of similar import both subjected at Olney, was prevailed upon
might be drawn from Cowper's letters; but to accompany his cousin on her pleasant rural
after what we have already written, we need drives, and was wonderfully refreshed by
not pile up evidence to prove that when the the recreation. She was in all respects, too,
Olney house was selected for his residence, a most delightful companion. Her presence
it was written down against him that he made sunshine in that shady place on the
should never again enjoy a continuance of banks of the Ouse. Even in his letters to
physical or mental health. Mr. Newton, Cowper could not refrain from
In November, 1786, Cowper and Mrs. Unchanting her praises in a full swell of grati
win removed themselves to Weston. He was tude.
charmed with his new abode. He wrote
playfully that the change was as great as “ Lady Hesketh," wrote the poet,“ by her af.
* from St. Giles to Grosvenor Square." fectionate behavior, the cheerfulness of her con- | But it had come too late. Those nineteen versation, and the constant sweetness of her tem- dreary years in the Olney prison-house had per, has cheered us both, and Mrs. Unwin not less done their sure work both upon Cowper and than me. By her help we get change of air and
upon Mrs. Unwin. He had been fast subscene, though still resident at Olney, and by her means have intercourse with some families in this
siding again into a state of depression, when country, with whom but for her we could never
Lady Hesketh had arrived to cheer him ; but have been acquainted. Her presence here would although her presence delayed the attack, at any time, even in my happiest days, have been | she could not wholly avert it; and he had
not been many weeks settled at Weston when paralysis ; and from that time, though every the fever which he had brought with bim effort was made to rally her, and she even from Olney began to assert itself, and with consented to accompany Cow per on a visit it came his old despondency. The evil was to Hayley, at Eastbam in Sussex, she conperhaps precipitated by a calamity which be-tinued to grow more and more imbecile, unfell the two invalids at ihis time. “Hardly," til it was plain that she was totally incompehe wrote, “had we begun to enjoy the tent to manage the affairs of her household, change, when the death of Mrs. Unwin's son It need not be said that the melancholy sight cast a gloom upon every thing.” This ex- of his poor friend's infirmity, which was conemplary man was fondly loved by Cowper, tinually before him, had the worst possible and his unexpected death was a heavy blow effect on the poet's mind. In 1794 he was to him. It fell, too, at an inopportune mo- in a pitiable state. He refused medicine ; he ment, and, doubtless, evolved the crisis which refused food. He was continually pacing otherwise change of scene might have retard-his room, backwards and forwards, like a ed for a time. As the year commenced he beast in a cage. Dr. Willis was sent for and felt the fever creeping in his veins. “I have did all that his unequalled skill could accom. bad a little nervous fever, my dear," he wrote plish. But such interposition was too late. to Lady Hesketh, “that has somewhat Lady Hesketh attended on him, and minisabridged my sleep.” A few days afterwards, tered to his wants with the most sisterly aswriting to Mr. Newton, he said with refer- siduity, but nothing could raise him from the ence to another's trials, “ I have no doubt it hopeless dejection into which he was sunk. is distemper. But distresses of mind that in the summer of 1795 it had become obare occasioned by distem per, are the most viously necessary to make some new arrangedifficult of all to deal with.” He knew this ments for the disposal of the two sufferers; but too well, for it was bis own case. To and it happened fortunately that at this time Lady Hesketh, too, he wrote again on the Dr. Johnson, of North-Tuddenham, a young 18th of January, "My fever is not yet gone; relative of Cowper's, who united with a but sometimes seems to leave me. It is al- sound judgment the highest rectitude of together of the nervous kind, and attended conduct and the most unfailing kindness of now and then with much dejection." The heart, expressed bis eagerness to take charge ink with which this was written was scarcely of them; and they were quietly removed to dry, when the storm burst over him in all | Norfolk. He watched over their declining its fury. A terrible darkness fell upon him, years as though they had been his parents. which continued throughout many months. Nothing could have been more judicious than His agony was so extreme that again he the treatment to which Cowper was subjectsought refuge in death. But for the timely ed; but, as we have said before, it was too interposition of Mrs. Unwin, he would have late. Such transient signs of revival as man. been laid in the suicide's grave.
ifested themselves in Norfolk only indicated In July he suddenly awoke, as it were, what might have been done at an earlier from a terrible dream, and returned to his stage. In December, 1796, Mrs. Unwin usual avocations. He devoted himself to his died. Cowper, being taken to see the corpse, translation of Homer, and seems to have fall- burst out into a passionate exclamation of en into the error of applying himself too sorrow, but left the sentence unfinished, and closely to study. He took little exercise, never spoke of his friend again. and seldom went beyond the limits of his own. He survived her more than three years, and his neighbor's grounds. “I stay much but they were years of suffering, bodily and at home," he wrote, " and have not travelled mental. The low fever which had clung so twenty miles from this place and its environs tormentingly to him was now preying on his more than once these twenty years." His very vitals. “The process of digestion," we health and his spirits were subject to considerare told, “never passed regularly in his able fluctuations. Even the improved situa frame;" and “medicine had no influence tion of Weston could not dislodge the enemy upon his complaint." The only marvel is, which for nearly twenty years had been that thus hopelessly prostrated he so long creeping into the “ citadel." Nor was Mrs. continued to live. “Frequent change of Unwin more fortunate. Her health had long place, and the magoificence of marine sceneutterly failed her. Her faculties were be- ry,” even then, however, “produced a litcoming clouded. Extraordinary delusions tle relief to his depressed spirit.” The rempossessed them both. At last, in the winter edy, indeed, was being applied when he of 1791, the poor lady was stricken down by I could no longer profit by it. In 1799, bis