W HILE Burns was weaving his wonderful songs among the Lowland hills of Scotland, another lover of nature was telling of placid English life, of simple everyday doings, in a quiet little country town in England. This man was William Cowper.
Cowper was the son of a clergyman. He was born in 1731 and
became a barrister, but it seemed a profession for which he was
little fitted. He was shy and morbidly religious, and he also
liked literature much better than law. Still he continued his
way of life until, when he was
This was more than his nervous sensitive nature could bear. Rather than face the trial he decided to die. Three times he tried to kill himself. Three times he failed. Then the darkness of madness closed in upon him. Religious terrors seized him, and for many months he suffered agonies of mind. But at length his tortured brain found rest, and he became once more a sane man.
Then he made up his mind to leave London, and all the excitements
of a life for which he was not fit, and after a few changes here
and there he settled down to a peaceful life with a clergyman and
his wife, named Unwin. And when after two years
"God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm."
It was written when Cowper felt again the darkness of insanity closing in upon him. Once again he tried to end his life, but again the storm passed.
Cowper was already a man of nearly fifty when these hymns first appeared. Shortly afterwards he published another volume of poems in the style of Pope.
It was after this that Cowper found another friend who brought
some brightness into his life.
"John Gilpin was a citizen
Of credit and reknown,
Of famous London town."
And you have heard his adventures on the anniversary of his wedding day.
John Gilpin was first published in a magazine, and there it was seen by an actor famous in his day, who took it for a recitation. It at once became a success, and thousands of copies were sold.
It was Lady Austen, too, who urged Cowper to his
The Task. She wanted him to try blank verse, but he objected
that he had nothing to write about. "You can write upon any
So Cowper accepted the task thus set for him, and began to write.
The first book of
"England, with all thy faults, I love thee
My Country! and, while yet a nook is left
Where English minds and manners may be found,
Shall be constrained to love thee.
Time was when it was praise and boast enough
In every clime, and travel where we might,
That we were born her children; praise enough
To fill the ambition of a private man,
That Chatham's language was his mother tongue,
And Wolfe's great name compatriot with his own.
Farewell those honours, and farewell with them
The hope of such hereafter! they have fallen
Each in his field of glory: one in arms,
And one in council—Wolfe upon the lap
Of smiling Victory that moment won,
They made us many soldiers. Chatham, still
Consulting England's happiness at home,
Secured it by an unforgiving frown,
If any wronged her. Wolfe, where'er he fought,
Put so much of his heart into his act,
That his example had a magnet's force,
And all were swift to follow where all loved."
These lines are from the second book of
"Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in."
The poem ends with two books called The Winter Morning Walk and
The Winter Walk at Noon. Though not grand,
Cowper loved animals tenderly and understood them in a wonderful
manner. He tamed some hares and made them famous in his verse.
And when he felt madness coming upon him he often found relief in
his interest in these pets. One of his poems tells how Cowper
scolded his spaniel Beau for killing a little baby bird "not
because you were hungry," says the poet, "but out of
naughtiness." Here is Beau's
"Sir, when I flew to seize the bird
In spite of your command,
A louder voice than yours I heard,
And harder to withstand.
"You cried 'Forbear!'—but in my breast
A mightier cried
'Twas nature, sir, whose strong behest
Impelled me to the deed.
"Yet much as nature I respect,
I ventured once to break
(As you perhaps may recollect)
Her precept for your sake;
"And when your linnet on a day,
Passing his prison door,
Had fluttered all his strength away
And panting pressed the floor,
"Well knowing him a sacred thing
Not destined to my tooth,
I only kissed his ruffled wing
And licked the feathers smooth.
"Let my obedience then excuse
My disobedience now,
Nor some reproof yourself refuse
From your aggrieved
"If killing birds be such a crime
(Which I can hardly see),
What think you, sir, of killing Time
With verse addressed to me?"
As Cowper's life went on, the terrible lapses into insanity became more frequent, but his sweet and kindly temper won him many friends, and he still wrote a great deal. And among the many things he wrote, his letters to his friends were not the least interesting. They are among the best letters in our language.
Perhaps Cowper's greatest accomplishment, though not his greatest work, was a translation of Homer. He had never considered Pope's Homer good, and he wished to leave to the world a better. Cowper's version was published in 1791, and he fondly believed that it would take the place of Pope's. But although Cowper's may be more correct, it is plain and dry, and while Pope's is still read and remembered, Cowper's is forgotten.
Indeed, that Cowper is remembered at all is due more to his
shorter poems such as Boadicea and The Wreck
"No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he."
Cowper was never a power in our literature, but he was a forerunner, "the forerunner of the great Restoration of our literature." And unlike most forerunners he was popular in his own day. And although it is faint, like the scent of forgotten rose leaves, his poetry still keeps a charm and sweetness for those who will look for it.