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A s kids, dreaming away our summers at a lakeside cottage, we peeled strips of bark off the birches, just for the fun of it, without giving any thought to whether or not such girdling would harm the tree. It does.
The last essay in this volume, though written several years ago, has never before been printed.
For permission to reprint the other essays thanks are due to the publishers of the Atlantic Monthlythe Independentand the New York Evening Post. If, as I sometimes think, a man's interest in letters is almost the surest measure of his love for Letters in the larger sense of the word, the busy schoolmaster of Olney ought to stand high in favour for the labour he has bestowed on completing and rearranging the Correspondence of William Cowper.
Wright's competence as an editor still leaves something to be desired. Certainly, if I may speak for my own taste, he has in one respect failed to profit by a golden opportunity; it needed only to print the more intimate poems of Cowper in their proper place among the letters to have [Pg 2] produced a work doubly interesting and perfectly unique.
The correspondence itself would have been shot through by a new light, and the poetry might have been restored once more to its rightful seat in our affections. The fact is that not many readers to-day can approach the verse of the eighteenth century in a mood to enjoy or even to understand it. We have grown so accustomed to over-emphasis in style and wasteful effusion in sentiment that the clarity and self-restraint of that age repel us as ungenuine; we are warned by a certain frigus at the heart to seek our comfort elsewhere.
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And just here was the chance for an enlightened editor. So much of Cowper's poetry is the record of his own simple life and of the little adventures that befell him in the valley of the Ouse, that it would have lost its seeming artificiality and would have gained a fresh appeal by association with the letters that relate the same events and emotions.
How, for example, the quiet grace of the fables and good fables are so rare in English! There is a whole charming natural history here of beast and bird and insect and flower.
The nightingale which Cowper heard on New Year's Day sings in a letter as well as in the poem; and here, to Lonely mature Shelburne no others, are the incidents of the serpent and the kittens, and of that walk by the Ouse when the poet's dog Beau brought him the water lily. Or, [Pg 3] to turn to more serious things, how much the pathetic stanzas To Mary would gain in poignant realism if we came upon them immediately after reading the letters in which Cowper lays bare his remorse for the strain his malady had imposed upon her.
By a literary tradition these are reckoned among the most perfect examples of pathos in the language, and yet how often to-day are they read with any deep emotion? I suspect no tears have fallen on that for many a long year. And that confectionary plum —somehow the savour of it has long ago evaporated. Even the closing lines—. And it is just this allowance that association with the letters would afford; the mind would pass without a shock from the simple recital in prose of Cowper's ruined days to these phrases at once so metaphorical and so conventional, and would find in them a new power to move the heart.
Or compare with the sentiment of the poem this paragraph from the letter to his cousin, Mrs. Bodham—all of it a model of simple beauty:. The world could not have furnished you with a present so acceptable to me, as the picture you have so kindly sent me. I received it the night before last, and viewed it with a trepidation of nerves and spirits somewhat akin to what I should have felt, had the dear original presented herself to my embraces. I kissed it and hung it where it is the last object that I see at night, and, of course, the first on which I open my eyes in the morning.
She died when I completed my sixth year; yet I remember her well, and am an ocular witness of the great fidelity of the copy. I remember, too, a multitude of the maternal tendernesses which I received from [Pg 5] her, and which have endeared her memory to me beyond expression. To read together the whole of this letter and of the poem is something more than a demonstration of what might be accomplished by a skilful editor; it is a lesson, too, in that quality of restrained dignity, I had almost said of self-respect, which we find it Lonely mature Shelburne difficult to impress on our broken modern style.
Some day, no doubt, we shall have such an interwoven edition of Cowper's prose and verse, to obtain which we would willingly sacrifice a full third of the letters if this were necessary.
Meanwhile, let us be thankful for Lonely mature Shelburne fresh light our Olney editor has thrown on the correspondence, and take the occasion to look a little more closely into one of the strangest and most tragic of literary lives. William Cowper was born at Great Berkhampstead in His father, who was rector of the parish, belonged to a family of high connections, and his mother, Anne Donne, was also of noble lineage, claiming descent through four different lines from Henry III.
The fact is of some importance, for the son was very much the traditional gentleman, and showed the pride of race both in his language and manners. He himself affected to think more of his kinship to John Donne, of poetical memory, than of his other forefathers, and, half in play, traced the irritability of his temper and his verse-mongering back to that "venerable ancestor, the Dean of St. But that is not yet. As a boy and young man Cowper appears to have been high-spirited and natural. At Westminster School he passed under the instruction of Vincent Bourne, so many of whose fables he was to translate in after years, and who, with Milton and Prior, was most influential in forming his poetical manner.
I love the memory of Vinny Bourne [he wrote in one of his letters]. I think him a better Latin poet than Tibullus, Propertius, Ausonius, or any of the writers in his way, except Ovid He was so good-natured, and so indolent, that I lost more than I got by him; for he made me as idle as himself.
He was such a sloven, Lonely mature Shelburne if he had trusted to his genius as a cloak for everything that could disgust you in his person I remember seeing the Duke of Richmond set fire to his greasy locks and box his ears to put it out again. After leaving Westminster he spent a few months at Berkhampstead, and then came to Lon [Pg 7] don under the pretext of studying law, living first with an attorney in Southampton Row and afterwards taking chambers in the Middle Temple.
Life went merrily for a while. He was a fellow student with Thurlow, and there he was, he "and the future Lord Chancellor, constantly employed from morning to night in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law. Oh, fie, cousin!
It may introduce us also to Harriet's sister, Theodora, with whom Cowper, after the fashion of idle students, fell thoughtlessly in love. He would have married her, too, bringing an incalculable element into his writing which I do not like to contemplate; for it is the way of poets to describe most ideally what fortune has denied them in reality, and Cowper's task, we know, was to portray in prose and verse the quiet charms of the family.
But the lady's father, for reasons very common in such cases, put an end to that danger. Cowper took the separation easily enough, if we may judge from the letters of the period; but to Theodora, one fancies, it meant a life Lonely mature Shelburne sad memories. They never exchanged letters, but in after years, when Lady Hesketh renewed correspondence with Cowper and brought him into connection with his kinsfolk, Theodora, [Pg 8] as "Anonymous," sent money and other gifts to eke out his slender living.
It is generally assumed that the recipient never guessed the name of his retiring benefactress, but I prefer to regard it rather as a part of his delicacy and taste to affect ignorance where the donor did not wish to be revealed, and think that his penetration of the secret added a kind of wistful regret to his gratitude. Who is there in the world that has, or thinks he has, reason to love me to the degree that he does? But it is no matter. He chooses to be unknown, and his choice is, and ever shall be, so sacred to me, that if his name lay on the table before me reversed, I would not turn the paper about that I might read it.
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Much as it would gratify me to thank him, I would turn my eyes away from the forbidden discovery. But all this was to come after the great change in Cowper's life.
As with Charles Lamb, a name one likes to link with his, the terrible shadow of madness fell upon him one day, never wholly to rise. The story of that calamity is too well known to need retelling in detail. A first stroke seized him in his London days, but seems not to have been serious.
He recovered, and took up again [Pg 9] the easy life that was in retrospect to appear to him so criminally careless. In order to establish him in the world, his cousin, Major Cowper, offered him the office of Clerk of the Journals to the House of Lords. There was, however, some dispute as to the validity of the donor's powers, and it became necessary for Cowper to prove his competency at the bar of the House. The result was pitiable.
Anxiety and nervous dread completely prostrated him. After trying futilely to take his own life, he was placed by his family in a private asylum at St. Albans, where he remained about a year and a half. His recovery took the form of religious conversion and a rapturous belief in his eternal salvation. Instead of returning to London, he went to live in the town of Huntingdon, Lonely mature Shelburne thither both by the retirement of the place and its nearness to Cambridge, where his brother John resided.
Here he became acquainted with the Unwins:. They treat me more like a near relation than a stranger, and their house is always open to me.
The old gentleman carries me to Cambridge in his chaise. He is a man of learning and good sense, and as simple as Parson Adams. His wife has a very uncommon understanding, has read much to excellent purpose, and is more polite than a duchess.
The son, who belongs to Cambridge, is a most amiable young man, and the daughter quite of a piece with the rest of the family. They see but little company, which [Pg 10] suits me exactly; go when I will, I find a house full of peace and cordiality in all its parts. The intimacy ripened and Cowper was taken into the family almost as one of its members. But trouble and change soon broke into this idyllic home.
Unwin was thrown from his horse and killed; the son was called away to a charge; the daughter married. Meanwhile, Mrs. Unwin and Cowper had gone to live at Olney, a dull town on the Ouse, where they might enjoy the evangelical preaching of that reformed sea-captain and slave-dealer, the Rev. John Newton. The letters of this period are filled with a tremulous joy; it was as if one of the timid animals he loved so well had found concealment in the rocks and heard the baying of the hounds, thrown from the scent and far off. He finds Lonely mature Shelburne image of his days in Rousseau's description of an English morning, and his evenings differ from them in nothing except that they are still more snug and quieter.
His talk is of the mercies and deliverance of God; [Pg 11] he is eager to convert the little world of his correspondents to his own exultant peace; and, it must be confessed, only the charm and breeding of his language save a of these letters from the wearisomeness of misplaced preaching. Cowper removed with Mrs. Unwin to Olney in Six years later came the miraculous event which changed the whole tenor of his life and which gave the unique character to all the letters he was to write thereafter.
He was seized one night with a frantic despondency, and again for a year and a half, during all which time Mr. Newton cared for him as for a brother, suffered acute melancholia. He recovered his sanity in ordinary matters, but the spring of joy and peace had been dried up within him. Thenceforth he never, save for brief intervals, could shake off the conviction that he had been abandoned by God—rather that for some inscrutable reason God had deliberately singled him out as a victim of omnipotent wrath and eternal damnation.
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No doubt there was some physical origin, some lesion of the nerves, at the bottom of this disease, but the peculiar form of his mania and its virulence can be traced to causes quite within the range of literary explanation. He was a scapegoat of his age; he accepted with perfect faith what other men talked about, and it darkened his reason. Those were the days when a sharp and unwholesome opposition had arisen between the compromise of the Church with worldly forms and the [Pg 12] evangelical absolutism of Wesley and Whitefield and John Newton.
Cowper himself, on emerging from his melancholia at St. Albans, had adopted the extreme Calvinistic tenets in regard to the divine omnipotence.