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Error,” “ Table Talk," “Truth," Expostulation,”
Hope,” “Charity,” “ Conversation,” and “Retirement.” Mr. Newton from a distance expressed doubts about the new departure, but the poet pacified him with the idea that his verses might be the means of attracting to the true faith some whom the truth in its naked severity was apt to repel. Wesley chose lively popular airs for his hymns, on the principle that it was not well that the devil should have all the best tunes ; and Newton apparently tolerated Cowper's moral satires, as he called them, from a similar motive.
The “Moral Satires” were published in 1782, and were rather coldly received by the critics. otherwise with his next publication, a work begun under a different influence, an influence that was like a renewing of the poet's youth. The casual reader who has heard in a vague way of Cowper's relations with devoted women generally couples Mrs. Unwin and Lady Austen together as two pious Methodist ladies who sacrificed themselves to cheer the gentle poet's melancholy. But the two women were very different in character, and the poet's acquaintance with the one had a very different course from his acquaintance with the other. The one by her patient, forbearing, sympathetic companionship did most for his happiness; the other in a brief angel's
; visit did most for his reputation. Mrs. Unwin was his household friend and slave for more than thirty years ; Lady Austen was his gay and sparkling playfellow for less than three. Lady Austen's settlement in Olney was a bright interval in Cowper's long residence there, which, with all his fitful Evangelical enthusiasm, he could not help feeling to be a monotonous imprisonment when he remembered the bustling variety of his ten years' life in the Temple. He spoke of Olney after she left, and after she awakened his memories of other days,
moral Bastille.' She was a woman of the world, very different from the quiet Puritanic country clergy
LADY AUSTEN'S INFLUENCE ON COWPER
man's wife; the widow of a baronet, who had lived much in Paris, handsome, vivacious, full of talk and high spirits. “She is a lively, agreeable woman,” Cowper wrote to Newton immediately after his first interview with her he had chanced to see her shopping in Olney with her sister, one of Mrs. Unwin's few intimates in the place, and had requested Mrs. Unwin to ask her to tea. “She has seen much of the world, and accounts it a great simpleton, as it is. She laughs and makes laugh, and keeps up a conversation without seeming to labor at it.” Lady Austen was charmed with the poet, and the poet was charmed with Lady Austen. She brought back to him breezy sketches of the world from which he had so long been secluded. She romped with the playful old boy of fifty, playing battledore and shuttlecock with him, while Mrs. Unwin played on the harpsichord. She told him diverting stories, among others the adventure of John Gilpin, which kept him awake with laughter for a whole night, and for which he rewarded her by turning it into verse. But above all, his “ Moral Satires” being now completed and published, she suggested to him that he should write a poem in blank verse, and when he asked her for a subject, laughingly named the sofa on which she sat. the origin of the series of poems called the “ Task,” composed in a much gayer and more discursive mood than the “ Moral Satires."
It was the “ Task” that made Cowper's reputation, and it was inspired by a revival, under Lady Austen's companionship, of that more mundane spirit to which he had long been a stranger. This alone would make it worth while to look back and see what his writing was like while he was still a young “buck," as the phrase then went, living in chambers in the Temple, and gig. gling and making giggle at his uncle's house in Southampton Row. We have seen what the Methodist spirit did for him. It inspired the “Olney Hymns" and the
“Moral Satires," and neither of these performances made the great world outside the Evangelical circle feel that a new poet had arisen in England. This achievement was reserved for the “ Task," written during the temporary resuscitation of a half-disused way of looking at the world, written in a gayer mood, and therefore it is of interest to look at the tone and style of Cowper's first writing, before he came under Methodist influence.
Cowper contributed three papers to the Connoisseur, in March, April, and May, 1756, Nos. 111, 115, 119. If we did not know that they were Cowper's, they would strike us as extremely clever and idiomatically written imitations of Addison, the great exemplar of periodical essayists at the time. Knowing that they are Cowper’s, and induced thereby to scrutinize them more closely, we have no difficulty in detecting the peculiar note of playfully extravagant humor with which we are familiar in the “ Task." The first of the papers is an absurd description of "the delicate Billy Suckling, the contempt of the men, the jest of the women, and the darling of his mamma”—a picture of an impossible young milksop who fancies himself a buck. Neither then nor afterward was Cowper capable of drawing human character from life ; his uncontrollable sense of fun pushed him into comic exaggerations that seem rather silly to people less easily tickled. The fun of the second paper, a letter from an old bachelor, Christopher Ironside, describing his persecution by young ladies, is equally extreme, but not so obvious ; and may, perhaps, be taken as throwing some light on the kind of romping that went on between Cowper and his cousins in Southampton Row :
"The female part of my acquaintance entertain an odd opinion that a Bachelor is not in fact a rational creature ; at least, that he has not the sense of feeling in common with the rest of mankind ; that a Bachelor may be beaten like a stockfish ; that you may thrust pins into his legs, and wring him by the nose ; in short,
LETTER FROM AN OLD BACHELOR
that you cannot take too many liberties with a Bachelor. I am at a loss to conceive on what foundation these romping philosophers have grounded their hypothesis, though at the same time I am a melancholy proof of its existence, as well as of its absurdity.
' A friend of mine, whom I frequently visit, has a wife and three daughters, the youngest of which has persecuted me these ten years. These ingenious young ladies have not only found out the sole end and purpose of my being themselves, but have likewise communicated their discovery to all the girls in the neighbourhood ; so that if they happen at any time to be apprised of my coming (which I take all possible care to prevent) they immediately despatch half a dozen cards to their faithful allies, to beg the favour of their company to drink coffee and help tease Mr. Ironside. Upon these occasions my entry into the room is sometimes obstructed by a cord, fastened across the bottom of the door-case ; which, as I am a little near-sighted, I seldom discover till it has brought me on my knees before them. While I am employed in brushing the dust from my black rollers, or chafing my broken shins, my wig is suddenly conveyed away.”
In the last of these papers there are comic descriptions of the behavior of various characters when in possession of a secret-all in the same strain of simple, childlike exaggeration. At this period Cowper scribbled a great deal more than he printed. These three papers in the Connoisseur are specimens of the early practice by whici he acquired the mastery of comic description that appears occasionally in the "Task ”—the abundance
“ of detail, and the felicity of phrase. It was in writing prose essays and prose letters that Cowper acquired the copious, easy, familiar diction that entitles him to rank with poetic reformers. Cowper is often referred to as an example of a man whose fancy and imagination blossomed late in life, because he was fifty before he acquired reputation as a poet. That a man much tried by physical suffering should, in the evening of his days, take up his pen and write poetry with a serious purpose, trying thereby to catch trifles which could not be caught in any other way, has a look as of inspiration.
This, no doubt, has contributed to perpetuate the delusion. But it will not bear examination. Cowper not only wrote prose with exquisite grace and skill in his youth, but his manner as a verse-writer was also fully formed before he was thirty. At the age of seventeen he wrote some work,-heroic blank verse in imitation of Philips's “Splendid Shilling,”-that shows, even in the opinion of Southey, the same character as the blank verse of the “ Task,” written when he was more than fifty. That he read little poetry, in fact, confined his reading to Milton after his first attack of madness, is unduly insisted on, if the meaning is to prove that his poetry came fresh out of a mind unacquainted with what had been done before, and consequently having no relation with preceding literature. It must be remembered that Cowper was thirty-two before madness first overtook him, and that all through his early manhood he led a life of perfect leisure, his only employment being to read and write for his own amusement.
Very soon after the “ Task” was completed Cowper lost the pleasant company of the “fair” who had “ commanded” it. A certain mystery hangs over the cause of Lady Austen's sudden departure from Olney. There was obviously some disturbance in the harmony of the happy family, and there has been much speculation as to the cause. “What else was to be expected ?” many people ask. Mrs. Unwin naturally became jealous of Cowper's attentions to her gay and fashionable rival, and he, having to choose between them, was bound in honor to stand by his lifelong companion and nurse. No other result was to be expected when two women were attached to one man. This is the easiest explanation, but it has the defect of not suiting what we know of the characters of the three persons concerned. Strange to say, or rather it would be strange to say if we were not aware of the extent to which men of repu