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Mysterious are His ways whose power
When minds that never met before
Too small, perhaps, the slight occasion
For our dim-sighted observation;
It pass'd unnoticed as the bird
That cleaves the yielding air unheard,
And yet may prove, when understood,
An harbinger of endless good.
Not that 1 deem or mean to call
Friendship a blessing cheap or small,
But merely to remark that ours,
Like some of nature's sweetest flowers,
Hose from a seed of tiny size
That seemed to promise no such prize:
A transient visit intervening,
And made almost without a meaning,
(Hardly the effect of inclination,
Much less of pleasing expectation!)
Produced a friendship, then begun,
That has cemented us in one,
And placed it in our power to prove,
By long fidelity and love,
That Solomon has wisely spoken,
'A three-fold cord is not soon broken.'"
Lady Austin was not less delighted with her new acquaintance than Cowper and Mrs. Unwin were with her. She had previously determined to leave London, and had been looking out for a residence in the country, not far distant from his sister's. The house immediately adjoining that in which Cowper resided, was at liberty; she accordingly hired it, and took possession of it in the course of the ensuing summer. Cowper thus adverts to this circumstance, in a letter to Mr. Newton:—"Anew scene is opening upon us,which, whether it perform what it promises, or not, will add fresh plumes to the wings of time, at least while it continues to be a subject of contemplation. Lady Austin, very desirous of retirement, especially of a retirement near her sister, an admirer of Mr. Scot as a preacher, and of your two humble servants, myself and Mrs. Unwin, is come to a determination to settle here; and has chosen the house formerly occupied by you, for her future residence. I am highly pleased with the plan, upon Mrs. Unwin's account, who, since Mrs. Newton's departure, has been nearly destitute of all female connection, and has not, in any emergency, a woman to speak to. It has, in my view, and I doubt not it will have the same in yours, strong marks of a providential interposition. A female friend, who bids fair to prove herself worthy of the appellation, comes, recommended by a variety of considerations, to such a place as Olney. Since your removal, there was not in the kingdom a retirement more absolutely such than ours. We did not covet company, but when it came we found it agreeable. A person that understands the world well, has high spirits, a lively fancy, and great readiness of conversation, introduces a sprightliness into such a scene as this, which, if it was peaceful before, is not the worse for being a little enlivened. In case of illness too, to which we are all liable, it was rather a gloomy prospect, if we allowed ourselves to advert to it, that there was hardly a woman in the place from whom it would have been reasonable to have expected either comfort or assistance."
Preparations were made at the vicarage for the reception of Lady Austin, and she took possession of it towards the close of 1782. Both Cowper and Mrs. Unwin were so charmed with her society, and she was so delighted with theirs, that it became their custom to dine together, at each other's houses, every alternate day. The effect of Lady Austin's almost irresistible conversational powers proved highly beneficial to the poet's mind, and contributed to remove that painful depression of which he still continued to be the subject; and which would sometimes seize him when he was in her company: even with her unrivalled talents, she was scarcely able, at times, to remove the deep and melancholy gloom which still shed its darkening influence over his mind. On one occasion, when she observed him to be sinking into rather an unusual depression, she exerted, as she was invariably accustomed to do, her utmost ability to afford him immediate relief. It occurred to her she might then probably accomplish it, by telling him a story of John Gilpin, which she had treasured up in her memory from her childhood. The amusing incidents of the story itself, and the happy manner in which it was related, had the desired effect; it dissipated the gloom of the passing hour, and he informed Lady Austin the next morning that convulsions of laughter, brought on by the recollection of her story, had kept him awake during the greater part of the night, and that he had composed a poem on the subject. Hence arose the fascinating and amusing ballad of John Gilpin, which rapidly found its way into all the periodical publications of the day, and was admired by readers of every description.
Its happy influence on his own mind on subsequent occasions is adverted to in the following letter to Mr. Unwin:— "You tell me that John Gilpin made you laugh tears, and that the ladies at court are delighted with my poems. Much good may they do them; may they become as wise as the writer wishes them, and they will then be much happier than he! I know there is, in the greater part of the poems which make up the volume, that wisdom which cometh from above, because it was from above that I received it. May they receive it too! for whether they drink it out of the cistern, or whether it falls upon them immediately from the clouds, as it did on me, it is all one. It is the water of life, which whosoever drinketh shall thirst no more. As to the famous horseman above mentioned, he and his feats are an inexhaustible source of amusement. At least we find them so: and seldom meet without refreshing ourselves with the recollection of them. You are perfectly at liberty to do with them as you please, and when printed send me a copy."
Lady Austin's intercourse with Mrs. Unwin and Cowper continued, uninterrupted, till near the close of 1784; and during all this time, by her sprightly, judicious, and captivating conversation, she was often the means of rousing him from his melancholy depression. To console him, she would often exert her musical talents on the harpsichord; and at her request, he composed, among others, the following beautiful song, suited to airs she was accustomed to play:
"No longer I follow a sound,
I have sought thee in splendour and dress,
An humble ambition and hope
Peace may be the lot of the mind
During the winter of 1783-4, Cowper spent the evenings in reading to these ladies, taking the liberty himself, and affording the same to them, of making remarks on what came under their notice. On these interesting occasions, Lady Austin displayed her enchanting, and almost magical powers, with singular effect. The conversation happened one evening to turn on blank verse, of which she had always expressed herself to be passionately fond. Persuaded that Cowper was able to produce, in this measure, a poem, that would eclipse anything he had hitherto written, she urged him to try his powers in that species of composition. He had hitherto written only in rhyme, and he felt considerable reluctance to make the attempt. After repeated solicitations, however, he promised her, if she would furnish the subject, he would comply with her request. "Oh!" she replied, "you can never be in want of a subject, you can write upon anything; write upon this sofa." The poet obeyed her command, and the world is thus indebted to this lady for The Task, a poem of matchless beauty and excellence, embracing almost every variety of style, and every description of subject, combining elegance and ease, with sublimity and grandeur, adapted to impress the heart with sentiments of the most exalted piety, and to make its readers happy in the present life, while it excites in them earnest and longing desires after the felicity and glory of heaven.
In composing this exquisite poem, however, it ought to be observed that Cowper had a higher object in view than merely to please Lady Austin. His great aim was to be useful; and, indeed, this was his leading motive in all his productions, as is evident from the following extract from a letter to Mr. Unwin: "In some passages of the enclosed poem, which I send for your inspection, you will observe me very satirical, especially in my second book. Writing on such subjects I could not be otherwise. I can write nothing without aiming, at least, at usefulness. It were beneath my years to do it, and still more dishonourable to my religion. I know that a reformation of such abuses, as I have censured is not be expected from the efforts of a poet; but to contemplate the world, its follies, its vices, its indifference to duty, and its strenuous attachment to what is evil, and not to reprehend it, were to approve it. From this charge at least I shall be clear, for I have neither, tacitly, nor expressly, flattered either its characters or its customs. My principal purpose has been, to allure the reader by character, by scenery, by imagery, and such poetical embellishments, to the reading of what may profit him. Subordinately to this, to combat that predilection in favour of a metropolis, that beggars