Изображения страниц

my deliverance to nothing but a change of scene, and the amusing varieties of the place. By this means, he turned the blessing into a poison; teaching me to conclude, that nothing but a continued circle of diversion, and indulgence of appetite, could secure me from a relapse. Acting upon this false and pernicious principle, as soon as I returned to London, I burnt my prayers, and away went all my thoughts of devotion, and of dependence upon God my Saviour. Surely, it was of his mercy that I was not consumed. Glory be to his grace."

"I obtained, at length, so complete a victory over my conscience, that all remonstrances from that quarter were in vain, and in a manner silenced, though sometimes, indeed, a question would arise in my mind, whether it were safe to

Sroceed any farther in a course so plainly and utterly conemned in the Scriptures. I saw clearly, that if the gospel were true, such a conduct must inevitably end in my destruction ; but I saw not by what means I could change my Ethiopian complexion, or overcome such an inveterate habit of rebelling against God."

"The next thing that occurred to me, at such a time, was a doubt whether the gospel were true or false. To this succeeded many an anxious wish for the decision of this important question; for I foolishly thought that obedience would follow, were I but convinced that it was worth while to attend to it. Having no reason to expect a miracle, and not hoping to be satisfied with any thing less, I acquiesced, at length, in favour of that impious conclusion, that the only course I could take to secure my present peace, was to wink hard against the prospects of future misery, and to resolve to banish all thoughts of a subject upon which I thought to so little purpose. Nevertheless, when I was in the company of deists, and heard the gospel blasphemed, I never failed to assert the truth of it with much vehemence of disputation, for which I was the better qualified, having been always an industrious and diligent inquirer into the evidences by which it is externally supported. I think I once went so far into a controversy of this kind as to assert, that I would gladly submit to have my right hand cut off, so that I might but be enabled to live according to the gospel'. Thus have I been employed in vindicating the truth of Scripture, while in the very act of rebelling against its dictates. Lamentable inconsistency of a convinced judgment with an unsanctified heart! —an inconsistency, indeed, evident to others as well as to myself; inasmuch as a deistical companion of mine, with whom I was disputing upon the subject, cut short the matter by alleging, that if what I said were true, I was certainly condemned, by my own showing."

In 1756, Cowper sustained a heavy domestic loss, in the death of his excellent father, towards whom he had always felt the strongest parental regard. Such, however, was the depressed state of his mind at this season, that he was much less affected by the solemn event, than he would probably have been had it occurred at any earlier or later period of his life. Perceiving that he should inherit but little fortune from his father, he now found it necessary to adopt some plan to augment his income. It became every day more apparent to his friends, as well as to himself, that his extreme diffidence precluded the possibility of his being successful in his profession. After much anxiety of mind on this subject, he at length mentioned it to a friend, who had two situations at his disposal, the Reading Clerk, and Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords—situations, either of which Cowper then thought would suit him, and one of which he expressed a desire to obtain, should a vacancy occur. Quite unexpectedly to him, as well as to his friend, both these places, in a short time afte'rwards, became vacant; and as the Reading Clerk's was much the more valuable of the two, his friend generously offered it to him, which offer he gladly and gratefully accepted, and he was accordingly appointed to it in his thirty-first year.

All his friends were delighted with this providential opening: he himself, at first, looked forward to it with pleasure, intending, as soon as he was settled, to unite himself with an amiable and accomplished young lady, one of his cousins, for whom he had long cherished a tender attachment. These fond hopes, however, were never realized. The situation required him to appear at the bar of the House of Peers; and the apprehension of this public exhibition quite overwhelmed his meek and gentle spirit. So acute were his distressing apprehensions, that, notwithstanding the previous efforts he made to qualify himself for the office, long before the day arrived that he was to enter upon it, such was the embarrassed and melancholy state of his mind, that he was compelled to relinquish it entirely. His harassed and dejected feelings on this occasion he thus affectingly describes:—

"All the considerations by which I endeavoured to compose my mind to its former tranquillity, did but torment me the more, proving miserable comforters, and counsellors ot no value. I returned to my chambers, thoughtful and unhappy; my countenance fell; and my friend was astonished, instead of that additional cheerfulness which he might have so reasonably expected, to find an air of deep melancholy in all I said or did. Having been harassed in this manner, by day and night, for the space of a week, perplexed between the apparent folly of casting away the only visible chance I had of being well provided for, and the impossibility of retaining it, I determined at length to write a letter to my friend, though he lodged, in a manner, at the next door, and we generally spent the day together. I did so. and begged him to accept my resignation of the Reading Clerk's place, and to appoint me to the other situation. I was well aware of the disproportion between the value of the appointments, but my peace was gone: pecuniary advantages were not equivalent to what I had lost; and I flattered myself that the Clerkship of the Journals would fall, fairly and easily, within the scope of my abilities. Like a man in a fever, I thought a change of posture would relieve my pain, and, as the event will show, was equally disappointed. My friend, at length, after considerable reluctance, accepted of my resignation, and appointed me to the least profitable office. The matter being thus settled, something like a calm took place in my mind: I was, indeed, not a little concerned about my character, being aware that it must needs suffer by the strange appearance of my proceeding. This, however, being but a small part of the anxiety I had laboured under, was hardly felt when the rest was taken off. I thought my path towards an easy maintenance was now plain and open, and, for a day or two, was tolerably cheerful: but behold, the storm was gathering all the while, and the fury of it was not the less violent from this gleam of sunshine."

"A strong opposition to my friend's right of nomination began to show itself. A powerful party was formed among the lords to thwart it, and it appeared plain, that if we succeeded at last, it could only be by fighting our ground by inches. Every advantage, I was told, would bo sought for, and eagerly seized, to disconcert us. I was led to expect an examination at the bar of the house, touching my sufficiency for the post I had taken. Being necessarily ignorant of the nature of that business, it became expedient that I should visit the office daily, in order to qualify myself for the strictest scrutiny. All the horror of my fears and perplexities now returned; a thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this intelligence. I knew that, upon such terms, the Clerkship of the Journals was no place for me. To require my attendance at the bar of the House, that I might there publicly entitle myself to the office, was, in effect, to exclude me from it. In the mean time, the interest of my friend, the causes of his choice, and my own reputation and circumstances, all urged me forward, and pressed me to undertake that which I saw to be impracticable. They whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves, on any occasion, is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horror of my situation—others can have none. My continual misery at length brought on a nervous fever: quiet forsook me by day, and peace by night; even a finger raised against me seemed more than I could bear."

"In this posture of mind, I attended regularly at the office, where, instead of a soul upon the rack, the most active spirits were essential to my purpose. I expected no assistance from any one there, all the inferior clerks being under the influence of my opponents; accordingly, I received none. The Journal books were, indeed, thrown open to me, a thing which could not be refused, and from which, perhaps, a man in health, with a head turned to business, might have gained all the information wanted. But it was not so with me. I read without perception, and was so distressed, that had every clerk in the office been my friend, it would have availed me little, for I was not in a condition to receive instruction, much less to elicit it from manuscripts, without direction."

The following extract from a letter to his amiable cousin, Lady Hesketh, written 9th August, 1763, through which runs that happy mixture, of what may not perhaps improperly be termed, playful seriousness, which distinguishes almost the whole of his epistolary productions, and imparts to them a charm superior to that of almost any other writer, will illustrate the state of his mind at that period. "Having promised to write to you, I make haste to be as good as my word. I have a pleasure in writing to you at any time, but especially at the present, when my days are spent in reading the Journals, and my nights in dreaming of them, an employment not very agreeable to a head that has long been habituated to the luxury of choosing its subject, and has been as little employed upon business, as if it had grown upon the shoulders of a much wealthier gentleman. But the numscull pays for it now, and will not presently forget the discipline it has undergone lately. If I succeed in this doubtful piece of promotion, I shall have at least the satisfaction to reflect upon, that the volumes I write will be treasured up with the utmost care for ages, and will last as long as the English constitution, a duration which ought to satisfy the vanity of any author. Oh my good cousin! If I was to open my heart to you, I could show you strange sights; nothing, I natter myself, that would shock you, but a good deal that would make you wonder. I am of a very singular temper, and very unlike all the men that I have ever conversed with. Certainly I am not an absolute fool; but I have more weakness than the greatest of all fools I can recollect at present. In short, if I was as fit for the next world as I am unfit for this —and God forbid that I should speak it in vanity—I would not change conditions with any saint in Christendom. Ever since I was born, I have been good at disappointing the most natural expectations. Many years ago, cousin, there was a possibility that I might prove a very different thing from what I am at present. My character is now fixed, and riveted fast upon me; and, between friends, is not a very splendid one, or likely to be guilty of much fascination."

Many months was Cowper thus employed, constant in the use of means to qualify himself for the office, yet despairing as to the issue. At length he says,

"The vacation being pretty far advanced, I repaired to Margate. There, by the help of cheerful company, a new scene, and the intermission of my painful employment, I presently began to recover my spirits; though even here, for some time after my arrival, (notwithstanding, perhaps, the preceding day had been spent agreeably, and without any disturbing recollection of my circumstances,) my first reflections, when I awoke in the morning, were horrible and full of wretchedness. I looked forward to the approaching winter, and regretted the flight of every moment which brought it nearer, Tike a man borne away, by a rapid torrent, into a stormy sea, whence he sees no possibility of returning, and where he knows he cannot subsist. By degrees, I acquired such a facility in turning away my thoughts from the ensuing crisis, that, for weeks together, I hardly adverted to it at all: but the stress of the tempest was yet to come, and was not to be avoided by any resolution of mine to look another way."

"How wonderful are the works of the Loro% and his ways past finding out! Thus was he preparing me for an event which I least of all expected, even the reception of his blessed gospel, working by means which, in all human contemplation, must needs seem directly opposite to that purpose,

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »