Изображения страниц

but which, in his wise and gracious disposal, have, I trust, effectually accomplished it."

In October, 1763, Cowper was again required to attend the office, and prepare for the final push. This recalled all his fears, and produced a renewal of all his former misery. On revisiting the scene of his previous ineffectual labours, he felt himself pressed by difficulties on either side, with nothing before him but prospects of gloom and despair. He saw that he must either keep possession of the situation to the last extremity, and thus exposehimself to the risk of public rejection for his insufficiency, or relinquish it at once, and thus run the hazard of ruining his benefactor's right of appointment, and losing the only chance he seemed to have of procuring for himself a comfortable competence for life, and of being united to the individual to whom he was most tenderly and affectionately attached.

His terrors on this occasion had become so overwhelming, as to induce that lamented aberration of mind under which he is generally known to have suffered. The dreadful apprehensions which for so long a time had haunted him day and night, leaving him not a moment's interval of peace, had, at length, wound him up to the highest pitch of mental agony. The anguish of his lacerated spirit was inconceivable. The idea of appearing in public was, to his gentle but amiable mind, even more bitter than death. To his disordered perception there appeared no possibility for him to escape from the horrors of his situation, but by an escape from life itself. Death, which he had always shuddered at before, he began ardently'Jo wish for now. He could see nothing before him but difficulties perfectly insurmountable. The supposed ruined state of his pecuniary circumstances—the imagined contempt of his relations and acquaintance—and the apprehended prejudice he should do his patrtm, urged the fatal expedient upon his shattered intellect, which he now meditated with inexpressible energy.

. At this important crisis, when it pleased God, who giveth not to man an account of his proceedings, to permit a cloud, darker than midnight, to gather round the mind of the poet, so that he saw no possible way of escape" but the one above alluded to, and when he peculiarly needed the counsel of some judicious and kind friend, it so happended that he fell successively into the company of two most unhappy sophists, who both advanced claims to the right of self-destruction, and whose fallacious arguments won him over to their pernicious views. This was, unhappily, rendered more easy than it otherwise would have been, by his recollection of an impious book which he had read when very young, the arguments of which, though they then appeared to him, in their true light, as utterly inconclusive and perfectly contemptible, now came afresh to his disordered mind, and seemed irrefutable; the situation in which he was now placed, inducing him to catch eagerly at anything that would justify the means of relief to which he wished to resort. How careful ought all to be, who are entrusted with the education of youth, that.no pernicious books may fall into their hands! No evil consequences may, perhaps, arise from it at the time, but who can calculate what may be the future result?

The disordered state of Cowper's mind, at this period, will be seen by the following anecdote. Taking up a newspaper for the day, his eye caught a satirical letter which it happened to contain, and though it had no relation whatever to his case, he doubted not but the writer was fully acquainted with his purpose, and in fact, intended to hasten its execution. Wrought up to a degree of anguish almost unbearable, he now experienced a convulsive agitation that in a manner deprived him of all his powers. Hurried on by the deplorable inducements above related, and perceiving no possibility of escaping from his misery by any other means, all around him wearing only an aspect of gloom and despair, it will be no wonder to the reader, that before the tremendous day approached, the day on which his tender spirit was to have encountered an examination before the House of Lords, he had made several attempts at the escape above alluded to. Most happily, indeed, and most mercifully, for himself and for others, they were only attempts; for it was the will of a gracious Providence, not only to preserve his life for the exercise of a sound and vigorous mind, but to make that mind an instrument of incalculable benefit to his country, and, we may almost say, to the world, by advancing and promoting the best interests of mankind, morality, and religion.

The depths of affliction and sorrow which the amiable sufferer now endured were such, that he might truly say with the Psalmist, "All thj» waves and thy billows are gone over me, I am troubled: I am bowed down greatly, my heart is pained within me, my sorrow is continually before me; fearfulness and trembling are come upon me. I sink in deep mire'where is no standing, I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me." When at length the long-dreaded day arrived, the approach of which he had feared more than he feared death itself, such were the melancholy results of his distress, that all his friends immediately acquiesced in the propriety of his relinquishing the situation for ever. Thus ended his connexion with the House of Lords; unhappily, however, his sufferings did not end here. Despair still inflicted on him its deadliest sting, and he saw not how it could be extracted; Grief poured its full tide of anguish into his heart, and he could perceive nothing before him but one interminable prospect of misery.

"O Providence! mysterious are thy ways!
Inflexible thine everlasting plans!
The finite power of man can ne'er resist
The unseen hand which guides, protects, preserves,
Nor penetrates the inscrutable design
Of Him, whose council is his sovereign will.
Prosperity's bright sun withdraws his beams,
Thick clouds and tempests gather round the sky,
The winds of fierce temptations, and the waves
Of trials fell, assault the feeble bark,
And drive it headlong 'midst the cragged rocks.
We look with wonder on, but seek in vain
The deep designs of Heaven herein to scan;
The sacred page itself reveals not this.
Yet who that knows there is a Power above
Would not 'assert eternal Providence,
And justify the works of God to man ?'"

At this period of the poet's history, it appears desirable to remark, in confutation of those who attribute, or at least endeavour to attribute his malady to his religion, that, viewed either as an originating cause, or in any other light, it can never be proved to have had any connection with it. It will not be denied, that those sacred truths, which, in all cases where they are properly received, prove an unfailing source of the most salutary contemplation to the underanged mind, were in his case, through the distorting medium of his malady, converted into a vehicle of intellectual poison. It is, however, as Dr. Johnson well observes, "a most erroneous and unhappy idea to suppose, that those views of Christianity which Cowper adopted, and of which, when enjoying the intervals of reason, after he was brought to the knowledge of them, he was so bright an ornament, had in any degree contributed to excite the malady with which he was afflicted. It is capable of the clearest demonstration that nothing was further from the truth. On the contrary, all those alleviations of sorrow, those delightful anticipations of heavenly rest, those healing' consolations to a wounded spirit, of which he was permitted to taste, at the period when interrupted reason resumed its sway, were unequivocally to be ascribed to the operation of those very principles and views of religion, which, in the instance before us have been charged with producing so opposite an effect. The primary aberration of his mental faculties were wholly to be attributed to other causes," as indeed will satisfactorily appear, by the following affecting description he has given of himself at this period.

"To this moment I had felt no concern of a spiritual kind: ignorant of original sin; insensible of the guilt of actual transgression, I understood neither the law nor the gospel—the condemning nature of the one, nor the restoring mercies of the other. I was as much unacquainted with Christ in all his saving offices, as if his name had never reached me. Now, therefore, a new scene opened upon me."

"My sins were set in array against me, and I began to see and feel that I had lived without God in the world. One moment I thought myself shut out from mercy by one chapter, and the next by another. The sword of the Spirit seemed to guard the tree of life against my touch, %nd to flame against me in every avenue by which I attempted to approach it. I particularly remember, that the parable of the barren fig-tree was to me an inconceivable source of anguish. I applied it to my case, with a strong 'persuasion that it was a curse pronounced on me by the Saviour."

"In every volume I opened I found something that struck me to the heart. I remember taking up one; and the first sentence I saw condemned me. Every thing seemed to preach to me, not the gospel of mercy, but the curse of the law. In a word, I saw myself asinner altogether; but I saw notyeta glimpse of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus the Lord."

Cowper now wrote to his brother to inform him of the afflicting circumstances in which he was placed. His brother immediately paid him a visit, and employed every means in his power to alleviate his distress. All his efforts, however, proved unavailing; he found him almost overwhelmed with despair, pertinaciously maintaining, in spite of all remonstrances to the contrary, that he had been guilty of the unpardonable sin, in not properly improving the mercy of God towards him at Southampton. No favourable construction put upon his conduct, in that instance by his brother, nor any argument he employed, afforded him a moment's alleviation of his distress. JiHe rashly concluded that he had no longer any interest in the atonement, or in the gifts of the Spirit, and that nothing was left for him but the dismal prospect of eternally enduring the wrath of God. His brother pierced to the heart at the sight of his misery, used every means to comfort him, but all to no purpose, so deeply seated was his depression, that it rendered utterly useless all the soothing reflections that were suggested.

At this trying period Cowper remembered his friend and relative, the Rev. Martin Madan ; and, though he had always considered him an enthusiast, he was now convinced that, if there was any balm in Gilead for him, Mr. Madan was the only person who could administer it. His friend lost no time in paying him a visit; and perceiving the state of his mind, he began immediately to declare unto him the gospel of Christ. He spoke of original sin, of the corruption of every man born into the world; of the efficacy of the atonement made by Jesus Christ; of the Redeemer's compassion for lost sinners, and of the full salvation provided for them in the gospel. He then adverted to the Saviour's intercession; described him as a compassionate Redeemer, Who felt deeply interested in the welfare of every true penitent, who could sympathize with those who were in distress, and who was able to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God by him. Tothis important information Cowper listened with the greatest attention ; hope seemed to dawn upon his disconsolate mind; his heart burned within him while he listened to the word of life; his soul was pierced with a sense of his great ingratitude to so merciful a Saviour; tears of contrition burst from his eyes; he saw clearly that this was the remedy his case required; and felt fully persuaded that this was indeed the gospel of salvation. He, however, wanted that faith without which he could not recover its blessings. He saw the suitability of this gospel to his circumstances, but saw not yet how one, so vile as he conceived himself to be, could hope to partake of its benefits.

Mr. Madan urged the necessity of a lively faith in the Redeemer, not as an assent of the understanding only, but as the cordial belief of the heart unto righteousness; assured him, that though faith was the gift of God, yet was it a gift that our heavenly Father was most willing to bestow, not on one only, but on all that sought it by earnest and persevering prayer. Cowper deeply deplored the want of this faith, and could only reply to his friend's remarks, in a brief but very sincere petition, "Most earnestly do I wish it would please God to bestow it on me."

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »