Изображения страниц

again, I am inclined to think that in all I have said, I have only given him back the same in other terms. He disallows both the absolute free, and the absolute close,- so do I, and if I understand myself, have said so in my preface. He wishes to recommend a medium, though he will not call it so; so do I; only we express it differently. What is it then that we dispute about? I confess my head is not good enough today to discover."

This was almost the last letter Cowper wrote to Mr. Hayley, and with a very few exceptions, the last that he ever wrote at all. Shortly after he had forwarded this, he experienced a more severe attack of depression than he had ever before felt, which paralyzed all his powers, and continued almost wholly unmitigated, through the remaining period of his life. The situation to which he was now reduced, was deeply affecting; imagination can scarcely picture to itself a scene of wretchedness more truly deplorable. Mrs. Unwin's infirmities had reduced her to a state of second childhood ; a deep-seated melancholy, which nothing could remove, preyed upon Cowper's mind, and caused him to shun the sight of all except the individual who was utterly incapable of rendering him any assistance; his domestic expenses were daily increasing, and as his capabilities of preventing it were now entirely suspended, there was every probability of his being involved in considerable embarrassment. The providence of God, however, which had watched over, and preserved him during the whole of his life, and had appeared on his behalf in several instances of peculiar distress, in a manner truly striking and affecting, did not abandon him in his present painful emergency. Lady Hesketh, his amiable cousin, and favourite correspondent, now generously undertook the arduous task of watching over the melancholy poet and his feeble associate. The painful duties of this important office, which every one who is at all acquainted with the great anxiety of mind required in all cases of mental aberration, will admit to be in no ordinary degree arduous, she discharged with the utmost christian tenderness and affection. Nor did she discover any disposition to relinquish her charge, though it made considerable inroads upon her health, owing to the confinement and exertion it required, until an opportunity offered of placing these interesting invalids under the care of those who she knew would feel the greatest pleasure in laying themselves out for their comfort.

Hearing nothing from Cowper for several days beyond the time when he was accustomed to write, Mr. Hayley began to fear that his apprehensions respecting his friend's health were realized. He did not, however, receive the painful intelligence of his relapse until some time afterwards, when he was informed of it by a letter from Lady Hesketh, detailing the particulars of his distressing case. About this time the Rev. Mr. Greatheed, with whom Cowper had long been on terms of intimacy, and whom he very highly esteemed, paid him a visit. Such, however, was the distressing state to which Cowper was now reduced, that he refused to see any one, but his own domestics, on whatever friendly terms he might have been with them formerly. The hopes that his friends had cherished, of his recovery, in some degree, at least, as the summer advanced, were now entirely cut off; and they were all fully persuaded that unless some improvement took place in the state of his mind, the worst consequences were to be apprehended. The best advice had been taken without the slightest benefit, and the case began to appear altogether hopeless. It occurred to Lady Hesketh that probably the presence of Mr. Hayley would cheer the poet's mind, and rouse him from his present state of almost absolute despair. She suggested this to Mr. Greatheed, but said she could not venture to mention the subject in her letters to Mr. Hayley, as it appeared unreasonable to request a person to come so great a distance with so little real chance of success. Mr. Greatheed immediately wrote the following letter to Mr. Hayley, on the subject, which describes the melancholy condition to which Cowper was then reduced, and the great anxiety of mind manifested by his friends on his behalf:—"Dear Sir, Lady Hesketh's correspondence has acquainted you with the melancholy relapse of our dear friend at Weston; but I am uncertain whether you know that within the last fortnight, he has refused food of every kind, except now and then a very small piece of toasted bread, dipped generally in water, sometimes mixed with a little wine. This, her Ladyship informs me, was the case till last Saturday, since then he has eaten a little at each family meal. He persists in refusing to take such medicines as are indispensable to his state of body. In such circumstances his long continuance in life cannot be expected. How devoutly to be wished is the alleviation of his sufferings and distress! You, dear Sir, who know so well the worth of our beloved and admired friend, sympathize with us in this affliction, and deprecate his loss doubtless in no ordinary degree. You have already most effectually expressed and proved the warmth of your friendship. I cannot think that anything but your society would have been sufficient, during the infirmity under which his mind has long been oppressed, to have supported him against the shock of Mrs. Unwin's paralytic attack. I am certain that nothing else could have prevailed upon him to undertake the journey to Eartham. You have succeeded where his other friends knew they could not, and where they apprehended no one could. How natural, therefore, is it, for them to look to you, as most likely to be instrumental, under the blessing of God, to bring him relief in the present distressing and alarming crisis. It is, indeed, not a little unreasonable to ask any person to take such a journey, to witness so melancholy a scene, with an uncertainty of the desired success, increased as the present difficulty is, by dear Mr. Cowper's aversion to all company. On these accounts Lady Hesketh does not ask it of you, rejoiced as she would be at your arrival. Am not I, dear Sir, a very presumptuous person, who, in the face of all opposition, dare do this? I am emboldened by these two powerful supporters—conscience, and experience. Were I at Eartham, I would certainly undertake the journey I have presumed to recommend, for the bare possibility of restoring Mr. Cowperto himself, to his friends, and to the public."

Mr. Hayley was too affectionately attached to Cowper, to hesitate for a moment, what steps he should take on the receipt of this letter. The remotest probability of his being useful to his afflicted friend, was amply sufficient to have induced him to undertake a much longer journey than this, to whatever dangers and inconveniences it might have exposed him. He accordingly made immediate arrangements for a visit to Weston, where he arrived a few days afterwards, with his talented son, a youth of great promise, to whom Cowper was most affectionately attached. Little or no benefit, however, resulted from this visit. The suffering invalid was too deeply overwhelmed by his depressive malady to show even the slightest symptoms of satisfaction at the appearance of one whom he had ever been accustomed to welcome with such affectionate delight. His acute anguish had nearly extinguished all the finest faculties of his mind, and annihilated, at least for a time, all the best affections of his heart. He seemed to shrink from every human creature, and if he allowed any one, except his own domestics, to approach him, it was with so much obvious reluctance and aversion, that no benefit could be expected to arise from the interview. The only exception was in the case of Mr. Hayley's son, in whose company he would occasionally, for a short time, seem pleased; which Mr. Hayley "attributed partly to the peculiar charm which is generally found in the manners of tender ingenuous children; and partly to that uncommon sweetness of character which had inspired Cowper with a degree of parental partiality towards this highly promising youth." The united efforts, however, of both father and son, could not produce the slightest alleviation of Cowper's sufferings.

Shortly after Mr. Hayley's arrival at Weston,, Lady Hesketh embraced the opportunity of leaving her interesting invalids for a few days in his charge, that she might, by a personal interview, consult the eminent Dr. Willis, who had prescribed so successfully in the case of his Majesty George III., on the subject of Cowper's malady. Lord Thurlo'w had written to the Doctor in Cowper's behalf, and at his and Lady Hesketh's request, he was induced to visit the interesting sufferer at Weston. Here again, however, the expectations of his friends were greatly disappointed; as the Doctor's skill on this occasion proved wholly unsuccessful.

Mr. Hayley remained at Weston for some weeks, exerting all the means that ingenuity could invent, or that affection could dictate, to afford some relief to his suffering friend; he had, however, the mortification to perceive that his welldirected efforts were entirely useless. The circumstances in which Cowper was now placed, were exceedingly unfavourable to mental relief. Associated with one whose daily increasing infirmities were rapidly reducing her to a state of the most affecting imbecility; the constant sight of which was of itself, almost sufficient to have produced melancholy in a tender mind like Cowper's, it was hardly probable that, under such circumstances, he should recover from his most depressive malady. And yet to have separated him from the being with whom he had been so long associated, would have been an act of cruelty, which he would not, in all probability, have survived. All that could be done was to mitigate, as much as possible, the sufferings of each individual, and to persevere in the use of such means, as would be most likely, under such circumstances, to promote the poet's recovery, leaving the event at His disposal who, in a manner altogether unexpected, had formerly appeared for him on several distressing occasions.

One morning in April, 1794, while Mr. Hayley was at Weston, musing, as he and Lady Hesketh were sometimes accustomed to do, over the melancholy scene of Cowper's sufferings, with aching and almost broken hearts, at the utter inefficacy of every measure that had been taken to afford him relief, they were suddenly almost overjoyed at the receipt of a letter from Lord Spencer, announcing it to be his Majesty's gracious intention to allow Cowper the grant of such a pension for life as would secure to him an honourable competence. The only subject of regret, at this pleasing circumstance, was that he whom it was chiefly intended to benefit, and who, if he had been free from his depressive malady, would have been gratified in the highest degree at this instance of royal generosity, was in a condition that rendered it impossible for him to receive, even the faintest glimmering of joy on the occasion. It was, however, fondly hoped by his friends, that he would ultimately recover, and that the day would at length arrive, when he would be able gratefully to acknowledge this princely beneficence. Well was it, indeed, for his friends, that they supported their minds by indulging these hopes of amendment. Had they known that he was doomed to pass six years in the same depressed and melancholy condition, with scarcely a single alleviation, and was, at the expiration of that lengthened period, to leave the world under the influence of this midnight gloom, they would themselves have almost become the subjects of despair. Such, however, was the case; and it is doubtful, though Cowper subsequently recovered in some slight degree from his depression, whether he was ever in a condition fully to appreciate the value of his Majesty's grant.

Mr. Hayley's departure from Weston, which was now become to him as much a scene of suffering, as it had formerly been of enjoyment, he thus affectingly records:—"After devoting a few weeks at Weston, I was under the painful necessity of forcing myself away from my unhappy friend, who, though he appeared to take no pleasure in my society, expressed extreme reluctance to let me depart. I hardly ever endured an hour more dreadfully distressing than the hour in which I left him. Yet the anguish of it would have been greatly increased, had I been conscious that he was destined to years of this dark depression, and that I should see him no more. I still indulged the hope, from the native vigour of his frame, that as he had formerly struggled through longer fits of the depressive malady, his darkened mind would yet emerge from this calamitous eclipse, and shine forth again with new lustre. These hopes were considerably increased at a subsequent period : but, alas! they were delusive! for though he recovered sufficient command of his faculties to write a few occasional poems, and to retouch his < Homer,' yet the prospect of his perfect recovery was never

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »