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control of others, and are not suffered to have a will of our own. But thence downward into the vale of years, is such a declivity, that we have just an opportunity to reflect upon the steepness of it and then find ourselves at the bottom."
The following extracts from his correspondence with Mr. Unwin, who at that time, was on a visit at Brightelmstone, will show the deep tone of seriousness that pervaded his mind:—" I think with you, that the most magnificent object under heaven is the great deep; and cannot but feel an unpolite species of astonishment, when I consider the multitudes that view it without emotion, and even without reflection. In all its varied forms, it is an object, of all others, the most suitable to affect us with lasting impressions of the awful power that created and controls it. I am the less inclined to think this negligence excusable, because, at a time of life, when I gave as little attention to religion as any man, I yet remember that the waves would preach to me, and that in the midst of worldly dissipation I had an ear to hear them. In the fashionable amusements which you will probably witness for a time, you will discern no signs of sobriety, or true wisdom. But it is impossible for a man who has a mind like yours, capable of reflection, to observe the manners of a multitude without learning something. If he sees nothing to imitate, he is sure to see something to avoid. If nothing to congratulate his fellow-creatures upon, at least much to excite his compassion. There is not, I think, so melancholy a sight in the world, (an hospital is not to be compared to it,) as that of a multitude of persons, distinguished by the name of gentry, who, gentle perhaps by nature, and made more gentle by education, have the appearance of being innocent and inoffensive, yet being destitute of all religion, or not at all governed by the religion they profess, are none of them at any great distance from an eternal state, where self-deception will be impossible, and where amusements cannot enter. Some of them we may hope will be reclaimed, it is most probable that many will, because mercy, if one may be allowed the expression, is fond of distinguishing itself by seeking its objects among the most desperate class; but the Scripture gives no encouragement to the warmest charity, to expect deliverance for them all. When I see an afflicted and unhappy man, I say to myself, there is perhaps a man, whom the world would envy, if they knew the value of his sorrows, which are possibly intended only to soften his heart, and to turn his affections towards their proper centre. But when I see, or hear of acrowd of voluptuaries, who have no ears but for music, no eyes but for splendour, and no tongues but for impertinence and folly—I say, or at least I see occasion to say, this is madness—this, persisted in, must have a tragical conclusion. It will condemn you, not only as Christians, unworthy of the name, but as intelligent creatures—you know by the light of nature, if you have not quenched it, that there is a God, and that a life like yours cannot be according to his will. I ask no pardon of you for the gravity and gloominess of these reflections, which, with others of a similar complexion, are sure to occur to me when I think of a scene of public diversion like that you have witnessed."
The following remarks, extracted from a letter to the same correspondent, while they serve to display the state of his mind respecting religion, exhibit at the same time, the high value which he set upon the leading truths of the gospel:— "When I wrote the poem on Truth, it was indispensably necessary that I should set forth that doctrine which I know to be true; and that I should pass, what I understood to be a just censure, upon opinions and persuasions that stand in direct opposition to it; because, though some errors may be innocent, and even religious errors are not always dangerous, yet in a case where the faith and hope of a Christian are concerned, they must necessarily be destructive; and because neglecting this, I should have betrayed my subject; either suppressing what in my judgment is of the last importance, or giving countenance by a timid silence, to the very evils it was my design to combat. That you may understand me better, I will subjoin; that I wrote that poem on purpose to inculcate the eleemosynary character of the gospel, as a dispensation of mercy, in the most absolute sense of the word, to the exclusion of all claims of merit on the part of the receiver; consequently to set the brand of invalidity upon the plea of works, and to discover, upon scriptural ground, the absurdity of that notion, which includes a solecism in the very terms of it, that mari by repentance and good works, may deserve the n. rcy of his Maker. I call it solecism, because mercy deserved ceases to be mercy, and must take the name of justice. This is the opinion which I said, in my last, the world would not acquiesce in, but except this, I do not recollect that I have introduced a syllable into any of my pieces, that they can possibly object to; and even this I have endeavoured to deliver from doctrinal dryness, by as many pretty things, in the way of trinket and plaything, as I could muster upon the subject. So that if I have rubbed their gums, I have taken care to do it with a coral, and even that coral embellished by the ribbon to which it is attached, and recommended by the tinkling of all the bells I could contrive to annex to it."
The following beautiful lines convey sentiments so much in unison with this extract, that we cannot forbear to insert them at the close of this chapter:—
"I am no preacher; let this hint suffice,
Progress of Error.
Commencement of Cowpels acquaintance with Lady AustinPleasure it afforded him—Poetic epistle to her—Her removal to Olney—Beneficial influence of her conversational powers on Cowper's mind—Occasion of his writing John Gilpin— Lines composed at Lady Austin's request—Induced by her to commence writing Tlie Task—Principal object he had in view in composing it—Sudden and final separation from Lady Austin—Occasional severity of his depressive malady—Hopes entertained by his friends of his ultimate recovery—His own opinion upon it—Pleasing proofs of the power of religion on his mind—Tenderness of his conscience—Serious reflections— Aversion to religious deception and pretended piety—Bigotry and intolerance, with their opposite vices, levity and indifference, deplored—Sympathy with tlie sufferings of the poorEnviable condition of such of them as are pious, compared with the rich who disregard religion.
In the autumn of 1781, Cowper became acquainted with Lady Austin, whose brilliant wit and unrivalled conversational powers, were admirably adapted to afford relief to a mind like his. This lady was introduced to the retired poet by her sister, the wife of a clergyman, who resided at Clifton, a mile distant from Olney, and who occasionally called upon Mrs. Unwin. Lady Austin came to pass some time with her sister, in the summer of 1781, and Mrs. Unwin, at Cowper's request, invited the ladies to tea. So much, however, was he averse to the company of strangers, that after he had occasioned the invitation, it was with considerable reluctance he was persuaded to join the party; but having at length overcome his feelings, he entered freely into conversation with Lady Austin, and derived so much benefit from her sprightly and animating discourse, that he from that time cultivated her acquaintance with the greatest attention.
The opinion Cowper formed of this accomplished and talented lady, may be ascertained by the following extracts from his letters:—" Lady Austin has paid us her first visit, and not content with showing us that proof of her respect, made handsome apologies for her intrusion. She is a lively, agreeable woman; has seen much of the ways of the world, and accounts it a great simpleton, as it is. She laughs, and makes laugh, without seeming to labour at it. She has many features in her character which you must admire, but one in particular, on account of the rarity of it, will engage your attention and esteem. She has a degree of gratitude in her composition, so quick a sense of obligation, as is hardly to be found in any rank of life. Discover but a wish to please her, and she never forgets it; not only thanks you, but the tears will start into her eyes at the recollection of the smallest service. With these fine feelings she has the most harmless vivacity you can imagine: half an hour's conversation with her will convince you that she is one of the most intelligent, pious, and agreeable ladies you ever met with." The following lines, part of a poetical epistle, addressed by Cowper to Lady Austin, will show how much he was delighted with his new friend :—
"Dear Anna,—between friend and friend