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CHILDHOOD OF COWPER.
his character was not resolutely developed, and some of the influences thrown upon it were evil.
Southey has noted as a fact, that in Cowper's days there were together at the Westminster School more youths of distinguished talent than ever at any other time were cotemporaries there. Some of them were afterward his intimate companions in the pursuits of literature, while professedly engaged in the study of the law. Coleman, the play-writer, was one, whose character, along with that of Lord Thurlow, Cowper drew with some severity, when they had both unkindly neglected the poet, on his sending to them the first fruits of his poetical genius.
"Thy schoolfellow, and partner of thy plays,
When Nichol swung the birch, and twined the bays."
In regard to the intimacies of his school-days, Cowper long afterward expressed himself to his friend Mr. Unwin, "I find such friendships, though warm enough in their commencement, surprisingly liable to extinction, and of seven or eight, whom I had selected for intimates, out of about three hundred, in ten years' time not one was left me." He told the same friend that on his quitting Westminster, he valued a man according to his proficiency and taste in classical literature, and had the meanest opinion of all other accomplishments
unaccompanied by that, but that he had lived to see the vanity of what he had made his pride, and to find that all this time he had spent in painting a piece of wood that had no life in it, and when he began to think indeed, he found himself in possession of many baubles, but not one grain of solidity in all his treasures. Yet what precious treasures did they prove, when at length, imbued with the sweetest spirit of piety, they were wrought into the most imperishable forms of English literature. Cowper's English style, like Goldsmith's, seemed part of the intuitive elements of his genius; it was not formed by his classical discipline at Westminster, but grew, as an apple-blossom grows out of life, by the law of life; for Cowper has stated in his letters some curious facts as to the general neglect of English in a school given to Latin and Greek. The very same lad, he said, was often commended for his Latin, who deserved to be whipped for his English, and not one in fifty of those who passed through Westminster and Eton, arrived at any remarkable proficiency in speaking and writing their own mother tongue.
With merry playmates at Westminster, Cowper must have enjoyed many hours, notwithstanding all that he is said to have suffered, both there and at the earliest scene of his school-trials. Hayley tells us that Cowper had "been frequently heard to lament the persecution he sustained in his child
CHILDHOOD OF COWPER.
ish years, from the cruelty of his school-fellows in the two scenes of his education. His own forcible expression represented him at Westminster as not daring to raise his eye above the shoe-buckle of the elder boys, who were too apt to tyrannize over his gentle spirit." Cowper's own description of this misery refers only to his experience at the school for children in Hertfordshire. But Hayley seems to write from the remembrance of Cowper's conversation, and describes the same torment as endured in some degree at Westminster. There can be no doubt that in such treatment of a mind and heart so tenderly sensitive, so exquisitely delicate, there was gathering, even at the earliest period, that cloud, at first no bigger than a man's hand, which was at length to overshadow his whole being with the blackness of a settled madness and despair.
The whole of his early education was certainly, in some respects, most unfortunate. Of his situation in the household of the surgeon and oculist, where he went at eight years of age for medical discipline, connected with the system of education afterward pursued, he speaks himself, in brief terms, as follows: "I continued two years in this family, where religion was neither known nor practiced, and from thence was dispatched to Westminster. Whatever seeds of religion I might carry thither, before my seven years' apprenticeship to
CHILDHOOD OF COWPER.
the classics were expired, were all marred and corrupted. The duty of the schoolboy swallowed up every other; and I acquired Latin and Greek at the expense of knowledge much more important." He speaks in this connection, of some early casual impressions in regard to his own mortality, increased by intimations of a consumptive habit, and attended with a lowness of spirits uncommon at such an age.
Certainly, it were a sufficient cause for unhappiness, not imaginary nor temporary, to be banished at so tender an age as Cowper was from so dear a home as his, and thrown upon the care of strangers in a boarding-house; and four years, from the age of six to ten, spent so unhappily, are reason enough for that "uncommon lowness of spirits." Cowper was thrown upon himself too early, and with too entire an absence of any dear personal guide or friend, for the habit of self-reliance to grow out of such discipline. De Quincey, in some reference to the years of his childhood says, "By temperament, and through natural dedication to despondency, I felt resting upon me always too deep and gloomy a sense of obscure duties, attached to life, that I never should be able to fulfill; a burden which I could not carry, and which yet I did not know how to throw off." This is a very common experience, in boys of a reflective nature, though not always remembered and defined with
CHILDHOOD OF COWPER.
so much distinctness. Suppose it were increased to a morbid degree by circumstances, it might easily become a predisposing cause of permanent gloom assuming the type of madness. And this feeling, at a later period, was, absolutely, one of the exasperating causes of Cowper's insanity. If another human being could have been found to take the responsibility of life upon himself, Cowper's mind would have been at ease, and no catastrophe of madness would have happened. But, then, for aught we can see, his conscience would have remained at ease, also, and he never would have been awakened from the careless dreamings of an indolent, gay, social existence, as attractive, when its habit was once formed, as it was useless, but ruinous for his nobler and better nature. was rudely and awfully thrown upon himself, and found himself the greatest of all burdens that the mind could bear; yet not till despair came, absolute despair, was he thrown upon his Saviour, and not till then did he find rest.
He has described his singular religious indifference at the age of fourteen, when seized with the small-pox, and presumed to be but a step from death. And it was singular, for that is an age when, in the prospect of death, conscience is ordinarily much alarmed, and there is great anxiety, for the heart has not been hardened. But Cowper says, “Though I was severely handled by this dis