« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
CHILDHOOD OF COWPER.
ease, and in imminent danger, yet neither in the course of it, nor during my recovery, had I any sentiments of contrition, any thought of God or eternity." Cowper goes still further in the record against his boyish days, the review, from an advanced and holy post of observation, of the evil habits he was then contracting. He says he was hardly raised from his bed of pain and sickness before the love of sin became stronger than ever, and the devil seemed rather to have gained than lost an advantage over him. "By this time," he says, "that is, about the age of fourteen, I became such an adept in the infernal art of lying that I was seldom guilty of a fault for which I could not invent an apology capable of deceiving the wisest. These, I know, are called schoolboys' tricks; but a total depravity of principle, and the work of the father of lies, are universally at the bottom of them."
Southey sets this down as a species of Protestant exaggerated self-condemnation, either hypocritical or enthusiastic, either to deceive others, or to promote the cause of religion by magnifying the miracle of one's own conversion. It is no great compliment to the character of Cowper, the Christian and the poet, to intimate that he would deliberately and knowingly exaggerate the sins and follies of his childhood, even for the purpose of magnifying a miracle. It is no great compliment
CHILDHOOD OF COWPER.
to his truthfulness to intimate that he would endeavor to set forth the miracle of his own conversion as greater than it really was. Southey thinks that Cowper imposed upon himself, when accusing himself as a juvenile proficient in the infernal art of lying, in a far greater degree than he had ever imposed upon an usher; and he adds, contrary to all experience, "that lying is certainly not one of those vices which are either acquired or fostered at a public school.”
But how could Cowper, as a truthful man, have accused himself of lying in his childhood if he had not remembered and known that he had been guilty of that sin? How could he impose upon himself with such a mere imagination, when he was sitting down to compose a severely truthful history? How, above all, could he deliberately attempt to impose upon others, or to record for others' instruction, as a definite well-known point in his own early life and character, what was nothing better than a slander against himself? It is a most injurious and humiliating argument by which Southey, in order to avert the charge of depravity from Cowper's youth, fastens that of deception upon Cowper's Christian manhood. And yet Southey acknowledges that "Cowper was not one of those persons who gratify their spiritual pride by representing themselves as the vilest of sinners." The secret of the strange apology is in the
next sentence, in which Southey, because it is certain that Cowper had been an inoffensive gentle boy, discards as not to be received in evidence of any such evil habit as that of falsehood, "whatever he, in his deplorable state of mind, may have said or thought of his own childhood."
Now it can hardly be credited that the state of mind which Southey here sets down as deplorable, when Cowper penned his own exquisitely beautiful and affecting memoirs, and gave the history of his childhood, was the calmest, brightest, serenest, most spiritual and heavenly period and mood of his whole life ; a state of mind, in which the presence of his Saviour was a light of glory and of joy, and the very atmosphere of his heart was as the air of heaven. It was so far from deplorable for himself, that he was always in the enjoyment of the sweetest social and Christian communion, and in the almost uninterrupted exercise of prayer and praise. And so far from melancholy to others, that the very sight of a creature so exalted in spiritual happiness was full of interest and delight; for he looked on all around him with celestial love, and he judged all things with a serene, unbiassed spiritual judgment, neither censorious, nor harsh, nor gloomy, but sweetly radiant with the beauty of that happiness, through which every thought was transmitted. All forms of opinion, all sentences on his past life, and anticipations of his future, flew freely
forth, like birds of Paradise, through an avenue of peace and joy, bearing fragrance from the trees of life on either side upon their wings. It was the experience of "the peace of God that passeth all understanding, keeping both heart and mind through Christ Jesus."
And yet, Southey had the hardihood to speak of Cowper, while in the experience of such religious feeling and enjoyment, as "in his deplorable state of mind," and could say of him that "he regarded with a diseased mind his own nature and the course of human life," when he referred to the absence of religion in his own childhood. It is in the same mood that Southey speaks of Cowper's interesting account of himself as "his melancholy memoirs." Repeatedly Southey speaks of the "exaggerated language" of these memoirs in regard to their description of the native evil of the human heart, and of the total want of religion in Cowper's own heart before his conversion. In direct contradiction to Cowper's own solemn affirmations of what he remembered in regard to his own character and condition in his childhood and youth, Southey says, "He had no cause, real or imaginary, for regret or self-reproach. He was exactly one of those boys who choose for themselves the good that may be gained at a public school, and eschew the evil, being preserved from it by their good instincts, or by the influence of virtuous principles
inculcated in childhood." Whose testimony, in such a case, is to be believed?—that of the author of the autobiography, speaking of himself, and speaking as a Christian, from a heart full of the emotions of heavenly gratitude and praise, or that of the biographer, contradicting the autobiography, and declaring that he knows more about Cowper's childhood than Cowper knew himself, and can describe more truthfully than Cowper has done, the early life of the poet ?
The passage in which Cowper charges upon his youthful character and years the habit of falsehood, is omitted from the autobiography in some of the editions of the poet's life and writings. It is somewhat altered even by Grimshawe. And, indeed, it is very natural to wish that there had been no occasion for writing it. But we are not sitting in court, where the counsel and the judge will not admit any thing from the prisoner himself, against himself, to go to the jury. Every word is precious. The “Jerusalem sinner," the happy, forgiven, rejoicing saint in Christ Jesus, was drawing up as truthful an account as he could give of his former and his present self; of his character and habits as a boy and a man, without grace, and of the great and mighty change wrought in him by grace; and we can not but esteem it a false and ill-judged delicacy, which would suppress, or deny and contradict such a passage as this, out of a