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In the early part of the summer of 1783, Lady Austen was endeavoring to prevail upon Cowper, as she had often done without success, to try his poetical powers in blank verse. At length he promised her that he would do so, if she would furnish him with a subject. "Oh," said she, "you can write upon any thing; you can never be in want of a subject; write upon this sofa." This answer, made without a moment's reflection, seems to have fallen like a kindling element, suggestive, exciting, into the poet's mind. Perhaps it roused up in a moment a train of domestic pictures, associations, enjoyments: at any rate it set Cowper to thinking, and forthwith he began a poem on that very theme, which wandered on, from subject to subject, from book to book, in pleasing, graceful variety, till it grew to the form of that finest production of his genius, "The Task," one of the




most truly religious, yet one of the most popular poems in the English language. The first book, "The Sofa," was completed in August 1783, having been begun probably in June; and in November 1784, the whole poem had gone to the press. Cowper was, therefore, engaged upon it about a year and three months. He wrote sometimes an hour a day, sometimes half an hour, sometimes two hours; and he says that he found it a severe exercise to mould and fashion the composition to his mind. Whether he was engaged upon a serious or comic subject, he has himself remarked that the deep dejection of his spirits never seemed to interfere in the least degree with the activity of his mental powers.

During the whole period of the composition of this exquisite poem, so tender and sacred in feeling, so rich and heavenly in religious thought, so inspired at once with the sweetest contrition and faith of a submissive and believing heart, and the sublimest fervor of devotion, Cowper's own religious gloom was almost uninterrupted. He thought himself shut out, by a particular edict, from God's mercy, excluded forever from heaven, and doomed to destruction. He thought that for him there was no access to the mercy-seat, that he had no right to pray; indeed, he told his friend Mr. Bull, in one of his letters, that he had not asked a blessing upon his food for ten years, and did not expect


that he should ever ask it again.

said he, “that I have a right to


"Prove to me,'

pray, and I will

pray without ceasing; yea, and pray too even in the belly of this hell, compared with which Jonah's was a palace, a temple of the living God. But, let me add, there is no encouragement in the Scripture so comprehensive as to include my case, nor any consolation so effectual as to reach it." "And yet the sin by which I am excluded from the privileges I once enjoyed, you would account no sin n; you would tell me that it was a duty."

In such passages as these we seem to be looking into the blackness of darkness; it is an incomprehensible mystery of madness and despair. The imaginary sin to which Cowper here refers, must have been his refusing to yield to the temptation, a second time presented in his insanity, of selfdestruction, or his not renewing the attempt, when mercifully frustrated; a temptation under the satanic infernal delusion of its being a sacrifice to which God called him, so that his not performing it had shut the door of God's mercy against him forever. Sometimes when he sat down to write his dearest friends, this impression, with unmitigated, intolerable severity, so burdened him, that he could write on nothing else than the topic of his religious woe. This was very naturally the case, most frequently in writing to Newton, with whom he once enjoyed so many years of brightest,



sweetest Christian fellowship, ineffably serene and delighti, the genuineness, truth, and heavenly origin of which, as the work of the Divine Spirit, he never for one moment doubted.

He begins the first letter he wrote to Newton in the year 1784, just after the publication of "The Task," by saying that he could not indeed tell what events might happen in this new year of their existence, but that Newton might rest convinced that be they what they might, not one of them could ever come a messenger of good to his despairing lost friend. "It is an alleviation of the woes even of an unenlightened man, that he can wish for death, and indulge a hope at least that in death he shall find deliverance. But loaded as my life is with despair, I have no such comfort as would result from a supposed probability of better things to come, were it once ended. Pass through whatever difficulties, dangers and afflictions I may, I am not a whit the nearer home, unless a dungeon may be called so. This is no very agreeable theme; but in so great a dearth of subjects to write upon, and especially impressed as I am at this moment with a sense of my own condition, I could choose no other. The weather is an exact emblem of my mind in its present state. A thick fog envelops every thing, and at the same time it freezes intensely. You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and en



deavor to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it; but it will be lost labor. Nature revives again; but a soul once slain, lives no more. The hedge that has been apparently dead, is not so; it will burst into leaf and blossom at the appointed time; but no such time is appointed for the stake that stands in it. It is as dead as it seems, and will prove itself no dissembler. The latter end of next month will complete a period of eleven years in which I have spoken no other language. It is a long time for a man, whose eyes were once opened, to spend in darkness; long enough to make despair an inveterate habit; and such it is in me. My friends, I know, expect that I shall see yet again. They think it necessary to the existence of Divine truth, that he who once had possession of it, should never finally lose it. I admit the solidity of this reasoning in every case but my own. And why not in my own? For causes which to them it appears madness to allege, but which rest upon my mind with a weight of immovable conviction.”

This letter carries us back for some solution of its gloomy mystery to the year 1773, when, after some recovery from the more immediate violence of the attack, the chaos and dethronement of his reason, even in passing away, left upon the air the black shadows of an eclipse, that supernatural darkness at noonday, that strange disastrous twi

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