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even to incoherence) which he wrote to Lady Hesketh, from 1795 to 1798, fills the mind with amazement that he could in such a state apply himself to any intellectual occupation. We also admire, with Hayley, the tender and ingenious assiduity of Cowper's young kinsman, under whose care these melancholy years were passed, that could engage in such effort a being so hopelessly depressed. "Even a stranger may consider it a strong proof of his tender dexterity in soothing and guiding the afflicted poet, that he was able to engage him steadily to pursue and finish the revisal and correction of his Homer during a long period of bodily and mental sufferings, when his troubled mind recoiled from all intercourse with his most intimate friends, and labored under a morbid abhorrence of all cheerful exertion.”
These letters to Lady Hesketh also let us into the knowledge of sufferings which Cowper never described, nor attempted to recount to any mortal in the former attacks of his distressing malady. Those attacks had been so sudden and so overwhelming, that he could not put pen to paper, nor indeed endure any communication, even with his dearest friends, and he never could bring himself to any detail of what he passed through. But this final attack was more gradual, and was not so absolute, did not so entirely plunge him beyond the reach of any sympathetic voice; and the few
386 LETTERS TO LADY HESKETH.
letters he undertook to Lady Hesketh really do more than any thing else toward unvailing the entanglement of infernal delusions, that lay like knotted snakes at the bottom of those depths down which his afflicted reason had been flung.
The first of these sad and singular records was at Mundesley, where by the sea-shore Cowper had loved to wander in his earlier days, and had expressed to his friends the sublime impressions produced by the sight of the ocean, and the softly soothing melancholy into which the sound of the breaking billows had often composed his thoughts. But now the wildest storm upon the sea was rapture in comparison with the anguish and desolating apprehensions that filled his soul. "The most forlorn of beings," says he, "I tread a shore under the burden of infinite despair that I once trod all cheerfulness and joy. I view every vessel that approaches the coast with an eye of jealousy and fear, lest it arrive with a commission to seize me. But my insensibility, which you say is a mystery to you, because it seems incompatible with such fear, has the effect of courage, and enables me to go forth, as if on purpose to place myself in the way of danger. The cliff is here of a height that it is terrible to look down from; and yesterday evening, by moonlight, I paused sometimes within a foot of the edge of it, from which to have fallen would probably have been to be dashed in
LETTERS TO LADY HESKETH.
pieces. But though to have been dashed in pieces would perhaps have been best for me, I shrunk from the precipice, and am waiting to be dashed in pieces by other means. At two miles' distance on the coast is a solitary pillar of rock, that the crumbling cliff has left at the high-water mark. I have visited it twice, and have found it an emblem of myself. Torn from my natural connections, I stand alone, and expect the storm that shall displace me."
"I have no expectation that I shall ever see you more, though Samuel assures me that I shall visit Weston again, and that you will meet me there. My terrors, when I left it, would not permit me to say-Farewell, forever-which now I do; wishing, but vainly wishing, to see you yet once more, and equally wishing that I could now as confidently, and as warmly as once I could, subscribe myself affectionately yours; but every feeling that could warrant the doing it, has, as you too well know, long since forsaken the bosom of “W. C.”
This was written in August, 1795. In September there is a renewal of the same despairing monody, and an evident perplexity of mind in vainly striving to penetrate the mystery of his fate, which it is truly affecting to witness. "I shall never see Weston more. I have been tossed
LETTERS TO LADY HESKETH.
like a ball into a far country, from which there is no rebound for me. There, indeed, I lived a life of infinite despair, and such is my life in Norfolk. Such, indeed, it would be in any given spot upon the face of the globe; but to have passed the little time that remained to me there, was the desire of my heart. My heart's desire, however, has been always frustrated in every thing that it ever settled on, and by means that have rendered my disappointments inevitable. When I left Weston, I despaired of reaching Norfolk, and now that I have reached Norfolk, I am equally hopeless of ever reaching Weston more. What a lot is mine! Why was existence given to a creature that might possibly, and would probably become wretched in the degree that I have been so ? and whom misery such as mine was almost sure to overwhelm in a moment. But the question is vain. I existed by a decree from which there was no appeal, and on terms the most tremendous, because unknown to, and even unsuspected by me; difficult to be complied with, had they been foreknown, and unforeknown, impracticable. Of this truth, I have no witness but my own experience; a witness, whose testimony will not be admitted. I
remain the forlorn and miserable being I was when I wrote last."
A few months after this letter, he has evidently, in January, 1796, gone down a few fathoms deeper
Yet the manner in
in this tremendous gloom. which he writes concerning these experiences has something in it, notwithstanding his assertion of the certainty of his dreadful doom, like the air of one who half suspects himself of being in a trance or dream. It is at least so far unreal, that he perplexes himself about it; and every advance into a deeper darkness makes him perceive that in the preceding darkness there was light. The idea that Lady Hesketh has described in one of her letters as possessing him, that he was to be suddenly and bodily carried away to a place of torment, haunted him more and more: it was but the more definite converging and concentration of that indefinable, anxious, and ominous foreboding of the future, under which he had so often described himself to Newton and other dear friends, in deeply interesting letters, as borne down beneath a weight of apprehension that almost rendered life intolerable. "I seem to myself," he said to Newton, in 1792, "to be scrambling always in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide, but with an enemy ever at my heels prepared to push me headlong."
So long as the delusion was general, Cowper was sane, though beneath such a weight of suffering from the slow nervous and mental fever of his gloom. But in proportion as the delusion took a definite form, his reason gave way before it, though