« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
LETTER TO LADY HESKETH. 395
which, in the stillness of the night, though at nearly the distance of two miles, invariably announced the approach of his companion."
Once again, in 1797, Cowper wrote a few lines to Lady Hesketh. "To you once more," says he, "and too well I know why, I am under cruel necessity of writing. Every line that I have ever sent you, I have believed under the influence of infinite despair, the last that I should ever send. This I know to be so. Whatever be your condition, either now or hereafter, it is heavenly compared with mine, even at this moment. It is unnecessary to add that this comes from the most miserable of beings, whom a terrible minute made such." The post-mark of this letter was May 15, 1797, but there was neither date nor signature, a picture of the painful confusion, and almost chaos, of the poet's suffering mind. Indeed, these letters disclose, by glimpses, the distraction and misery of the writer, just as the flashes of lightning over the sea, in a dark and stormy night, might reveal the form of a dismasted ship driving wrecked before the tempest.
There were three similar letters in 1798, in the second of which, speaking of the universal blank that even nature had become to him, though once he was susceptible of so much pleasure from the delightful scenes Lady Hesketh had been describing, he says, "My state of mind is a medium
DOCTRINE OF NECESSITY.
through which the beauties of Paradise itself could not be communicated with any effect but a painful one."
In the third, and last he ever wrote to her, in December, 1798, he was in full possession of his faculties, except for the weight of the mountain of his despair, yet wrote under the idea that all his volitions and actions were the result of an inevitable and eternal necessity. He described himself as giving all his miserable days, and no small portion of his nights also, to the revisal of his Homer; a hopeless employment, he said, on every account, both because he himself was hopeless while engaged in it, and because, with all his labor, it was impossible to do justice to the antique original in a modern language. "That under such disabling circumstances, and in despair both of myself and of my work, I should yet attend to it, and even feel something like a wish to improve it, would be unintelligible to me, if I did not know that my volitions, and consequently my actions, are under a perpetual, irresistible influence. Whatever they were in the earlier part of my life, that such they are now, is with me a matter of every day's experience. This doctrine I once denied, and even now assert the truth of it respecting myself only. There can be no peace where there is no freedom; and he is a wretch indeed who is a necessitarian by experience."
There can be no peace where there is no freedom! How did this truth spring up from the deepest depth in Cowper's heart! How it reminds us, wrung as its expression here is from his own anguish, of those exquisitely beautiful and noble sentiments, manifestly the sincerest utterances of his soul, with which, in "The Task," he has denounced the curse of slavery, and celebrated freedom as man's birthright from his Creator!
Whose freedom is by sufferance, and at will
Who lives, and is not weary of a life
The State that strives for liberty, though foiled,
Is weakness when opposed, concious of wrong,
But slaves that once conceive the glowing thought
Of freedom, in that hope itself possess
All that the contest calls for; spirit, strength,
The scorn of danger, and united hearts,
Their progress in the road of science; blinds
To be the tenant of man's noble form.
LAST LETTER TO NEWTON.
The coincidences between Cowper's poetry and his letters are interesting and instructive in the extreme; and the more so, because he never thought of them, and never repeated himself, but always wrote what was the original creation of a present experience.
The last letter of his life was written to the dearest Christian friend he had ever known, John Newton, thanking him for his own last letter, and for a book which Newton had sent him, and which Mr. Johnson had just read to him. How sad and dark were his last words to that dear friend, whom he was just on the eve of meeting and welcoming in the rapture and glory of a world of eternal happiness and light! It was April 11, 1799, and he says, "If the book afforded me any amusement, or suggested to me any reflections, they were only such as served to embitter, if possible, still more the present moment by a sad retrospect of those days when I thought myself secure of an eternity to be spent with the spirits of such men as he whose life afforded the subject of it. But I was little aware of what I had to expect, and that a storm was at hand, which in one terrible moment would darken, and in another still more terrible blot out that prospect forever. Adieu, dear sir, whom in those days I called dear friend with feelings that justified the appellation."
At this time, Cowper had just finished the final
LAST ORIGINAL POEM.
revisal of his Homer, and could converse in regard to other literary undertakings, for the vigor of his mind was unabated, nor had the power of his imagination, nor the tenderness and sensibility of his affections, been diminished by his gloom. His affectionate kinsman proposed to him to continue his poem on "The Four Ages," and accordingly he altered and added a few lines, but remarked "that it was too great a work for him to attempt in his present situation." The next day he wrote in Latin verse the poem entitled "The Ice Islands,” and a few days afterward translated it into English. The day after that translation, the 20th of March, he wrote the last original poem he ever composed, those most affecting stanzas, entitled "The Castaway," founded upon an occurrence related in Anson's Voyages, which he had remembered for many years.
Obscurest night involved the sky,
Th' Atlantic billows roared,
No braver chief could Albion boast,
Nor ever ship left Albion's coast,
With warmer wishes sent.
He loved them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.