« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
season, and the advanced price of provisions, are very threatening to the poor. It is well with those that can feed upon a promise and wrap themselves up warm in the robe of salvation. A good fire-side and a well-spread table are but indifferent substitutes for these better accommodations; so very indifferent, that I would gladly exchange them both for the rags and the unsatisfied hunger of the poorest creature, that looks forward with the hope to a better world,%nd weeps tears of joy in the midst of penury and distress. What a a world is this! How myteriously governed, arid,'in appearance, left to itself. One man, having squandered thousands at a gaming-table, finds it convenient to travel; gives his estate to somebody to manage for him ; amuses himself a few years in France and Italy; returns, perhaps, wiser than he went, having acquired knowledge, which, but for his follies, he would never have acquired; again makes a splendid figure at home, shinqs in the senate, governs his country as its minister, is admired for his abilities, and if successful, adored, at least by a party. When he dies he is praised as a demigod, and his monument records everything but his vices. The exact contrast of such a picture is to be found in many cottages at Olney. I have no need to describe them, you know the characters I mean; they love God, they trust him, they pray to him in secret, and though he means to reward them openly, the day of recompense is delayed. In the meantime they suffer everything that infirmity and poverty can inflict upon them. Who would suspect, that has not a spiritual eye to discern it, that the fine gentleman might possibly be one whom his Maker had in abhorrence, and the wretch last mentioned, dear to him as the apple of his eye? It is no wonder that the world, who only look at things as they are connected with the present life, find themselves obliged, some of them at least, to doubt a providence, and others absolutely to deny it: when almost all the real virtue there is to be found in it, exists in a state of neglected obscurity, and all the vices cannot exclude them from the privilege of worship and honour. But behind the curtain the matter will be explained; very little, however, to the satisfaction of the great."
Publication of Cowper's second volume of poems Manner in
which it was received by the public—His feelings on the occasion—Great self-abasement—Renewal of his correspondence
with Lady Hesketh—acceptance of her proffered assistance
Her projected visit to Olney—Cowper's pleasing anticipations of its results—Her arrival—Cowper's removal from Olney to Weston—His intimacy with the Throckmortons—Happiness it afforded him.
Cowper's second volume of poems, the publication of which had been delayed much longer than was expected, appeared, at length, in the summer of 1785. His first volume, though it had not met with that success which might have been expected, had nevertheless, been extensively circulated, and was spoken of highly by some of the first literary characters of the age. It had, therefore, raised the expectations of the public and had thus made way for its successor, which no sooner made its appearance than it was eagerly sought after, and met with a rapid and extensive sale. High as had been the expectations of his friends, they fell far short of what he had accomplished in that brilliant display of real poetical talent everywhere to be found in the Task. The singularity of the title made its first appearance somewhat repulsive; its various. and matchless beauties were however soon discovered, and it speedily raised the reputation of Cowper to the highest summit of poetic genius, and placed him among the first class of poets.
In a letter to Mr. Newton, he describes his feelings on this occasion, in such a manner as proves him to have been influenced by nothing like selfish or ambitious motives; but by principles far more noble and exalted:—" I found your account of what you experienced in your state of maiden authorship very entertaining, because very natural. I suppose no man ever made his first sally from the press without a conviction that all eyes and ears would be engaged to attend him, at least without a thousand anxieties lest they should not.— But, however arduous and interesting such an enterprise may be in the first instance, it seems to me that our feelings on the occasion soon become obtuse. I can answer at least for one. Mine are by no means what they were when I published my first volume. I am even so indifferent to the matter, that I can truly assert myself guiltless of the very idea of my book sometimes for whole days together. God knows that my mind having been occupied more than twelve years in the contemplation of the most distressing subjects, the world, and its opinion of what I write, is become as unimportant to me as the whistling of a bird in a bush. Despair made amusement necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement. Had I not endeavoured to perform my best, it would not have amused me at all. The mere blotting of so much paper would have been but indifferent sport. God gave me grace also to wish that I might not write in vain. Accordingly I have mingled much truth with some trifle; and such truths as deserved at least to be clad as well and as handsomely as I could clothe them. If the world approve me not, so much the worse for them, but not for me, I have only endeavoured to serve them, and the loss will be their own. And as to their commendations, if I should chance to win them, I feel myself equally invulnerable there. The view that I have had of myself, for many years, has been so truly humiliating, that I think the praises of all mankind could not hurt me. God knows that I speak my present sense of the matter at least most truly, when I say, that the admiration of creatures like myself seems to me a weapon the least dangerous that my worst enemy could employ against me. I am fortified against it by such solidity of real self-abasement, that I deceive myselj most egregiously, if I do not heartily despise it. Praise belongeth to God: and I seem to myself to covet it no more than I covet divine honours. Could I assuredly hope that God would at last deliver me, I should have reason to thank him for all that I have suffered, were it only for the sake of this single fruit of my affliction—that it has taught me how much more contemptible I am in myself than I ever before suspected, and has reduced my former share of self-knowledge (of which at that time I had a tolerable good opinion) to a mere nullity, in comparison to what I have acquired since. Self is a subject of inscrutable misery and mischief, and can never be studied to so much advantage as in the dark; for as the bright beams of the sun seems to impart a beauty to the most unsightly objects, so the light of God's countenance, vouchsafed to a fallen creature, so sweetens him and softens him for the time, that he seems both to others and to himself, to have nothing selfish or sordid about him. But the heart is a nest of serpents, and will be such while it continues to beat. If God cover the mouth of that nest with his hand, they are hush and snug; but if he withdraw his hand the whole family lift up their heads and hiss, and are as active and venomous as ever. This I always professed to believe from the time that I had embraced the truth, but I never knew it as I know it now. To what end I have been made to know it as I do, whether for the benefit of others or for my own, or for both, or for neither, will appear hereafter." While Cowper looked upon his publication with so much indifference, his friends regarded it with very opposite feelings. Its rapid and extensive circulation, not only delighted those who were intimately associated with him, and had been witnesses to the acute anguish of his mind, during his depressive malady, but it also gratified several of his former associates and correspondents, and induced them to renew their communications with the poet. Among these was Lady Hesketh, who was so charmed with productions of his pen, that on her return from abroad, where she had spent several years with her husband, she renewed her correspondence with Cowper, and as she was now a widow and was handsomely provided for, she generously offered to render him any assistance he might want. Cowper's reply to an affectionate letter she wrote him, shows the warmth of his affection towards those whom he loved. He thus writes:—" My dear Cousin, It is no new thing for you to give pleasure. But I will venture to say that you do not often give more than you gave me this morning. When I came down to breakfast and found on the table, a letter franked by my uncle, and when opening that frank, I found that it contained a letter from you, I said within myself, This is just as it should be. We are all grown young again, and the days that I thought I should see no more, are actually returned. You perceive, therefore, that you judged well when you conjectured that a line from you would not be disagreeable to me. It could not be otherwise than as in fact it has proved, a most agreeable surprise. For I can truly boast of an affection for you that neither years nor intercepted intercourse have at all abated. I need only recollect how much I valued you once, and with how much cause, immediately to feel a revival of the same value; if that can be said to revive, which at the most has only been dormant for want of employment. But I slander it when I say that it has slept. A thousand times have I recollected a thousand scenes, in which our two selves have formed the whole of the drama, with the greatest pleasure at times too, when I had no reason to suppose that I should ever hear from you again. The hours that I have spent with you, were among the pleasantest of my former days, and are therefore chronicled in my mind so deeply as to fear no erasure. You say that you have often heard of me; that puzzles, me. I cannot imagine from what quarter; but it is no matter. I must tell you however, my dear cousin, that your information has been a little defective. That I am happy in my situation is true; I live, and have lived these twenty years, with Mrs. Unwin, to whose affectionate care of me, during the far greater part of that time, it is, under Divine Providence owing that I live at all. But I do not account myself happy in having been for thirteen of those years in a state of mind that has made all that care and attention necessary. An attention and a care, that have injured her health, and which, had she not been uncommonly supported, must have brought her to the grave. But I win pass to another subject; it would be cruel to particularize only to give pain, neither should I by any means give a sable hue to the first letter of a correspondence so unexpectedly renewed. I must, however, tell you, my dear cousin, that dejection of spirits, which I suppose, may have prevented many a man from becoming an author has made me one. I find constant employment necessary, and therefore take care to be constantly employed. Manual occupations do not engage the mind sufficiently, as I know by experience, having tried many. But composition, especially of verse, absorbs it wholly. I write therefore generally three hours in the morning, and in the evening I transcribe. I read also, but less than I write, for I must have bodily exercise, and therefore never pass a day without it.
"I do not seek new friends, not being altogether sure that 1 should find them, but have unspeakable pleasure in being beloved by an old one. I hope that our correspondence has now suffered its last interruption, and that we shall go down together to the grave, chattering and chirping as happily as such a scene as this will permit. I am happy that my poems have pleased you. My volume has afforded me no such pleasure at any time, either while I was writing it, or since its publication, as I have derived from yours and my uncle's favourable opinion respecting it. I make certain allowances for partiality, and for that peculiar quickness of taste, with which you both relish what you like, and after all drawbacks upon those accounts, duly made, find myself rich in the measure of your approbation, that still remains. But above all