« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
When minds that never met before
"These charming lines strike with peculiar force on my heart, when I recollect that it was an idle endeavour to make us enemies, which gave rise to our intimacy, and that I was providentially conducted to Weston at a season when my presence there afforded peculiar comfort to my affectionate friend, under the pressure of a very heavy domestic affliction which threatened to overwhelm his very tender spirits. The entreaty of many persons whom I wished to oblige, had engaged me to write a life of Milton, before I had the slightest suspicion that my work could interfere with the projects of any man; but I was soon surprised and concerned in hearing that I was represented in a newspaper as an antagonist of Cowper. I immediately wrote to him on the subject, and ouv correspondence soon endeared us to each other in no common degree. The series of his letters to me I value, not only as memorials of a most dear and honourable friendship, but as exquisite examples of epistolary excellence."
The above interesting extract will have informed the reader that Mr. Hayley paid Cowper a visit at Weston; this visit, however, so gratifying to both parties, did not take place till the beginning of May, 1792. In the December previous, Cowper met with one of the heaviest domestic calamities he had ever experienced. Mrs. Unwin, his affectionate companion, who had watched over him, with so much tenderness and anxiety, for so many years, was suddenly attacked with strong symptoms of paralysis. In a letter to his friend, Mr. Rose, dated 21st December,
1791, Cowper thus relates this painful event: — "On Saturday last, while I was at my desk, near the window, and Mrs. Unwin at the fire-side opposite to it, I heard her suddenly exclaim, 'Oh! Mr. Cowper, don't let me fall!' I turned, and saw her actually falling, and started to her side just in time to prevent her. She was seized with a violent giddiness, which lasted, though with some abatement, the whole day, and was attended with some other very, very alarming symptoms. At present, however, she is relieved from the vertigo, and seems, in all respects, better. She has been my faithful and affectionate nurse for many years, and consequently has a claim on all my attentions She has them, and will have them, as long as she wants them, which will probably be, at the least, a considerable time to come. I feel the shock, as you may suppose, in every nerve. God grant that there may be no repetition of it. Another such a stroke upon her would, I think, overset me completely; but, at present, I hold up bravely."
Notwithstanding the interruption of Cowper's studies, occasioned by Mrs. Unwin's indisposition, and by the extreme slowness of her recovery, he had now become so much accustomed to regular employment, and had derived from it so many advantages, that he could not possibly remain inactive. In the month of February we find him thus employed. "Milton, at present, engrosses me altogether. His Latin pieces I have translated, and have begun with the Italian. These are few, and will not detain me long. I shall proceed immediately to deliberate upon, and to settle the plan of my commentary, which I have hitherto had but little time to consider. I look forward to it, for this reason, with some anxiety. I trust, at least, that this anxiety will cease, when I have once satisfied myself about the best manner of conducting it. But, after all, I seem to fear more the labor to which it calls me, than any great difficulty with which it likely to be attended. To the labors of versifying I have no objection, but to the labors of criticism I am new, and apprehend that I shall find them wearisome. Should that be the case, I shall be dull, but must be contented to share the censure of being so, with almost all the commentators that have ever existed. I will, however, have no horrida bella, if I can help it. It is, at least, my present purpose to avoid them if possible; for which reason, I shall confine myself merely to the business of an annotator, which is my proper province, and shall sift out of Warton's notes every tittle that relates to the private character, political or religious principles, of my author. These are properly subjects for a biographer's handling, but by no means, as it seems to me, for a commentator's."
In reply to a pressing letter from his friend, Mr. Newton, for original composition, written about this time, Cowper thus expresses himself:—" Your demand for more original composition from me will, if I live, and it please God to afford me health, in all probability, be sooner or later gratified. In the meantime you need not, and if you turn the matter over in your thoughts a little you will perceive that you need not, think me unworthily employed in preparing a new edition of Milton. His two principal poems are of a kind that call for an editor who believes the gospel, and is well grounded in evangelical doctrine. Such an editor they have never had, though only such an one can be qualified for the office." The peculiarity of Cowper's religious feelings still continued to exist; and it seemed impossible for him to divest himself entirely of those gloomy apprehensions of his own personal interest in the blessings of the gospel, which had harassed and distressed him for so many years. On every other subject he could write and converse, with ease to himself, [and with pleasure to others; but the morbid tendency of his mind to despondency, tinged all his remarks with midnight gloom whenever he adverted to this. An instance of this occurred in one of his letters to Mr. Newton about this time. After describing, in his own playful manner, some changes that had recently taken place in the circle of his immediate acquaintance, he thus closes his letter, which, notwithstanding the excellence of the remarks, evinces the existence of considerable depression. "Such is this variable scene, so variable, that had the reflections I sometimes make upon it a permanent influence, I should tremble at the thought of a new connexion, and to be out of the reach of its mutability, lead almost the life of a hermit. It is well with those, who, like you, have God for their companion; death cannot deprive them of him, and he changes not the place of his abode. Other changes, therefore, to them are all supportable; and what you say of your own experience is the strongest possible proof of it. Had you lived without God, you could not have endured the loss you mention. May he preserve me from a similar one, at least till he shall be pleased to draw me to himself again! Then, if ever that day come, it will make me equal to my burden; at present, I can bear nothing well. I, however, generally manage to pass my time comfortably, as much so, at least, as Mrs. Unwin's frequent indisposition, and my no less frequent troubles of mind, will permit. When I am much distressed, any company but her's distresses me more, and makes me doubly sensible of my sufferings, though sometimes, I confess, it falls out otherwise; and by the help of more general conversation, I recover that elasticity of mind which is able to resist the pressure. On the whole, I believe I am situated exactly as I should wish to be, were my situation determined by my own election; and am denied no comfort that is compatible with the total absence of the chief of all. I rejoiced, and had great reason to do so, in your coming to Weston, fori think the Lord came with you. Not, indeed, to abide with me, nor to restore me to that intercourse which I had with him, and which I enjoyed twenty years ago, but to awaken in me, however, more spiritual feeling than I have experienced, except in two instances, all that time. The comforts that I had received under your ministry in better days, all rushed upon my recollection; and, during two or three transient moments, seemed to be in a degree renewed. You will tell me that, transient as they were, they were yet evidences of a love that is not so; and I am desirous to believe it." We have already informed our readers that Cowper's engagement as the editor of Milton became the means of introducing him to Mr. Hayley. He received the first letter from that gentleman in March, 1792. An incident occurred respecting this letter which ought not to go unrecorded; as it might have proved fatal to that friendship, which became to both the poets a source of the purest enjoyment. Neither of these talented individuals had, at that time, any knowledge of each other. Mr. Hayley had read Cowper's productions with no ordinary emotions of delight, and had consequently conceived the highest respect for their unknown author; and nothing could have occasioned him greater surprise, as well as uneasiness, than to be represented as the opponent of one whom he so highly respected. No sooner was he apprized of it than he wrote to Cowper, generously offering him any materials that he had collected, with as much assistance as it was in his power to afford, and being unacquainted with his address, directed his letter to the care of Johnson, his publisher. Either through the carelessness or inadvertence