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that neither the past nor the present (those themes which to me are so fruitful in regret at other times) had any longer a share in my contemplation.' The clear sight of love was keen to perceive the benefit which the convalescent derived from this occupation; and Mrs. Unwin urged him to the composition of a long poem worthy of his powers. He asked for a subject, and she gave him 'The Progress of Error.' The Poet addressed himself to the work in December, 1780; and in three months produced not only the poem bearing that name, but also 'Truth,' 'TableTalk,' and 'Expostulation.' Mr. Newton's kind offices availed to secure their acceptance by Johnson, a publisher in St. Paul's Churchyard; and the poems were sent to him in April, 1781. Johnson suggested an addition to the volume: whereupon Cowper wrote 'Hope' and 'Charity'; and to these he soon added 'Conversation' and 'Retirement.' A few minor pieces were included, and the volume was published about the 1st of March, 1782. By the author's request Mr. Newton wrote a preface to it; and his name was to have appeared on the title-page as editor. This preface, dated Feb. 18, 1782, was first prefixed to the fifth edition, 1790; as the publisher feared that its distinctively Evangelical tone would injure the sale of the book.
But ere the publication of this volume, a sunbeam had glanced across the path of Cowper's social life, which for a while lit up his whole existence with a brightness such as had never before illumined it. In the summer of 1781 he formed the acquaintance of Lady Austen,—' a lively, agreeable woman, who had seen much of the world, and accounted it a great simpleton, as it is; one who laughed and made laugh, and could keep up a conversation without seeming to labour at it.' She was the widow of Sir Robert Austen, seventh Baronet of Bexley in Kent, to whom she was married when very young, and with whom she had lived entirely in France, till his death in 1772. When Cowper met her, she was on a visit to her sister, the wife of the Rev. J. Jones of Clifton Reynes, one mile from Olney. She took tea there, and was as much captivated by the person and genius of the Poet, as he was fascinated by her gay and sympathetic manner.
Those were the days of picnics and parties of pleasure: and before Lady Austen returned to London in October, she had become 'Sister Anna,' and Cowper her 'Brother William'; and a correspondence on these terms was arranged between them. But in the ensuing February a disagreement arose. Lady Austen appears to have found in Cowper less reciprocity of sentiment than she expected, and the latter wrote thus to Unwin, 'She expressed a sort of romantic idea of our merits, and built such expectations of felicity upon our friendship, as we were sure that nothing human could possibly answer. I wrote to her to remind her that we were mortal, to recommend it to her not to think more highly of us than the subject would warrant.' This letter, he continues, 6 gave mortal offence. It received indeed an answer, but such a one as I could by no means reply to: and there ended — for it is impossible that it should be renewed—a friendship that bid fair to be lasting.' lady however viewed the matter in a different light. In less than a fortnight, Cowper received a present of three pair of ruffles from her; and the least he could do was to send his thanks by Mr. Jones, and transmit a copy of his Poems to Lady Austen. Shortly afterwards she repeated her visit to Clifton; when she threw herself with tears into Mrs. Unwin's arms, and soon put the whole party at their ease. In a few weeks she took lodgings in the vicarage, with the design of fixing her abode at Olney. The two houses became so closely united as to form almost one household. 'A practice obtained at length of dining with each other alternately every day, Sundays excepted;' and beyond this, Cowper 'paid his devoirs to her ladyship every morning at eleven.' The trio formed a most harmonious and cheerful party, both at home and in their walks into the country. Cowper wrote poems for Lady Austen to sing to her harpsichord: among others, that on the 'Loss of the Royal George' (Sept. 1782). One evening in October, perceiving her friend to be in more than usually low spirits, she sought to enliven him by reciting the story of John Gilpin, as one which had been told her in her childhood.' After all had retired to rest, peals of laughter were heard to issue
from the Poet's chamber, so continuous and hysterical as to alarm Mrs. Unwin for his reason. The next morning he presented the ladies with 'The Diverting History of John Gilpin,' which he had spent the night in turning into verse.
The ballad was sent to Unwin, who got it printed in the 'Public Advertiser' of Nov. 14, 1782; the author's consent to this being guarded with one proviso,—auctore tantum anonymo.' The story could not fail to become popular. Writing to Unwin, May 8, 1784 (eighteen months after its first appearance), Cowper tells him that the publisher had at first objected to his design of adding it 'at the tail' of his new volume of poems, on the ground of its being 'now too trite'; inasmuch as it had been hacknied in every magazine, in every newspaper, and in every street.' A fresh impulse was given to the popularity of 'John Gilpin,' when (in 1785) Mr. Richard Sharp, known as 'Conversation Sharp,' suggested to John Henderson the Actor, that he should include it in his series of Lenten recitations in Freemason's Hall. From that time the verses became 'familiar in men's mouths as household words.'
It is not only for 'John Gilpin' that the world has to thank Lady Austen. But for her, we should have had no ‘Task'; and Cowper would not have been selected for this Series, as the representative poet of his age. The volume of 1782, though containing much that perhaps no man but Cowper could have written, did not possess the elements of popularity, either in its subjects or the manner of their treatment. If we compare the later poems of the series with 'The Progress of Error,' we shall indeed observe a marked improvement, both in the smoothness of the versification (which is very conspicuous in 'Retirement'), and in the more poetical handling of the theme. 'Expostulation' is a magnificent burst of impassioned feeling, and may be said in some parts of it to soar into sublimity. Yet, as Miss Seward has remarked, 'No reader could have expected the diamonds of Cowper, who had only seen the Scotch pebbles which he offered for
Nevertheless the book
sale at the beginning of his career.' had attracted some favourable notice.
Although the Critical
Review found in it nothing more than 'decent mediocrity,' and pronounced it to be 'little better than a dull sermon in very indifferent verse,' the London and Gentleman's Magazines, and the Monthly Review, 'the critical Rhadamanthus’ of the day, had bestowed on it decided, though not enthusiastic, praise. Mr. John Thornton had sent a copy of it to Benjamin Franklin, then American Ambassador in Paris; and his 'plaudit' was very gratifying to the author. This appreciation of his work by a stranger made him the more sensitive to the neglect of his old friends, Colman and Thurlow, neither of whom had the civility to acknowledge the presentation-copies which he sent to them. He vented his indignation with natural resentment, in 'The Valediction' written in Nov., 1783. In this year Mr. Bull sent Cowper the poems of Madame de la Mothe Guion; and these, which he thought 'the only French verse he ever read that he found agreeable,' he translated in a month. Lady Austen pressed him to write a new original poem in blank verse, which Milton had taught her to love. When he replied that she must find a subject for him, she said, 'Oh! you can never be in want of a subject; you can write on any,-write upon this Sofa.' The 'task' thus imposed was accepted, and fulfilled-all the world knows how.
'The Sofa' was begun in June or July, 1783; and it was 'ended but not finished' on the 3rd of August. Five more books followed; and the entire 'Task' was completed in August or September, 1784. As a delay occurred in the printing, Cowper appended to it a poem which he had finished in the interim, and which he called 'Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools.' And after much vacillation on the part of author and publisher, the volume was made to include 'The History of John Gilpin,' and was finally published in July, 1785.
We must return to Lady Austen. Before the publication of 'The Task,' a rupture had again taken place between her and the Olney couple. The cause of this final severance has been much debated. The account which Cowper gave of it to Unwin is not specific. 'We found the connexion,' he writes, 6 on some accounts an inconvenient one. The
dissimilitude was too great not to be felt continually, and consequently made our intercourse unpleasant.' To Lady Hesketh the Poet complained that he found his leisure for study and composition sadly interrupted by his constant attendance on Lady Austen; which, though at first optional, ‘long usage had made a point of good manners, and consequently of necessity.' In short, he 'was forced to neglect the 'Task,' to attend upon the Muse who had inspired the subject.' Cowper had written of Lady Austen to Unwin, July 29, 1781, ‘She is a most agreeable woman, and has fallen in love with your mother and me.' The most recent disclosures all tend to the suggestion that these words were true (as far as he was himself concerned) in a far more literal sense than the writer intended. Lady Austen showed Hayley some verses which Cowper had addressed to her, and which seemed to convey a proof to her-all too eager for such proof—that he was really attached to her personally. These verses-'To a Lady who wore a lock of his hair set with diamonds'-were first printed by Mr. Benham, in 1870. In them the Poet sang
'The heart that beats beneath that breast
A nobler prize and richer far
Than India could bestow.'
The woman who reads these lines will surely pardon Lady Austen's misconception of their import. After all, Cowper was not her brother William'; and he was 'past the bounds of freakish youth.' A man in his fifty-fourth year might be supposed to have laid aside the hyperbolical rhapsodies which might have meant nothing particular at half that age. But however tender the language into which Cowper's indulgence in sentiment betrayed him, he felt himself to be bound to Mrs. Unwin by so many and such ties of gratitude and affection, that when it became a question whether he should give up her, or Lady Austen, there was but one answer he could give. He therefore wrote to the latter, as Hayley informs us, that 'very tender yet resolute letter,' in which he‘explained and lamented the circumstances that forced him to renounce