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LIFE OF WILLIAM COWPER.
WILLIAM COWPER was born on the 15th of November (O.S.; Nov. 26, N. S.) 1731, at Great Berkhampsted, in Hertfordshire. His father, the Rev. John Cowper, D.D., was Rector of that parish, and Chaplain to King George II ; and was the second son of Spencer Cowper, who was a Judge of the Common Pleas, and whose elder brother William became Lord Chancellor in 1707, and was created Earl Cowper in 1718. Dr. Cowper took to wife Anne, daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Ludham Hall in Norfolk, of the same family as Dr. John Donne, the famous poet and Dean of St. Paul's.
William was one of six children, of whom only himself and his youngest brother John grew up to manhood. The birth of the latter cost the life of his mother; who died Nov. 13, 1737, at the age of thirty-four. After the lapse of fortyseven years Cowper wrote to his friend Hill: ‘I can truly say, that not a week passes (perhaps I might with equal veracity say a day) in which I do not think of her. Such was the impression her tenderness made upon me, though the opportunity she had for showing it was so short.' The Poet pleased himself with thinking that he bore a nearer resemblance, both in mind and body, to his mother's family, than to that of his father. He wrote thus to his cousin Mrs. Bodham, in 1790: “There is in me, I believe, more of the Donne than of the Cowper; and though I love all of both names, and have a thousand reasons to love those of my own name, yet I feel the bond of nature draw me vehemently to your side. I was thought in the days of my childhood much to resemble my mother; and in my natural temper, of which at the age of fifty-eight I must be supposed to be a competent judge, can trace both her and my late uncle, your father. Somewhat of his irritability; and a little, I would hope, of his and of her I know not what to call it, without seeming to praise myself, which is not my intention; but speaking to you, I will even speak out, and say good nature.'
There can be little doubt that Cowper inherited from his mother much of that sensibility of nerve and delicacy of sentiment, which proved the source of so great unhappiness to him in the next scene on which he entered.
At the age of six years he was sent to a large boardingschool, kept by Dr. Pitman, at Market Street, a town on the border line of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. At this school, during two years, he found ‘hardships of various kinds to conflict with’; nor can this statement surprise any one who considers the sensitive nature and the retiring habits of the child. “I was,' he tells us, "singled out from all the other boys, by a lad of about fifteen years of age, as a proper object upon whom he might let loose the cruelty of his temper. His savage treatment of me impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift my eyes upon him higher than his knees; and that I knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any other part of his dress.'
In 1739 the child was removed from Dr. Pitman's school on account of an inflammation in the eyes, accompanied with
specks on both, which threatened to cover them. He was in consequence placed for two years in the house of Mrs. Disney, a female oculist. From her treatment he gained but slight relief; but at the age of fourteen the small-pox seized him, and proved the better oculist of the two, as it removed the specks entirely.' He was, however, troubled with a weakness in the eyes more or less throughout life; and the affection was perhaps congenital, for he wrote to Hill in Nov. 1782, "My eyes are, in general, better than I remember them to have been since I first opened them upon this sublunary stage, which is now a little more than half a century ago.'
In 1741, being a boy of ten years, Cowper was entered at Westminster School, then under the rule of Dr. Nichols. Here he spent seven of the happiest years of his life. In spite of his natural diffidence, and gentleness of manners, he earned a reputation at once with his Masters for scholarship; and amongst his schoolfellows for his proficiency in cricket and football, and those other sports by which boys are apt to gauge the courage and spirit of their companions. Nearly forty years after he left school, he wrote to Unwin (1786), 'I was a schoolboy in high favour with my master, received a silver groat for my exercise, and had the pleasure of seeing it sent from form to form for the admiration of all who were able to understand it. No wonder that we find him saying, in the same letter, 'He who cannot look forward with comfort, must find what comfort he can in looking backward. Upon this principle I the other day sent my imagination upon a trip thirty years behind me. She was very obedient, and at last set me down in the sixth form at Westminster. I fancied myself once more a schoolboy,-a period of life in which, if I had never tasted real happiness, I was at least equally unacquainted with its contrary. And no wonder that even in his · Tirocinium' he should dwell on
"The fond attachment to the well-known place
Where first we started into life's long race.' It is clear therefore that the strong opinion which Cowper afterwards formed against the public-school system, and to which he gave so energetic an expression in the poem cited, was not the result of unhappiness in his personal experience of school life. Still less are we justified in tracing, as some have traced, the malady which was ere long to overcloud his intellects, to any misery endured in his boyhood at Westminster, or at Market Street.
Our embryo Poet was not the only one amongst his contemporaries at Westminster who was destined to play a conspicuous part in the drama of life. He was there amidst a galaxy of genius and wit, whose 'bright particular stars'
were in due course to shed their lustre over the world of literature or politics; though the light cast by some of them was lurid, and their influence baleful. Not to speak of Vincent Bourne, who was Cowper's form-master, and whose graceful Latin poems his pupil rendered into not less graceful English; there were Robert Lloyd, Charles Churchill, Richard Cumberland, George Colman ‘the elder,' Bonnell Thornton, Elijah Impey, and Warren Hastings. Yet of these gifted men, all of whom won for themselves a place in the pages of English history, he who will live the longest in the grateful affections of his fellow-countrymen is William Cowper.
When the schoolboy reached his eighteenth year, it became necessary that his father should decide on a profession for him. Family traditions and family influence pointed naturally to the Law. Accordingly, while Cowper was yet at Westminster, his name was entered at the Middle Temple, April 29, 1748. He left school soon afterwards, and resided with his father at Berkhampsted for nine months; after which he was articled for three years to Mr. Chapman, an attorney in Ely Place, Holborn, that he might be acquiring a knowledge of legal processes whilst keeping his terms. Here he made little or no progress in the study of the Law, notwithstanding the advantages placed within his reach by constant association with his fellow-clerk in the office, Edward, afterwards Lord Thurlow. The fact was, that Cowper paid too little attention to his profession, for which he had no natural predilection, and too much to his fair cousins in Southampton Row. These were the daughters of Mr. Ashley Cowper, his father's younger brother, and afterwards Clerk of the Parliaments; at whose house the young law-student passed all his Sundays, and was soon found spending also “his leisure hours, which were wellnigh all his time.' Harriet, the eldest of the three cousins, afterwards Lady Hesketh, was the friend and correspondent of Cowper throughout his later years; and to her next sister, Theodora Jane, he became bound by still tenderer ties. In a word, an attachment sprang up between them ; and the double attractions of love and family affection made the house the constant resort of the young poet. For a poet