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widow and her lodger-towards whom 'her behaviour had always been that of a mother to a son'-should seek for themselves a new home. Mr. Unwin had expressed his wish that, in case of his death, Mr. Cowper might continue to dwell with his widow. With both it was an essential point that they should remove to some spot at which they might be under the faithful preaching of the gospel, in the form in which they had received it. While the question was in debate a visitor arrived, who had been requested to call on them by Dr. Conyers, a Cambridge friend of young Unwin, and who is commemorated in the poem on Truth (1. 358). This was the Rev. John Newton. It was soon arranged that they should take up their new abode at Olney, in Buckinghamshire; a parish to which Mr. Newton had been appointed as Curate in 1764.
It was on the 14th of September, 1767, that Cowper left Huntingdon, with Mrs. Unwin, for the vicarage at Olney; where they passed the first three months. On the 9th of December they removed to Orchard Side, a house situate in the Market-Place of Olney; but so near to the vicarage, that by opening a door in each garden wall, and crossing an orchard, the inmates of the one house could make their way to the other without passing through the street.
It may be doubted whether Cowper could have found a place less eligible for a man subject to depression of spirits, than Olney. The country around was flat and marshy, and liable to inundations from the Ouse throughout the winter months; so much so, that the whole valley between Olney and Emberton was frequently under water. Thus the wooden bridge alluded to at the opening of 'The Winter Evening' as 'bestriding the wintry flood,' was as 'needful' as it was 'lengthy.' And the town also was dulness itself, with its 'One parson, one poet, one bellman, one crier.'
Its inhabitants, all poor and all sickly, were engaged in lacemaking and straw-plaiting; there were no resident gentry save Mr. Newton and 'Sir Cowper,' as he was deferentially termed by his humble neighbours;
'And the poor Poet was the only Squire.'
Cowper missed the regular exercise he had enjoyed at Huntingdon. He no longer kept a horse; and the condition of the roads was not favourable to walking. In a letter to Mr. Newton (Aug. 5, 1786) he speaks of the 'long confinement in the winter, and indeed for the most part in the autumn too,' as having seriously hurt him; and he adds, 'A gravel walk thirty yards long affords but indifferent scope to the locomotive tendency: yet it is all that we have had to move in for eight months in the year, during thirteen years that I have been a prisoner. Had I been confined in the Tower, the battlements of it would have furnished me with a larger space.' Meanwhile Cowper's intercourse with Mr. Newton was close and affectionate-too close, perhaps, for his health. They ‘made it a rule to pass four days in the week together;' dining at one o'clock, taking tea at four, and from six till supper-time engaging in 'service or lecture or something of that kind.' Mr. Newton himself says, that 'for six years they were seldom separate, when at home and awake.' A man of far stronger constitution than Cowper's could hardly fail to become sensible of much mental fatigue, from such intense and exclusive converse with a single mind; even though that mind were Mr. Newton's. Moreover Cowper spent much of his time in visiting the poor, ministering to the sick, and praying at the bedside of the dying; so that (in the words of Mr. Cecil) 'Mr. Newton used to consider him as a sort of curate, from his constant attendance upon the sick and afflicted in that large and necessitous parish.' This occupation, at all times an arduous and discouraging one, even to the pastor who has deliberately devoted himself to the work, must have been peculiarly so to a man of Cowper's highly sensitive organisation. But this was not the worst. Mr. Newton held frequent prayermeetings in his parish; and Cowper was encouraged, if not required, to lead the devotions on these occasions. Mr. Greatheed tells us in his funeral sermon, 'I have heard him say, that when he expected to take the lead in social worship, his mind was always greatly agitated for some hours preceding, owing to that timidity which he invariably felt at
every appearance before his fellow-creatures.' It might be true that 'his trepidation subsided as soon as he began to speak in prayer:' but was it well that nerves so finely strung should be subjected to such a strain?
In the midst of labours tending so much alike to spiritual excitement and physical exhaustion, Cowper lost his only brother, to whose memory he has paid so loving a tribute in 'The Time-Piece' (ll.780–95). This event took place on March 20, 1770; and although Cowper had the satisfaction of knowing that his brother, in his last illness, embraced his own views of saving grace, the shock was one that severely tried his affectionate nature. At length Mr. Newton was struck with the increasing gloom that was enveloping his friend. However injudicious we may think the course which the former had pursued in his character of Cowper's spiritual director, none can question the reality and fulness of his affection. The constitution of Mr. Newton presented a singular contrast to that of the other, both in body and mind. The old sea-captain knew nothing of physical fatigue; the old slaver could little appreciate the squeamish susceptibilities of refined sentiment. With a frame of iron, an unflagging zeal, and a will strong if not coarse, he was ill fitted for the handling of so delicate and complex a piece of mechanism as the mind of a Cowper. By way of diverting the Poet's brooding thoughts, he projected in 1771 the preparation of the Olney Hymns. Cowper had written occasional hymns for him as early as 1767, and now the friends set to work diligently for two years on the production of their joint collection. The hymns were not published till Feb. 15, 1779. They were 348 in number; and of these 67 were distinguished as Cowper's by the initial C.
But why this long delay of eight years before the publication of the Olney Hymns? Alas! the old malady had returned. We have seen that the attack of 1763 had seized Cowper about ten years after his first fit of melancholy in the Temple. Another decade had now elapsed; and in January, 1773 he was 'suddenly reduced (as he wrote in 1786) from his wonted rate of understanding to an almost
childish imbecility. This state of mind was accompanied with misapprehension of things and persons. He believed that everybody hated him, and Mrs. Unwin most of all; was convinced that all his food was poisoned; together with ten thousand megrims of the same stamp.' Matters rapidly grew worse with him. All the most distressing of the old symptoms reappeared in an aggravated form. At first he refused to go near the vicarage; and when at length induced to enter it, he was equally resolved not to quit it. It was not till August that Mr. Newton consulted Dr. Cotton, and then it was too late. At the end of fourteen months passed under Mr. Newton's roof, and during which the patient was tended with the watchful assiduity of love by Mrs. Unwin, he exhibited the first signs of recovery by noticing the growth of the trees and flowers in the garden. The first smile for sixteen months,' was seen on his countenance; and he returned to Orchard Side. Here he resumed his residence with Mrs. Unwin, on the old footing: though it should seem that, but for this return of insanity, the tender tie between the two would have been drawn (if possible) yet closer by marriage. The truth of the current report to this effect has been strenuously denied by the earlier biographers of the Poet, with a sort of vehement indignation for which it is not easy to discern any occasion. But the positive statements quoted by Mr. Benham (Globe edition, 1870, p. xxxix) must be allowed as conclusive. 'Mr. Bull, in his Memorials of Newton declares that again and again he had heard his father say, that they were about to be married when Cowper's malady returned in 1773; and that Bull knew this from Mrs. Unwin herself. And then he adds the following extract from Newton's hitherto unpublished diary. "They were congenial spirits, united in the faith and hope of the gospel, and their intimate and growing friendship led them, in the course of four or five years, to an engagement of marriage, which was well known to me, and to most of their and my friends, and was to have taken place in a few months, but was prevented by the terrible malady which seized him about that time." It is true that Mrs. Unwin
was at this time forty-eight years of age, and Cowper only forty-one; yet it would probably have conduced to the comfort of both if this union could have been effected. But what had now occurred was thought sufficient to render any revival of the question impossible.
As Cowper slowly regained his mental powers, he began to divert himself not only with his favourite pursuit of gardening, but with carpentering, landscape-painting, and more particularly with keeping pet animals. In 1774 his three hares, Puss, Tiney, and Bess, were given to him; and he furnished an account of their treatment to the Gentleman's Magazine for June, 1784. Lady Hesketh has enumerated no fewer than twenty domesticated animals which he had about him at one time. He amused himself also with the continuation of that delightful series of letters to his friends, which had been begun in the week of his arrival at Huntingdon; but which had flagged, and in the cas of Lady Hesketh had ceased entirely, soon after his settlement at Olney.
The next change in the Poet's life was occasioned by Mr. Newton's migration to London. He was presented by Mr. John Thornton, in September, 1779, to the united Rectories of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch: and he quitted Olney early in January 1780. Before he did so, his forethought for his friend's comfort suggested his introduction to the Rev. William Bull, a congregational minister at Newport Pagnell, five miles from Olney. He was 'a Dissenter, but a liberal one: a man of letters and of genius, and master of a fine imagination.' The two were drawn towards each other by mutual attraction; dined together once a fortnight; and became fast friends.
And now began a period of literary activity which proved a most wholesome recreation to Cowper. He took delight in writing poems on various subjects of public or private interest I have never,' he writes, 'found an amusement among the many I have been obliged to have recourse to, that so well answered the purpose for which I used it. The quieting and composing effect of it was such, and so totally absorbed have I sometimes been in my rhyming occupation,