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VILLIAM COWPER, ESQ.;
A NEW MEMOIR.
COMPILED FROM JOHNSON, SOUT AEY AND
44 North Fourth Street.
WILLIAM COWPER was born on the 15th of November, (old style,) 1731, in the Rectory of Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire. His father, the Rector of the parish, was John Cowper, D. D., son of Spencer Cowper, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and next brother to the first earl Cowper, Lord Chancellor. His mother, the daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Norfolk, was of noble, and remotely of royal descent. It is not, however, for her genealogy, but for being the mother of a great poet, that this lady will be remembered. She died at the age
of thirtyfour, leaving of several children, only two sons. truly say,” said Cowper, nearly fifty years after her death, “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.” At the time of her death, Cowper was but six years old; but young as he was, he felt his loss most poignantly, and has recorded his feelings on the occasion of her loss, in the most beautiful of his minor poems.
Soon after his mother's death, Cowper was sent to a boarding-school, where he suffered much from the cruelty of one of the elder boys. “Such was his savage treatment « At the agt
of me," says he,“ that I well remember being afraid to lif my eyes higher than his knees, and I knew him better by his shoe-buckles than by any other part of his dress.” His infancy is said to have been “delicate in no common degree," and his constitution appears early to have discovered a morbid tendency to despondency. When Cowper was ten years old, he was sent to Westminster School, where he remained eight years. At Westminster he obtained an ercellent classical education, and was much beloved by his companions, among whom were Lloyd, Colman, Churchill
, and Warren Hastings; but he complains much of his want of religious instruction at this school. of eighteen,” he says, “being tolerably well furnished with grammatical knowledge, but as ignorant of all kinds of religion as the satchel at my back, I was taken from Westminster."
He was now placed with an attorney, and had for his fellow clerk Thurlow, the after Lord Chancellor. He, however, made but little progress in the study of the law. “I did actually live,” he writes his cousin Lady Hesketh, many years afterwards, “ three years with a Solicitor; that is to say, I slept three years in his house; but I lived, that is to say, I spent my days, in Southampton Row, as you well remember. There was I, and the future Lord Chancellor, constantly employed from morning to night, in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law."
In 1752, at the age of twenty-one, Cowper took chambers in the Temple; and in a Memoir which he wrote some years afterwards, he thus describes the commence ment of that malady which embittered so much of his future life. “Not long after my settlement in the Temple, I was struck with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have any conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror and rising up in despair.
In this state of mindl continued near a twelve-month ; when having experienced the inefficacy of all human means, I, at length, betook myself to God in prayer.” Shortly after this, as he was walking in the country, “I felt,” he continues, “the weight of all my misery taken off, and my heart became light and joyful in a moment. ..... But Satan, and my own wicked heart, soon persuaded me that I was indebted for my deliverance, to nothing but a change of scene, and on this hellish principle I burnt my prayers, and away went all my thoughts of devotion.”
For ten years after being called to the bar, Cowper continued to reside in the Temple, amusing himself with literature and society, and making little or no effort to pursue his profession. He belonged to the “ Nonsense Club,” consisting of seven Westminster men, among whom were Lloyd, Colman, and Bonnell Thornton; assisted the two latter in the “Connoisseur,” and “ though he wrote and published,” says Hayley, “both verse and prose, it was as the concealed assistant of less diffident authors."
Meantime, he had fixed his affections on Theodora Jane, the daughter of his uncle, Ashley Cowper; one of those ladies with whom he used to "giggle and make giggle," in Southampton Row. She is described as a lady of great personal and mental attractions; and their affection was mutual. But her father objected to their union, both on the score of means and consanguinity. When it was found that his decision was final, the lovers never met again. It does not appear that this disappointment had any influence in inducing the return of his malady. In respect to love, as well as friendship and fame, few poets, and perhaps few men, have possessed feelings more sane and healthy, than Cowper. In after life, he said to Lady Hesketh, “ I still look back to the memory of your sister and regret her; but how strange it is; if we were to meet now, we should not know each other." It was different with Theodora.