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Ambition this shall tempt to rise,
And grinning Infamy.
The stings of Falsehood those shall try
Lo, in the vale of years beneath
The painful family of Death,
More hideous than their queen:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
The tender for another's pain,
HYMN TO ADVERSITY
DAUGHTER of Jove, relentless power,
Th' unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! why should they know their fate, 95
Bound in thy adamantine chain
The proud are taught to taste of pain,
When first thy Sire to send on earth
And bade to form her infant mind.
What sorrow was, thou bad'st her know,
And from her own she learn'd to melt at others' woe.
Scared at thy frown terrific, fly
Self-pleasing Folly's idle brood,
Wisdom in sable garb array'd
Immersed in rapturous thought profound,
And Melancholy, silent maid,
With leaden eye, that loves the ground, Still on thy solemn steps attend:
Wild Laughter, Noise, and thoughtless Joy,
Light they disperse, and with them go
The summer friend, the flattering foe;
To her they vow their truth, and are again believed.
Warm Charity, the general friend,
Oh! gently on thy suppliant's head
Dread goddess, lay thy chastening hand! Not in thy Gorgon terrors clad,
Nor circled with the vengeful band
(As by the impious thou art seen)
With thundering voice, and threatening mien,
Despair, and fell Disease, and ghastly Poverty; - 40
Thy form benign, oh goddess, wear,
To soften, not to wound my heart. The generous spark extinct revive, Teach me to love and to forgive, Exact my own defects to scan,
What others are to feel, and know myself a Man.
WILLIAM COWPER is known to young readers as the author of that deliciously farcical ballad, — John Gilpin's Ride. Later, when we learn something of the poet's life, we are surprised to discover that this ballad is an exotic, and that instead of being the joyful, humorous man that this poem suggests, the author was for most of his life enshrouded in a melancholy so intense at times as to deepen into madness.
His father was an English rector, who married Ann Donne, a young lady of gentle lineage who was related to the poet John Donne. At the rectory of Birkhampstead, in November, 1731, William Cowper was born. His mother, to whom the little lad was most devotedly attached, died six years later. Fifty-three years after her death he voiced this affection in one of the tenderest elegies in our language, On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture.
Had the mother lived, the history of her gifted son might have been different. But the father did not understand the son's sensitive temperament, and there was little sympathy between them. The boy was sent to a school near St. Albans, where he suffered extreme torture from the boys who tormented him. In expressing his fear of one of these bullies, Cowper writes: "I had such dread of him, that I dare not lift my eyes to his face. I knew him but by his shoe-buckle."
At the age of ten, when Cowper went to the great school at Westminster, his life was a happier one. He joined in such sports as cricket and football, and became an excellent student. He remained in the school for eight years, and then, instead of going to the university, he commenced the study of law. But this he found distasteful, and he was therefore glad when his uncle secured for him the promise of a government office. But before Cowper could accept this appointment, he had to pass an examination
before Parliament. Continual brooding over the fear of this examination was too great a strain, and his nerves gave way. He was, in December, 1763, committed to an asylum for the insane.
In this asylum the poet was so carefully and judiciously cared for that he was released after two years. As he had no money, his brother and other relatives contributed to his support and engaged lodgings for him at Huntingdon, on the Ouse, not many miles from Cambridge. It was here, in the autumn of 1765, that he met the Unwins, and from this time his life is intimately associated with this family more particularly with Mrs. Unwin, for her husband was accidentally killed in the summer of 1767. Before dying Mr. Unwin had expressed the wish that Cowper might still dwell with her. And this he did until a few years before his death in 1800.
It was necessary for them to move from the house which they were then occupying, and they accordingly went to Olney. Here Cowper's religious enthusiasm was awakened, and the result of this interest was a series of hymns known as the "Olney Hymns." His life after this is the life of a quiet recluse devoted in the midst of his melancholy to deep thinking and literary labor, and stimulated at times to special performance by chance acquaintances.
One of these acquaintances was Lady Austen, the widow of a baronet, whose home was near Olney. She became intimate with Cowper and Mrs. Unwin, and the three had very delightful times together in the quiet way that he describes in one of his letters, 66 'Lady Austen playing on the harpsichord, Mrs. Unwin and himself playing battledore and shuttlecock, and the little dog under the chair howling to admiration."
To Lady Austen's influence and association with Cowper we are directly indebted for John Gilpin's Ride, and The Task. To relieve his melancholy one day she told him the story of John Gilpin, and it so possessed his fancy and sense of humor that he lay awake half that night convulsed with laughter, and by morning he had composed the ballad essentially as we have it. The Task was the result of a bantering remark. Lady Austen had repeatedly urged him to try blank verse. "I will," he one day an