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The distant plough slow moving, and beside
We should not omit to notice that behind us, over Olney, shows itself the church tower and hall of Clifton, the attempt to walk to which forms the subject of Cowper's very humorous poem, The Distressed Travellers. Before us, as we advance,—the Ouse meadows below on our left, and plain, naked farm-lands, on our right,--the park of Weston displays its lawns, and slopes, and fine masses of trees. It will be recollected by all lovers of Cowper that here lived Sir John and Lady Throckmorton, Cowper's kind and cordial friends, who, even before they knew him, threw open their park and all their domains to him; and who, when they did know him, did all that generous people of wealth and intelligence could do to contribute to his happiness. The village and estate here wholly belonged to them, and the hall was a second home to Cowper, always open to him with a warm welcome, and an easy, unassuming spirit of genuine friendship; Lady Throckmorton herself voluntarily becoming the transcriber of his Homer, when his young friend, Rose, left him. In the whole of our literature there is no more beautiful instance of the intercourse of the literary man and his wealthy neighbours, than that of Cowper and the Throckmortons. Their reward was the pleasure they conferred; and still more, the fame they have thus won.
The Throckmortons having other and extensive estates, the successors of Cowper's friends have deserted this. The house is pulled down, a wall is built across the bottom of the court-yard, which cuts off from view what was the garden. Grass grows thickly in the court, the entrance to which is still marked by the pillars of a gateway bearing vases. Across the court aro erected a priest's house and Catholic chapel,-the Throckmortons were and are Catholic,--and beyond these still stand the stables, coach-house, &c., bearing a clocktower, and showing that this was once a gentleman's residence. At the end of the old thatched outbuilding you see the word SCHOOL painted; it is the village school-Catholic, of course, as are all, or nearly all, the inhabitants. A pair of gateway pillars, like those which led to the house, mark the entrance to the village a little beyond the house. On the opposite side of the road to the house is the park, and, directly opposite to the house, being taken out of the park, is the woodland wilderness in which Cowper so much delighted to ramble.
The house of Cowper, Weston Lodge, stands on the right hand, about the centre of the village, adjoining a picturesque old orchard. The trees, which in his time stood in the street opposite, however, have been felled. A few doors on this side of the Lodge is a publichouse, with the Yardly Oak upon its sign, and bearing the name of Cowper's Oak. The Lodge is a good and pleasant, but not large house. The vignette at the head of this article represents the tree opposite as still standing, which is not the fact. The room on the right hand was Cowper's study. In his bedroom, which is at the back of the house overlooking the garden, still remain two lines, which he wrote when about to leave Weston for Norfolk, where he died. As his farewell to this place, the happiest of his life, when his own health, and that of his dear and venerable friend, Mrs. Unwin, were both failing, and gloomy feelings haunted him, these lines possess a deep interest. They are written on the bevel of a panel of one of the window shutters, near the top right-hand corner; and when the shutter has been repainted, this part has been carefully excepted.
“ Farewell, dear scenes, for ever closed to me!
July 22 } 1795." The words and dates stand just as here given, and mark his recurrence to these lines, and his restless state of mind, repeating the date of both month and year.
From this room Cowper used to have a view of his favourite shrubbery, and beyond it, up the hill, pleasant crofts. The shrubbery was generally admired, being a delightful little labyrinth, composed of flowering shrubs, with gravel walks, and seats placed at appropriate distances. He gave a humorous account to Hayley of the erection of one of these arbours. “I said to Sam, “Sam, build me a shed in the garden with anything you can find, and make it rude and rough, like one of those at Eartham. "Yes, sir,' says Sam; and straightway laying his own noddle and the carpenter's together, has built me a thing fit for Stowe gardens. Is not this vexatious ? I threaten to inscribe it thus :
Beware of building! I intended
Rough logs and thatch, and thus it ended." All this garden has now been altered. A yard has been made behind, with outbuildings, and the garden cut off with a brick wall.
Not far from this house a narrow lane turns up, enclosed on one side by the park wall. Through this old stone wall, now well crowned with masses of ivy, there used to be a door, of which Cowper had a key, which let him at once into the wilderness. In this wilderness, which is a wood grown full of underwood, through which walks are cut winding in all directions, you come upon what is called the Temple. This is an open Gothic alcove, having in front an open space, scattered with some trees, amongst them a fine old acacia, and closed in by the thick wood. Here Cowper used to sit much, delighted with the perfect and deep seclusion. The temple is now fast falling to decay. Through a short winding walk to the left you come out to the park, which is separated from the wilderness by a sunk fence. A broad grass walk runs along the head of this fosse, between it and the wilderness, and here you find the two urns under the trees, which mark the grave of two favourite dogs of the Throckmortons, for which Cowper condescended to write epitaphs, which still remain, and may be found in his poems. There is also a figure of a lion, couchant, on a pedestal, bearing this inscription : "Mortuo Leone etiam Lepores insultant, 1815."
From this point also runs out the fine lime avenue, of at least a quarter of a mile long, terminated by the alcove. Every scene, and every spot of ground which presents itself here, is to be found in Cowper's poetry, particularly in the first book of his Task-The Sofa. The Sofa was but a hook to hang his theme upon; his real theme is his walk through this park and its neighbourhood, particularly this fine avenue, closing its boughs above with all the solemn and inspiring grace of a Gothic cathedral aisle. To the right the park descends in a verdant slope, scattered with noble trees. There, in the valley, near the road to Olney, is the Spinny, with its rustic moss-house, haunted by Cowper; and where he wrote those verses full of the deepest, saddest melancholy which ever oppressed a guiltless heart, beginning,
" Oh, happy shades, to me unblest!
Friendly to peace, but not to me!
And heart, that cannot rest, agree!" There, too, in the valley, but where it has freed itself from the wood, is the rustic bridge, equally celebrated by him ; and beyond it in the fields, the Peasant's Nest, now grown from a labourer's cottage, shrouded in trees, to a considerable farm-house, with its ricks and buildings, conspicuous on an open eminence. Still beyond are the woods of Yardly Chase, including those of Kilwick and Dinglebury, well known to the readers of Cowper ; and this old chase stretches away for four or five miles towards Castle Ashby.
In traversing the park to reach the woods and Yardly Oak, we come into a genuinely agricultural region, where a sort of peopled solitude is enjoyed. Swelling, rounded eminences, with little valleys winding between them ; here and there a farm-house of the most rustic description; the plough and its whistling follower turning up the ruddy soil ; and the park, displaying from its hills and dells its contrast of nobly umbrageous trees, showed where Cowper had often delighted himself, and whence he had drawn much of his imagery.
“Now roves the eye ;
The loaded wain; while, lightened of its charge,
The Task, book i.
At this point of view you find the poet's praises of the scenery more fully justified than anywhere else. The park here has a solemn, solitary, splendidly wooded air, and spreads its green slopes, and gives hints of its secluded dells, that are piquant to the imagination. And still the walk, of a mile or more, to the ancient chase is equally impressive. The vast extent of the forest which stretches before you gives a deep feeling of silence and ancient repose. You descend into a valley, and Kilwick's echoing wood spreads itself before you on the upland. You pass through it, and come out opposite to a lonely farm-house, where, in the opening of the forest, you see the remains of very ancient oaks standing here and there. You feel that you are on a spot that has maintained its connexion with the world of a thousand years ago ; and amid these venerable trees, you soon see the one which by its bulk, its hollow trunk, and its lopped and dilapidated crown, needs not to be pointed out as the YARDLY OAK. Here Cowper was fond of sitting within the hollow boll for hours ; around him stretching the old woods, with their solitude and the cries of woodland birds. The fame which he has conferred on this tree has nearly proved its destruction. Whole arms and great pieces of its trunk have been cut away with knife, and axe, and saw, to prepare different articles from. The Marquis of Northampton, to whom the chase belongs, has had multitudes of nails driven in to stop the progress of this destruction, but finding that not sufficient, has affixed a board bearing this inscription :-“Out of respect to the memory of the poet Cowper, the Marquis of Northampton is particularly desirous of preserving this oak. Notice is hereby given, that any person defacing, or otherwise injuring it, will be prosecuted according to law.” In stepping round the Yardly oak, it appeared to me to be, at the foot, about thirteen yards in circumference.
Every step here shows you some picture sketched by Cowper.
“I see a column of slow rising smoke
O'ertop the lofty wood that skirts the wild.
We are now upon
“ The grassy sward, close cropped by nibbling sheep,
And skirted thick with intermixture firm
or thorny boughs." The old wild chase opens its glades, discovers its heaths, startles us with its abrupt cries of birds, or plunges us into the gloom of thick overshadowing oaks. It is a fit haunt of the poet. Such are the haunts of Cowper in this neighbourhood. Amid these, his was a secluded but an active and most important existence. How many of those who bustle along in the front of public life can boast of a ten-thousandth part of the benefit to their fellow-men which was conferred, and for ages will be conferred, by the loiterer of these woods and fields ? In no man was his own doctrine ever made more manifest, that
"God gives to every man The virtue, temper, understanding, taste, That lifts him into life, and lets him fall
Just in the niche he was ordained to fill."
" I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
With few associates, and not wishing more." Thus he began; but, soothed by the sweet freshness of nature, strengthened by her peace, enlightened to the pitch of true wisdom by her daily converse, spite of all his griefs and fears, he ended by describing himself, in one of the noblest passages of modern poetry, as the happy man.
Quitting these scenes in quest of health, both the poet and his dear friend Mary Unwin died at Dereham, in Norfolk ; she in 1796, and he in 1800.“ They were lovely in their lives, and in death they are not divided."