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COWPER was the descendant of an ancient and honourable family. His father was the second son of Spenser Cowper (a younger brother of the Lord Chancellor Cowper) who was appointed chief justice of Chester in 1717, and afterwards a judge in the court of Common Pleas. He died in 1728, leaving a daughter, Judith, a young lady, who had a decided taste for poetry, and who married Colonel Madan, and transmitted her poetical taste and devotional spirit to a daughter. This daughter was married to her cousin Major Cowper, and was afterwards the friend and correspondent of our poet. His father, John Cowper, entered into the church, and became rector of Great Berkhamstead, in Hertfordshire. John married Anne, the daughter of Roger Donne, esq. of Ludlam Hall, in Norfolk, by whom he had several children, who died in their infancy, and two sons, William and John, who survived their mother. William was born at Berkhamstead Nov. 26, 1731, and from his infancy appears to have been of a very delicate habit both of mind and body.
To such a child the loss of a mother is an incalculable misfortune, and it must have been particularly so to young Cowper. In his biographer's opinion, it contributed in the highest degree to the dark colouring of his subsequent life. "Undoubtedly when a child requires a more than ordinary share of attention, the task can seldom be expected to be performed with so much success as by a mother, who to her natural affection joins that patience and undisturbed care which are rarely to be found in a father, but at the same time, it may be remarked that Cowper's very peculiar frame of mind appears to have been independent of any advantages or misfortunes in education.
In 1737, the year of his mother's death, he was sent to a school in Hertfordshire, under the conduct of Dr. Pitman, but was removed from it, at what time is uncertain, on account of a complaint in his eyes, for which he was consigned to the care of a female oculist for the space of two years. It does not, however, appear that he profited so much from her aid, as from the small-pox, which seized him at the age of fourteen, and removed the complaint for the present, but left a disposition to inHammation, to which he was subject nearly the whole of his life.
In Hertfordshire as well as at Westminsterschool, to which he was removed, he is reported to have suffered much from the wanton tyranny of his school-fellows, who, with the usual unthinking cruelty of youth, triumphed over the gentleness and timidity of his spirit. As he informs us, however, that he “excelled at cricket and football,” he could not have been wholly averse from joining in youthful sports, yet his uneasiness from the behaviour of his companions was such, that in his advanced years he retained none but painful recollections of a period which men in general remember with more pleasure than any other of their
lives. These recollections no doubt animated his pen with more than his usual severity in exposing the abuses of public schools, to which he uniformly prefers a domestic education.
He left Westminster school in 1749, at the age of eighteen, and was articled to Mr. Chapman, an attorney, for the space of three years. This period he professed to employ in acquiring a species of knowledge which he was never to bring into use, and to which his disposition must have been
We are not told whether he had been consulted in this arrangement, but it was probably suggested as that in which his family interest might avail him. His own account may be relied
“I did actually live three years with Mr. Chapman, 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 very well remember. There was 1, and the future Lord Chan. cellor (Thurlow) constantly employed from inorning to night in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law.
Yet with this apparent gaieté de cæur, and with every advantage, natural and acquired, that bade fair for his advancement in public life, he was kept back, by an extreme degree of modesty and shyness, from all intercourse with the world, except the society of a few friends, who knew how to appreciate his character, and among whom he found himself without restraint. The loss of a friend and of a mistress appears, among other adversities, to have aggravated his sufferings at this time, and to have strengthened that constitutional melancholy which he delighted to paint, and which, it is feared, he loved to indulge.
When he had fulfilled the term of his engagement in Mr. Chapman's office, he entered the Temple with a view to the further study of the law, a profession that has been more frequently deserted than any other by men of lively genius. Cowper was destined to add another instance to the number of those who, under the appearance of apply. ing to an arduous and important public study, have employed their time in the cultivation of wit and poetry. He is known to have assisted some contemporary publications with essays in prose and verse, and, what is rather more extraordinary, in a man of his purity of conduct, cultivated the acquaintance of Churchill, Thornton, Lloyd, and Col.. man, who had been his school-fellows at Westminster. It is undoubtedly to Churchill and Lloyd, that he alludes in a letter to Lady Hesketh, dated Sept. 4, 1765. “Two of my friends have been cut off during my illness, in the midst of such a life as it is frightful to reflect upon, and here am ), in better health and spirits, than I can almost remember to have enjoyed before, after having spent months in the apprehension of instant death. How mysterious are the ways of Providence! Why did I receive grace and mercy? Why was I preserved, afflicted for my good, received, as I trust, into favour, and blessed with the greatest happiness I can ever know, or hope for in this life, while these were overtaken by the great arrest, unawakened, unrepenting, and every way unprepared for it?"
About the period alluded to, he assisted Colman with some papers for the Connoisseur, and probably Thornton and Lloyd, who then carried on va. rious periodical undertakings; but the amount of what he wrote cannot now be ascertained, and was always so little known, that on the appearance of his first volume of poems when he had reached his fiftieth year (1782,) he was considered as a new writer. But his general occupations will best appear in an extract from one of his letters to Mr. Park, in 1792. “From the age of twenty to thirtythree” (when he left the Temple,)“I was occupied, or ought to have been, in the study of the law :
from thirty-three to sixty, I have spent my time in the country, where my reading lias been only an apology for idleness, and where, when I had not a magazine or a review, I was sometimes a carpenter, at others a bird-cage maker, or a gardener, or drawer of landscapes. At fifty years of age I commenced an author :- it is a whim that has served me longest, and best, and will probably be my last." His first poetical effort was a translation of an ele. gy of Tibullus, made at the age of fourteen : at, eighteen he wrote the verses On finding the Heel of a Shoe; but as little more of his juvenile poetry has been preserved, the steps of his progress to that perfection which produced The Task, cannot now be traced.
Unfit as he was from extreme diffidence to ad. vance in his profession, his family interest procured him a situation which seemed not ill adapted to gratify his very moderate ambition, while it did not much interfere with his repugnance to public life. In his thirty-fourth year, he was nominated to the offices of reading clerk, and clerk of the private committees of the House of Lords. But in this arrangement his friends were disappointed. It presented to his mind the formidable danger of reading in public, which was next to speaking in public; his native modesty therefore recoiled at the thought, and he resigned the office. On this, his friends procured him the place of clerk of the journals of the House of Lords, the consequence of which is thus related by Mr. Hayley.
“It was hoped from the change of his station that his personal appearance in parliament might not be required, but a parliamentary dispute made it necessary for him to appear at the bar of the House of Lords, to entitle himself publicly to the office.
“ Speaking of this important incident in a sketch, which he once formed himself of passages in his