Even the more genial Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), the friend of Shelley and Keats, and the writer of many pleasant essays, called Carlyle’s style “a jargon got up to confound pretension with performance.” We like Hunt best when he is writing in the vein of the Spectator or as a “miniature Lamb.” In such papers as An Earth upon Heaven, Hunt tells us that in heaven “there can be no clergymen if there are no official duties for them”; that we shall there enjoy the choicest books, for “Shakespeare and Spenser should write us new ones.” He closes this entertaining paper with the novel assurance: “If we choose, now and then we shall even have inconveniences.”
[Illustration: WILLIAM COWPER. From the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.]
Life.—Cowper’s life is a tale of almost continual sadness, caused by his morbid timidity. He was born at Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, in 1731. At the age of six, he lost his mother and was placed in a boarding school. Here his sufferings began. The child was so especially terrified by one rough boy that he could never raise his eyes to the bully’s face, but knew him unmistakably by his shoe buckles.
There was some happiness for Cowper at his next school, the Westminster School, and also during the twelve succeeding years, when he studied law; but the short respite was followed by the gloom of madness. Owing to his ungovernable fear of a public examination, which was necessary to secure the position offered by an uncle, Cowper underwent days and nights of agony, during which he tried in many ways to end his miserable life. The frightful ordeal unsettled his reason, and he spent eighteen months in an insane asylum.
Upon his recovery, he was taken into the house of a Rev. Mr. Unwin, whose wife tended Cowper as a son during the rest of her life. He was never supremely happy, and he was sometimes again thrown into madness by the terrible thought of God’s wrath; but his life was passed in a quiet manner in the villages of Weston and Olney, where he was loved by every one. The simple pursuits of gardening, carpentering, visiting the sick, caring for his numerous pets, rambling through the lanes, studying nature, and writing verse, occupied his sane moments when he was not at prayer.
Works.—Cowper’s first works were the Olney Hymns. His religious nature is manifest again in the volume which consists of didactic poems upon such subjects as The Progress of Error, Truth, Charity, Table Talk, and Conversation. These are in the spirit of the formal classical poets, and contain sententious couplets such as