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Robert Lloyd, son of a Westminster master, and afterwards a master himself, a poet of some reputation in his day ; and among his school-fellows were, Colman the translator of Terence, Churchill the poet, and Warren Hastings. But though not unhappy himself, his life at Westminster left on him a bad impression of public schools in general. He has recorded his opinion in a poem called “Tirocinium, or A Review of Schools," in which he strongly advocates private tuition. In vigorous language he denounces the immorality, the profanity, the brutality of a public school, the licence of play hours, the dry routine of work. Doubtless his charges, though highly coloured, are in the main just. No other English institution has witnessed so great reforms, such advance in culture and refinement, as her public schools. But we are led to mistrust the impartiality of Cowper's judgment by the fact, that in the poems he wholly fails to notice the better side of public school life, the ésprit de corps, the independence of character it fosters, the generous friendships it encourages.
He left Westminster at eighteen, and was entered as a student of the Middle Temple. For three years he read in chambers, leading, according to his own account, a frivolous and dissipated life. But we must not judge him by his own standard, for by the religious school which he joined, the most innocent amusements, such as chessplaying and dancing, were condemned as sinful dissipation. One of his fellow-pupils was Thurlow, the future Lord Chancellor. It was then for the first and only time that he fell in love. Theodora Cowper was the daughter of his uncle Ashley, Clerk of the Parliaments. His affection was returned, but the father, from prudential motives, forbade the engagement. They parted, and never met again, but his cousin seems to have remained constant to her death, taking the liveliest interest in his growing fame, and assisting him most generously and delicately when he was in straitened circumstances. In 1754 he was called to the Bar, and took chambers in the Inner Temple. There he experienced the first attack of that terrible malady, which, under various forms, at greater or less intervals, afflicted him for the rest of his life. Even as a boy he had suffered from fits of depression, but before this they had never approached to madness. His prostration and despair were terrible. Several times he attempted his own life. Then he was conscience-stricken at his act, and his despair was if possible greater when he thought of his eternal perdition. It was at this time, under the instruction of his cousin, the chaplain of the Lock Hospital, that he imbibed the strong Calvinistic doctrines, in particular those of Election and Reprobation, which he held to the end of his life. In December 1763 his relations placed him in a lunatic asylum, under Dr Cotton, at St Alban’s, where he continued for more than a year. Here he recovered more or less thoroughly from his madness, and removed to a quiet lodging at Huntingdon, in order to be near his brother, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. The immediate cause of his madness had been his morbid nervousness at having to appear at the bar of the House of Lords to prove his qualifications for an appointment to a clerkship in that House, which had been given him by his cousin, Colonel Cowper. He had only £60 a year of his own, and his friends subscribed to make him a sufficient allowance. At Huntingdon he made a memorable acquaintance. William Unwin, the son of a clergyman of the town,
The Unwins soon after consented to take Cowper as a lodger, and in this simple, amiable, Christian family he found a quiet retreat, and first learned those “domestic joys” which he has described as no poet had before him.
The sudden death of Mr Unwin, by a fall from his horse, broke up this quiet home. Mrs Unwin determined to remove to Olney, a village in Buckinghamshire, on the Ouse, where the Rev. T. Newton, who was curate of the place, found her a home. Thither Cowper accompanied her. These two persons, both of whom exercised such a lasting influence on Cowper's life, require at least a passing notice. Newton, after leading a dissipated life, was shipwrecked on his way home from Sierra Leone. He then experienced a sudden change, and resolved henceforth to alter his manner of living. He took orders, and became one of the leaders of the Evangelical school, which was then becoming prominent among English Church parties. He was a good and zealous clergyman, but his views were narrow and bigoted, and his influence on a susceptible nature like Cowper's was fraught with danger. He was a Calvinist, a firm believer in special providences, and his religion appealed more to the emotions than the reason. The effect of such a creed on a mind like Cowper's may be easily conceived. He was ever examining himself to find the proofs of his conversion, and, failing in this, he was plunged in the depths of despair. Still, Newton's influence was not wholly bad. He was a man of warm feeling and some poetic culture, and it was at his suggestion that Cowper composed with him the Olney Hymns, some of which are among the most beautiful in our English hymnology.
Very different was the influence of Mrs Unwin. How Cowper himself regarded her may be seen from his sonnet to her, and his Lines to Mary. In a word, she was the sunshine of his life. She was one of those rare women who, though endowed with intellectual gifts and social powers far above the average of women, deliberately prefer the seclusion of domestic life in order to devote themselves to the happiness of others. Cowper, as he tells us himself, looked upon her as a second mother. Indeed, his latest biographer, Mr Benham, has shown that, had it not been for the recurrence of his old malady, they would probably have been connected by a still closer tie.
But this was not to be. Soon after his removal to Olney the fatal shadow again overtook him. Mrs Unwin nursed him like a son, and Newton generously helped to bear the expenses of the family, which, since Mr Unwin's death, had exceeded Mrs Unwin's straitened means. Again he gradually recovered, interesting himself in his garden, and renewing his correspondence with Hill and other of his old friends. He built himself a greenhouse, and succeeded in taming the three hares of whom he has given us such a charming account in his letters. of these, his special favourite Puss, he wrote the epitaph, and it is of her that he says in the third book of the Task : “I knew at least one hare who had a friend." For the next six years (1774-1780) he enjoyed almost uninterrupted health of mind, and it was then that he made his first serious essay in poetry. Here, too, Mrs Unwin proved herself his good genius. No poems we know of show such spontaneity as those of Cowper. Like Goethe's bard," he sings as the linnet sings," and though he often clothes his thoughts in a Latin dress, his are emphatically “native wood-notes wild.” Still, the immediate impulse
in all his longer poems was given from without. It was Mrs Unwin who suggested the subject of his first important poem, “The Progress of Error.” After this followed in quick succession the other poems mentioned at the beginning of the Task. The Task itself originated in this way. His cousin, Lady Austen, had often begged him to try his hand at blank verse. “I will,” he answered one day, “if you will give me a subject.” “Oh, you can write on any subject,” said she ; “write upon this sofa." Hence the title of the poem, and hence the inadequacy of the title to the contents, a defect which is noticed more than once in the notes. It was the same Lady Austen who read him the story of John Gilpin, which Cowper, as he lay awake the night after, turned into verse, producing that inimitably comic ballad which was the beginning of his popularity. Perhaps the happiest year of his life was that during which Lady Austen was his near neighbour. She dissipated his melancholy, stimulated his genius, and added a new charm to his life. To her some of his most perfect letters are addressed. Unfortunately an estrangement arose between them which caused Lady Austen to leave the neighbourhood, but we have not time in this short sketch to investigate its causes.
The publication of the Task at once marked out Cowper as one of the first poets, if not the first poet of the day, and it is by this poem chiefly that his ultimate position in English literature will be determined. But perhaps the most important of the immediate results of his success was the renewal of intimacy with his relations. Among others, his cousin Lady Hesketh wrote to congratulate him ; a long and delightful correspondence arose, and Lady Hesketh paid him a long visit at Olney. In 1786