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publicly accused of favouring the very cause which he had so eloquently denounced, is one of those circumstances which, for the honour of human nature, we could wish not to have been compelled to record.
With this painful fact before us, we would ask, what is popularity, and what wise man would attach value to so fleeting a possession? It is a gleam of sunshine, which embellishes for a moment the object on which it falls, and then vanishes away. In the course of a life not passed without observation, we have had occasion to remark, in the political, the literary, and even in the religious world, the evanescent character of popular favour. We have seen men alternately caressed and deserted, praised and censured, and made to feel the vanity of human applause and admiration. The idol of today is dethroned by the idol of to-morrow, which in its turn yields to the dominion of some more favoured rival.
The wisdom of God evidently designs, by these events, to check the thirst for human praise and distinction, by showing us the precarious tenure by which they are held. We are thus admonished to examine our motives, and to be assured of the integrity of our intentions; neither to despise public favour, nor yet to overvalue it; but to preserve that calm and equable temper of mind, and that full consciousness of the rectitude of our principles, that we may learn to enjoy it without triumph, or to lose it without dejection.
The reader will be amused in finding the origin of the injurious report above mentioned disclosed in the following letter. Mr. Rye was unjustly supposed to have aided in propagating this misconception, but Cowper fully vindicates him from such a charge.
TO THE REV. J. JEKYLL RYE.*
Weston, April 16, 1792. My dear Sir-I am truly sorry that you should have suffered any apprehensions, such as your letter indicates, to molest you for a moment. I believe you to be as honest a man as lives, and consequently do not believe it possible that you could in your letter to Mr. Pitts, or any otherwise, wilfully misrepresent me. In fact you did not; my opinions on the subject in question were, when I had the pleasure of seeing you, such as in that letter you stated them to be, and such they still continue.
If any man concludes, because I allow myself the use of sugar and rum, that therefore I am a friend to the slave trade, he concludes rashly, and does me great wrong; for the man lives not who abhors it more than I do. My reasons for my own practice are satisfactory to myself, and they whose practice is contrary, are, I suppose, satisfied with
* Vicar of Dalington, near Northampton.
theirs. So far is good. Let every man act according to his own judgment and conscience; but if we condemn another for not seeing with our eyes, we are unreasonable; and if we reproach him on that account, we are uncharitable, which is a still greater evil. I had heard, before I received the favour of yours, that such a report of me, as you mention, had spread about the country. But my information told me that it was founded thus—The people of Olney petitioned parliament for the abolition— My name was sought among the subscribers, but was not found. A question was asked, how that happened? Answer was made, that I had once indeed been an enemy to the slave trade, but had changed my mind, for that, having lately read a history, or an account of Africa, I had seen it there asserted, that till the commencement of that traffic, the negroes, multiplying at a prodigious rate, were necessitated to devour each other; for which reason I had judged it better that the trade should continue, than that they should be again reduced to so horrid a custom. Now all this is a fable. I have read no such history; I never in my life read any such assertion; nor, had such an assertion presented itself to me, should I have drawn any such conclusion from it. On the contrary, bad as it were, I think it would be better the negroes should even eat one another, than that we should carry them to market. The single reason why I did not sign the petition was, because I was never asked to do it; and the
reason why I was never asked was, because I am not a parishioner of Olney.
Thus stands the matter. You will do me the justice, I dare say, to speak of me as of a man who abhors the commerce, which is now, I hope, in a fair way to be abolished, as often as you shall find occasion. And I beg you henceforth to do yourself the justice to believe it impossible that I should, for a moment, suspect you of duplicity or misrepresentation. I have been grossly slandered, but neither by you, nor in consequence of any thing that you have either said or written. I remain, therefore, still, as heretofore, with great respect, much and truly yours,
W. C. Mrs. Unwin's compliments attend you.
Cowper, on this occasion, addressed the following letter to the Editors of the Northampton Mercury, enclosing the verses on Mr. Wilberforce, which were inserted at the close of the last volume.
TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY.
Weston Underwood, April 16, 1792. Sirs - Having lately learned that it is pretty generally reported, both in your county and in this, that my present opinion, concerning the slave trade, differs totally from that which I have heretofore given to the public, and that I am no longer an enemy but a friend to that horrid traffic ; I entreat you to take an early opportunity to insert in your
Paper the following lines,” written no longer since than this very morning, expressly for the two purposes of doing just honour to the gentleman with whose name they are inscribed, and of vindicating myself from an aspersion so injurious. I am, &c., W. CowPER.
The last two lines in the sonnet, addressed to Mr. Wilberforce, were originally thus expressed:
Then let them scoff—two prizes thou hast won;
These were subsequently altered as follows:
Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love
Cowper's version of Homer, which has formed so frequent a subject in the preceding volume, led to a public discussion, in which the interests of literature and the success of his own undertaking were deeply concerned. The question agitated was the relative merits of rhyme and blank verse, in undertaking a translation of that great poet. Johnson, the great dictator in the republic of letters, in his predilection for rhyme, had almost proscribed the use of blank verse in poetical composition. “Poetry,” he observes, in his life of Milton, “may subsist without rhyme; but English poetry will not please,
* See Vol. iv. p. 353.