He spoke of those years in the Puritan manner, using words which literally express the grossest kind of active Atheism in a vague and vacant way; leaving us to gather from external sources whether they are to be understood in their plain and literal signification, or in that out-of-the-way and technical sense in which they hardly have a meaning. In this case the external evidence is so clear that there is no difficulty.
The regrets of Cowper had reference to offences which the healthy and sober consciences of mankind will not consider to deserve them.
A vague, literary, omnitolerant idleness was perhaps their worst feature. But unless the estimable gentleman thinks it sinful to be a barrister and wretched to live in the Temple, it is not easy to make out what he would mean. In point of intellectual cultivation, and with a view to preparing himself for writing his subsequent works, it is not possible he should have spent his time better. It has been said that at times every man wishes to be a man of the world, and even the most rigid critic must concede it to be nearly essential to a writer on real life and actual manners.
If a man has not seen his brother, how can he describe him? As this world calls happiness and blamelessness, it is not easy to fancy a life more happy—at Edition: current; Page: [ 11 ] least with more of the common elements of happiness, or more blameless than those years of Cowper. An easy temper, light fancies,—hardly as yet broken by shades of melancholy brooding;—an enjoying habit, rich humour, literary, but not pedantic companions, a large scene of life and observation, polished acquaintance and attached friends: these were his, and what has a light life more?
A rough hero Cowper was not and never became, but he was then, as ever, a quiet and tranquil gentleman. One not unnatural result or accompaniment of such a life was that Cowper fell in love. No similar providence protected his intimacy with her sister. It is doubtful, however, whether either of these species of pastime and occupation would have been exactly congenial to Cowper. At any rate, it certainly does seem that he was not a very vigorous lover. The young lady was, as he himself oddly said:—. The poet does indeed partly allude to the parental scruples of Mr.
Cowper, her father; but house-rent would not be so high as it is, if fathers had their way. In fact, we think so even now, without any prejudice of affection, in our cool and mature judgment. Cowper the aged had nothing to say, except that the parties were cousins—a valuable remark, which has been frequently repeated in similar cases, but which has not been found to prevent a mass of matches both then and since.
The nature of Cowper was not, indeed, passionate. He required beyond almost any man the daily society of amiable and cultivated women. It is clear that he preferred such gentle excitement to the rough and argumentative pleasures of more masculine companionship. His easy and humorous nature loved and learned from female detail. But he had no overwhelming Edition: current; Page: [ 13 ] partiality for a particular individual.
One refined lady, the first moments of shyness over, was nearly as pleasing as another refined lady. Disappointment sits easy on such a mind. Perhaps, too, he feared the anxious duties, the rather contentious tenderness of matrimonial existence. At any rate, he acquiesced.
Theodora never married. Love did not, however, kill her—at least, if it did, it was a long time at the task, as she survived these events more than sixty years. She never, seemingly, forgot the past.
But a dark cloud was at hand. If there be any truly painful fact about the world now tolerably well established by ample experience and ample records, it is that an intellectual and indolent happiness is wholly denied to the children of men. That most valuable author, Lucretius, who has supplied us and others with an inexhaustible supply of metaphors on this topic, ever dwells on the life of his gods with a sad and melancholy feeling that no such life was possible on a crude and cumbersome earth. In general, the two opposing agencies are marriage and money; either of these breaks the lot of literary and refined inaction at once and for ever.
The first of these, as we have seen, Cowper had escaped. His reserved and negligent reveries were still free, at least from the invasion of affection. To this invasion, indeed, there is commonly requisite the acquiescence or connivance of mortality; but all men are born, not free and equal, as the Americans maintain, but, in the Old World at least, basely subjected to the yoke of coin.
It is in vain that in this hemisphere we endeavour after impecuniary fancies. In bold and eager youth we go out on our travels.
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We visit Baalbec, and Paphos, and Tadmor, and Cythera,—ancient shrines and ancient empires, seats of eager love or gentle inspiration. We wander far and long. We have nothing to do with our fellow-men. What are we, indeed, to diggers and counters? We wander far; we dream to wander for ever, but we dream in vain. A surer force than the subtlest fascination of fancy is in operation. The purse-strings tie us to our kind.
It is the same in thought. In vain we seclude ourselves in elegant chambers, in fascinating fancies, in refined reflections. The vigorous and sturdy rouse themselves to the work. They find in its regular occupation, clear decisions, and stern perplexities, a bold and rude compensation for the necessary loss or diminution of light fancies and delicate musings,—. But it was not so with Cowper.
A peculiar and slight nature unfitted him for so rough and harsh a resolution. Will the gentle gazelle, even in those days, pull the slow waggon of ordinary occupation?
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The outward position of Cowper was, indeed, singularly fortunate. Instead of having to meet the long labours of an open profession, or the anxious decisions of a personal business, he had the choice among several lucrative and quiet public offices, in which very ordinary abilities would suffice, and scarcely any degree of incapacity would entail dismissal, or reprimand, or degradation. It seemed at first scarcely possible that even the least strenuous of men should be found unequal to duties so little arduous or exciting.
He has himself said—. The place he chose was called the Clerkship of the Journals Edition: current; Page: [ 15 ] of the House of Lords, one of the many quiet haunts which then slumbered under the imposing shade of parliamentary and aristocratic privilege.
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Yet the idea of it was more than he could bear. A powerful party was formed among the Lords to thwart it, in favour of an old enemy of the family, though one much indebted to its bounty; and it appeared plain that, if we succeeded at last, it would only be by fighting our ground by inches. Every advantage, as I was told, would be sought for, and eagerly seized, to disconcert us.
I was bid to expect an examination at the bar of the House, touching my sufficiency for the post I had taken. Being necessarily ignorant of the nature of that business, it became expedient that I should visit the office daily, in order to qualify myself for the strictest scrutiny. All the horror of my fears and perplexities now returned.
A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this intelligence. I knew, to demonstration, that upon these terms the clerkship of the journals was no place for me.
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To require my attendance at the bar of the House, that I might there publicly entitle myself to the office, was, in effect, to exclude me from it. In the meantime, the interest of my friend, the honour of his choice, my own reputation and circumstances, all urged me forward; all pressed me to undertake that which I saw to be impracticable. They whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves, on any occasion, is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horrors of my situation; others can have none.
In this posture of mind, I attended regularly at the office; where, instead of a soul upon the rack, the most active spirits were essentially necessary for my purpose. I expected no assistance from anybody there, all the inferior clerks being under the influence of my opponent; and accordingly I received none. The journal books were indeed thrown open to me—a thing which could not be refused; and from which, perhaps, a man in health, and with a head turned to business, might have gained all the information he wanted; but it was not so with me I read without perception, and was so distressed, that, had every clerk in the office been my friend, it could have availed me little; for I was not in a condition to receive instruction, much less to elicit it out of manuscripts, without direction.
Many months went over me thus employed; constant in the use of means, despairing as to the issue. As the time of trial drew near, his excitement rapidly increased. A short excursion into the country was attended Edition: current; Page: [ 16 ] with momentary benefit; but as soon as he returned to town he became immediately unfit for occupation, and as unsettled as ever. He grew first to wish to become mad, next to believe that he should become so, and only to be afraid that the expected delirium might not come on soon enough to prevent his appearance for examination before the Lords,—a fear, the bare existence of which shows how slight a barrier remained between him and the insanity which he fancied that he longed for.
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He then began to contemplate suicide, and not unnaturally called to mind a curious circumstance. My father heard my reasons, and was silent, neither approving nor disapproving; from whence I inferred that he sided with the author against me; though all the time, I believe, the true motive for his conduct was, that he wanted, if he could, to think favourably of the state of a departed friend, who had some years before destroyed himself, and whose death had struck him with the deepest affliction.
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