Who would now suppose that in 1760 the most popular of living English poets was Charles Churchill? Son of a clergyman, and himself ordained an Anglican priest, he took to the pleasures of London, dismissed his wife, rolled up debts, and wrote a once famous poem, The Rosciad (1761), which enabled him to pay his debts, to settle an allowance on his wife, and to “set up in glaringly unclerical attire as a man about town.”137 His poem took its name from Quintus Roscius, who had dominated the Roman theater in Caesar’s day; it satirized the leading actors of London, and made Garrick wince; one victim “ran about the town like a stricken deer.”138 Churchill joined Wilkes in the ribald rites of Medmenham Abbey, helped him write The North Briton, and went to France to share Wilkes’s exile; but he died at Boulogne (1764) of a drunken debauch, and “with epicurean indifference.”139
Another clergyman, Thomas Percy, lived up to his cloth, became bishop of Dromore in Ireland, and made a mark on European literature by rescuing, from the hands of a housemaid who was about to burn it, an old manuscript that provided one source for hisReliques of Ancient Poetry (1765). These ballads from medieval Britain appealed to old memories, and encouraged the romantic spirit—so long subdued by rationalism and the classic temper—to express itself in poetry, fiction, and art. Wordsworth dated from theseReliques the rise of the Romantic movement in English literature. Macpherson’s Ossian, Chatterton’s poems, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Strawberry Hill, Beckford’s Vathek and Fonthill Abbey, were varied voices joining in the cry for feeling, mystery, and romance. For a time the Middle Ages captured the modern soul.
Thomas Chatterton began his attempt to medievalize himself by brooding over old parchments which his uncle had found in a Bristol church. Born in that city (1752) soon after his father’s death, the sensitive and imaginative boy grew up in a world of his own historic fancies. He studied a dictionary of Anglo-Saxon words, and composed, in what he thought was fifteenth-century language, poems which he pretended to have found in St. Mary Radcliffe Church, and which he ascribed to Thomas Rowley, an imaginary fifteenth-century monk. In 1769, aged seventeen, he sent some of these “Rowley poems” to Horace Walpole—who had himself published Otranto as a medieval original five years before. Walpole praised the poems and invited more; Chatterton sent more, and asked for help in finding a publisher, and some remunerative employment in London. Walpole submitted the verses to Thomas Gray and William Mason, both of whom pronounced them forgeries. Walpole wrote to Chatterton that these scholars “were by no means satisfied with the authenticity of his supposed MSS;” and he advised him to put poetry aside until he could support himself. Then Walpole went off to Paris, forgetting to return the poems. Chatterton wrote three times for them; three months passed before they came.140
The poet went to London (April, 1770) and took an attic room in Brook Street, Holborn. He contributed pro-Wilkes articles, and some of the Rowley poems, to various periodicals, but was so poorly paid (eightpence per poem) that he could not sustain himself on the proceeds. He tried and failed to secure a post as surgeon’s assistant on an African trader. On August 27 he composed a bitter valedictory to the world:
Farewell, Bristolia’s dingy piles of brick,
Lovers of Mammon, worshipers of trick!
Ye spurned the boy who gave you antique lays,
And paid for learning with your empty praise.
Farewell, ye guzzling aldermanic fools,
By nature fitted for corruption’s tools! . . .
Farewell, my mother!—cease, my anguish’d soul,
Nor let distraction’s billows o’er me roll!
Have mercy, Heaven! when here I cease to live,
And this last act of wretchedness forgive.
Then he killed himself by drinking arsenic. He was seventeen years and nine months old. He was buried in a pauper’s grave.
His poems now fill two volumes. Had he called them imitations instead of originals he might have been recognized as a genuine poet, for some of the Rowley pieces are as good as most originals of the same genre. When he wrote in his own name he could indite satiric verses almost rivaling Pope’s, as in “The Methodist”141 or—bitterest of all—seventeen lines lashing Walpole as a heartless sycophant.142 When his surviving manuscripts were published (1777) the editor charged Walpole as partly responsible for the poet’s death; Walpole defended himself on the ground that he had felt no obligation to help a persistent impostor.143 Some warmhearted souls like Goldsmith insisted that the poems were genuine; Johnson laughed at his friend, but said: “This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.”144 Shelley briefly commemorated the boy in Adonais,145 and Keats inscribed Endymion to his memory.
Chatterton escaped from the rugged realities of Bristol and London via medieval legends and arsenic; William Cowper fled from the London that Johnson loved into rural simplicity, religious faith, and periodic insanity. His grandfather was acquitted of murder and became a judge; his father was an Anglican clergyman; his mother belonged to the same family that had produced John Donne. She died when he was six, leaving him melancholy memories of fond solicitude; fifty-three years later, when a cousin sent him an old picture of her, he recalled, in a tender poem,146 the efforts she often made to calm the fears that darkened his childhood nights.
From those indulgent hands he passed, in his seventh year, to a boarding school where he became the timid fag of a bully who spared him no humiliating task. He suffered from inflammation of the eyes, and for years he had to be under an oculist’s care. In 1741, aged ten, he was sent off to Westminster School in London. At seventeen he began three years’ service as clerk in a solicitor’s office in Holborn. He was ripe now for romance; as his cousin Theodora Cowper lived nearby, she became the idol of his daydreams. At twenty-one he took quarters in the Middle Temple, and at twenty-three he was admitted to the bar. Disliking law, and timid before courts, he fell into a mood of hypochondria, which was deepened when Theodora’s father forbade her any further association with her cousin. Cowper never saw her again, never forgot her, and never married.
In 1763, faced with the necessity to appear before the House of Lords, he broke down, became deranged, and tried to kill himself. Friends sent him to an asylum at St. Albans. After eighteen months he was released, and took to an almost solitary life at Huntingdon, near Cambridge; now, he said, he “desired no other communion than with God and Jesus Christ.”147 He accepted the Calvinist creed literally, and thought much of salvation and damnation. By some happy chance he fell in with a local family whose religion brought peace and kindness rather than fear: the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife Mary, his son William, and his daughter Susannah. Cowper compared the father with Parson Adams in Fielding’s Joseph Andrews; he saw a second mother in Mrs. Unwin, who was seven years his senior. She and the daughter treated him as son and brother, and gave him delicate feminine attentions that almost made him love life again. They invited him to live with them; he did (1765), and found healing in their simple life.
This bliss was suddenly ended when the father was killed by a fall from a horse. The widow and her daughter, taking Cowper with them, moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire, to be near the famous evangelical preacher John Newton. He persuaded Cowper to join him in visiting the sick and writing hymns. One of these “Olney Hymns” contained famous lines:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.148
But Newton’s hellfire sermons, which had “thrown more than one of his parishioners off their balance,” intensified rather than allayed the poet’s theological fears.149 “God,” said Cowper, “is always formidable to me but when I see Him disarmed of His sting by having sheathed it in the body of Christ Jesus.”150 He proposed to Mrs. Unwin, but a second attack of insanity (1773) prevented the marriage; he recovered after three years of loving care. In 1779 Newton left Olney, and Cowper’s piety took a milder turn.
Other women helped Mary Unwin to keep the poet in contact with earthly things. Lady Austin, widowed but merry, gave up her London house, moved to Olney, associated with the Unwins, and brought gaiety where there had been too long a concentration on the occasional tragedies of life. It was she who told Cowper the story which he turned into “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”151 and his wild unwilling ride. A friend of the family sent the rollicking ballad to a newspaper; an actor who had succeeded Garrick at the Drury Lane Theatre recited it there; it became the talk of London, and Cowper had his first taste of renown. He had never taken himself seriously as a poet; now Lady Austin urged him to write some substantial work. But on what; subject? On anything, she answered; and, pointing to a sofa, she assigned him the task of celebrating it in verse. Pleased to be commanded by a charming woman, Cowper wrote The Task. Published in 1785, it found welcome among people who were tired of war and politics and city strife.
It would be a real task to write or read six “books” about a sofa unless one had the morals of Crébillon fils;152 Cowper was sane enough to use it only as a starting post. After making it the climax in a humorous history of chairs, he slipped into his favorite subject, which might be summed up in the poem’s most famous line: “God made the country, and man made the town.”153 The poet admitted that art and eloquence flourished in London; he praised Reynolds and Chatham, and marveled at the science that “measures an atom and now girds the world”;154 but he reproached the “queen of cities” for punishing some small thefts with death while lavishing honors on “peculators of the public gold.”
Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumor of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more! My ear is pain’d,
My soul is sick, with every day’s report
Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.155
He was horrified by the traffic in slaves; his was one of the first English voices to denounce the man who
finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not colored like his own; and having power
To enforce the wrong, . . .
Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey. . . .
Then what is man? And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush,
And hang his head, to think himself a man?156
And yet, he concluded, “England, with all thy faults I love thee still.”157
He felt that these faults would be mitigated if England would return to religion and a rural life. “I was a stricken deer that left the herd”—i.e., he had left London, where “prostitutes elbow us aside”—and had found healing in faith and nature. Come to the countryside! See the River Ouse, “slow winding through a level plain”; the placid cattle, the peasant cottage and its sturdy family, the village spire pointing grief and hope; hear the splash of waterfalls, and the morning converse of the birds. In the country every season has its joy; the spring rains are a blessing, and the winter snow is clean. How pleasant it is to tramp through the snow and then gather about the evening fire!
Cowper wrote little of value after The Task. In 1786 he removed to nearby Weston Underwood; there he had another half year of insanity. In 1792 Mrs. Unwin suffered a paralytic stroke; for three years she lingered as a helpless invalid; Cowper nursed her as she had nursed him, and in her last month he wrote his lines “To Mary Unwin”:
Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden beams of orient light,
In 1794, overcome with care, and with work on his unsuccessful translation of Homer, he again went mad, and tried to destroy himself. He recovered, and was relieved from financial distress by a governmental pension of £ 300. But on December 17, 1796, Mary Unwin died, and Cowper felt quite lost and desolate, though he had found a new friend in Theodora’s sister, Lady Harriet Cowper Hesketh. His final days were obsessed with religious fears. He died on April 25, 1800, aged sixty-eight.
He belonged to the Romantic movement in literature, and to the evangelical movement in religion. He ended the reign of Pope in poetry, and prepared for Wordsworth; he brought into poetry a naturalness of form and a sincerity of feeling that stopped the torrent of artificial couplets which the Augustan Age had let loose upon England. His religion was a curse to him in its picture of a vengeful God and an unforgiving hell; yet it may have been religion, as well as maternal instincts, that led those kindly women to care for this “stricken deer” through all his griefs and darkenings.