William Cowper, 1799, Francesco Bartolozzi, London, Tate
PART 1: AN INCONCEIVABLE AFFINITY
“I will never count upon my list of friends,
the man who needlessly
sets his foot upon a worm.”
When, as a boy, I first read that statement
I was filled with genuine regard – a sense of
great relief that there could actually be one
other person who had the same tender-hearted
empathy, and moral conviction as me.
I had always thought – from what I saw and
heard of people around me – that I was
the only person on earth who felt that way.
The great sadness, though, was in realising
that the man who made that statement
had died 160 years before I was born.
Since I could never meet him, I was
determined, at least, to learn all I could
The man’s name was … William Cowper.
The fact that I have never had an appreciation
for poetry, does not mean that I cannot
appreciate the life of a poet.
One poet whom I would have considered it
a great honour to have met, was William
Cowper … not for his poetry, but for the
gentle nature that he and I clearly share.
Our personalities are Identical.
A SENSITIVE Soul
William Cowper (his family pronounced the name
as “Cooper”) was born on the 15th of November, 1731,
in Hertfordshire, to a church minister and his wife.
As a teen, every new, personal detail I learned
about William actually became … unsettling
because, in learning of his
bullying at the hands of malignant students;
lifetime affliction from Melancholy;
preference for the conversation of women over
the conceited boasting of men;
willingness to forego the company of anyone
who displayed no empathy for an animal;
love of gardening;
and feeling utterly out of place in the world
(describing his home as a place of “blest seclusion
from a jarring world …” )
… I was reading about myself.
But I remember having to close the book
and walk away for a while, upon discovering
that William was moved to do the very same thing
that I had always done:
pledging a vow of care
to the three hares who were his beloved pets.
It was not merely that William Cowper
was a tender-hearted man in a crude world,
but that …We had the Same spirit.
When I have been feeling downcast from the abuse
of people whom I have given time, effort, emotion,
or personal possessions … to help,
I sit down and read a portion of William’s memoirs
– which makes me believe that I am not absolutely
alone in this world.
I can honestly say that William Cowper
– who lived two hundred years before I was born,
has been the only friend I have ever known.
CHILDHOOD: Boarding School
William’s beloved mother died in 1737
when he was only six years of age, and whilst
the child had been raised by a very kind
and affectionate woman,
it was testament to the heartlessness of his father,
that William was sent to Pittman’s Boarding School.
“At six years old, I was taken from the nursery,
and the immediate care of a most indulgent mother,
and sent to a considerable school in Bedfordshire.
Here I had hardships of different kinds
to conflict with, which I felt more sensibly,
in proportion to the tenderness with which I had
been treated at home.”
It was at the Boarding School that William was
subjected to the sadism of one malignant bully
in particular – a sadistic creature of whom
William would later write:
“But my chief affliction consisted in my being
singled out from all the other boys, by a lad
of about fifteen years of age,
as a proper object upon whom he might
let loose the cruelty of his temper.
I choose to forbear a particular recital of the
many acts of barbarity, with which he made it
his business continually to persecute me:
it will be sufficient to say, that he had,
by his savage treatment of me, impressed
such a dread of his figure upon my mind,
that I well remember being afraid to lift up
my eyes upon him, higher than his knees;
and that I knew him by his shoe-buckles,
better than any other part of his dress.
May the Lord pardon him,
and may we meet in glory.”
Such was the kind and forgiving nature
of the man.
William would be taken from the school
after two years, at the age of eight.
At eleven, William was enrolled at Westminster
School where, in 1742, he studied the Classics,
moving, at 17, to the study of Law – a profession
in which he had no interest.
Staying with an uncle in 1752 , William not only
discovered romantic feelings for a young woman
named Theodora … but found that they were returned.
The only problem was, Theodora was his cousin;
and his uncle was obliged, in 1755, to strictly forbid
any continuance of the blossoming relationship.
This (around 1753) was probably the occasion
of William’s first terrible descent into the grip
of Melancholy. William was 22.
Although frequently seen attempting to play the part
of the cheerful extrovert at various social circles
from the mid-1750’s until the early 1760’s,
it is highly evident from the entire record of William’s
life, that his favourite haunt was the sitting room,
by the fire; his preferred companionship being the quiet
and genteel women with whom he was acquainted.
It was the observation of acquaintance William Hayley
that, as a young man, William
“… in his conduct was far more decorous
than the generality of his youthful associates … ”
Hayley then went on to summarise one bout
of Melancholy that afflicted Cowper:
“His health now rapidly mended, and in June, 1765,
it was no longer thought necessary that he should
continue under the roof of Dr Cotton …
In 1773, however, his malady returned, and he sunk
into a state of blackest despondency, from which
he did not begin to recover till the year 1778 …
That the disorder which again visited Cowper
was deeply rooted in his constitution has already
appeared … “ [ William Hayley, 1805 ]
William Cowper’s timid disposition led him,
on several occasions, to attempt suicide.
But it is the events that occurred during each of these,
that are staggering for any contemplative reader to
Something far more than coincidence
was responsible for William’s being unable
to carry out his intent:
Seated calmly in his room to poison himself
using Laudanum –
… he found himself constantly interrupted
by household staff.
Intent upon jumping off a pier to drown himself
in the Thames – on arrival, William discovered that –
.. the tide was out.
Whilst making determined effort to stab himself
in the chest with a dagger –
… the knife broke.
Attempting to hang himself from a door
and kicking a chair out from beneath his feet –
… the ligature broke.
There was, in the life of William Cowper,
an over-riding Circumstance which clearly
prevented him from ending his own life.
It is the practice of would-be commentators
to maintain – without clarification, that William
was committed to an asylum for … ‘insanity’.
Ignorant statements like this feed, I suppose,
the glib, callous mentality that so epitomises
the type of crude humanity that is such a
repulsive characteristic of the bulk of conceited,
‘If … I … cannot relate to it, then it must be
ludicrous’. ‘If a man can be touched by the pain
of a worm – then he Must be … insane.’
Rather than consider that there Could Possibly
Exist, those who are more tender-hearted and
compassionate than their arrogant selves,
crass ignoramuses leap upon callous presumption
concerning things which are beyond them.
This glib Ignorance of Commentators was noticed
even by sober-minded men of Cowper’s own day:
“There is reason to regret that any of his biographers
should have fallen into the use of a phraseology
calculated to favour in some degree,
the erroneous impressions which have been
entertained with respect due to the true nature
of his afflictive malady …
… It excites no surprise to find writers, who have
apparently little knowledge of Christianity,
falling into this error.”
[ London Eclectic Review, October, 1816 ]
(Then again, William believed in a Sovereign God,
whose providence guided events much like a fogbank
might affect, or guide, the course of a ship;
a God who will, on a most certain Day of Judgment,
demand an account from every man and woman,
of how they have used their lives in the time
that was given them on this earth.
To those who readily accept every dictate, theory,
and assertion from the lab-coated priests of the
religion of “Science” … it is hardly surprising that
no other indicator of “insanity” is required, than that. )
To find such glib declarations made of William, by
people who profess themselves to be “Christians”,
is disgustingly indicative of where any mental aberration
[ End of Part 1 ] Continued in Part 2
Cowper: Memoirs of the Early Life, 1816