William Cowper … The Best friend I Never Met (Part 2 … The Subject of Suicide)


William Cowper suffered from Melancholy.

A term that, today, is equated with “Depression”.

It is ESSENTIAL here, to note that this Melancholy
has nothing Whatsoever to do with the
so-called “Depression”
that is claimed by multitudes in this modern Age.

Some “celebrity” – (or, those who seem to
regard themselves as ‘celebrities’ ) – who cannot
get what they want, throw themselves into a fit of
sulking, and rush off to the physician for “medication”.

THIS is NOT Melancholy.

Such people talk casually of their supposed “condition” –
“Oh, I am on medication for depression”,
which evidences to me,

that they have no concept of the gripping desolation
of Melancholy born of moral sensitivity,
and the effects it carries to those who are (truly) afflicted.

The disgusting sentiment of the 1990’s – bandied about
everywhere in the conversation of the TV-addled hordes
is that, “Suicide is the ultimate act of Selfishness”.

Such a statement reveals just how perverse
and callous human beings have become.

To maintain that someone who is in such anguish
that they feel as though they cannot endure it
for one more day –

to call such people “Selfish” ,,, is, for me,

The Ultimate Act of Selfishness.

Melancholy is an overwhelming, all-encompassing,
deeply personal despair of which – once the actual
throes are over, one does NOT glibly repeat
as some form of flippant story-telling to be related
to friends, acquaintances, and television cameras.

In someone of an extremely sensitive disposition,
it bears NO resemblance to today’s casually
bandied-about, temper-tantrum centred notions
frequently termed “depression”.

When I experience a migraine headache,
I hold my head, sway with vertigo; even
fall to the floor.

You may understand then, that, if someone
stands in front of me with a cup of tea in their hand,
and maintains that they are “having a migraine”,
I tend to believe that they have no concept
of what a migraine even is.

Cowper’s Melancholy occurred precisely
because he was everything that the bulk
of humanity is not:

an empathetic, tender-hearted man with an
active conscience that was appalled by the
conduct that he saw around him.

“ … the natural timidity and feminine softness
of his character must have been increased by his
almost total seclusion from the world …
he was a second time overwhelmed with a gloom
which rendered five or six years of his life
a perfect blank.”

[ Hayley, 1805 ]

The events that led to William’s admittance to
Dr Cotton’s Collegium Insanorum in St Albans,
are best related by William himself …

“One evening in November, 1763,
as soon as it was dark, affecting as cheerful
and unconcerned an air as possible,
I went into an apothecary’s shop
and asked for an half ounce phial
of Laudanum.”

Back the house, however, William found that
he could not carry out the deed due to

“continual interruption in my chambers”

from his laundress and her husband on that
particular night, that allowed William
no sufficient time on his own.

The Laudanum would take time to work:
and William – to his annoyance –
was certainly not being given any of that.

Being evidently prevented from a course of
poisoning himself,
William decided upon drowning.

“For that purpose, I immediately took a coach
and ordered the man to drive to the Tower Wharf,
intending to throw myself into the river,
from the Custom house Quay.”

“I left the coach upon the Tower Wharf,
intending never to return to it;
but upon coming to the Quay,

I found the water low, and a porter seated upon some
goods there, as if on purpose to prevent me.”

Taking the final few steps
to drown himself in the Thames,
William found that …

the tide was out.

And not only that, there was a man
sitting in the very spot from which William
intended to jump.

Once back in the coach, William
“once more had recourse to the Laudanum
and determined to drink it off directly …”

Raising the phial to his lips, William
suddenly began to convulse with
a fit of nerves that “deprived me
in a manner of the use of my limbs.”

“ … twenty times had I the phial to my mouth,
and as often received an irresistible check …
as often as I set it against my lips.”

“Panting for breath, and in an horrible agony,
I flung myself back into a corner of the coach.”

Having returned to his room, William sat astounded
– marvelling at the bizarre series of interruptions
which had so consistently left him no opportunity
to be alone …

… when he heard the sound of the lock being
turned in his door: as if to reinforce the thoughts
of providential intervention which had so blatantly
and repeatedly prevented his death,

the laundress’ husband once again entered the
room to tend to some other chore that he had meant
to finish earlier.

Any lingering ember of suicide that might have
remained, was going to receive no opportunity
to become any kind of flame.

Flushing the Laudanum away with a basin of water,
William opened the window and flung the glass phial
out into the gutter.

As the day of his Examination at the Bar
approached, panic once again overtook William.

The night before he was to appear,
William awoke from his sleep and, at about
three o’clock in the morning, got up, went to
his desk, and retuned to bed– this time,
with a small penknife in his hand.

“Twice or thrice I placed it upright under my
left breast, leaning all my weight upon it;
but the point was broken off square,
and it would not penetrate.

In this manner the time passed
till the day began to break. I heard the clock
strike seven, and instantly it occurred to me
that there was no time to be lost.

The chambers would soon be opened,
and my friend would call upon me to take me
with him to Westminster.

‘Now is the time’ I thought – this is the crisis –
no more dallying with the love of life.”

“Not one hesitating thought now remained;
but I fell greedily to the execution of my purpose.

My garter was made of a broad scarlet binding,
with a sliding buckle being sewn together at the end:
by the help of the buckle, I made a noose,
and fixed it about my neck, straining it so tight,
that I hardly left a passage for my breath … ”

“At each corner of the bed, was placed a
wreath of carved work, fastened by an iron pin,
which passed up through the midst of it.

The other part of the garter, which made a loop,
I slipped over one of these, and hung by it
some seconds, drawing my feet under me,
that they might not touch the floor …”

“ … but the iron bent, and the carved work
slipped off, and the garter with it. I then fastened
it to the frame … tying it in a strong knot.

The frame broke short and let me down again.

The third effort was more likely to succeed.”

Standing on a chair, William now looped
the garter securely around the top of the door,
and with satisfied certainty … kicked the chair away.

The garter broke.

“I hung so long that I lost all sense,
all consciousness of existence.
When I came to myself again … the sound
of my own dreadful groans was all that I heard
… I found myself fallen with my face to the floor.

In about half a minute, I recovered to my feet,
and reeling and staggering, stumbled into bed again.

By the blessed providence of God, the garter
which had held me till the bitterness of temporal
death was past, broke just before eternal death
had taken place upon me.

The stagnation of blood under one eye, in a broad
crimson spot, and a red circle about my neck,
showed plainly that I had been on the brink
of eternity.”

“I sent [the laundress] to a friend, to whom
I related the whole affair, and dispatched him
to my kinsman, at the coffee house.

As soon as the latter arrived, I … apprized him
also of the attempt I had been making. –
His words were, ‘My dear Mr Cowper,
you terrify me; to be sure you cannot hold
the office at this rate …’

Thus ended all my connexion with the
Parliament House.”

[ Memoirs, page 42 ]

“I began to see and feel that I had lived without
God in the world … when I thought that the eyes
of God were upon me (which I felt assured of),
it gave me the most intolerable anguish …

If it were possible, that a heavy blow could
light on the brain without touching the skull,
such was the sensation I felt.
I clapped my hand to my forehead, and cried aloud
through the pain it gave me.

… all that remained clear was the sense of sin,
and the expectation of punishment.”

“My brother instantly observed the change,
and consulted with my friends
on the best manner to dispose of me.

It was agreed among them that I should be carried
to St. Albans, where Dr Cotton kept a house for the
reception of such patients. Not only his skill as a
physician, recommended him to their choice, but his
well known humanity and sweetness of temper.”

[ End of Part 2 ]

P Livingstone