Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Encounter With William Cowper

While idly browsing through Notes and Queries (the back issues of which - going back to its inception in 1849 - may be found in the Internet Archive), I came upon a wonderful account (written in 1853) of a young boy's unknowing encounter with William Cowper. The encounter occurred in 1799, when the writer of the account was 10 years old. Cowper was troubled with debilitating "melancholy" throughout his life. By 1799, he was in a state of deep despondency. He died the next year at the age of 68.

Here is the account:

"In the midsummer holidays of 1799, being on a visit to an old and opulent family of the name of Deverell, in Dereham, Norfolk, I was taken to the house of an ancient lady (a member of the aforesaid family), to pay my respects to her, and to drink tea. Two visitors were particularly expected. They soon arrived. The first, if I remember rightly (for my whole attention was singularly riveted to the second), was a pleasant-looking, lively young man, very talkative and entertaining; his companion was above the middle height, broadly made, but not stout, and advanced in years. His countenance had a peculiar charm that I could not resist. It alternately exhibited a deep sadness, a thoughtful repose, a fearful and an intellectual fire, that surprised and held me captive. His manner was embarrassed and reserved. He spoke but little. Yet once he was roused to animation; then his voice was full and clear. I have a faint recollection that I saw his face lighted up with a momentary smile. His hostess kindly welcomed him as "Mr. Cooper." After tea, we walked for a while in the garden. I kept close to his side, and once he addressed me as "My little master." I returned to school; but that variable, expressive, and interesting countenance I did not forget."

(George Daniel (1789-1864), in Notes and Queries, First Series, Volume VII, January 29, 1853. The italics appear in the original.)

Years later, when looking in a bookstore window in London, Mr. Daniel saw a volume of poems displayed which had a frontispiece portrait: the portrait was of "Mr. Cooper," the man he had met when he was 10 years old. "It was something, said Washington Irving, to have seen even the dust of Shakespeare. It is something, too, to have beheld the face and to have heard the voice of Cowper." (Ibid.)

As to Cowper's likely state of mind of mind in 1799, this is from a letter that he wrote to Lady Hesketh (one of his closest friends) on August 26, 1792: "As to that gloominess of mind, which I have had these twenty years, it cleaves to me even here; and could I be translated to Paradise, unless I left my body behind me, would cleave to me even there also. It is my companion for life, and nothing will ever divorce us." Six years later, he writes to her: "My state of mind is a medium through which the beauties of Paradise itself could not be communicated with any effect but a painful one."

And there is this, the final stanza of "The Castaway":

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he.

"The Castaway" was based upon a true incident: during the course of George Anson's voyage around the world from 1740 to 1744, a seaman fell overboard during a storm, and the ships could not turn about to rescue him. He disappeared from sight, still afloat. "The Castaway" was Cowper's last poem. It was written on March 20, 1799 - a little more than a year prior to his death on April 25, 1800, and a few months before the young boy met him.

No comments: