Diversions of a Lost Soul
How strange for a man to go through a great part of his life with the absolute conviction that he was unalterably condemned to Hell! Yet this was the case with William Cowper, author of The Task. Born in 1781, of a family old and aristocratic but with no great means, Cowper began his career, after an excellent education, by failing in the law. As a youth he had some fairly gay acquaintances and experiences. But he soon settled down, unmarried, to a quiet country life, with plenty of religion, plenty of melancholy, a sprinkling of actual madness, the devotion of women — especially one woman, Mrs. Unwin — more or less assiduous authorship, and always, till he died in 1800, Hell.
Hell must be the basis of the psychological study of him. And to begin with, one asks how he arrived at the conviction of its imminence. The convergence of natural causes is easy to understand. First, religion in its intensest form hovered over him from childhood. It was not always a misery. When he was a small boy at school and was tormented by one of his elders, the sense of God as a refuge was his greatest comfort. But comfort was not the main feature. When he was a trifle older and was crossing a cemetery at night, he passed a grave digger, who threw up a skull and struck him. The incident impressed him deeply, and skulls were hitting him from somewhere all his life. For a brief period the distractions of the world helped him to forget. But in his later remoteness he had religion about him to the point of suffocation. Not that the special Calvinistic doctrines of election caused him trouble. He was a loyal member of the Church of England and his general views were not intolerably narrow. His personal damnation was quite peculiar to himself, and the rest of mankind might find mercy, if they deserved it, or sought it. But he ate, slept, thought, and lived, with religion as a background. Parsons and saints were his companions and correspondents. They tried to cheer him by emphasizing the infinite joy of Heaven; but their well-meant efforts greatly enhanced the poignancy of Hell.
The burden of this external atmosphere was splendidly seconded by the man’s physical constitution. His organic health seems to have been good enough, nor does he often complain of it. With proper surroundings and occupations it might have served him well. But he inherited sensitive nerves and his habits of thought and life fostered the sensitiveness in every possible way. Hell has a superb chance in persons subject to such physical states as Cowper delineates in the following passage: —
If I do nothing, I am dejected; if I do anything, I am weary; and that weariness is best described by the word lassitude, which is of all weariness in the world the most oppressive.
When to such a natural physical predisposition, you add the eighteenthcentury habit of taking laudanum at any convenient opportunity, you get. a state which in the abstract would not be likely to conduce to cheerfulness.
How sensitive Cowper’s nerves were, and how they tore him to pieces, is best shown by his chief attempt to succeed in practical life. The office of Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords was offered him through the kindness of a relative. But unfortunately it was necessary to appear before the Bar of the House and be examined. To his shy and diffident, temper the horror of such publicity was unbearable. He brooded over the matter till it became a nightmare of the most distressing proportions. Finally there seemed no way of escape but suicide. And for days he struggled to bring himself to this consummation, by poison, by drowning, by the knife, and by the cord. But the garter, with which he actually hanged himself, broke in time to save his life. After this the Clerkship of the Journals was abandoned.
With such a background of nerves, it does not require a psychoanalyst to anticipate any development of melancholy. Cowper himself constantly recognizes his tendency to such a condition. Even without the shadow of Hell, the mere shadow of a dark day, or of a petty annoyance was apt to make life seem not worth living. And in a constitution so delicatedly balanced, any unusual strain was always likely to turn the melancholy into actual derangement. This happened with Cowper. The full details of the madness are not revealed to us; but it was evidently blighting and horrible enough. The constant threat of it must be always taken into account in studying him.
Combined with this extreme sensitiveness and susceptibility, there was in Cowper’s case another element which tended strongly to encourage the fixity of his delusion. He was a man of remarkable confidence in his own opinions and judgment in everything. His natural bent was to vigorous and decided conclusions. He reasoned forcibly, and when he had reasoned it was difficult to change him. His dogmatic turn showed in a disposition to think himself unique, not only as to Hell, but as to other things. When a certain kindness was proposed to him, he wrote: —
I am, perhaps, the only man living who would hesitate a moment, whether, on such easy terms, he should or should not accept, it. But if he finds another like me, he will make a greater discovery than even that which he has already made of the principles of this wonderful art.
It is now easier to understand how-such a combination of circumstances could facilitate the belief which made a horror of all Cowper’s later years. He was convinced that God had not only-abandoned him, forgotten him, but had made him a special object of punishment and vengeance. For other men there might be salvation and redemption, for him none, but only the wide gaping terror of eternal and inevitable Hell. It is difficult to exaggerate the bare vividness with which Cowper conveys and expatiates upon the misery of his situation. In the midst of pleasure he is wretched, in the midst of love he is hated, in the midst of life he is dead and buried. The ghastly lyric on his own mind sums up the situation in verse better than prose could do it: —
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore, Hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths all Bolted against me
If we try to trace the causes of the condemnation, as Cowper saw them, he makes them comparatively clear to us, however inadequate. He believed that in neglecting to improve the mercies of God on a certain occasion in his early life he had sinned against the Holy Ghost. This was the unpardonable sin, and there was no forgiveness and no recovery. After this fatal rejection his doom was fixed. The final judgment was revealed to him in a dream in the year 1773 when he was forty-two years old, and ever after he referred to his fate in the phrase actum est de te, periisti; the verdict is passed, thou hast perished. There were indeed occasional gleams of hope. Prayer, too often denied him as a consolation, sometimes opened a door of comfort. On a sunny day in spring, perhaps, when the south wind was blowing, it might seem impossible that Hell should besonear. Then the clouds settled down and the darkness was thicker than ever.
It was the nocturnal voices that did most. In the daytime and the dear light you could seem to live. But in the lonely dark came those dreadful voices, always so symptomatic of madness, and there was no escape from the black terror of them. You were shaken with frightful dreams, and the voices murmured through them, actum est de te, periisti. You awoke, yes, you knew you were awake, and the voices were only louder and firmer and infinitely more terrible. Laudanum could not quiet them, though who could blame you for taking it? Love could not quiet them. Your best friends argued with you. Their intentions were good. Their arguments were excellent, no doubt, and might have applied to anyone else. But no argument made any difference to you: you knew. It was that same old dogmatic positiveness of temperament. The man was gentle about it, polite about it. But nothing could shake him. He was damned, peculiarly damned, uniquely damned. And so subtle, so colossal is human egotism that you see that the pleasure of uniqueness actually alleviates even damnation.
In a life so lived, and with the presence of such a tormenting terror, it is interesting and curious to see the part played by suicide. When Cowper was eleven years old, his father — a minister, mind you — gave him a treatise advocating self-destruction, and asked his opinion on it. The boy gave it positively, no doubt, whatever it was; and the father making no comment, the son interpreted his father’s silence as favoring the conclusions of the treatise. It was a choicely paternal action. How far it influenced Cowper later we cannot tell. But suicide was often in his thoughts and never very far from his actual experience. He attempted it over and over again, always realizing perfectly the absurd contradiction of his attitude, since he was only bringing himself nearer to the very end that he dreaded. Yet humanity is full of such inconsistency, and Cowper was like others, though he hated to think so. How could you paint the inconsistency more vividly than he does when walking along a precipice?
I passed sometimes within a foot of the edge of it, from which to have fallen would probably have been to be dashed in pieces. But though to have been dashed in pieces would perhaps have been best for me, I shrunk from the precipice, and am waiting to be dashed in pieces by other means.
He waited fill the natural end. But nothing ever shook his conviction. When he was dying, a friend ventured to point out to him that ‘a merciful Redeemer had prepared unspeakable happiness for all his children — and therefore for him.’ But Cowper energetically waved aside the argument and begged his friend to desist. Up to the very last he preferred being damned to being convinced.
It might be supposed that, when a man’s whole existence was set and framed in such a delusion as this, he could be only an object of repulsion and pity and would be much better forgotten. On the contrary, Cowper was charming to live with, full of instruction and diversion, of good counsel and varied entertainment. In spite of his nerves, there was something of cheerfulness in his natural temper, and before the fatal dream had blasted him, he could write of himself: —
As to my own personal condition, I am much happier than the day is long, and sunshine and candlelight see me perfectly contented.
All his life he could turn from Hell to all sorts of trifles, play with them, laugh at them, be busy with them. Even the same intensity which made Hell take hold of him made the trifles take hold of him, while they were present.
I never received a little pleasure from anything in my life; if I am delighted, it is in the extreme.
He liked jest and laughter, liked pure nonsense, and had an exquisitely gracious gift at it. Often his touch in this respect suggests that of Lamb. The difference is that with Lamb the jesting instinct was beautifully and subtly infused through all the tragic background of life. With Cowper it was merely imposed upon it.
Cowper, then, dodged Hell in every sort of a mild and sinless diversion. He was always fond of exercise in the open air. In his youth he indulged in amusements which would have appeared sinful to his age. He speaks of dancing all night and shooting half the day. In his very latest years he looks back with pleasure to swimming in the Bay of Weymouth. Walking was at all times his resource and joy. Alone or with a companion he wandered through the woods and found that the activity of the brain was best soothed and banished by the activity of the legs.
Also, when he walked he used his ears and eyes, and external nature was the greatest consoler he could possibly find. It is true that, from the standpoint of eternity and of Hell, thesun and moon were trifles, like other things: —
Rested in, and viewed without a reference to their Author, what is the earth — what are the planets — what is the sun itself but a bauble?
But they were such delicious trifles! Rarely has the sense of ecstasy in natural objects been expressed with more passion than by this half-mad dreamer: —
Oh, I could spend whole days and moonlight nights in feeding upon a lovely prospect. My eyes drink the rivers as they flow.
Nor was it the more unusual or violent aspects of natural beauty that Cowper longed for and appreciated. He did not require mountains or glaciers, strange tropical luxuriance or arctic splendor. Just the quiet walks around Olney and Weston were enough. A sunset, the morning star, the drift of clouds in autumn, the wayward notes of birds in woodland silence, he asked no more than these. And his gift for rendering these natural impressions was admirable. It might be in the prose of the letters: —
Here is no noise save (as the poets always express it) that of the birds hopping on their perches and playing with their wires, while the sun glimmering through the elm opposite the window falls on my desk with all the softness of moonshine. There is not a cloud in the sky, nor a leaf that moves, so that over and above the enjoyment of the purest calm, I feel a well-warranted expectation that such as the day is, it will be to its end.
Or it might be even more perfectly in verse, as in the primrose passage in The Task, or the summary of nature as it appears in association and recollection : —
Scenes that soothed Or charmed me young, no longer young I find Still soothing and of power to charm me still.
And as Cowper loved wild nature, so he loved it cultivated, loved to keep a garden and work in it, loved a greenhouse also, to plant and transplant and prune and train and finally to enjoy. How little one connects Hell with the tranquil delight which saturates the following: —
But now I sit with all the windows and the door wide open, and am regaled with the scent of every flower in a garden as full of flowers as I have known how to make it. We keep no bees, but if I lived in a hive, I should hardly hear more of their music. All the bees in the neighborhood resort to a bed of mignonette, opposite to the window, and pay me for the honey they get out of it by a hum, which, though rather monotonous, is as agreeable to my ear as the whistling of my linnets.
All the mechanical occupations implied in country life were acceptable. He liked not only gardening, but carpentering, would wield a hammer and chisel and saw and make pretty odds and ends of all sorts to please himself and to help his housemates. Busy fingers teased him out of thought as well as busy feet.
Then there were pets. All his life Cowper loved animals. When he was being carried off to a madhouse, his last normal interest was that his cat should be tenderly taken care of. His own state of hopeless reprobation seemed somehow to throw him down to the level of the animals, at least to destroy the super-animal part of him. As he himself expresses it with singular quick pathos: —
The season has been most unfavorable to animal life; and I, who am merely animal, have suffered much by it.
Anyone who knows anything of Cowper at all, knows the charming, elaborate description of his hares, of their lives and deaths and the profound interest he took in them. His birds meant quite as much to him, and the dog Beau, the companion of his walks.
In human beings generally and in human affairs Cowper took almost as much interest as in birds and rabbits. True, he affected to regard politics and the movement of the world as quite remote from him. He was an ‘extramundane character’ and, ‘though not a native of the moon,’ yet ‘not made of the dust of this planet.’ But it would have been impossible for his dogmatic temper not to have pronounced judgment on all the doings of kings and ministers and peoples. The truth is, he himself was going to the devil, and he woidd have been hardly human if he had not sometimes thought the whole world was tending obscurely in the same direction. He did. Rulers were bad and people were worse, and if England was piping and dancing and rotting herself to final disaster she richly deserved it.
Cowper’s interest in the more common concerns of life, as it went on immediately about him, was a much more personal matter. He entered quickly into the peculiarities of the people whom he met even in a casual fashion, and he had a remarkable faculty of setting off those peculiarities, not harshly or bitterly, but with a singular grace of comic touch. Trifle for trifle, the human trifles were the pleasantest. The classic example of this is the admirable narrative of Gilpin. But the letters have many incidents and characters almost equally delightful, for instance the whirlwind passage of the Parliamentary candidate through Cowper’s quiet household.
Nor was Cowper less sensitive to the tragedies of life than to its comic side. Misery touched him, want appealed to him, not only passively, but actively. His means were always limited. Indeed he himself was largely dependent upon the assistance of others, and it required the greatest prudence and frugality to keep expenses within proper bounds. Yet his charity was incorrigible, so much so that his friends complained of it, and thought he was perpetually duped. At any rate, he had at all times a crowd of dependents about him, who enjoyed his moderate bounty and showed probably as much gratitude as is usual.
In closer contact with his equals Cowper was not very responsive. At least the grave temper of his mind resented the ordinary frivolity of the world. In his early days he seems to have known what gayety was, balls, routs, games, diversions, chatter. But even then he was apt to shrink from such things and was essentially a shy and solitary mortal.
‘Visits,’ he says, ‘are insatiable devourers of time, and fit only for those who, if they did not that, would do nothing.’
He complains again and again of his incurable shyness: —
I am a shy animal, and want much kindness to make me easy. Such shall I be to my dying day.
Yet with the friends whom he loved he could overcome the shyness and reserve, could abound in spirits and light merriment. Over a good dinner of fish or game, such as was so often sent him, he could no doubt play the merry and amiable host.
And especially he liked to pour out his soul to his friends in letters. He had a long list of correspondents, Newton, Unwin, Bull, later, John Johnson and Hayley, and always innumerable ladies. I cannot help suspecting that he had a lurking idea that some day the letters would be printed. At any rate, he evidently takes great interest in letter-writing as an art and makes many charming comments on it.
Puzzle not yourself about a subject when you write to either of us; everything is subject enough from those we love.
Indeed, everything was a subject for him, and everything he touched was transfigured by wisdom or grace, by pathos or gayety, always with just the little relish of waiting Hell, to give it a spice.
Besides the external trifles, which could divert the gaze for a moment from inevitable perdition, sunshine, flowers, birds, animals, kings, and men and women, there were internal, spiritual trifles also, trifles of art, trifles of thought, trifles of literary workmanship.
Art might seem far enough from Cowper, and so it was. Yet those busy fingers liked at times to play with the pencil and brush and to produce bits of plastic beauty on which he could at any rate rally himself. Music came nearer home. Its infinite spiritual suggestion appealed to Cowper’s sensitive nerves. The constant singing of hymns, which to many of us seems a rather desperate form of amusement, was to him soothing, or more so than some other things. He seems always to have been deeply affected by sound; witness the wonderful page in the letter to Newton, which ends so characteristically: —
There is somewhere in infinite space a world that does not roll within the precincts of mercy, and as it is reasonable, and even Scriptural, to suppose that there is music in Heaven, in those dismal regions perhaps the reverse of it is found; tones so dismal, as to make woe itself more insupportable, and to acuminate even despair.
But the most curious passage, musically, in all Cowper, is the one in which he at once recognizes the subtle insinuating charm, and deprecates it with all the Puritanic passion of his nature and training:
The lawfulness of it, when used with moderation, and in its proper place, is unquestionable; but I believe that wine itself, though a man be guilty of habitual intoxication, does not more debauch and befool the natural understanding, than music, always music, music in season and out of season, weakens and destroys the spiritual discernment. If it is not used with an unfeigned reference to the worship of God, and with a design to assist the soul in the performance of it, which cannot be the case when it is the only occupation, it degenerates into a sensual delight, and becomes a most powerful advocate for the admission of other pleasures, grosser perhaps in degree, but in their kind the same.
Reading was another resource; but especially in later years reading was difficult and dangerous: it was too apt to involve or suggest or imply strange matters and lead one into worlds that were far better let alone, if one could. As for thinking, hard thinking, abstract thinking, that was impossible for a brain so torn and worn with inevitable thought. Yet he could divert himself with books delightfully. How he would have enjoyed novels, if they had not seemed to him worse than music. But he could read books of travel, and he did, wide wanderings in strange countries, bewildering adventures and fantastic daring, which made him hug his quiet fireside all the more closely. Perhaps it was good training for one who was fated to have wilder adventures in the great unknown.
Also, he liked to read the great poets, or had done so in his youth, and he had definite opinions about them, expressed with all his usual pragmatism. But in later life he had few such books and read them little for a rather astonishing reason:—
Poetry, English poetry, I never touch, being pretty much addicted to the writing of it, and knowing that much intercourse with those gentlemen betrays us unavoidably into a habit of imitation, which I hate and despise most cordially.
He had not perhaps quite grasped the fact that the best recipe for avoiding imitation, next to having never read anything whatever, is the very widest reading possible.
But, reading or no reading, he was a poet himself, and poetry was on the whole, the best of all the numerous trifles that distracted him from Hell. He did not. take to it extensively till somewhat late in life, but when he took to it, he took to it wholesale, and wrote verses of all sorts. Short or long, grave or gay, instructive or diverting, all was one to him. He could make a comic epic of the story of Gilpin, or he could spend long years in translating the Iliad and Odyssey. Nonsense spattered from his pen as freely as ink, and when the sexton of the parish wanted him to make mortuary verses for his death-list, inspiration came quite as readily, but no more so.
The motives that induced him to write were as various as the subjects. If a lady suggested that he should make a poem about a sofa he would spin it into six books of Miltonic longitude. But, though the whims of ladies might be the provoking cause, the fundamental purpose, or so he insisted, was to make the world better. Poets in general were poor creatures: their only serious excuse for being was to moralize, and he moralized, sugaring the pill with primroses and bird-song and other agreeable dainties. And all the time, underneath, the deepest motive was distraction, to get rid of Hell. Yet nonsense and mortuary verses both sometimes failed to achieve the end:
Strange as it may seem, the most ludicrous lines I ever wrote have been written in the saddest mood, and, but for that saddest mood, perhaps had never been written.
Whatever the motive, if a man like Cowper set out to write at all, it was certain that he would do his very best. Conscience and thoroughness were characteristic of him, even in trifles. He worked steadily, persistently, and faithfully. That is to say, there were times when he could not work at all, when the mood was unfavorable, or external cares and perplexities distracted him too greatly. But he kept his set task before him and returned to it whenever he could catch an hour or a minute. Interruptions, not directly pertinent, were disregarded, and he was willing to write in surroundings which many authors would consider prohibitive.
Also, he not only worked persistently, but worked carefully. His first draught was generally turned off with ease, but he revised and criticized his own productions with peculiar zeal, and let nothing go that was not as perfect as he could make it: —
I am a severer critic upon myself than you would imagine.
Even in the last wretched years, when every hour had its torment, the close and scrupulous revision of his Homer afforded as much relief as anything: —
I give all my miserable days to the revisal of Homer, and often many hours of the night to the same hopeless employment.
Hopeless, because back of all the dainty trifles was that yawning gulf, and you could not fill it or hide it even with songs and flowers.
And if work would not fill it, assuredly it could not be filled with anything so insubstantial as glory. Cowper often expresses the conventional indifference to fame, the vulgar breath of the unthinking crowd, and all the rest of it.
You tell me I am rivaled by Mrs. Bellamy; and he, that I have a competitor for fame, not less formidable, in the Learned Pig. Alas, what is an author’s popularity worth, in a world that can suffer a prostitute on one side, and a pig on the other, to eclipse his brightest glories?
Yet criticism annoys him: the critics are so dull, they seize the wrong end of things, always praise where they should blame, and overlook the point on which an author most prides himself. And when the poet speaks frankly, he admits as much desire of success as might infect a more worldly man: —
I have (what, perhaps, you little suspect me of) in my nature an infinite share of ambition.
Yet how strange it is to watch the interplay of this perfectly normal and human instinct with the terror that obsesses him: —
As to fame, and honor, and glory, that may be acquired by poetical feats of any sort, God knows, that if I could lay me down in my grave with hope at my side, or sit with hope at my side in a dungeon all the residue of my days, I would cheerfully waive them all.
So the flavor of Hell runs through the whole portrayal of Cowper, necessarily. But what brings it out with the greatest vividness is to see him in his usual surroundings, the infinite peace and domesticity of a conventional English parlor and fireside. If he had lived an earthly life of furious movement, it would not only have helped him to forget, but the transition to the plagues of Hades would have been more agreeably and imperceptibly prepared. Not he. He never moved, hated moving. He did not visit London for years, did not stir from the monotonous tranquillity of his rural environment. His timorous, fluttering spirit could achieve the semblance of serenity only within the mild radiance of the evening lamp, with the click of knitting needles about him, and the soothing, inconsequential chatter of women’s tongues. The world ran on for him in an even unbroken course, as if it were to run on so forever. His poetry is largely the poetry of home life and humble, simple contentment. That is what gave it such charm for SainteBeuve. Perhaps if the French critic had known the atmosphere better, he would not have praised it so much.
But indeed Cowper was domestic by temperament. He felt the family affections very deeply, all of them, and this tenderness is manifest in his letters to the end. The fondness which he cherished for the memory of his mother seems to have been something intimate and peculiar, and it clung to him in his worst distresses, though it could not banish them. Probably his best-known poem is that on receiving his mother’s picture; but the singular depth of his feeling finds expression also in letters: —
You may remember with pleasure, while you live, a blessing vouchsafed to you so long; and I, while I live, must regret a comfort ol which I was deprived so early. I can truly say, that not a week passes (perhaps I might with equal veracity say a day), in which I do not think of her. Such was the impression her tenderness made upon me, though the opportunity she had for showing it was so short.
And this was when he was over fifty, and his mother had been dead forty-seven years.
In general, Cowper had a fondness for women and an attraction for them. He much preferred substantial domestic qualities to social graces. Although he had danced in his youth, he thought you could judge a woman better in her morning gown than in her evening finery: —
We are all good when we are pleased; but she is the good woman, who wants not a fiddle to sweeten her.
In his youth he not only danced, but loved: a charming cousin, Theodora Cowper, who loved him and would have married him; but his utter lack of worldly prospects and his madness forbade it. In much later years, the gay and gracious Lady Austen, who had lived in close familiarity with him and Mrs. Unwin, found it convenient to fall in love with him, and nearly caused an unseemly commotion in that tranquil house.
But the central and profound attachment of Cowper’s life was that which bound him to Mary Unwin. He became acquainted with the Unwins when he was something over thirty. Both the husband and the wife attracted him, and he soon took up his abode with them, establishing and maintaining the most affectionate relations with the son, as well as with the parents. The elder Unwin was killed by a fall from his horse shortly after Cowper became intimate with him. But the poet continued to live with Mrs. Unwin and to profit by her care through all his lingering years of misery. She seems to have been a simply and gently attractive person, with no pretensions to wit or brilliancy, but shrewdly intelligent not only in practical matters, but in her comprehension of Cowper’s character and literary work. Cowper’s judgment on this point is clear and decisive: — She is a critic by nature, and not by rule, and has a perception of what is good or bad in composition that I never knew deceive her; insomuch that, when two sorts of expression have pleaded equally for the preference, in my own esteem, and I have referred, as in such cases I always did, the decision of the point to her, I never knew her at a loss for a just one.
At any rate, it would be hard to overestimate the place Mrs. Unwin filled in Cowper’s life. She was but a few years older than he, and the singularity of the relation probably caused comment, in spite of recognized dignity and beauty of character in both. At one time they seriously considered marriage; but the project was interrupted by one of Cowper’s periods of derangement, and it was never taken up again. We have no letters addressed to Mrs. Unwin herself, since the two were never separated. But the references in letters to others show the depth of Cowper’s feeling and this is confirmed by the two poems, the well-known, exquisite sonnet, and the lovely lines asserting the permanence of affection in age.
In wintry age to feel no chill,
With me is to be lovely still,
Mrs. Unwin’s death, a few years before the poet’s, greatly augmented the misery of his last days, and the tender care lavished upon him by others could never take the place of hers.
As for her feeling for him, there is no word of her own to indicate it to us. But a hit of his delicate analysis shows how fine was the nature of it.
You are very kind to humor me as you do, and had need to be a little touched yourself with all my oddities, that you may know how to administer to mine. All whom I love do so, and I believe it to be impossible to love heartily those who do not. People must not do me good their way, but in my own, and then they do me good indeed.
Is it possible to suggest more delicately all that the devotion of such a woman means to such a temperament as Cowper’s? The gentle, unobtrusive watchfulness, the infinite patience with complaint and weariness and restless questioning, the cheerful disregard of particular symptoms, with the boundless sympathy for fundamental causes, the tender rallying, when rallying is best, and the ever-ready consolation when consolation, perhaps unuttered, is most needed — all these Cowper required from his faithful companion, all these he received in unstinted measure.
But the strain for her can also be understood only by those who have endured — or inflicted — something similar. Day and night she was tortured by the endeavor to supply what could not be given, to breathe hope into the hopeless, to furnish comfort where all comfort was impossible. And the climax came when she entered a room and found that her beloved had tried to hang himself; he was saved only by her cutting him down. What is humanity made of, that it can support such pangs as these, and survive?
Yet the woman — and the man — lived on. And we think of him chiefly as we see him in the well-known portrait, with the strange turban crowning the sensitive, austere, far-gazing face. Women petted him, cats purred about him, he held endless skeins of worsted, cracked his pleasant jokes, drank oceans of tea. And all the time within an inch of his unsteady foot opened that black, unfathomable gulf of Hell.
Yet is it not much the same with all of us — with you and me and the man in the street? We laugh and dance and chatter and lie through our trivial daily life, and right beside us yawns the infinite abyss, for all we know with Hell at the bottom of it.