Im is an excellent thing that in these unreflective days the devotion of scholars should keep us well supplied with examples of an art which the fierce economy of time and energy characteristic of our age has well-nigh extinguished. It is useless to lament this decay of letter-writing, for its lapse is irretrievable. It has yielded, like the art of the hand- loom, to the irresistible pressure of circumstance. Now that news flashes and circulates with the swiftness and continuity of ether, and the resources of locomotion have almost annihilated space, personality no longer needs so laborious an art to bridge its distances, and if we have lost an art we can at least rejoice in the disappearance of that general state of insulation the necessities of which engendered it. None the less one cannot read the works of the great letter-writers without a sense of almost irreparable loss. For it is to letters and diaries that we must turn for the truest history of the past. Nowhere else is writing so real and spontaneous. Never does the life of bygone ages come to us with so authentic a flavour as through this intimate, leisurely, =strained distillation. The historian, however accurate, must cut his material by the measure of an alien habit; he must select, and, if his selection is to have any individual vitality, that vitality will be his own. We see through his focus, and the range must be a long one. But • Leiters of William Cowper. Chosen and edited by J. Frazer. Two vole. London : Macmillan and Co. [Si. net.]
with a letter-writer we walk hand in hand, and, though we lose, perhaps, in breadth and generality of vision, the gain in intimacy and essential truth is inestimable. We move with a man among men. It is the difference between life and logic, between experience and ratiocination.
We must therefore be especially grateful to Mr. Frazer for this new and full selection of Cowper's correspondence, for Cowper has been justly esteemed the best of all letter-writers, and the best in many ways he is. Not that his letters excel all others as works of literature, or that his is the most interesting personality of all those which have left record of themselves in this delightful medium. Cowper's method was like his life—a thing of low tones, small range, and limited experience. Byron and Lamb reveal in their correspondence forces many times more vivid and exuberant. Walpole treads with equal ease and intimacy an immeasurably larger stage. Southey's self-revelation, if less pleasing, has an equal psycho- logical interest. Yet Cowper holds the field against them all. The explanation is, perhaps, to be found in the circum- stances of his life, which, more than those of any other letter- writer, demanded and suited this method of communication. Leisure and isolation are the true atmosphere of letter-writing, and they were the unva vied atmosphere of William Cowper's pilgrimage. Ten years in Hertfordshire, eight at Westminster School, fourteen in the seclusion of the Temple, two at Huntingdon, twenty at Olney, eight at Weston, and a few more of terrible eclipse in Norfolk make up the total of his long and uneventful life ; and during all that time he moved so seldom from his tem- porary anchorage that when at the age of sixty-one he drove in a coach and four to visit the poet Hayley near Chichester, the first sight of the Sussex bills in the moonlight daunted and even terrified him. And his life, during the last half of it at least, was as isolated as it was stationary. At Olney he bad no intimates but Mary Unwin and the feverish filibuster- ing pietism of the Reverend John Newton, with whom it is difficult to believe that he can ever have had any really genuine sympathy. At Weston there was Mary Unwin again, failing now and at last sinking into pitiful helplessness under successive strokes of paralysis. Yet his first years at Weston were the happiest of his life. The renewal of his early friendship with his cousin, Lady Hesketh, brings into his letters the gaiety of love without its fever, while one neighbouring family at least found its way gradually into an ever-increasing intimacy, figuring in his peaceful chronicle first as Mr. and Mrs. Throckmorton, then as Mr. and Mrs. Throck, and fl-rally as " the Frogs " and "the Dowager Frog." Then there is little Johnny Johnson of the antic habits, who becomes as a son to him ; William Hayley, more than a brother in affliction, and Samuel Rose, who arrives one morning on his way to London with messages of compliment from Scottish professors, and becomes a life-long friend. His growing fame brings him into relation with friends and members of his family long almost forgotten. He blossoms, and but for an occasional shadow of the ever-imminent cloud blotting the sunshine, one could conceive him uniformly happy. It is at this period that his letters are at their best. He had a genius for friendship, and living, as he did, remote for long periods from the objects of his affection, his genius found its way naturally and easily on to paper. He had, too, for all the monotony and uneventful progress of his life, an unquenchable zest for living. Life was to him a perpetual wonder. " My feelings are all of the intense kind," he writes from Olney to William Unwin in 1780. "I never received a little pleasure from anything in my life: if I am delighted it is in the extreme." And, again, in 1786, he writes of his approaching reunion with Lady Hesketh: " Will it not be one of the most extraordinary eras of my extraordinary life P" A man of this temperament, however uneventful his life, is never at a loss for something to say. The thought of an absent friend (his friends were never far from his thoughts) brings him to the table, and the
feel of the pen between his fingers is like a physical encounter. Intimacy is renewed, and speech is its natural and happy outcome. For although Cowper was half his days melancholy mad, and scarcely passed a week without a fit of intolerable depression, one's memory of him after reading his letters or his poems is one of happiness and affection. His melancholy was a disease, not a condition. True, he always felt it imminent, but its imminence never, until the end, stupefied
him; rather it drove him to life with renewed enjoyment. He speaks of himself as writing and working to occupy his mind, but it was an occupation which gave him the keenest pleasure—a pleasure which his ever-present conscious- ness of the impelling pain seemed unable seriously to diminish. "I have not," he writes, "that which is commonly a symptom of such a case belonging to me—I mean extraordinary elevation in the absence of Mr. Blue-devil. When I am in the best health, my tide of animal sprightliness flows with great equality. My depression has a cause, and, if that cause were to cease, I should be as cheerful thenceforth and, perhaps, for ever, as any man need be." Indeed, cheerfulness was his natural habit. When Mr. Blue-devil lets him be, he slips at once into his constitu- tional serenity. Even his tormentor becomes the subject of ludicrous images and mock heroics. He " rises like an infernal frog out of Acheron covered with the ooze and mud of melancholy," and when once he has risen, every- thing seems to share his happy mood. His pigs are " the drollest in the world." His pigeons, his kitten, his dog Beau, every living creature and every tiny incident of his uneventful neighbourhood serve to stir his easy and affec- tionate gaiety. His tea-urn is hors de combat. He explains that "a parson once as he walked across the room pushed it down with his belly, and it never perfectly recovered itself." His friends have all nicknames of his own devising, spon- taneous fruits of those moods of sunshine. There is not a corner of his house or garden which he does not describe over and over again with a care and eagerness which show his unfailing enjoyment of the process.
It is in such moods as these that one recognizes the real William Cowper, and sees him even more clearly than in any but the very best and most spontaneous of his poems. Any true selection of Cowper's correspondence must give chief prominence to letters of this class, and Mr. Frazer, whose introduction shows him to be possessed of a deep and intimate knowledge of the poet's life and work, has given the reader no cause to lament any obvious omissions. What fault there is in his choice lies rather in the other direction. He has not spared us, and it would have been wrong if he had spared us, some utterances of the poet's black hours. One can be even glad that he has included the five tragic notes from Mundesley which brings the second volume to a close. It is in the earlier Olney correspondence that he has perhaps been a little over-liberal. One can understand the difficulty of making up one's mind to leave out any of the letters, for all are models of clear, easy, forcible writing, and bear the hall- mark of their author's half-gay and half-pathetic charm. But the years which were spent under the shadow of Newton were monotonous and more uniformly sad than those which the return of Lady Hesketh inaugurated, and Mr. Frazer's first volume suffers a little from this monotomy. On the whole, however, the selection is excellently done, as is also the introductory memoir. This aims chiefly at giving a key to the letters the main incidents of which it follows closely and carefully. One would have been glad of a little more freedom of treatment from one so obviously qualified for the task, and of a somewhat closer analysis of the poet's character, for it is in many ways a difficult nature to understand. The close yet seemingly independent co-existence of the elements of sanity and insanity is such as only a very deep and genuine sympathy can make intelligible, and the poet's mind for all its easy and spontaneous self-expression contained strange reticences which are by no means easy of explanation. One may instance the unhappy story of his early love affair with Lady Hesketh's sister Theodora. He never mentions her directly in his cor- respondence, even when his intercourse with the elder sister brings, as it often does, the memory of old days most forcibly to his mind. Yet there are hints here and there which seem to
show that he did, in fact, remember, and one cannot rest con- tent with the statement that " in later life he appears to have forgotten his early love entirely." A poet does not forget so
readily, and Cowper was not only a poet, but a man of keen
sensibility and devoted attachments. Perhaps Mr. Frazer's well-known capacity for patient and ingenious research may still be turned to the investigation of this phase of the poet's mind. If he can throw any fresh light upon it, he will have imposed yet another obligation on lovers of William Cowper whom this full and careful edition has already placed sufficiently in his debt.