Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Cowper, the poet


Southey and Grimshaw, the rival editors of Cowper’s Life and Letters, both glance at the loves of the poet and his cousin Theodosia, which, however, did not ripen into marriage; and I have heard the parental objection was the prevalence of insanity in the family. Mr. Hill, a gentleman of property in Berkshire, was Cowper’s bosom friend. His widow lent the poet’s letters to Dr. Johnson for publication, and she said one day to me as follows: ‘You see this enormous packet, carefully sealed. My friend Theodosia entrusted it to my care, under a solemn injunction that it should not be opened till after her death.’

“We surmised that the contents might be letters from the poet to her. Mrs. Hill survived Theodosia, and died soon after. I wonder that I never enquired of Mrs. Hill what became of the packet. Perhaps, on perusal, she destroyed it; yet not, I think, without advice. If it exists, her executors must know of it.

“I knew Theodosia and her sisters, Ladies Hesketh and Crofts, daughters of Ashley C. Clerk of the Parliament House. Theodosia was an elegant melancholic woman, and had been a beauty in print-shops.

“The editors knew nothing of this anecdote, nor did Dr. Johnson—Virgilium vidi tantum. I never saw Cowper but twice. I used to visit a rich cousin who lived near Newport Pagnell, and who got an eye beat out by a cricket ball at Eton: it was all he got there. In one of these visits I learnt that my friend, Lady Hesketh, was staying with Cowper in his cottage at Weston, three miles off, and I supplicated her for a sight of her hermit, which she contrived to manage. On calling, I found him the very model of neatness: a suit of white cloth, ditto, and a snow-white quilted nightcap. It happened to be an auspicious day, for he conversed as if he had just written John Gilpin. But what was my surprise when I heard from Lady Hesketh, the next day, that the anchorite really meant to return my visit. Accordingly he came with her, and I contrived to get him all to myself in the shrubbery, and never passed two more interesting hours. Among other matters, I asked him how he determined on such an Herculean labour as his translation of Homer. ‘Sir,’ said the poet, ‘I will tell you. In one of my unhappy melancholies, I thought some great and laborious work might administer a salutary medicine to my mind. Accordingly, at intervals, and by snatches, I translated several books. Lady Hesketh transcribed, and urged me to proceed; finally, so many had been accomplished, that I determined to complete the translation.’

“On his return home, he said to Lady Hesketh, ‘Prejudice is a shameful thing. From his public politics, I had formed an opinion that Mr. —— was a caustic, sulky, acrimonious malcontent, and I have found him a gay, playful, candid, and merry companion.’ This opinion was embodied with initials, in one of his published letters.”

Edward Jesse.