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William Cowper to Lady Hesketh, March 5, 1789

Transcription

Weston Lodge

Mar. 5 1759 [Cowper’s mistake; actually 1789]

My dearest Coz—Since I send you much Verse I shall send you the less Prose; desirous to forward the inclosed to you as early as possible I violate my engagements to Homer for once, and give the morning to the King, the Queen and you. On the word of a poet I can assure you that I have done my best, sensible that when Verses are presented to a Royal personage they ought not to be slovenly put together, nor such as one might produce between sleeping and waking. I have bestowed praise which on these occasions is a thing of course, but have endeavourd to dress it so as to give it some air of novelty, and the best of the matter is, that though it be praise it is truth, and I could swear to it. Had the King and Queen been such as the world has been pesterd with ever since such poems were heard of, they should have had no verse from me unless you had insisted, but being such as they are, it seemd necessary that I who am now Poet by profession, should not leave an event in which their happiness and that of the Nation are so much concern’d, uncelebrated.

Many thanks, my Dear, for the parcel which was truly welcome especially on account of the Cameo, in which, however, unless Sr. Thos. alterd much after I saw him cast, I cannot trace much resemblance of him. In the nose, forehead and eyes, some likeness, in cheek and chin and mouth, none at all; which I wonder at the more, because I have seen the strongest resemblances taken in that manner. But I am happy to have it though but a remote copy of one whom we both knew and loved. I have read the Pamphlet and admire both the matter and manner of it, but how the deuce a Country Gentleman should be so accurately and intimately informed as the Writer certainly is, has excited some wonder both in Mrs. Unwin and in me—Had he rather chosen to write in the Character of a Gentleman resident in Town to his Friend in the Country, I should have found it a more natural procedure. His minute Knowledge of the characters and views of both parties would then have been easily accounted for, whereas, now, it is rather mysterious. But this is no great matter, a faux pas, if it be one, that does not at all affect the sequel.—Permit me to add to all this, that Molly Pears and Hannah together with their duty to your Lady[sh]ip, send their love and thanks to Mrs. Eaton for [he]r kind remembrance of them.

Mr. Bean called here last night, when I had the pleasure of conversing with him on the subject of the Royal Recovery. His heart is warm on that theme, and we had a hearty Laugh at the Opposition and their blundering friends the Irish. When the Knowing Ones are so completely Taken In, it is no wonder if poor Teague is entrapp’d also.—I shall not forget to thank you too for your papers which are really useful as an Antidote to the baneful Herald.

Adieu my Dear—I can say no more just now, but that I am, with Mrs. Unwins affectionate Comps. who is still a stick-propp’d walker—Ever yours Wm Cowper.

Commentary

The poem that the English poet William Cowper mentions at the beginning of this letter is his “Annus Memorabilis 1789,” a political panegyric written in the wake of King George III’s recovery from a debilitating mental illness. Cowper was an avowed monarchist, and the king’s return to health seemed nothing less than miraculous to supporters of him and the government of William Pitt the Younger. A Regency Bill had been passed by the House of Commons in January of that year that would have made the Prince of Wales the Prince Regent. This motion had been pressed by the Whig leader Charles James Fox, Pitt the Younger’s political adversary; it is to Fox that Cowper refers in his return to political matters in the final paragraph of his letter when he mentions “the Opposition.” Pitt was generally unpopular in Ireland, even before the Act of Union annexed Ireland into the United Kingdom in 1800, so “their blundering friends the Irish” here may refer to that; although it may allude to Edmund Burke and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, two prominent Whig Members of Parliament of Irish descent who were frequent allies of Fox’s, though Burke and Fox would split later that year over the French Revolution. “Teague” is a derogatory epithet for the Irish.

Lady Hesketh was Cowper’s cousin and one of his closest friends. Mary Unwin was another near-lifelong friend, having met Cowper in 1765. He lived with Unwin and her daughter after the death of her husband, and they were abortively engaged in 1772. Unwin saved Cowper, who suffered lifelong bouts of severe mental illness, from a suicide attempt in 1787. They had mutually befriended the Throckmorton family just a few years before; Cowper was living in a house called the Lodge on the grounds of their Buckinghamshire estate, Weston Hall, when he wrote this letter.

“Mr. Bean” was the Reverend James Bean, a more recent friend at this point in Cowper’s life. After the death of the previous vicar, Bean was appointed vicar of the nearby town of Olney, in March 1788. Cowper took a liking to the clergyman almost immediately, writing barely two weeks after his arrival, “He is a man with whom, when I can converse at all, I can converse on terms perfectly agreeable to myself; who does not distress me with forms, nor yet disgust me by the neglect of them; whose manners are easy and natural, and his observations always sensible. I often, therefore, wish them nearer neighbours.”

It was a busy moment in Cowper’s career. He was working on his translation of the Homeric epics and would have been about halfway through the Odyssey when he wrote this letter. He worked at a steady pace, around forty lines per day, and it was uncommon for him to put aside that work for a day, as he acknowledges at the beginning of this letter.

Cowper Letter 1

Cowper Letter 2

Cowper Letter 3

Cowper Envelope