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Weigh the vessel up,
Once dreaded by our foes !
The tear that England owes.
Her timbers yet are sound,
And she may float again,
But Kempenfelt is gone,
His victories are o'er;
Shall plough the wave no more.
Let the reader who wishes to impress on his mind a just idea of the variety and extent of Cowper's poetical powers, contrast this heroic Ballad, of exquisite pathos, with the diverting history of John Gilpin !
That admirable and highly popular piece of pleasantry was composed at the period of which I am now speaking (1783). An elegant and judicious writer, who has recently favoured the public with three interesting volumes relating to the early poets of our country, conjectures, that a poem, written by the celebrated Sir Thomas More in his youth, (the merry jest of the Sergeant and Frere), may have suggested to Cowper his tale of John Gilpin: but that fascinating Ballad had a different origin; and it is a very remarkable fact, that, full of gaiety and humour, as this favourite of the public has abundantly proved itself to be, it was really composed at a time when the spirit of the Poet, as we informed me himself, was very deeply tinged with his depressive malady. It happened one afternoon, in those years when his accomplished friend, Lady Austen, made a part of his little evening circle, that she cbserved him sinking into increasing dejection : it was her custom, on these occasions, to try all the resources of her sprightly powers for his immediate relief. She told him the story of John Gilpin (which had been treasured in her memory from her childhood) to dissipate the gloom of the passing hour. Its effect on the fancy of Cowper had the air of enchantment: he informed her the next morning, that convulsions of laughter, brought on by his recollection of her story, had kept him waking during the greatest part of the night, and that he had turned it into a Ballad. So arose the pleasant Poe:n of John Gilpin. It was eagerly copied, and finding its way rapidly to the newspapers, it was seized by the lively spirit of Henderson, the Comedian, a na. tive of Newport.Pagnell, and a man, like the Yorick described by Shakspeare, “ of infinite jest, and most excellent fancy;" it was seized by Henderson as a proper subject for the display of his own comic powers; and by reciting it in his public readings, he gave uncommon celebrity to the Ballad, before the public suspected to what Poet they were indebted for the sudden burst of ludicrous amusenient. Many readers were astonished when the Poem made its first authentic appearance in the second volume of Cowper. In some letters of the Poet to Mr. Hill, which did not reach me till my work was nearly finished, I find an account of John Gilpin's first introduction to the world, and a cira cumstance relating to the first volume of Cowper's Poenis, which may render the following selection from this correspondence peculiarly interesting.
Feb. 13 & 20, 1783. MY DEAR FRIEND,
In writing to you I never want a subject. Self is always at hand, and Self, with its concerns, is always interesting to a friend.
You may think, perhaps, that having commenced Poet by profession, I am always writing verses. Not SO_I have written nothing, at least finished nothing, since I published except a certain facetious history of John Gilpin, which Mr. Unwin would send to the Pub. lic Advertiser; perhaps you might read it without sus. pecting the Author..
My Book procures me favours, which my modesty will not permit me to specify, except one, which, mo. dest as I am, I cannot suppress, a very handsome Let. ter froin Dr. Franklin, at Passy-These fruits it has brought me.
I have been refreshing myself with a walk in the gar: den, where I find that January (who, according to Chaucer, was the husband of May) being dead, Fe. bruary has married the widow.
Yours, &c. W. C.
Olney, Feb. 20, 1783.
Suspecting that I should not have hinted at Dr. Franklin's encomium under any other in. fluence than that of vanity, I was several times upon the point of burning my letter for that very reason. But not having time to write another by the same post, and believing that you would have the grace to pardon a little self-complacency in an Author on so trying an occasion, I let it pass. One sin naturally leads to another and a greater, and thus it happens now: for I have no way to gratify your curiosity but by transcribing the letter in question. It is addressed, by the way, not to me, but to an acquaintance of mine, who had transınitted the volume to him without my knowledge.
Passey, May 8, 1732. “ SIR,
I received the letter you did me the honour of writing to me, and am much obliged by your kind present of a book. The relish for reading of Poetry had long since left me ; but there is something so new in the manner, so easy and yet so correct in the language, so clear in the expression, yet concise, and so just in the sentiments, that I have read the whole with great pleasure, and some of the pieces more than once. I beg you to accept my thankful acknowledgments, and to present my respects to the author. Your most obedient, humble servant,
To JOSEPH XILL, Esq. MY DEAR FRIEND,
Great revolutions happen in this Ant's nest of ours. One Emmet of illustrious cha. racter and great abilities pushes out another; parties are formed; they range themselves in formidable op. position ; they threaten each other's ruin; they cross over, and are minglerl together; and, like the corruscations of the Northern Aurora, amuse the spectator,
at the same time that, by some, they are supposed to be forerunners of a general dissolution.
There are political earthquakes as well as natural ones; the former less shocking to the eye, but not al. ways less fatal in their influence than the latter. The image which Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream was made up of heterogeneous and incompatible materials, and accordingly broken. Whatever is formed must expect a like catastrophe.
I have an etching of the late Chancellor hanging over the parlour chimney. I often contemplate it, and call to mind the day when I was intimate with the ori. ginal. It is very like him, but he is disguised by his hat, which, though fashionable, is awkward ; by his great wig, the tie of which is hardly discernable in profile; and by his band and gown, which give him an appearance clumsily sacerdotal. Our friendship is dead and buried; yours is the only surviving one of all with which I was once honoured. Adieu.
May 26, 1783.
I feel for my uncle, and do not wonder that his loss afflicts him. A connection that has subsisted so many years could not be rent asunder without great pain to the survivor. I hope, however, and doubt not but when he had a little more time for recollection, he will find that consolation in his own family which is not the lot of every father to be blessed with. It seldom happens that married persons live together so long or so happily : but this, which one feels oneself ready to suggest as matter of alleviation, is the