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A New æra opens in the history of the poet, from an incident that gave fresh ardour and vivacity to his fertile imagination. In 1781, he became acquainted with a lady, highly accomplished herself, and singularly happy in animating and directing the fancy of her poetical friends. The world will perfectly agree with me in this eulogy, when I add, that to this lady we are primarily indebted for the poem of the Task, for the ballad of John Gilpin, and for the translation of Homer. "But in my lively sense of her merit, I am almost forgetting my immer
diate duty, as the biographer of the poet, to introduce her circumstantially to the acquaintance of my reader.
A lady, whose name was Jones, was one of the few neighbours admitted in the residence of the retired poet. She was the wife of a clergyman, who resided at the village of Clifton, within a mile of Olney. Her sister, the widow of Sir Robert Austen, Baronet, came to pass some time with her in the summer of 1781; and as the two ladies chanced to call at a shop in Olney, opposite to the house of Mrs. Unwin, Cowper observed them from his window.Although naturally shy, and now rendered more so by his very long illness, he was so struck with the appearance of the stranger, that on hearing she was sister to Mrs. Jones, he requested. Mrs. Unwin to invite them to tea. So strong was his reluctance to admit the company of strangers, that after he had occasioned this invitation, he was for a long time unwilling to join the little party; but having forced himself at last to engage in conversation with Lady Austen, he was so reanimated by her colloquial talents, that he attended the ladies on their return to Clifton, and from that time continued to cultivate the regard of his new acquaintance with such assiduous attention,
that she soon received from him the familiar and endearing title of sister Ann.
The great and happy influence, which an incident, that seems at first sight so trivial, produced very rapidly on the imagination of Cowper, will best appear from the following epistle, which, soon after Lady Austen's return to London for the winter, the poet addressed to her, on the seventeenth of December, 1781.
Dear Anna-between friend and friend,
But when a poet takes the pen,
His more sublime vagaries slighting,
Mysterious are his ways, whose power
* An obscure part of Olney, adjoining to the residence of Cowper, which faced the market-place.
Thus Martha, ev'n against her will, Perch'd on the top of yonder hill ; And you, though you must needs prefer The fairer scenes of sweet Sancerre,* Are come from distant Loire, to chuse A cottage on the banks of Ouse. This page of Providence quite new, And now just opening to our view, Employs our present thoughts and pains To guess, and spell, what it contains: But day by day, and year by year, Will make the dark ænigma clear ; And furnish us perhaps at last, Like other scenes already past, With proof, that we, and our affairs, Are part of a Jehovah's cares: For God unfolds, by slow degrees, The purport of his deep decrees ; Sheds every hour a clearer light In aid of our defective sight; And spreads, at length, before the soul, A beautiful and perfect whole, Which busy man's inventive brain Toils to anticipate in vain,
Say, Anna, had you never known, The beauties of a rose full blown,
* Lady Austen's residence in France.