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HOW COW PER GOT HIS PENSION:
A STUDY IN MINUTE HISTORY: FROM A MANUSCRIPT
BY WILLIAM HAYLEY.
The minor poet Hayley, whose name is familiar to all who are acquainted with Blake or Cowper, has several small claims upon the attention of the curious. The works of any poet who has been popular in his generation are always worthy an historian's regard, for by them he can become better acquainted with the ordinary intelligences of an age, can re-establish forgotten values, build up a sounder opinion
, of the past. It is difficult to believe that Hayley was once considered a very fine poet, that he was admired by Gibbon, and was offered the laureateship by Pitt; it is more difficult to those who know the man to believe that he refused that proffered honour because he was disgusted with the absurd Duties annexed to the Office. Yet all this is true of him, and, by an aggregate of such circumstances, petty and almost laughable though they be, Hayley has wound himself into literary history, where he will continue to remain, long after the stucco turrets of what he euphuistically called his ‘marine hermitage' have ceased to be gazed upon by the inhabitants of the seaside village of Felpham in Sussex.
Among the several small incidents that went to distinguish Hayley's life, that which stands most to his credit has never-even in this age of careful retrospects-been fully insisted upon. Those whose business it is to make small sketches of almost forgotten people, were they to disturb the bones of Hayley, would certainly not fix
the transactions now to be recorded as his greatest act and monument. For, in the first place, they would be tempted to make a comic picture, and so, going the accustomed path, would leave out anything that might spoil sport, and, in the second, they would not have certain necessary papers. These, which the present writer has been fortunate enough to light upon and acquire, take the form of an exercise book, numbered by hand up to the hundred and second page. It is entitled ' A Singular History in a series of Letters from a Father to his Son,' and, though it cannot be stated with certainty that it is in Hayley's autograph, seems to have been corrected by him. A companion volume, in all outward appearances similar to this one and containing a collection of epitaphs, is in the poet's characteristic hand. There is no doubt that Hayley was the author of
this unpublished history. The matter therein contained could only have been known to him ; he refers to the existence of such a manuscript in vol. i. p. 459 of his posthumously published memoirs; finally, the idiosyncrasies of this gentleman appear so obviously in the style, opinions, sentiments, and in the peculiarly artificial form into which the narrative is cast, that no one with any knowledge of his writings can suppose for a moment he was not the author.
The document in question is an account of the exertions Hayley underwent to secure a pension for his friend Cowper. That a pension was obtained, and that Hayley was somehow concerned in the negotiations, is all that has yet been recorded. Southey has a brief reference to it in his · Works of Cowper'; Hayley himself hinted at the great deed in his ridiculous memoirs. But in what way Cowper got this pension, and why he needed it, and who was enthusiastic for him and who was not, and how Hayley came into the story, and how he acted—such questions have hardly been raised and have never been fully answered. Yet, if this, the most meritorious act of Hayley's life, is to be described in detail, it must be conveyed into history with circumstance and an occasional flourish. It is the story of an importunity, and of an indulgence that came too late.
Hayley and Cowper got to know each other by a mere chance. Those who are acquainted with the latter poet can easily guess that he was not the first to make advances. His nervous affection made him extremely unwilling to court friendship's adventures, though it is also true that on one or two occasions a sudden impulse broke up this sensitive dread of interference. A careless newspaper paragraph gave Hayley the opportunity he improved to his everlasting advantage. He and Cowper had both been commissioned by different publishers to do similar work. Some difference arose between these publishers over a question of illustrations. The newspapers, imperfectly informed, stated that the two poets were emulously engaged in preparing a life of Milton. As a matter of fact they were ignorant of each other's business. But Hayley, who had something of the Boswell in him, and was, besides, nervously over-anxious in all matters of decorum, determined to write a polite letter to the greater poet, expressive of his innocence of all ideas of rivalry (forsooth !) and of his immense reverence for Cowper's poetry. In February 1792 he despatched the intended letter from his 'retreat' at Eartham, Sussex (the marine hermitage at Felpham was yet unbuilt), and sent with it, according to his usual custom on such
occasions, a sonnet, crammed with as much luscious eulogy as fourteen lines can decently be expected to carry. This letter, meeting with some misadventures on the way, was retarded, and when at length Cowper received it he was sorry to think that Hayley had already been waiting some time for an answer. With such an opportunity on his part to display those sweet graces, that bountiful lovingkindness, the expression of which places him alone amongst our letter-writers, Cowper was at least certain to make a new correspondent. A swift interchange of letters followed ; 'our stars consent,' wrote Cowper, and in two months Hayley was at Weston, the guest of an almost inaccessible poet. Though predisposed to like his new friend, the real recluse was at first shy of meeting the sham one.
But Hayley's visit was a great and joyful success. 'Everybody here,' wrote Cowper, ' has fallen in love with him, and
‘ wherever he goes everybody must. We have formed a friendship that I trust will last for life and render us an edifying example to all future poets.'
At this time Cowper was entering upon the last decade of his life. In the eleven years that had elapsed since the publication of his first volume, he had attained to a reputation which set him alone amongst English poets. Crabbe, a possible competitor, had lapsed for a period into silence. The writers called 'Romantic' were not yet arisen. Yet, popular as he was, his unhappy mental condition had long removed him from society. From the year 1765, the date of his domesticity with the Unwins, he had cut himself adrift from everything that a man of his family and attainments would naturally have sought. But, when fame came to him in his retreat-not without some encouragement on his part, though he was an indifferent wooer--she had not brought him wealth. From the break-up of his prospects as a young man to the time when he first met Hayley, his only trouble, setting aside his malady, had been a financial one. It is not probable he would ever have been able to make both ends meet without some anxiety, granting him a sound mind and a fair fortune. Pity would in any case have outworn his means ; business eyes cannot help noticing that he was not economical. Of the first forty-six letters published by Southey in volume fifteen of his Works of Cowper,'twenty-six relate to his affairs. His whole fortune consisted of a few hundreds invested in 'the Funds,' and the
a rent from the chambers he had as a young man purchased in the Temple. That his income was not sufficient for him to live
upon, and that he was not prudent in the handling of what he had, appears
from his own humorous statement of what happened during the three months he spent in lodgings at Huntingdon, where—to quote his own words--he' contrived to spend the income of a twelvemonth.' In July 1765 he wrote thus to his very good friend Joseph Hill, a man who has never had the credit he deserves for shepherding Cowper's odd hundreds :
Whatever you may think of the matter, it is no such easy thing to keep house for two people. A man cannot always live upon sheeps' heads, and liver and lights, like the lions in the Tower; and a joint of meat, in so small a family, is an endless encumbrance. My butcher's bill for last week amounted to four shillings and tenpence. I set off with a leg of lamb, and was forced to give part of it away to my washerwoman. Then I made an experiment upon a sheep's heart, and that was too little. Next I put three pounds of beef into a pie, and this was like to have been too much, for it lasted three days, though my landlord was admitted to a share in it. Then as to small beer, I am puzzled to pieces about it. I have bought as much for a shilling, as will serve us at least a month, and it is grown sour already. In short I never knew how to pity poor house. keepers before ; but now I cease to wonder at that politic cast which their occupation usually gives to their countenance, for it is really a matter full of perplexity.
Not long after he wrote this letter he went to stay with the Unwins as a paying guest, but could not shake off his difficulties. He then wrote: 'I find it impossible to proceed any longer in my present course without danger of bankruptcy. From some verses in the same letter it appears, however, that he was buying a horse.
I wrote to you about ten days ago
These early difficulties had been tided over by the intervention of his family, which had sat in solemn conclave over him, and by the change in his domestic arrangements consequent on the death of Mr. Unwin. Mrs. Unwin had a little money of her own, and from this time onwards made a common purse with Cowper. A boy whom he had rescued from drunken parents ceased at this time to be an expense to him, and (one learns from a casual reference) was at last free to follow his parents' footsteps. After he removed to Olney the poet was given a certain sum every year to spend on charitable purposes, and this, no doubt, helped to save his capital. Thanks to Mrs. Unwin's good management, to fairly liberal doles from his family, and to occasional presents of eatables from London, something was kept in reserve. Yet in 1772 he was forced to
accept an offer of assistance from his good friend Hill, while in 1778 -many of the intervening years were consumed by a second visitation of his malady-that gentleman informed him his income would shortly become less. This second crisis in his financial affairs arrived at the moment when Thurlow, his old friend and schoolfellow, was created Chancellor, and it was suggested to Cowper that he should solicit that great man's assistance. Another would have done so, especially as a reminiscence smoothed the opportunity. Long since, in the old days of 1762, Cowper, prophesying, had said to Thurlow : Thurlow, I am nobody, and shall always be nobody, and you will be Chancellor. You shall provide for me when you are.' He smiled, and replied “I surely will.' 'These ladies,' said Cowper, ‘are witness.' ‘Let them be so,' Thurlow had insisted, ' for I will certainly do it.' But Cowper refused to write. “Our former intimacy,' he explained, 'would be disgraced by such an oblique application. He was sure Thurlow had not forgotten him. He would wait in silence.
That silence remained unbroken by the Chancellor, who churlishly did not acknowledge the poet's first volume, sent to him in 1781. He could not, like Cowper, discern genius in a friend. But towards the close of the year 1785 Lady Hesketh, Cowper's cousin and dear friend, pressed for a statement of his affairs, and, learning that Mrs. Unwin's revenues were much depleted, and that she and the poet had latterly been forced to deny themselves ' some things which hitherto we have been better able to afford,' made a frank offer of help. This in the same spirit Cowper accepted, but it is improbable that Lady Hesketh could have been able to afford much. About the same time presents began to arrive from an anonymous donor, whom Southey believes, reasonably enough, to have been Theodora, Lady Hesketh's sister. From this unknown source of benevolence proceeded the famous gift of a snuff-box, ornamented with the figures of his three tame hares-Tiney, Bess, and Puss. Later came an offer, thankfully accepted, of an annuity of fifty pounds.
It was not long before Hayley, who was interested in such matters, having inherited expensive tastes and a very moderate fortune, had wormed most of these secrets out of either Cowper or Mrs. Unwin.
It may have been the latter's regard for her companion that led her to confide in Hayley; at any rate he soon learnt that on her death Cowper, now moderately well off, would cease to be so. She who in the dark years that followed 1772 had been the poet's most attentive nurse, was now VOL. XXXIV.-NO. 202, N.S.