Indeed, he had been a thoughtless, wild young man. But suddenly in the heyday of his youth, in the midst of his gaiety, something terrible had happened. There lurked beneath that levity and perhaps inspired it a morbidity that sprang from some defect of person, a dread which made action, which made marriage, which made any public exhibition of himself insupportable. If goaded to it, and he was now committed to a public career in the House of Lords, he must fly, even into the jaws of death. Rather than take up his appointment he would drown himself. But a man sat on the qua when he came to the water’s edge; some invisible hand mysteriously forced the laudanum from his lips when he tried to drink it; the knife which he pressed to his heart broke; and the garter with which he tried to hand himself from the bedpost let him fall. Cowper was condemned to life.
When, therefore, that July morning he looked out of the window at the ladies shopping, he had come through gulfs of despair, but he had reached at last not only the haven of a quiet country town, but a settled state of mind, a settled way of life. He was domesticated with Mrs. Unwin, a widow of six years his elder. By letting him talk, and listening to his terrors and understanding them, she had brought him very wisely, like a mother, to something like peace of mind. They lived side by side for many years in methodical monotony. They began the day by reading the Scriptures together; they then went to church; they parted to read or walk; they met after dinner to converse on religious topics or to sin hymns together, then again they walked if it were fine, or read and talked as if it were wet, and at last the day ended with more hymns and more prayers. Such for many years had been the routine of Cowper’s life with Mary Unwin. When his fingers found their way to pen they traced the lines of a hymn, or if they wrote a letter it was to urge some misguided mortal, his brother John, for instance, at Cambridge, to seek salvation before it was too late.
Yet this urgency was akin perhaps to the old levity; it, too, was an attempt to ward off some terror, to propitiate some deep unrest that lurked at the bottom of his soul. Suddenly the peace was broken. One night in February 1773 the enemy rose; it smote once and forever. An awful voice called out to Cowper in a dream. It proclaimed that he was damned, that he was outcast, and he fell prostrate before it.
After that he could not pray. When the others said grace at table, he took up his knife and fork as a sign that he had no right to join in their prayers. Nobody, not even Mrs. Unwin, understood the terrific import of the dream. Nobody realized why he was unique; why he was singled out from mall mankind and stood alone in his damnation.
But that loneliness had a strange effect—since he was no longer capable of help or direction he was free. The Rev. John Newton could no longer guide his pen or inspire his muse. Since doom had been pronounced and damnation was inevitable, he might sport with hare, cultivate cucumbers, listen to village gossip, weave nets, make tables; all that could be hoped was too while away the dreadful years without the ability to enlighten others or to be helped himself.
Never had Cowper written more enchantingly, more gaily, to his friends than now that he knew himself condemned. It was only at moments, when he wrote to Newton or to Unwin, that terror raised its horrid head above the surface and that he cried aloud: “My days are spent in vanity…Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no more.
For the most part, as he idled his time away in pleasant pastimes, as he looked with amusement at what passed in the street below, one might think him the happiest of men.
Virginia Woolf, “Cowper & Lady Austen,” The Second Common Reader (Harncourt, Brace & Co., 1932), 127-29.