William Cowper (1731-1800)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

Cowper complies with a request to write some mortuary verses.

ON Monday morning last Sam brought me word that there was a man in the kitchen who desired to speak with me. I ordered him in. A plain, decent, elderly figure made its appearance, and, being desired to sit, spoke as follows: `Sir, I am a clerk of the parish of All Saints, in Northampton; brother of Mr. Cox, the upholsterer. It is customary for the person in my office to annex to a bill of mortality, which he publishes at Christmas, a copy of verses. You will do me a great favour, sir, if you would furnish me with one.' To this I replied, `Mr. Cox, you have several men of genius in your town, why have you not applied to some of them? There is a namesake of yours in particular, Cox the statuary, who, everybody knows, is a first-rate maker of verses. He surely is the man of all the world for your purpose.' `Alas! sir, I have heretofore borrowed help from him; but he is a gentleman of so much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him.' I confess to you, my dear, I felt all the force of the compliment implied in this speech, and was almost ready to answer, `Perhaps, my good friend, they may find me unintelligible too, for the same reason.' But on asking him whether he had walked over to Weston on purpose to implore the assistance of my Muse, and on his replying in the affirmative, I felt my mortified vanity a little consoled, and pitying the poor man's distress, which appeared to be considerable, promised to supply him. The wagon has accordingly gone this day to Northampton, loaded in part with my effusions in the mortuary style. A fig for poets who write epitaphs upon individuals! I have written one that serves two hundred persons.

N.B. One of the stanzas of Cowper's poem is often quoted, that commencing—

Like crowded forest-trees we stand,
And some are marked to fall.

From Thomas Wright, The Life of William Cowper (1892), pp. 457-458.

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