William Cowper

Thomas Humphry Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:422-33.

The pathos of Cowper's life and his position in our poetical history will always lend a special interest to his work, even though it is no longer possible to regard a poet limited as he was as a poet of the first order. He was an essentially original writer, owing much of course, as every writer must owe, to the subtle influences of his time, but deriving as little as ever poet derived from literary study. "I have not read more than one English poet for twenty years, and but one for thirteen years," he says in one of his letters of the year 1782; and though that would seem to be an exaggeration, it is akin to a truth — that in mature life at least, he cared little for reading English poetry, and owed little to it. It is true that be formed his blank verse on the model of Milton, and that Churchill, "the great Churchill," gave him a pattern in the use of the heroic couplet which he soon surpassed; but essentially he stands alone, as remote from the stream of eighteenth-century verse as his life at Olney was remote from the public life of his day. The poet of Retirement and The Task is the beginning of a new order in poetry; he is one of the first symptoms, if not the originator, of the revolution in style which is soon to become a revolution in ideas. The "dear, crisp English" of his verse is not the work of a man who belongs to a school, or who follows some conventional pattern. It is for his amusement, he repeats again and again in his letters, that he is a poet; just as it has been for his amusement that he has worked in the garden and made rabbit-hutches. He writes because it pleases him, without a thought of his fame or of contriving what the world will admire. The Task, his most characteristic poem, is indeed a work of great labour; but the labour is not directed, as Pope's labour was directed, towards methodising or arranging the material, towards working up the argument, towards forcing the ideas into the most striking situations. The labour is in the cadences and the language; as for the thoughts, they are allowed to show themselves just as they come, in their natural order, so that the poem reads like the speech of a man talking to himself. To turn from a poem of Cowper's to a poem of Pope's, or even of Goldsmith's, is to turn from one sphere of an to quite another, from unconscious to conscious art. "Formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery," as Southey said; and how much that means! It means that the day of critical and so-called classical poetry is over; that the day of spontaneous, natural, romantic poetry has begun. Burns and Wordsworth are not yet, but they are close at hand.

The time at which Cowper, then fifty years of age, was writing and publishing his first volume, was not a time of mental stagnation in England, nor a time when poetry was not in fashion. On the contrary, it was an epoch of great mental activity; it was the epoch of Adam Smith and Hume, of Gibbon and Robertson, of Brindley and Watt. More than that, it was the epoch at which two great rival Collections of the British poets — the first that had ever been made — were being published with much success. But it was an epoch at which nothing of any value was being produced in poetry; Gray, Goldsmith, Chatterton were dead, and they had left no successors. Cowper has preserved for us with no small pride the letter in which "one of the first philosophers, one of the most eminent literary characters" of the age, Dr. Franklin, acknowledges the receipt of his volume, sent by a common friend. "The relish for the 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." If we wish to appreciate what Dr. Franklin meant by this "something so new in the manner," we have only to turn to any of the volumes which contain what passed current as poetry at the moment; to the volumes of the Gentleman's Magazine, for example, or (to go back a few years) to some of the Collections or volumes of Miscellanies that the publishers of the time were fond of issuing. Dodsley's is one instance; another is Pearch's Collection of Poems by several hands, printed in four volumes in 1768-70. Much of the space is occupied by the work of well-known writers, that has survived and has always been celebrated — the work of Collins and Johnson for example. But the crowd, the forgotten crowd that fill the bulk of the volumes, they are the writers who represent the average poetical level of the time, the level out of which Cowper suddenly emerged to charm Dr. Franklin. Mr. Cawthorn, Mr. Emily, Mr. Cunningham, Miss Carter, Mrs. Greville, and a hundred others, are the channels into which the river of eighteenth-century verse diffused itself before it was finally lost in the sand. It is harmless enough, this verse; it is not "noise and nonsense," like the Della Cruscan productions of twenty years later; but it is incurably banal, it wholly lacks distinction. When the excellent Miss Carter, the translator of Epictetus, has to write an Ode to Melancholy (and odes to Melancholy, to Concord, to Ambition, are the staple of the volumes) she begins:—

Come, melancholy, silent pow'r,
Companion of my lonely hour,
To sober thought confus'd;
Thou sweetly-sad ideal guest,
In all thy soothing charms confest,
Indulge my pensive mind!

When Mr. Henley writes an Ode to Evening, he can choose no more individual metre than that in which Collins had written his Ode a few years before. The publishers of the Collection speak of it with pride, as representing "an age in which literary merit so much abounds"; but the candid modern reader finds the merit to be but the merit of a more than Chinese uniformity.

Poor Robert Lloyd, Cowper's and Colman's friend, was nearer the mark when he said, just at this time,—

Write what we will, our works bespeak us
Imitatores, servum pecus.
Tale, elegy, or lofty ode,
We travel on the beaten road:
The proverb still sticks closely by us—
Nil dictum quod dictum prius.

In what precisely does this "something so new in the manner" of Cowper's work consist? There is much debate among modern critics as to the answer to this question, which really is the question of Cowper's place in our literary history: some claiming for him a kinship with Rousseau, a spirit like that of Byron and Shelley — a revolutionary spirit that he certainly would not have claimed for himself; others — and this is the common view — agreeing with Mr. Arnold that he is "the precursor of Wordsworth." It would be truer to say that in his own curious and limited way Cowper contains both these elements, the Byronic and the Wordsworthian element; and that in so doing he embodies all the intellectual influences that were silently working around him towards the evolution of modern England. An interesting writer has characterised the tendencies of poetry in the latter half of the eighteenth century as "love of natural description and attempts at a more vivid and wider delineation of human character and incident"; two tendencies which, we may add, are but different forms of one — of the revolt against convention both in art and society. The joy in natural objects, of which we have found traces in many writers since Thomson, begins to be linked with a sense of the brotherhood of mankind; to the religious mind (and the wide reach of the religious revival must be remembered) this sense of brotherhood and this sense of natural beauty being sharpened and strengthened by the belief in the near presence of the Creator and the Father of all. Cowper is the artist who has expressed in a new and permanent form this complex sentiment. He is the poet of the return to nature, and he is the poet of the simple human affections; both nature and humanity being of interest to him because of their divine source, and because of that alone. "We are placed in the world," he seems to say, "by an omnipotent and irresponsible Being, on whose will our life and death, our health and sickness, our prosperity and adversity at every moment depend, and who decides at his pleasure the fate, of empires and the issues of political events. The world as he made it is good, but the corruption of man has done much to spoil it. "God made the country and man made the towns; and though man cannot live without society, his vices are such that his towns soon become centres of corruption. Hence true beauty is to be found only in unadulterate Nature; true pleasures only in the fields and woods, and in the simple offices of rural and domestic life. To watch Nature at her work; to meditate; to cultivate sympathy with those creatures that are, so to speak, most fresh from Nature's hand — with animals and the poor and the friends of your home — this is the only rational way to happiness; and to advocate this life is the poet's work. On the other hand, he may emphasise his teaching by contrast; by denouncing vice, by satire genial or severe; by drawing in outlines that all may recognise the harm of a departure from Nature. The poet is a teacher and an advocate; his business is to wean the world from worldliness to God."

At fifty years of age, then, and under the influence of his friend of fifteen years, Mrs. Unwin, Cowper began to realise his own powers as a poet, and systematically to carry into practice this theory of the poet's duty. Already in 1776 the gloom of his second period of insanity had begun to roll away; he renewed his broken correspondence; he took to busying himself about the garden and the house at Olney. His brightest and most active years are those that follow — the fifteen years that begin with the renewal of his correspondence and end with the publication of his Homer. It was about 1780 that he began to find his glazing and his carpentering, and even his landscape-drawing not enough; to find it unsatisfying "To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd," and to look for a more solid occupation than

Weaning nets for bird-alluring fruit,
Or twining silken threads on ivory reels.

He asked for some employment more permanently exciting, and he found it in versifying on the themes set by Mrs. Unwin. What pleasure he gained from his new occupation is told in part in the poems themselves, and is reiterated in those volumes of narrative, humour, chat, argument, criticism, which are the daily record of Cowper's, mind, and which so completely justify the title that Southey claimed for him of "the best letter-writer in the English language." In his poems, indeed, Cowper has revealed himself with a winning naivete that is almost without example; and when we add to the autobiographical passages in Retirement and The Task the friendly confidences of the letters, we find that there remains nothing for the critic to interpret. Cowper explains himself with a simple frankness that makes half his charm.

For example, the letters abound with passages which show on the one hand the pleasure that he derived from his newly-found gift of writing, and on the other the moral and religious aim that he believed himself to be fulfilling in his poetry. "The necessity of amusement makes me sometimes write verses," he says to William Unwin; "it made me a carpenter, a bird-cage maker, a gardener, and has lately taught me to draw." Again, in a latter to Newton: "At this season of the year, and in this gloomy uncomfortable climate, it is no easy matter for the owner of a mind like mine to divest it from sad subjects and to fix it open such as may administer to its amusement. Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect. While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again."

In a later letter to the same friend, which refers still more painfully to his mental distress, he says:—

"God knows that my mind having been occupied more than twelve years in the contemplation of the most distressing subjects, the world, and its opinion of what I write, is become as unimportant to me as the whistling of a bird in a bush. Despair made amusement necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement. Had I not endeavoured to perform my best, it would not have aroused me at all. The mere blotting of so much paper would have been but indifferent sport. God give me grace also to wish that I might not write in vain."

And again, as a reason for publishing,

"If I did not publish what I write, I could not interest myself sufficiently in my own success to make an amusement of it."

Of course, however, as the second of these extracts shows, he has a deeper reason for writing than this; the preacher's and the moralist's reason, that appears so dearly in every page of his poems. "My sole drift is to be useful," he writes to his cousin Mrs. Cowper; "a point however which I know I should in vain aim at, unless I could be likewise entertaining." To Lady Austen, in his well-known letter in verse, he appears as

I, who scribble rhyme
To catch the triflers of the time,
And tell them truths divine and clear
Which, couched in prose, they will not hear.

To Unwin he speaks of his first volume as

A page
That would reclaim a vicious age.

Table Talk, the opening poem, is, it will be remembered, an argument to prove that the true field of poetry is the beauty of religion, till then an unexplored land; and that the poet's true function is to

Spread the rich discovery, and invite
Mankind to share in the divine delight

And in the beautiful lines which close Retirement, he claims the position of a teacher of mankind:—

Me poetry (or rather notes that aim
Feebly and faintly at poetic fame)
Employs, shut out from more important views,
Fast by the banks of the slow-winding Ouse;
Content if thus sequestered I may raise
A monitor's, though not a poet's, praise.
And while I teach an art too little known,
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.

From the Letters too we can learn much of Cowper's method of composition; enough at least to correct the first impression which we might derive from his poetry, that it was the work of a rapid and even careless writer. "If there lives a man who stands clear of the charge of careless writing, I am that man," he says to Lady Hesketh, in answer to some criticisms of his Homer made by General Cowper. His facility is unquestionable; but it is a fact that he composed slowly. He took "Nulla dies sine linea" for a motto, and when once he had taken up the profession of a poet he persevered in it, contenting himself, when Minerva was unwilling, with three lines of The Task as a day's production, and thinking three lines better than nothing. When the translation of Homer was in hand the work went on with the utmost regularity. "I have, as you well know," he tells Unwin, "a daily occupation — forty lines to translate, a task which I never excuse myself when it is possible to perform it. Equally sedulous am I in the matter of transcribing, so that between both my morning and evening are for the most part completely engaged." Transcribing however he thought "slavish work, and of all occupations that which I dislike the most"; and accordingly he was glad when friends relieved him by copying some of the Homer. He deferred to the criticism of those about him, and was glad when his publisher, Johnson, suggested an alteration in a phrase. When Newton, of whom to the last he seems to have stood somewhat in awe, condemned a passage, Cowper consented with the best grace to remove it: — "I am glad you have condemned it; and though I do not feel as if I could presently supply its place, shall be willing to attempt the task, whatever labour it may cost me." In effect we may say that during the five years which ended with the publication of The Task, and to a certain extent during the years when Cowper was employed on this Homer, the writing and recasting of his poetry filled all his mind. The "pleasure in poetic pains which only poets know" was known to him conspicuously among poets; the critical spirit within him, that independent and fastidious taste for which be is so remarkable, found fill exercise; and in the excitement of doing his true work in the most perfect way he seems to have almost forgotten the cloud which had overshadowed him and was soon to return.

The Letters, again, tell us much of Cowper's opinions of other poets. We have already quoted the passage in which he speaks of his scanty reading of them — "not more than one English poet for twenty years." As Southey remarks, this probably means that he had not read more than one with minute care; with such care as he afterwards spent on Glover's Athenaid, when by way of preparing to review it he "made an analysis of the first twelve books." In his youth he had evidently been a reader of poetry, and he had an excellent memory. When Johnson's collection was sent to him in 1779 he found that the best poets were "so fresh in his memory" that the collection taught him nothing. He is fond of mentioning Churchill, the admiration of his early manhood, with something more than respect; here and there he has an acute remark about Pope, as when he says "never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united." He often falls foul of Johnson, "a great bear, in spite of all his learning and penetration." He dissents from his view of Prior, and argues with great skill for a proper recognition of Prior's real poetical merits, while he is so enraged by the Doctor's attack on Milton that he breaks into the cry, "O, I could thrash his old jacket till his pension jingled in his pocket!" All this shows that Cowper had a clear taste of his own in poetry, a "gout vif et franc," as Sainte-Beuve calls it in his excellent criticism of him, but it does not show that he was a student of English poetry, any more than his quotations from Swift and Rabelais show that he read much and often in their books, or than the Horatian turn of his didactic pieces show that be was always reading Horace. The truth is, as we have all along implied, that Cowper is original if the word means anything. "My descriptions," he writes of The Task, "are all from nature; — not one of them second-handed. My delineations of the heart are from my own experience; — not one of them borrowed from books, or in the least degree conjectural. In my numbers, which I varied as much as I could (for blank verse without variety of numbers is no better than bladder and string), I have imitated nobody, though sometimes perhaps there may be an apparent resemblance; because at the same time that I would not imitate, I have not affectedly differed."

It is this originality, this veracity, this exact correspondence of the phrase with the feeling, and of both with the object, that marks out Cowper. We sometimes hear it said that he owed much, especially in versification, to Churchill; if he owed anything, it was so much "bettered in the borrowing" that it is hard to discover the debt. The very foundation of his poetry is his close observation of men and things: the same close observation that fills his letters with happily touched incidents of village life, with characters sketched in a sentence, furnishes the groundwork of The Task and the satires. The snow-covered fields, the waggon toiling through the drifts, "the distant plough slow moving," the garden, the fireside; the gipsies, the village thief, the clerical coxcomb Dubius, Sir Smug — of all these he gives us not only finished pictures, but pictures finished in the presence of the object and not in the studio. "The Flemish masters have met their match!" says Sainte-Beuve, as he quotes with delight one of these descriptions of Cowper's; might we not say with even greater truth, "The English landscape painters have found their pattern"?

Yet it is undoubtedly true that Cowper is little read by the very class which is most given to the reading of poetry, and most competent to judge it. He is a favourite with the middle classes; he is not a favourite with the cultivated classes. What are the limitations of his genius which prevent his acceptance with them? Mr. Arnold, who long ago called Cowper "that most interesting man and excellent poet," perhaps sums them up when he speaks of Cowper's "morbid religion and lumbering movement." If we are to look to poetry for the successful "application of ideas to life," we shall look in vain to The Task; for the ideas are those of an inelastic puritanism, that would maim and mutilate life in the name of religion. "Were I to write as many poems as Lope de Vega or Voltaire," says Cowper, "not one of them would be without this tincture," — this puritanic tincture. He began with the resolve to make religion poetical, and he succeeded in making poetry religious, but religious after a manner which his excellent editor, Mr. Benham, himself a clergyman, calls "hard and revolting." And the same temper which led him to measure the Unseen with the foot-rule of Calvinistic orthodoxy, led him to visit the science, the politics, even the characters which he did not understand, with a censure like that of the Syllabus. "It would be hard," "says Mr. Benham, "to find a more foolish and mischievous piece of rant than that contained in The Garden" — in the lines where Cowper reviles the geologist and the historian; and we might extend the same sentence to his promiscuous denunciations of London life, of the amusements of ordinary people, even of the game of chess. When the Commemoration of Handel takes place, he joins with Newton in crying Idolatry! When he writes his Review of Schools, it never occurs to him that boys may get good as well as harm from each other's society, and that there may be desirable elements of character that cannot be acquired in "some pious pastor's humble cot." When he turns, as he often does, to politics, his amiable Whiggism is sorely tried by current events, by the lack of great men, and by the miscarriage of the American war. He believes that "the loss of America will be the ruin of England," but consoles himself with the thought that the surrender of Cornwallis was "fore-ordained," and that the end of the world is approaching. "My feelings are all of the intense kind," he says in one of his letters; and the Nemesis of intensity is narrowness.

"Again, in curious contrast to the neatness and ease of his rhymed couplets, there is unquestionably a lumbering movement" in Cowper's blank verse; heaviness, difficulty, coming sometimes from the necessity that he was under of adorning trivialities, sometimes from a want of mastery over the language.

Warmed, while it lasts, by labour, all day long
They brave the season, and yet find at eve,
Ill clad and fed but sparely, time to cool.

—There are too many commas, the reader cannot help crying. Sometimes, again, we find a worse than Wordsworthian nudity of phrase—

The violet, the pink, the jessamine,
I pricked them into paper with a pin;

sometimes an intolerable instance of the quasi-heroic — "The stable yields a stercoraceous heap;" or a positive barbarism, as here, in Tirocinium—

Have ye, ye sage intendants of the whole,
A ubiquarian presence and control?

We find frequent descents into prose, and rarely indeed a compensating ascent into the higher music of the great poets. How should we find such ascents, indeed, in Cowper? They demand some moving force of passion, or some inspiring activity of ideas, and for neither of these can we look to him. The only passion that really moved him was the morbid passion of despair, when the cloud that obscured his brain pressed heavy upon him; and it was only when he wrote under this influence that he produced masterpieces, such as that noble and terrible poem, The Castaway, and the lines of self-description in The Task. His ideas, too, have not the inspiring activity necessary to produce great poetry; they are not vital ideas; they are seen to be less and less in harmony with the facts of the world as the years go on. We read Cowper, indeed, not for his passion or for his ideas, but for his love of nature and his faithful rendering of her beauty; for his truth of portraiture, for his humour, for his pathos; for the refined honesty of his style, for the melancholy interest of his life, and for the simplicity and the loveliness of his character.