1781
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anti-Thelyphthora. A Tale in Verse.

Anti-Thelyphthora. A Tale in Verse.

William Cowper


A chivalric burlesque in couplets. William Cowper's first significant publication (anonymously published) ridicules Thelyphthora (1780) an argument for polygamy as an alternative to prostitution published by his cousin, Dr. Martin Madan ("Airy del Castro"); Samuel Badcock of the Monthly Review appears as "Sir Marmadan." Despite a poor sale, the poet was encouraged enough to begin a series of satires that eventually appeared in his first volume of Poems (1782).

Critical Review: "This Tale is something in the manner of one of the episodes in Spencer's Fairy Queen. Sir Airy del Castro pays his addresses to an enchantress, called Hypothesis. The marriage is solemnized, without any other ceremony than the performances of the Hymeneal rite prescribed in Thelyphthora. The ladies are alarmed at this dangerous and licentious innovation, and call for a knight, who may 'Assert the character of the chaste and fair.' Sir Marmadan appears, and defeats the enchantress and her paramour. This allegory is invented and supported with a tolerable spirit of poetry" 51 (January 1781) 74.

Samuel Badcock: "The heroes of this little tale are — Reader, pull off thy hat! — the Rev. Martin Madan, and — put on thy hat again — the Monthly Reviewer! These redoubted champions enter the lists in quality of knights; each having his mistress, but neither of them provided with an esquire to gird on his buckler, lead forth his Rosinante, or hold the stirrup. This is a sad defect in a chivalrous poem; and the Author might as well have left the knight's horse, as his esquire, at home. And, moreover, we think it is a slight on 'squire Dodsley and 'squire Griffiths to have been totally omitted in the Tale of their own knights; when it is evident that they attended them to the field, and at least held the stirrup, if they did not draw the sword. But let us be serious — though it is impossible to help smiling at the idea of a Reviewer's becoming a knight! — unless a Knight of the Post, in the present dearth of letters! — We must do our Poet the justice to acknowledge that his Tale is the offspring of an elegant fancy, and we are much obliged to him for the compliment he hath paid our theological associate. We are linked together by very close bands, and are mutually affected by the applause or censure of any member of our corps: so much so, that in our merry moments, when we are smoking our social pipes together in the 'cloud-capt' garret, we have merrily compared ourselves to the spider, which feels in the centre the slightest touch at the extremity.... But we must no repeat our own praise; for, notwithstanding we have been called impudent, and saucy, and magisterial, and all that, yet we are verily so modest that we should blush to repeat all that hath been said about us. We shall only add, that WE, that is, sir Marmadan, the Reviewer, 'Rush'd with a whirlwind's fury on the foe, | And, Phineas-like, transfix'd them at a blow.' 'Transfix'd them:' — i.e. sir Airy and Dame Hypo: — spitted like two sparrows! — by Dian's quiver — an excellent stroke!" Monthly Review 64 (March 1781) 229-30.

European Magazine: "Mr. Cowper was the author of Anti-Thelypthora in 4to. It was a performance in ridicule of his cousin Martin Madan's strange doctrine of Polygamy. A reluctance to expose so near a relation, Mr. Madan's mother and Mr. Cowper's father being brother and sister, is said to have induced Mr. Cowper to suppress this pleasant jeu d'esprit, which is little known, and now difficult to be procured" 37 (June 1800) 447.

George Saintsbury: "Anti-Thelypthora, though is has pained some good people, is unexceptionable as heroi-comic verse — in fact, it is in parts not inferior to Canning's 'New Morality,' from this point of view" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 2:471.

Nicholas Julius Hook describes Anti-Thelyphthora as "Spenser in heroic couplets" Eighteenth-Century Imitations of Spenser (1941) 166. Cowper's inspiration may have been "The Squire of Dames" by Moses Mendez, published in Dodsley's Collection of Poems (1755).

Anti-Thelyphthora was quickly forgotten and later suppressed by his executors out of concerns for the family. It was not recognized and attributed to Cowper until 1835, when Robert Southey discovered a note by indicating authorship written by Cowper's friend Samuel Rose and inscribed in Isaac Reed's copy of Kippis's Biographia Britannica. See Southey, Letters, ed. Warder (1856) 4:426.



Airy del Castro was as bold a knight
As ever earn'd a lady's love in fight.
Many he sought, but one above the rest
His tender heart victoriously impress'd:
In fairy land was born the matchless dame,
The land of dreams, Hypothesis her name.
There fancy nursed her in ideal bowers,
And laid her soft in amaranthine flowers;
Delighted with her babe, the enchantress smiled,
And graced with all her gifts the favourite child.
Her woo'd Sir Airy, by meandering streams,
In daily musings and in nightly dreams;
With all the flowers he found, he wove in haste
Wreaths for her brow, and girdles for her waist;
His time, his talents, and his ceaseless care
All consecrated to adorn the fair;
No pastime but with her he deign'd to take,
And, — if he studied, studied for her sake.
And for Hypothesis was somewhat long,
Nor soft enough to suit a lover's tongue,
He called her Posy, with an amorous art,
And graved it on a gem, and wore it next his heart.

But she, inconstant as the beams that play
On rippling waters in an April day,
With many a freakish trick deceived his pains,
To pathless wilds and unfrequented plains
Enticed him from his oaths of knighthood far,
Forgetful of the glorious toils of war.
'Tis thus the tenderness that love inspires
Too oft betrays the votaries of his fires;
Borne far away on elevated wings,
They sport like wanton doves in airy rings,
And laws and duties are neglected things.

Nor he alone address'd the wayward fair;
Full many a knight had been entangled there.
But still, whoever woo'd her or embraced,
On every mind some mighty spell she cast.
Some she would teach (for she was wondrous wise,
And made her dupes see all things with her eyes,)
That forms material, whatsoe'er we dream,
Are not at all, or are not what they seem;
That substances and modes of every kind
Are mere impressions on the passive mind;
And he that splits his cranium, breaks at most
A fancied head against a fancied post:
Others, that earth, ere sin had crown'd it all,
Was smooth and even as an ivory ball;
That all the various beauties we survey,
Hills, valleys, rivers, and the boundless sea,
Are but departures from the first design,
Effects of punishment and wrath divine.
She tutor'd some in Daedalus's art,
And promised they should act his wildgoose part,
On waxen pinions soar without a fall,
Swift as the proudest gander of them all.

But fate reserved Sir Airy to maintain
The wildest project of her teeming brain;
That wedlock is not rigorous as supposed,
But man, within a wider pale enclosed,
May rove at will, where appetite shall lead,
Free as the lordly bull that ranges o'er the mead;
That forms and rites are tricks of human law,
As idle as the chattering of a daw;
That lewd incontinence, and lawless rape,
Are marriage in its true and proper shape;
That man by faith and truth is made a slave,
The ring a bauble, and the priest a knave.

Fair fall the deed! the knight exulting cried,
Now is the time to make the maid a bride!

'Twas on the noon of an autumnal day,
October highs, but mild and fair as May;
When scarlet fruits the russet hedge adorn,
And floating films envelope every thorn;
When gently as in June, the rivers glide,
And only miss the flowers that graced their side;
The linnet twitter'd out his parting song,
With many a chorister the woods among;
On southern banks the ruminating sheep,
Lay snug and warm; — 'twas summer's farewell peep.
Propitious to his fond intent there grew
An arbour near at hand of thickest yew,
With many a boxen bush, close clips between,
And philyrea of a gilded green.

But what old Chaucer's merry page befits,
The chaster muse of modern days omits.
Suffice it then in decent terms to say,
She saw, — and turn'd her rosy cheek away.
Small need of prayer-book or of priest, I ween,
Where parties are agreed, retired the scene,
Occasion prompt, and appetite so keen.
Hypothesis (for with such magic power
Fancy endued her in her natal hour,)
From many a steaming lake and reeking bog,
Bade rise in haste a dank and drizzling fog,
That curtain'd round the scene where they reposed,
And wood and lawn in dusky folds enclosed.

Fear seized the trembling sex; in every grove
They wept the wrongs of honourable love.
In vain, they cried, are hymeneal rites,
Vain our delusive hope of constant knights;
The marriage bond has lost its power to bind,
And flutters loose, the sport of every wind.
The bride, while yet her bride's attire is on,
Shall mourn her absent lord, for he is gone,
Satiate of her, and weary of the same,
To distant wilds in quest of other game.
Ye fair Circassians! all your lutes employ,
Seraglios sing, and harems dance for joy!
For British nymphs whose lords were lately true,
Nymphs quite as fair, and happier once than you,
Honour, esteem, and confidence forgot,
Feel all the meanness of your slavish lot.
Oh curst Hypothesis! your hellish arts
Seduce our husbands, and estrange their hearts.—
Will none arise? no knight who still retains
The blood of ancient worthies in his veins,
To assert the charter of the chaste and fair,
Find out her treacherous heart, and plant a dagger there!
A knight — (can he that serves the fair do less)
Starts at the call of beauty in distress;
And he that does not, whatsoe'er occurs,
Is recreant, and unworthy of his spurs.

Full many a champion, bent on hardy deed,
Call'd for his arms and for his princely steed.
So swarm'd the Sabine youth, and grasp'd the shield,
When Roman rapine, by no laws withheld,
Lest Rome should end with her first founders' lives,
Made half their maids, sans ceremony, wives.
But not the mitred few, the soul their charge,
They left these bodily concerns at large;
Forms or no forms, pluralities or pairs,
Right reverend sirs! was no concern of theirs.
The rest, alert and active as became
A courteous knighthood, caught the generous flame;
One was accoutred when the cry began,
Knight of the Silver Moon, Sir Marmadan.

Oft as his patroness, who rules the night,
Hangs out her lamp in yon caerulean height,
His vow was, (and he well perform'd his vow,)
Arm'd at all points, with terror on his brow,
To judge the land, to purge atrocious crimes,
And quell the shapeless monsters of the times.
For cedars famed, fair Lebanon supplied
The well-poised lance that quiver'd at his side;
Truth arm'd it with a point so keen, so just,
No spell or charm was proof against the thrust.
He couch'd it firm upon his puissant thigh,
And darting through his helm an eagle's eye,
On all the wings of chivalry advanced
To where the fond Sir Airy lay entranced.

He dreamt not of a foe, or if his fear
Foretold one, dreamt not of a foe so near.
Far other dreams his feverish mind employ'd,
Of rights restored, variety enjoy'd;
Of virtue too well fenced to fear a flaw;
Vice passing current by the stamp of law;
Large population on a liberal plan,
And woman trembling at the foot of man;
How simple wedlock fornication works,
And Christians marrying may convert the Turks.

The trumpet now spoke Marmadan at hand,
A trumpet that was heard though all the land.
His high-bred steed expands his nostrils wide,
And snorts aloud to cast the mist aside;
But he, the virtues of his lance to show,
Struck thrice the point upon his saddle bow;
Three sparks ensued that chased it all away,
And set the unseemly pair in open day.
"To horse!" he cried, "or, by this good right hand
And better spear, I smite you where you stand."

Sir Airy, not a whit dismay'd or scared,
Buckled his helm, and to his steed repair'd;
Whose bridle, while he cropp'd the grass below,
Hung not far off upon a myrtle bough.
He mounts at once, — such confidence infused
The insidious witch that had his wits abused;
And she, regardless of her softer kind,
Seized fast the saddle and sprang up behind.
"Oh shame to knighthood!" his assailant cried;
"Oh shame!" ten thousand echoing nymphs replied.
Placed with advantage at his listening ear,
She whisper'd still that he had nought to fear;
That he was cased in such enchanted steel,
So polish'd and compact from head to heel,
"Come ten, come twenty, should an army call
Thee to the field, thou shouldst withstand them all."

"By Dian's beams," Sir Marmadan exclaim'd,
"The guiltiest still are ever least ashamed!
But guard thee well, expect no feign'd attack;
And guard beside the sorceress at thy back!"

He spoke indignant, and his spurs applied,
Though little need, to his good palfrey's side;
The barb sprang forward, and his lord, whose force
Was equal to the swiftness of his horse,
Rush'd with a whirlwind's fury on the foe,
And, Phineas like, transfixed them at a blow.

Then sang the married and the maiden throng,
Love graced the theme, and harmony the song;
The Fauns and Satyrs, a lascivious race,
Shriek'd at the sight, and, conscious, fled the place:
And Hymen, trimming his dim torch anew,
His snowy mantle o'er his shoulders threw;
He turn'd, and view'd it oft on every side,
And reddening with a just and generous pride,
Bless'd the glad beams of that propitious day,
The spot he loath'd so much for ever cleansed away,

[Works, ed. Southey (1835-37) 8:112-19]