Cowper

William Cowper 1731-1800

“Deprived of joy, I fell I should find cause for deadly feuds with things invisible.” Melville

This confession from Pierre, the Ambiguities comes to mind wherever Cowper’s name appears. Born of gentle blood, his father descended through four different lines from King Henry III. He had a warm, attentive mother who died at the age of thirty-seven. In many ways Cowper was flawed at the beginning. But this part of the eighteenth century was “a period of decay of religion, licentiousness of morals, public corruption, profaneness of language, a day of rebuke and blasphemy...an age of destitute of depth and earnestness; an age whose poetry was without romance, whose philosophy was without insight, and whose public men were without character; an age of light without love, whose very merits were...earthy.” Pattison, Essay on the Religious Thought of the 18th Century.

The opposing side consisted of Methodists and Calvinists with their “wrath of God” theology. Cowper was a product of the latter. His world was that of the professional class and the country gentry. A life depicted so gracefully by Jane Austen years later as “revolving round the twenty or thirty mile radius in which they lived; the men spending their time in sitting on the Bench and hunting, and playing cards for low stakes; the women playing cards too, going for walks, needlework, and a great deal of gossip.” Not a life that one would be expected to spawn dark despair, melancholy, and neurotic tendencies fanned by conflicted religious beliefs, all of which were present early on. His father is reported to have been insensitive, a Calvinist, who placed him in situations fraught with the cruel oppression of strict, unregulated schooling. But he seemed to have survived, emerging by the fifth form with a humorous, whimsical view of the world, and was able “to draw upon two sources of pleasure...love of Nature and the graces of poetry.” He reflects in The Task:

My very dreams were rural, rural too
The first born efforts of my youthful muse,
Sportive, and jingling his poetic bells
Ere yet her ear was mistress of their powers.
No bard could please me but whose lyre was tuned
To Nature’s praises. Heroes and their feats
Fatigued me, never weary of the pipe
Of Tityrus, assembling, as he sang
The rustic throng beneath his favourite beach
Then Milton had indeed a poet’s charms;

Morris Golden once pointed out that if we were to read Cowper’s first poem Verses Written at Bath on Finding the Heel of a Shoe:

“Of humble villager: the statesman thus,
Up the steep road where proud ambition leads,
Aspiring first uninterrupted winds
His prosperous way; nor fears miscarriage foul,
While policy prevails and friends prove true;
But that support soon failing, by him left
On whom he most depended, basely left,
Betrayed, deserted, from his airy height
Headlong he halls, and through the rest of life
Drags the dull load of disappointment on.”

With his final poem The Castaway:

“At length, his transient respite past,
His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in every blast,
Could catch the sound no more;
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him; but the page
of Narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Anson’s tear;
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.”

We would find the same message.

Cowper was very much like all other country gentlemen he held moderate views of national events, opposing revolutions, upheavals, controversies, and eccentricities. Slovenly in appearance, a colleague writes “I remember seeing the Duke of Richmond set fire to his greasy locks.” At eighteen he pursued a career in legal pursuits under pressure from his father. Cowper thought his benefactor, Thurlow, would become Chancellor and thus he would be swept along on his coattails. When he was able to join the Templars in the Inner Temple he studied law “the genteel way,” finally when he was called to the Bar he managed to write much poetry and do little lawyering. In spite of his strange appearance, which a nephew described as “a very little man, in a white hat lined with yellow...he would be one day mistaken for a mushroom,” he managed to attract loyal friends and individuals, men and women, who were committed to his welfare and who rushed to his rescue whenever the powers of darkness took hold of him and plunged him into despair and insanity. So how did he handle this outpouring of help? When a relative offered him the office of Reading Clerk and Clerk of Committees in the House of Lords, at first he accepted, but fear of failing the examination required of the positions and fueled by an inherent hypochondria he allows them to slip away. Then he convinces himself that suicide is legal and tries three times with a last one event where the garter he used for a noose, broke and he was saved from his own folly. Then he wallowed in religious horrors of vengeance and finally went legally berserk and was placed in an asylum. After almost two years, he emerged having found salvation. Then later succumbed again dragging his religious anchor with him. He lived a life hoping for madness; longing for death. This abbreviated account offers a clear portrait.

His writing clearly divides into two genres: letters and poetry, of the two, the letters were far better. Cowper did not begin to write poetry until mid-life and even then he had a productive period longer than that of Shelley. His poems appear to be divided into short pieces, usually hymns written in the style of Pope and Milton (closed couplets), and longer, descriptive works; English countryside, everyday life with its sorrows, pleasures, and inevitable burlesques in free verse.

“If we wish to read about the simple steady pleasures and affections which are the sources of the deepest happiness...walks in the wood, talks by the fireside, laughter of friends over jokes and old times, the well-worn, well-loved room in which we have lived since children, the remembered sound of the church clock, the hollyhocks standing up so bravely over the vicarage wall, all the thousand tender daily ties that bind us to friends and family and home, if it is these of which we wish to read, we turn to Cowper.” Lord David Cecil The English Association, Pamphlet No. 81. April 1932.

As to form and rhyme in Cowper’s poetry; his form is flawless “his first lines could only be the first lines just as the last lines would only be the last lines”. But of his rhyming, there we find many defects for example he places death/beneath; fled/spied; prey/sea; witch/beach; guard/ prepared; and many more. He was fond of droll personification of inanimate objects as in:

“I came because your horse would come,
And, if I well forebode,
My hat and wig will soon be here,
They are upon the road.”

In subject and substance Cowper provided the evangelicals with a good portion of the lyrics to their hymns. For his religiosity Thomas Haley declared Cowper “The Bard of Christianity”. The hymns have no serious value as poetry even though to Thomas Quale “every word is rightly chosen and not one is superfluous”. They are more familiar than any of one of the more select of his poems, and one may hear any one of the hymns written in collaboration with John Newton while living in Olney - hymns that are sung any Sunday in churches throughout the English-speaking world, especially Amazing Grace, although attributed to Newton it was never printed in his original collection, only later after Cowper’s death. Another favorite:

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper’s writing fell into a duality: sanity and insanity; poetic tone clearly delineates examples. Cowper had no trouble attracting women who, for their own reasons, undertook his salvation. In particular was a Mrs. Unwins, who was the Mary in his poetry:

The twentieth year is well-nigh past,
Since first our sky was overcast;
Ah, would that this might be the last!
My Mary!
Thy spirits have a fainter flow,
I see thee daily weaker grow;
Twas my distress that brought thee low.
My Mary!

Thy needles, once a shining store,
For my sake restless heretofore,
Now rust disused, and shine no more.
My Mary!

For though thou gladly wouldst fulfil
The same kind office for me still
Thy sight no seconds not thy will.
My Mary!

But well thou playedst the housewife’s part,
And all thy threads with magic art
Have wound themselves about this heart.
My Mary!

And should my future but be cast,
With much resemblance of the past,
Thy worn-out heart will break at last.
My Mary!

At her urging he took to writing poetry moral satires (1780). The Progress of Error, Truth, Table Talk, and Expostulation were products of that period. From a former discussion, satires fall into three categories: Stoical, Cynical, and the Sensual, which some call Epicurean. The stoical emphasizes hatred of vice and wrong with the Roman poet Juvenal our best example. Then the cynical which writes of “bitter contempt of humanity” and the corruption of society, best portrayed by Isaac Bickerstaff (Jonathan Swift) in Gulliver’s Travels. Neither of these suited Cowper’s temperament, but the sensual description of human life, lacking the bitter, contemptuous tone and following the Horatian model of “wisdom through serenity” was a perfect match for the Retirement - the Statesman.

“Ye groves, the statesman at his desk exclaims,
Sick of a thousand disappointed aims,
My patrimonial treasure and my pride,
Beneath your shades your grey possessor hide,
The servant of the public never knows.”

The Critical Review gave this judgment: “these poems are written by Mr. Cowper of the Inner Temple, who seems to be a man of a sober and religious turn of mind...he is not, however, possessed of any superior abilities...requisite for so arduous an undertaking...He says what is incontrovertible...but says nothing new, sprightly, or entertaining; traveling on a plain, level, flat road, with great composure almost through the whole long and tedious volume, which is little better than a dull sermon in very different verse...” The review was correct at least in one observation that Cowper had a sincere desire to make society better through poetic diction “There is a sting in verse that prose neither has nor can have”. This is certainly evident in his Tirocinium or Review of Schools. Excerpt:

Our public hives of puerile resort
That are of chief and most approved report,
To such base hopes in many a sordid soul
Owe their repute in part, but not the whole.
A principle, whose proud pretensions pass
Unquestion’d though the jewel be but glass,
That with a world not often overnice
Ranks as a virtue, and is yet a vice,
Or rather a gross compound justly tried,
Or envy, hatred , jealousy, and pride,
Contributes most perhaps to enhance their fame,
And Emulation is it precious name.
Boys once on fire with than contentious zeal
Feel all the rage that female rivals feel;
The prize of beauty in a woman’s eyes
Not brighter than in theirs the scholar’s prize.
The spirit of that competition burns
With all varieties of ill by turns,
Each vainly magnifies his own success,
Resents his fellow’s wishes i’ were less,
Exults in his miscarriage if he fail,
Deems his reward too great if he prevail,
And labours to surpass him day and night,
Less for improvement than to tickle spite.
The spur is powerful, and I grant its force;
It pricks the genius forward in its course,
Allows short time for play, and none for sloth,
And felt alike by each, advances both,
But judge where so much evil intervenes,
The end, though plausible , not worth the means.
Weigh, for a moment, classical desert
Against a heart depraved and temper hurt,
Hurt, too, perhaps for life, for early wrong
Done to the nobler part, affects it loong,
And you are staunch indeed in learning’s cause,
If you can crown a discipline that draws
Such mischiefs after it, with much applause.

Not long after another woman entered his life, Lady Austen, “the addition of this individual has made all the difference.” It was at her insistence, as a devotee of blank verse, that Cowper switched to this form. The incident is regarded as follows: “A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author [Cowper] and gave him Sofa for a subject. He obeyed; having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair - a Volume.” The six books were published under the umbrella title The Task, as that is how Cowper viewed it.

“Time made they what thou wast, king of the woods,
And time hath made thee what thou art - a cave
For owls to roost in. Once thy spreading boughg
O’erhung the champaign; and the numerous flocks
That grazed it stood beneath that ample cope
Uncrowded, yet safe-sheltered from the storm.
No flock frequents thee now. Thou has outlived
Thy popularity, and art become
(Unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing
Forgotten, as the foliage of thy youth.”

Note the spondee “time made” and the trochee “king of.”

The Task made Cowper famous...he had sixty readers at the Hague alone. Disciples came to sit at his feet. Complimentary letters were sent to him, and poems submitted to his judgment. His portrait was taken by famous painters, Literary lion-hunters began to fix their eyes upon him.“

Instead of continuing to write charming pieces of everyday life, he did a turnaround and undertook to translate Homer. Prompting one critic to comment “The translation of Homer into verse is the Polar Expedition of literature, always failing, yet still desperately renewed.

In the end Cowper wrote: “There can be no peace where there is no freedom; and he is a wretch indeed who is a necessitarian by experience.” Laudanum, the 18th century valium, for anguished nights and long country walks became his existence.

“I suffer fruitless anguish day by day,
Each moment, as it passes, marks my pain;
Scarce knowing whither, doubtfully I stray,
And see no end of all that I sustain...

My peace of heart is fled, I know not where;
My happy hours, like shadows, passed away;
Their sweer remembrance doubles all my care,
Night darker seems, succeeding such a day.

Has hell a pain I would not gladly bear,
So thy severe displeasure might subside?
Hopeless of ease, I seem already there,
My life extinguished, and yet death denied.”

Whether his affliction was of “a diabolical visitation”, “error at birth”, “a religious lunacy”, “literal insane”, or “constitutional in origin,” Cowper prayed for deliverance but none was forthcoming. He sunk into madness and fled the world.

“The Lord has numbered the days in which I am appointed to wait on him in this dark valley, and he has given us such a love to him, both as a believer and a friend, that I am not weary; but to be sure his deliverance would be to me one of the greatest blessings my thoughts can conceive.”

Our first characteristic is power of observation, fine description.

“Forth goes the woodman, leaving unconcern’d
The cheerful haunts of man; to wield the axe
And drive the wedge, in yonder forest drear,
From morn to eve his solitary task.
Shaggy and lean and shrewd, with pointed ears
His dog attends him. Close behind his heel
Now creeps he slow; and now, with many a frisk
Wide’scampring, snatches up the drifted snow
With iv’ry teeth, or ploughs it with his snout;
Then shakes his powder’d coat, and barks for joy.” The Task, The Winter Morning Walk

“At length a generation more refined
Improved the simple plan; made three legs four,
Gave them a twisted form vermicular,
And o’er the seat, with plenteous wadding stuffed,
Induced a splendid cover, green and glue,
Yellow and red, of tapestry richly wrought
And woven close, or needle work sublime.
There might ye see the peony spread wide,
The full blown rose, the shepherd and his lass,
Lap-dog and lambkin with black-staring eyes,
And parrots with twin cherries in their beak.” The Task, The Sofa

“Whence is it that, amazed, I hear
From yonder wither’d spray,
This foremost morn of all the year,
The melody of May ?

And why, since thousands would be proud
Of such a favor shown,
Am I selected from the crowd
To witness it alone?

Sing’st thou, sweet Philomel, to me
For that I also long
Have practised in the groves like thee,
Though not like thee in song?” To the Nightingale

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“His observation was remarkable nice and true in certain departments of life...The most truly poetic phases of Cooper’s verse are the portions devoted to rural and domestic subjects. Here he was to home and alive to every impression.” Hilton Tuckerman Thoughts on Poets

“William Cowper though he was not conscious of being an innovator, marks the advent of a new realism in the poetic treatment of nature and human life.” William Vaughn Moody

“The mind long wearied with the sameness of a dull dreary prospect, will gladly fix its eye on anything that may make a little variety in its contemplations, though it were but a kitten playing with her tail.” Cowper

“This devotion to small details was to be one of the chief characteristics of his poetry, and we may compare the manner in which he was to trace the stages of transition from the stool to the arm-chair. The reason for the change, the condition of the round-table, the too ponderous dimensions of the dining table, and finally the humble virtues of the card table and its ibe flaw - a sharp splinter that tore Mrs. Unwin’s dress - are all described with such an engrossed fidelity to detail that the humble card table acquires something of the personal significance which Van Gogh gives to a kitchen chair.” Hugh l’Anson Fausset William Cowper

Our second characteristic is love of nature and her creatures.

“The cattle mourn in corners, where the fence
Screens them, and seem half-petrified to sleep
In unrecumbent sadness. There they wait
Their wonted fodder; not like hungering man,
Fretful if unsupplied but silent, meek
And patient of the slow-paced swain’s delay” Winter Morning Walk

“I would not enter on my list of friends
(though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility) the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.” The Task

“A spaniel, Beau, that fairs like you,
Well fed, and at his ease,
Should wiser be than too pursue
Each trifle that he sees.
But you have killed a tiny bird
Which flew not fill today,
Against my orders, whom you heard
Forbidding you the prey

Nor did you kill that you might eat
And ease a doggish pain;
For him, though chased with furious heat,
You left where he was slain.

Nor was he of the thievish sort,
Of one whom blood allures,
But innocent was all his sport
Whom you have torn for yours.

My dog! What remedy remains,
Since, teach you all I can,
I see you, after all my pains,
So much resemble man?” On a Spaniel called Beau

“I hope in vain to see again
Ipsley’s peninsular domain,
In youth twas there I used to scare
A whirring bird or scampering hare,
And leave my book within a nook
Where alders lean above the brook,
To salk beyond the third mill pond
and meet a maiden, fair and fond,
Expecting me beneath a tree
Of shade for two but not for three,
Ah! My old yew, farout of view,
Why must I bid you both adieu.”

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“Cowper’s self-identification with that which is hunted...most conspicuous in the famous stricken deer passage...helps to explain his humanitarian kindness to animals and his conception of himself as harried by both man and God.”

“All the scenery round his dwelling is described, all its inhabitants, the sounds of nature, the dashing of the stream, the wind in the great trees, the soft music of the waving corn, the warbling of the birds..Nature loved for her own sake, without the intrusion of man, sve for that one thin, thoughtful quiet figure...rejoiced alone...The verse keeps a quiet level; it does not rise into any lofty imaginations; it is not the verse of a great poet but is is sincere, full, natural. It slips along like the full, soft swirling of the Ouse itself; like nature’s movement on a quiet day.” Stopford A Brooke. Naturalism in English Poetry

“He had always liked Nature best slightly tamed, and there was no moment of the year whcn the wilderness was not beautiful to him. It was lovely on a sunny, breezy May morning, when the trees were in early leaf, grey willows and silvery poplar and glossy maple, with gelder rose and laburnum and bending lilac flowering beneath them and violet and mezeron at their root; and the birds sang and the squirrels chattered and scampered.” Davie Cecil The Stricken Deer

“Springtime almost intoxicates him...Cowper loved the country dearly; he loved it to live in, to dwell in, and did not grow weary of it at any age or at any season.” Saint-Beauve Causeries de Lundi

“We read Cowper not for his passion or for his ideas but for his love of nature and his faithful rendering of her beauty.” T. H. Ward

In Cowper’s ‘God made the country and man made the town’ “true beauty is to be found only in unadulterate nature; true pleasure only in the fields and wood...To watch nature at her work; to meditate; to cultivate sympathy with those creatures most fresh from nature’s hand ...This is the only way to rational happiness.” T. H. Ward English Poets

Our third characteristic is melancholy, despair.

“I was a stricken deer that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.” The Task, Book III

“Cast forth a wanderer on a world unknown!
See my neglected on the world’s rude coast
Each dear companion of my voyage lost!
Now ask why clouds of sorrow shade my brow,
And ready tears wait only leave to flow!
Shy all that soothes heart from anguish free,
All that delights the happy - palls with me!” On the Death of Sir W. Russell

“Mortals! around your destined heads
Thick fly the shafts of Death,
And lo! The savage spoiler spreads
A thousand toils beneath.

In vain we trifle with our fate;
Try every art in vain;
At best we but prolong the date,
And lengthen out our pain.

Fondly we think all danger fled,
For Death is ever nigh;
Outstrips our unavailing speed,
Or meets us as we fly.

Thus the wrecked mariner may strive
Some desert shore to gain,
Secure of life, if he survive
The fury of the main.

But there, to famine doomed a prey,
Finds the mistaken wretch
He but escaped the troubled sea,
To perish on the beach.

Since then in vain we strive to guard
Our frailty from the foe,
Lord, let me live not unprepared
To meet the fatal blow!” The Certainty of Death

“Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait, with impatient readiness, to seize my
Soul in a moment.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me;
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all
Bolted against me.

Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
Buried above ground.” The Castaway

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“But he was under a curse. From his earliest years there loomed over him, born in disease, nurtured by fanaticism, the frightful spectre of religious madness. And his life resolved itself into a struggle, fought to the death, between the daylit serenity of his natural circumstances and the powers of darkness hidden in his heart...Yet even when the light shone most brightly on his face, the shadow lurked behind his back; around the sunny, grassy meadows crouched the black armies of horror and despair. At a moment’s weakness they would advance; inch by inch they grained ground until, with a last scream of anguish, his tortured spirit sank, overwhelmed.” David Cecil The Stricken Deer

“All the confusions and fancies of vague thoughts and opinions tossed and surged around him, and that faith in God’s everlasting love which might have guided him safely was not there, He was at the mercy of every wind of vain doctrine. Every text of the bible, and every religious word, was turned into fresh proof that the mouth of hell was opened upon him.” William Benham The Poetical Works of William Cowper

“In the light of common day his terrors would have looked shadowy indeed, but it was of their nature that they never saw such a light. He might feel perfectly at ease when he was funning about the schoolyard; but when the lights were extinguished and he was alone in bed the nameless horrors would return, the more frightful for their short oblivion.” The Stricken Deer

“His whole life was a long sadness...Despair grew upon him...and he came to the settled opinion that he was a doomed, damned man, one who had committed an irreparable sin, and for whom there was no redemption forevermore...The last five years of his life were passed in perpetual gloom. During these five years he is daid never to have smiled.” George Dawson Biographical Lectures

“...five atacks of acute melancholy four of them full-fledged bouts of insanity and two overwhelming revelations of God’s goodness.” Morris Golden

“Without understanding the nature of his melancholy, we cannot understand him as a whole.” Gilbert Thomas

“There never was so abandoned a wretch, so great a sinner” [said while pacing up and down his chambers] ...Everything preached to me and everything preached the curse of the law.” If he went into the street, people, it seemed, stood and laughed at him; and when he dined alone, at tavern or chop-house, he slunk into the darkest corners. Sleep, when it could be wooed, brought him terrifying dreams, and when he awoke he reeled and staggered like a drunken man.” Gilbert Thomas

Our fourth characteristic is religious sentiment.

“Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour. We have run
Through ev’ry change that fancy at the loom,
Exhausted has had genius to supply;
And, studious of mutation still, discard
A real elegance, a little us’d
For monstrous novelty and strange disguise.
We sacrifice to dress, till household joys
And comforts cease. Dress drains our cellar dry,
And keeps our larder lean’ Puts out our fires,
And introduces hunger, frost, and woe.
Where peace and hospitality might reign” The Task

“Happy the bard (if that fair name belong
To him that blends no fable with his song)
Whose lines, uniting, by an honest art,
The faithful monitor’s and poet’s part,
Seek to delight, that they may mend mankind,
And, while they captivate, inform the mind:
Still happier if he till a thankful soil,
And fruit reward his honourable toil;
But happier far, who comfort those that wait
To hear plain truth at Judah’s hallow’d gate.” Hope

“No works shall find acceptance, in that day
When all disguises shall be rent away,
That square not truly with scripture plan,
Nor spring from love to God, or live to man.” Charity

“Peace follows virtue as its sure reward.” The Progress of Error

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“He [Cowper] scorns the kind of people who sacrifice all for the latest dress fad (monstrous novelty and strange disguise)” Morris Golden In Search of Stability

“The whole of his work is steeped in religion. But this religious poetry is also built into a special theology, a gheology so strong, fierce, uncompromising, and so cruel, that is is a wonder it did not slaughter in Cowper...the maiden of poetry.” Stopford Brooke Naturalism in English Poetry

“I fear nothing that man can do to me.” Cowper

“Cowper was born too early and was too inherently timid to take the necessary step forward, to disown the God of destruction, who leaves in his wake, as Professor Whitehead has written, ‘the loss of the greater reality.’” Hugh Fausset

“His entire sincerity lifts him above all suspicion of the affected self-depreciation of other writers...His highest ambition was to be a useful auxiliary to the prosaic exhortations ...he was not a potentially creative poet whom Evangelicalism destroyed. He was a critic whom Evangelicalism moved to song and sometimes lifted above himself.” Leslie Stephen Hours in the Library

Our fifth characteristic is humor, wit, satire.

“A poet’s cat, sedate and grave
As poet well could wish to have,
Was much addicted to inquire
For nooks to which she might retire,
And where, secure as mouse in chink,
She might repose, or sit and think.
I know not where she caught the trick,
Nature perhaps herself had cast her
In such a mould philosoophique,
Or else she learned it of her master.
...
A drawer, it chanced at bottom lined
With linene of the softest kine
With such as merchants introduce
From India, for the ladies use...
Surveyed the scene and took possession
...
That night by chance the poet watching,
Heard an inexplicable scratching;
His noble heart went pit-a-pat,
He drew the curtain at his side...
Something imprisoned in the chest...
At length a voice which well he know,
A long and melancholy mew...
Beware of two sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great.
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that’s done
Must move and act for him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The follow of his expectation.” The Retired Cat

“Well knowing him a sacred thing,
Not destined to my tooth,
I only kissed his ruffled wing,
And licked the feathers cmooth.

Let my obedience then excuse
My disobedience now,
Nor some reproof yourself refuse
From your aggrieved bow-wow;

If killing birds be such a crime
Which I can hardly see,
What think you, sir, of killing time
With verse addressed to me?” Beau’s Response

“Whence straight he came with hat and wig;
A wig that flow’d behind.
A hat not much the worse for wear,
Each comely in its kind.” John Gilpin

“You ancient prude, whose wither’d features show
She might be young some forty years ago,
Her elbows pinion’d close upon her hips
Her head erect, her fan upon her lips,
Her eyebrown arch’d, her eyes both gone astray
To watch you amorous couple in their play,
With bony and unkerchief’d neck defies
The rude inclemency of wintry skies ...
Daily, at clink of bell, to morning prayers” Truth

“The dogs did bark, the children screamed,
Up flew the windows all;
And every soul cried out, “Well done!”
As loud as he could bawl.”

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“If I trifle and merely trifle, it is because I am reduced to it by necessity - a melancholy...engages me sometimes in the arduous task of being merry by force. And strange as it may seem, the most ludicrous lines I ever wrote [John Gilpin] have been written in the saddest mood, and, but for that saddest mood, perhaps had never been written at all.” Cowper

“The pungent invective of true satire is something more than an expression of personal hatred. It rises above the personal by virtue of the ecstatic which informs it...But in his [Cowper’s] negative strictures, as in his positive appeals, he was essentially the mild moralist attempting to frown with the severity of a Methodist upon the frivolities of the world” Hugh Fausset

Discern the fraud beneath the specious lure,
Prevent the danger or prescribe the cure...

“How much a dunce that has been sent to roam
Excels a a dunce that has been kept at home” The Grand Tour

“His satire is excellent. It is pointed anf forcible, with the polished manners of the gentleman and the indignation of the virtuous man.” William Hazlitt (essayist, literary critic contributor to the Edinburgh Review and the Examiner)

“In his social judgments, Copwer is at a wrong point of view. He is always deluded by the idol of his care. He writes perpetually on the assumption that life of retirement is more favorable to virtue than a life of action.” Goldwin Smith (Oxford English historian; anti-Imperialist, opponent of the Boer War)

“Petronius! [Lord Chesterfield, as the incarnation of the world] All the muses weep for thee,
But every tear shall scald thy memory
The graces too, while virtue at their shrine
Lay bleeding under the soft hand of thine,
Felt each mortal stab in her own breast,
Abhorr’d the sacrifice, and cursed the priest.
Thou polish’d and high finish’d foe to truth,
Gray beard corrupter of our listening youth,
To purge and skim away the filth of vice,
that so refined it might the more entice,
Then pour it on the morals of they son
To taint his heart, was worthy of thine own.”

“This is about the nearest approach to Juvenal that the Evangelical satirist ever makes,” R. C. Jebb

Our sixth characteristic is patriotism.

“Poor England! Thou art a devoted deer,
Beset with ev’re ill but that of fear,
The nations hunt; all mark thee for a prey;
They swarm around thee, and thou stand’st at bay,
Undaunted still, though wearied and perplex’d,
Once Chatham sav’d thee; but who saves thee next?” Table Talk

“Weigh the vessel up
Once dreaded by our foes
And mingle with your cup
The tears that England owes.

Her timbers set aside
That she may float again
Full Charged with England’s thunder
And plough the distant main.” On the Loss of the Royal George

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“He had the full-blooded eighteenth-century belief in the superiority of England to ever foreign country in every respect.”

“His love of country was absolute. He says:
‘I never framed a wish or formed a plan
That flattered me with hope of earthly bliss,
But there I laid the scene.”

“He writes well when he can give rein to his florid eighteenth century patriotism, his strong conviction that the English are far better and stronger than everybody else in the world, and always will be in every way.” Lord David Cecil The English Association Pamphlet, 1932

“...well all will be over soon. The time is at hand when an empire will be established that shall fill the earth. Nether statesmen or generals will lay the foundation, but it shall rise at the sound of the trumpet. ...Writing in December 1780 he could truly say of England:

“The nations hunt; all mark thee for a prey,
They swarm around thee, and thou stand’st at bay.” Table Talk

“The Bastille fell in 1789; and young William Wordsworth found it bliss to be alive. But Cowper, who had five years earlier anticipated it with almost prophetic insight, also welcomed the event, ageing and a Calvinist though he was.” Gilbert Thomas

We conclude this discussion of William Cowper with this tribute from Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Cowper’s grave:

It is a place where poets crown’d may feel the heart’s decaying;
It is a place where happy saints may weep amid their praying:
Yet let the grief and humbleness as low as silence languish:
Earth surely now may give her calm to whom she gave her anguish:
“O poets! from a maniac’s tongue, was poured the deathless singing!
O Christians! At your cross of hope, a hopeless hand was clinging!
O men! This man, in brotherhood, your weary paths beguilling,
Groaned only while he taught you peace, and died while ye were smiling!
And now, what time ye all may read through dimming tears his story,
How discord on the music fell, and darkness on the glory,
And how, when one by one, sweet sounds and wandering lights departed,
He bore no less a loving face because so broken-hearted.

He shall be strong to sanctify the poet’s high vocation,
And how the meekest Christian down in meeker adoration:
Nor ever shall he be, in praise, by wise or good forsaken;
Named softly, as the household name of one whom God hath taken.
With quiet sadness and no gloom I learn to think upon him,
With meekness that is gratefulness to God whose heaven hath won him,
Who suffer’d once the madness-cloud to his own love to blind him,
But gently led the blind along where breath and bird could find him;
And wrought within his shatter’d brain such quick poetic senses
As hills have language for, and stars, harmonious influences:
The pulse of dew upon the grass kept his within its number,
And silent shadows from the trees refresh’d him like a slumber.

Deserted! Who hath dreamt that when the cross in darkness rested,
Upon the victim’s hidden face no love was manifested?
What frantic hands outstretch’d have e’er the atoning drops averted?
What tears have wash’d them from the soul, that one should be deserted?
Deserted! God could separate from his own essence rather;
And Adam’s sins have swept between the righteous Son and Father:
Yea, once, Immanuel’s orphan’d cry His universe hath shaken
It went up single, echo less, ‘My God, I am forsaken!”
It went up from the Holy’s lips amid his lost creation,
That, of the lost, no son should use these words of desolation!
That earth’s worst frenzies, marring hope, should mar not hope’s fruition,
And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see his rapture in a vision”