Chapter LXXIII: Cowper--"The Task"
WHILE Burns was weaving his wonderful songs among the Lowland hills of Scotland, another lover of nature was telling of placid English life, of simple everyday doings, in a quiet little country town in England. This man was William Cowper.
Cowper was the son of a clergyman. He was born in 1731 and became a barrister, but it seemed a profession for which he was little fitted. He was shy and morbidly religious, and he also liked literature much better than law. Still he continued his way of life until, when he was thirty-two, he was offered a post as Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. He wished to accept the post, but was told he must stand an examination at the bar of the House of Lords.
This was more than his nervous sensitive nature could bear. Rather than face the trial he decided to die. Three times he tried to kill himself. Three times he failed. Then the darkness of madness closed in upon him. Religious terrors seized him, and for many months he suffered agonies of mind. But at length his tortured brain found rest, and he became once more a sane man.
Then he made up his mind to leave London, and all the excitements of a life for which he was not fit, and after a few changes here and there he settled down to a peaceful life with a clergyman and his wife, named Unwin. And when after two years Mr. Unwin died, Cowper still lived with his widow. With her he moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire. It was here that, together with the curate, John Newton, Cowper wrote the Olney hymns, many of which are still well loved to-day. Perhaps one of the best is that beginning--
"God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
And rides upon the storm."
It was written when Cowper felt again the darkness of insanity closing in upon him. Once again he tried to end his life, but again the storm passed.
Cowper was already a man of nearly fifty when these hymns first appeared. Shortly afterwards he published another volume of poems in the style of Pope.
It was after this that Cowper found another friend who brought some brightness into his life. Lady Austen, a widow, took a house near Cowper and Mrs. Unwin, and became a third in their friendship. It was she who told Cowper the story of John Gilpin. The story tickled his fancy so that he woke in the night with laughter over it. He decided to make a ballad of the story, and the next day the ballad was finished. I think I need hardly give you any quotation here. You all know that--
"John Gilpin was a citizen
Of credit and reknown,
Of famous London town."
And you have heard his adventures on the anniversary of his wedding day.
John Gilpin was first published in a magazine, and there it was seen by an actor famous in his day, who took it for a recitation. It at once became a success, and thousands of copies were sold.
It was Lady Austen, too, who urged Cowper to his greatest work, The Task. She wanted him to try blank verse, but he objected that he had nothing to write about. "You can write upon any subject," replied Lady Austen, "write upon the sofa."
So Cowper accepted the task thus set for him, and began to write. The first book of The Task is called The Sofa, and through all the six books we follow the course of his simple country life. It is the epic of simplicity, at once pathetic and playful. Its tuneful, easy blank verse never rises to the grandeur of Milton's, yet there are fine passages in it. Though Cowper lived a retired and uneventful life, the great questions of his day found an echo in his heart. Canada had been won and the American States lost when he wrote--
"England, with all thy faults, I love thee still--
My Country! and, while yet a nook is left
Where English minds and manners may be found,
Shall be constrained to love thee.
. . . . . .
Time was when it was praise and boast enough
In every clime, and travel where we might,
That we were born her children; praise enough
To fill the ambition of a private man,
That Chatham's language was his mother tongue,
And Wolfe's great name compatriot with his own.
Farewell those honours, and farewell with them
The hope of such hereafter! they have fallen
Each in his field of glory: one in arms,
And one in council--Wolfe upon the lap
Of smiling Victory that moment won,
And Chatham heart-sick of his country's shame
They made us many soldiers. Chatham, still
Consulting England's happiness at home,
Secured it by an unforgiving frown,
If any wronged her. Wolfe, where'er he fought,
Put so much of his heart into his act,
That his example had a magnet's force,
And all were swift to follow where all loved."
These lines are from the second book of The Task called The Timepiece. The third is called The Garden, the fourth The Winter Evening. There we have the well-known picture of a quiet evening by the cozy fireside. The post boy has come "with spattered boots, strapped waist, and frozen locks." He has brought letters and the newspaper--
"Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in."
The poem ends with two books called The Winter Morning Walk and The Winter Walk at Noon. Though not grand, The Task is worth reading. It is, too, an easily read, and easily understood poem, and through it all we feel the love of nature, the return to romance and simplicity. In the last book we see Cowper's love of animals. There he sings, "If not the virtues, yet the worth, of brutes."
Cowper loved animals tenderly and understood them in a wonderful manner. He tamed some hares and made them famous in his verse. And when he felt madness coming upon him he often found relief in his interest in these pets. One of his poems tells how Cowper scolded his spaniel Beau for killing a little baby bird "not because you were hungry," says the poet, "but out of naughtiness." Here is Beau's reply--
"Sir, when I flew to seize the bird
In spite of your command,
And harder to withstand.
"You cried 'Forbear!;--but in my breast
A mightier cried 'Proceed!'--
Impelled me to the deed.
"Yet much as nature I respect,
I ventured once to break
Her precept for your sake;
"And when your linnet on a day,
Passing his prison door,
And panting pressed the floor,
"Well knowing him a sacred thing
Not destined to my tooth,
And licked the feathers smooth.
"Let my obedience then excuse
My disobedience now,
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?"
As Cowper's life went on, the terrible lapses into insanity became more frequent, but his sweet and kindly temper won him many friends, and he still wrote a great deal. And among the many things he wrote, his letters to his friends were not the least interesting. They are among the best letters in our language.
Perhaps Cowper's greatest accomplishment, though not his greatest work, was a translation of Homer. He had never considered Pope's Homer good, and he wished to leave to the world a better. Cowper's version was published in 1791, and he fondly believed that it would take the place of Pope's. But although Cowper's may be more correct, it is plain and dry, and while Pope's is still read and remembered, Cowper's is forgotten.
Indeed, that Cowper is remembered at all is due more to his shorter poems such as Boadicea and The Wreck of the Royal George, and chiefly, perhaps, to John Gilpin, which in its own way is a treasure that we would not be without. Other of his shorter poems are full of a simple pathos and gentle humor. The last he wrote was called The Castaway, and the verse with which it ends describes not unfittingly the close of his own life. For his mind sank ever deeper into the shadow of madness until he died in April 1800--
"No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
We perished, each alone:
Cowper was never a power in our literature, but he was a forerunner, "the forerunner of the great Restoration of our literature."* And unlike most forerunners he was popular in his own day. And although it is faint, like the scent of forgotten rose leaves, his poetry still keeps a charm and sweetness for those who will look for it.