William Cowper

William Cowper (1731-1800) and his poetry were important parts of the emerging discourse of  British nature writing. He is a key transitional figure, whose conventional piety–“God made the country, and man made the town” (The Task, I, l. 749)–is frequently offset by an inability to draw consolation from the traditional view of a divinely ordered universe, but who seeks instead some form of  resolution from within the natural world itself. He consistently contrasts the beauties of solitary, rural, nature with the deceptive charms of the city:

What wonder then that health and virtue, gifts
That can alone make sweet the bitter draught
That life holds out to all, should most abound
And least be threatened in the fields and groves?
Possess ye therefore, ye who, borne about
In chariots and sedans, know no fatigue
But that of idleness, and taste no scenes
But such as art contrives, possess ye still
Your element; there only ye can shine,
There only minds like yours can do no harm.
Our groves were planted to console at noon
The pensive wanderer in their shades. At eve
The moonbeam, sliding softly in between
The sleeping leaves, is all the light they wish,
Birds warbling all the music. We can spare
The splendour of your lamps, they but eclipse
Our softer satellite. Your songs confound
Our more harmonious notes: the thrush departs
Scared, and the offended nightingale is mute. (Task, I, 750-68)

The Task was perhaps the poem of Cowper’s that had the most direct influence on Romantic poetic practice, particularly on Wordsworth. Cowper distinguishes his own verse writing explicitly from the niceties of Pope and the sophisticated urban school: “Thou knowest my praise of nature most sincere, / And that my raptures are not conjured up / To serve occasions of poetic pomp (I, 1785, ll. 150-52). He called his summer garden house in Olney, Buckinghamshire, a “verse manufactory,” suggesting an important link between authorial solitude, a naturalized setting, and the writing of poetry. This garden shed became a site of literary pilgrimage not long after Cowper’s death in 1800. He was plagued by depression (which he called “melancholia”) throughout his adult life. His emotional struggles produced some of his most famous stanzas, in which he describes the fate of anyone who lives in “a World of Pains and troubles” (Keats 1819) as like that of a sailor drowned at sea:

Obscurest night involved the sky,
The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
Washed headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
. . . .
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 voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
(“The Castaway,” first published 1803)

Cowper links:

The Snail (University of Virginia, from Poems. 2 vols. London: W. H. Reid, 1820)

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