William Cowper was the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth and for several decades had probably the largest readership of any English poet. From 1782, when his first major volume appeared, to 1837, the year in which Robert Southey completed the monumental Life and Works of Cowper, more than a hundred editions of his poems were published in Britain and almost fifty in America.
Cowper's immense popularity owed much to his advocacy of religious and humanitarian ideals at a time of widespread Evangelical sentiment, manifest as much in the moral zeal of the antislavery movement, which he fervently supported, as in the tide of spiritual enthusiasm issuing directly from the great Revival. But his importance goes far deeper. Echoing the opinion of many early reviewers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet"; and, though his practice reflects in some ways a commitment to Neoclassical, or so-called Augustan, precepts, his innovations in the treatment of nature and common life, in meditative and conversational techniques, and in the foregrounding of autobiography and confession constitute a crucial legacy to the first generation of Romantics. His various achievements in satire, didactic-descriptive verse, narrative, hymnody, and the lyric show an often spectacular command of the potentialities of inherited forms, but the distinctive force of his poetry derives above all from its expression of complex psychological currents and concerns. Cowper's melancholia, exile, and fears of damnation—the sufferings of the "stricken deer"—are among the best-known facts of literary biography: his writing is both their embodiment and the site of their transcendence. As they are formulated within his works, however, the trials and the triumphs of the self assume a significance beyond any purely private context and beyond the tradition of Puritan soul-struggle which influenced their shape. Viewed historically, they mark the rise of the modern existentialist hero who must continuously create value and stability for himself against a background of cultural dissolution and the threat of chaos within. More generally, they have their counterparts in the subterranean lives of all human beings.
Cowper was born on 15 November 1731 at the rectory in Great Berkhamstead (now Berkhamsted), Hertfordshire, the first surviving child of the Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper, the daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. His family was well connected on both sides: his father's great-uncle had been the first Earl Cowper and twice lord chancellor of England, while the Donnes claimed descent from Henry III as well as from the Elizabethan poet John Donne. After short periods at dame school and under the Reverend William Davis at Aldbury, Cowper went, from about 1737 to 1739, to Dr. Pittman's boarding school at Markyate Street on the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire border, where, as he recalled thirty years later in his Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. (1816), he was so severely bullied that he knew his tormentor "by his shoe-buckles better than any other part of his dress." This experience seems to have been second only to the death of his mother when he was not quite six in promoting the mental problems that were to determine the course of his life. The child's traumatic bereavement was to be seen by the aging poet himself, in the powerful verses of 1790 on his mother's portrait, as the primal scene in a relentless drama of affliction and arduous survival. He was "Wretch even then, life's journey just begun."
Some of Cowper's happiest boyhood memories were of visits to his cousins in Norfolk, and it was there that he acquired two books which predict a salient polarity in his own future writing—the light moral verse of John Gay's Fables (1727-1738) and the Calvinistic vision of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678-1684). Mrs. Disney, the oculist with whom he lodged in London around 1740 to 1742 because of eye trouble, made little recorded impression upon him, though his short judgment on her house as a place "where Christianity was neither known nor practised" gives leave for speculation that here may be the harsh regimen which his later fantasies and his self-deprecating behavior in relationships with women indicate somewhere in his history. In 1742 he entered Westminster School, imbibing the classics and the strong Whig principles for which the school was renowned and forming notable friendships with the writers-to-be Robert Lloyd, Charles Churchill, and George Colman the Elder, and with the fifth-form usher Vincent Bourne, whose animal fables he translated from the Latin at intervals throughout his life. Intended for the law, he was enrolled in the Middle Temple in 1748. Membership of the Inns of Court, however, was more a formality than a training and, following the usual custom, Cowper took up articles under a solicitor, Mr. Chapman of Greville Street, Holborn, with whom he remained from 1750 to 1753. Although he was called to the bar in 1754 and transferred residence to the Inner Temple in 1757, the legal profession was one to which he admitted he "was never much inclined." The routine of Chapman's office was regularly exchanged for the pleasure of being "employed from Morning to Night in giggling and making giggle" with his cousins Theadora and Harriot at the house of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, in Southampton Row.
So far Cowper's poetic writing had been mostly talented adaptations of John Milton, Abraham Cowley, and "Mat Prior's easy jingle," the best of them exercises in the epistolary art of which he was always an instinctive master. An ill-fated affair with Theadora, which began in 1752 and ended at her father's insistence in 1755, prompted his first substantial body of verse. In this remarkable sequence of poems to "Delia," which was withheld from publication until 1825, Prior's colloquial wit and the raffishness of the Cavalier lyric are the starting point of a highly original chronicle of love, a movement progressively inwards from compliment and playful self-observation to oneiric landscapes of frustrated desire which introduce Cowper's characteristic image of himself as the object of a terrible doom, the outcast who "vainly strives to shun the threat'ning death." Ashley Cowper's exact reasons for opposing the match are not known, and it is unclear whether Cowper's bout of depression in 1753, serious enough to require a trip to Southampton with Harriot and her fiancé Thomas Hesketh, was a cause or effect of the objections that shadowed the relationship. By all accounts Theadora never recovered from the broken romance. Cowper, it seems, soon did, for the surviving letters of the seven years up to 1762 are amply spiced with the bravado of the man about town. The young barrister found ready access to fashionable social and literary circles in the metropolis, especially the Nonsense Club of former Westminster friends whose members included Colman and Bonnell Thornton, editors of the Connoisseur, to which he started to contribute satirical papers in 1756. The "several halfpenny ballads" Cowper remembered writing at this time, dealing with current politics from the Whig point of view, have been lost, together perhaps with much else of a topical cast. The death of his friend Sir William Russell in 1757 gave rise to the introspective elegy "Doom'd as I am in solitude to waste," but the other extant verse consists almost entirely of commissioned translations from Horace's Satires and Voltaire's La Henriade (1728), published respectively in 1759 and 1762.
Events took a dramatic turn in 1763. Family connections had already gained Cowper the sinecure of commissioner of bankrupts; he now accepted from Ashley Cowper the lucrative clerkship of the Journals in the House of Lords, but when his uncle's right of appointment was challenged by a rival faction, he found himself summoned to undergo a test of suitability at the Bar of the House. The suicidal derangement brought on by the prospect of this public ordeal drove him to Nathaniel Cotton's Collegium Insanorum at St. Albans, where he was gradually restored and converted to Evangelicalism in 1764. He left St. Albans in June 1765 but lived thenceforth in retirement, at first on his own and then, from November 1765, in the household of the Reverend Morley Unwin at Huntingdon. After Unwin's death from a riding accident in 1767 Cowper took up residence with Unwin's widow, Mary, and her daughter, moving with them to Orchard Side at Olney in Buckinghamshire in February 1768. At Olney he came at once under the influence of the Reverend John Newton, the one-time slave trader who was then a prominent Evangelical of strictly Calvinist persuasion.
The immediate upshot of these changed circumstances was the memoir which Cowper completed for private circulation in 1767, a late and compelling example of the Puritan conversion narrative in the manner of Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666). At one point it describes how his attendance at the offices of the journals had been like a repeated journey to a "place of execution," so great were his dread and his inability to derive meaning from the books: "A finger raised against me was more than I could stand. . . . I expected no assistance from anybody there, all the inferior clerks being under the influence of my opponent, and accordingly I received none. The journal books were indeed thrown open to me—a thing which could not be refused, and from which perhaps a man in health and with a head turned to business might have gained all the information he wanted—but it was not so with me." For Cowper's former self the word is inaccessible. For the tough-minded author of the memoir, however, it is the medium of comprehension and order as he revisits the past, often in harrowing detail ("I placed it upright under my left breast, leaning all my weight upon it, but the point was broken off and would not penetrate"), to affirm the workings of "the blessed providence of God" in his life, the breaking of the old man and the making of the new.
Religion brought Cowper both an outlet for his feelings and a means of organizing them, and also incidentally shaped his last contact with his brother John, fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, whose deathbed acceptance of Evangelical truths under William's guidance in 1770 is narrated in Adelphi (1802), a didactic continuation of the autodidactic memoir. His sixty-seven contributions to the Olney Hymns, composed chiefly in 1771-1772 as a collaboration with Newton (who saw to the volume's publication in 1779), place him in the first rank of English hymnodists. Many of these hymns, including "Oh for a closer Walk with God," "God moves in a mysterious way" and "Hark, my soul! it is the Lord," remain in regular congregational use. The whole set is distinguished by a mastery of corporate symbolism (the cross, the fountain, the lamb, the worm and the thorn, the divine majesty) and the recognized stages of the ebb and flow of faith, resourcefully cast in the chaste diction and lucid stanzaic form pioneered by Isaac Watts but seasoned with an epigrammatic piquancy reminiscent of John Donne and George Herbert. Yet there is in the final analysis a patent dark underside to the hymns, in that the weight of authenticity lies ultimately not with the "sweet bounty" of the believer but with his conflicts, longings, and insecurity. "The Contrite Heart," for example, movingly realizes the state of being outside the company of God's elect:
Thy saints are comforted I know
And love thy house of pray'r;
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.
This hymn was shortly to prove prophetic, for in January 1773 Cowper had a dream in which he heard the words "Actum est de te, periisti" (It is all over with thee, thou hast perished). "God moves in a mysterious way" had made magnificently present the Calvinist God who is "his own Interpreter" and "will make it plain"; but what He made plain to Cowper in this vision was that his soul was eternally damned. Cowper continued to hold staunchly to his religious beliefs, but he never again entered a church or said a prayer.
In the nightmarish sapphics of 1774 entitled "Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion" Cowper conceives himself as one "Damn'd below Judas," clearly attributing his sentence to his having sometime committed what was considered in Calvinist dogma to be the "unpardonable sin" of rejecting Christ. Thoughts of an altogether different transgression, however, may have been a subconscious factor in the obscure origins of the breakdown that had led to the dream of damnation and, in the autumn of 1773, his fourth attempt at suicide. Worried about the gossip that might arise after Miss Unwin's expected departure from the household at Orchard Side, Cowper's friends had successfully urged him in 1772 to announce his betrothal to Mrs. Unwin--the woman whom, as Harriot Hesketh affirmed, "he had always consider'd . . . as a Mother." The engagement was broken off by his illness, and the patient was placed under Newton's care at the vicarage. He nevertheless went back to Orchard Side when his health improved during 1774, seeking diversion in carpentry, gardening, keeping animals (the pet hares Puss, Tiney, and Bess, whom he memorialized in verse and prose), drawing, and in time a return to poetry.
In his blacker moods Cowper thought of Olney as a "sepulchre," but it was also a place of "blest seclusion from a jarring world," a demi-paradise. His equally ambivalent image of "the loop-holes of retreat" suggests not only immurement but vantage point, and the shorter poems that began to flow from his pen in 1779 and 1780 were frequently alert, combative responses to great events--the controversy over Admiral Augustus Keppel's inconclusive engagement with the French fleet, George Rodney's relief of Gibraltar, and other episodes in the war with the Americans and their European allies--or else observant forays into the ritual oddities of provincial life, such as the verse cartoon "The Yearly Distress, or Tything Time at Stock." By a paradox that runs throughout his career, the potentially deadly assault of the words of reprobation thus generated a lively engagement with the external world, and an outgoing verbal dexterity whose range is further exemplified in poems such as the fable of "The Nightingale and Glow-worm" and the patriotic ode "Boadicea.""
The impetus to active publication came, however, from a curious contemporary source. The Reverend Martin Madan, a relative of Cowper, was moved by his experiences in the chaplainship of the Lock Hospital, an institution for fallen women, to write a defense of polygamy as a remedy for the evils of prostitution. The appearance of Madan's treatise, Thelyphthora, in May 1780 gave rise to bitter public debate during which Cowper was persuaded by Newton, by then removed to the living of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, and by Samuel Badcock's sprightly criticism in the Monthly Review to compose his own anonymous rejoinder. Newton's publisher, Joseph Johnson, agreed to bring out the poem of more than two hundred lines early in 1781. Anti-Thelyphthora, a mock-Spenserian romance in which Madan, the Quixotic "Sir Airy," is bested by Badcock, alias "Sir Marmardan," was deservedly praised by Badcock himself for its vein of "elegant fancy," but in the broader view it shows Cowper learning to forge an adroit alliance between conflicting demands upon his genius--religio-moral duty and a robust comic impulse.
It was the skillful blend of profit and pleasure, along with the vigor of the rhymed couplets, that most impressed the reviewers of the eight long essays that formed the bulk of Cowper's first independent volume, Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. (1782). Edmund Cartwright in the Monthly Review, for example, discovered in the volume a poet sui generis whose "very religion has a smile that is arch, and his sallies of humour an air that is religious," and whose muscular, flexible versification set him apart from the pack of Pope's latter-day imitators who went "jingling along in uninterrupted unison."
Begun late in 1780, this series of verse discourses, which became generally known by readers as the "Moral Satires," had been completed in October 1781. It represents a comprehensive and hard-hitting proclamation of Evangelical attitudes and doctrine. "The Progress of Error" and "Truth" establish the two extremes of Cowper's moral position in an attack on the subversion of Christianity by rationalism and science and a complementary charting of Scripture's "easy, artless, unincumber'd plan." In "Table Talk" the dialogue form is used to argue the need for righteousness in all endeavors, including literature. The prophetic voice of "Expostulation" compares the history of England with that of Israel and laments the nation's moral decline, "Hope" contrasts the wonders of spiritual awakening with the drab futility of worldly existence, and "Charity" explores the greatest of the Christian virtues. "Conversation" and "Retirement," lighter and more intimate in tone, carry the religious stand-point into an appraisal of the sociable and sequestered spheres that were by this time Cowper's familiar domain.
Though the simple "opportunity to be amused" in composing verse is a frequent theme in Cowper's letters of the early 1780s, the author of the Moral Satires took his muse seriously, not only for reasons of self-esteem, signaled by his constant irritation at delays in reaching the press, but as a means of reclaiming an enfeebled age. "Table Talk," which is placed first in the volume, contains an aggressive manifesto deploring the "whipt-cream" and "push-pin play" of contemporary writing and pleading for a return to worthy purposes and the standards of "genius, sense, and wit." Pope's example had, for Cowper, made poetry "a mere mechanic art," but his own critical principles are here adapted from the Essay on Criticism (1711). Like those expressed in the correspondence, these principles align him with the late-Neoclassical school of Lord Kames, Hugh Blair, and Samuel Johnson, which stressed the writer's legislative function, his responsibility to communicate clearly but with imaginative and intellectual force on matters of general human concern. Cowper shared with the poets of Sensibility--William Collins, Thomas Gray, and Joseph and Thomas Warton--a sense of a laggard present; but whereas they sought to exorcise the spirit of Neoclassicism by emulating the Invention and Fancy of Greece, the Middle Ages, and the English Renaissance, he set himself the task of purifying and redirecting the energies of Neoclassicism in the service of God and the Christian ethos.
In pursuing this project Cowper sometimes brings all tellurian art under uneasy scrutiny as a potential source of error or a devising "far too mean for him that rules the skies." Yet the art of the Moral Satires possesses its own kind of assurance and versatility. The humorous vein that pleased Cartwright shows with particular brilliance in the inimitable satiric portraiture, more Hogarthian than Popian, where the interest lies as much in the unfolding reactions of the quizzical observer as in the configuration of vice itself: "Yon ancient prude, whose wither'd features show / She might be young some forty years ago. . . ." In Hours in a Library (1879) Leslie Stephen designated Cowper "a thinker too far apart from the great world to apply the lash effectually"; but detachment can seem a definite advantage when compared to the unfocused, if fiery, stance of Cowper's former schoolfellow, the profligate parson Churchill, who, immersed in a welter of metropolitan corruptness, flails out indiscriminately at everything in sight. Cowper's gaze is steady and trained on things of consequence, not only the individual soul and man's folly but the soul of a nation in crisis, torn by the catastrophic course of the American war, the Gordon Riots, and the effects of the armed neutrality of five European states:
Poor England! thou art a devoted deer,
Beset with ev'ry ill but that of fear.
The nations hunt; all mark thee for a prey,
They swarm around thee, and thou standst at bay.
Undaunted still, though wearied and perplex'd....
These topical areas of the Moral Satires establish Cowper as at once journalist, patriot, and a confirmed ideologist for whom style itself is an index of value. The "manly, rough line" which he saw as a way of breaking the hegemony of Pope's emasculating musical finesse mirrors the very virtues of "sober zeal" and "integrity," strength without "wild excess," which he upholds and recommends to his bereft countrymen.
Modern readers, however, are likely to find most to engage them in the personal themes that sound beneath and sometimes on the surface of the Moral Satires. There are points throughout where Cowper draws on his own past, among them an objectification at the climax of "Hope" of his former maniacal despair and conversion, in which he sees heightened perception of the Creation as the primary manifestation of a new-found state of grace. This passage is a propitious moment in Cowper's interior progress. His present condition was far from the joyous assurance it describes; contemporaneous letters insist that there is "no remedy" for the "unprofitableness" of his life. Yet in identifying the appreciation of nature as a sign and source of spiritual well-being he found a way forward both as poet and as a man in search of an anchor for his feelings.
"Retirement," the last of the Moral Satires, registers a definite advance in confidence and in the use of contemplation to bring stability to the individual's own life. Didacticism merges with the strategies of the poet assessing his situation and its possibilities. Memorable, trenchant satire on the incipient bourgeois craze for country living--"Suburban villas, highway-side retreats"--and other abuses of retirement resides within a larger framework in which Cowper makes himself the exemplar of the sincere, virtuous, enlightened, and contented retiree of classical and recent tradition, "the happy man" of Virgil's Georgics, Horace, Cowley, and James Thomson's The Seasons (1726-1730). Building a positive identity for himself and offering his credentials to the world, he transforms exile into a welcome calling of which the greatest privilege is intercourse with the living organic reality of nature "in all the various shapes she wears." The detailed descriptions of that reality in "Retirement" have a double yield, foreshadowing the richer fruits of his masterpiece, The Task (1785). The harmonies of "forest where the deer securely roves" and the minute perfection of "Muscle and nerve miraculously spun" tell of the Artificer Divine as Cowper fulfills the anti-Deistic thrust of the Moral Satires by arguing from the evidence of design in the universe to the existence of the Christian God with a verve unrivaled until William Paley's Natural Theology (1802). Simultaneously, however, he finds his "heart enrich'd by what it pays." Interaction between self and nature brings immediate stimulation but is also proof of a capacity which has already been seen as the special possession of the reborn soul. A close reading of the poetry radically modifies the received image of Cowper the passive "stricken deer" and benighted "castaway," for much of it is an answer to his darker emotions and even a quest for evidences of election. He created two selves in his writings, the damned and the saved. Cowper's maturation as a writer of comic, occasional, and narrative verse is attributable in large measure to psychological pressures. Among the best of the pieces in the 1782 volume, the lines on the marooned Alexander Selkirk and the taut little fable on a goldfinch starved in his cage both take a singular edge from his private experience. The former is a vivid drama of mind in which the polar images of island-paradise ("I am monarch of all I survey") and island-prison ("horrible place") are reconciled in a sober acceptance of affliction; the latter is a chillingly gleeful celebration of death as an escape from a cruel confinement. Cowper told Newton that "the mind long wearied with ... a dull, dreary prospect will gladly fix its eyes on any thing that may make a little variety in its contemplations, though it were but a kitten playing with her tail"; but when he turns his gaze on three kittens and a full-grown cat one day in 1782 he discovers that nothing is predictable, for a viper "long as Count de Grasse's queue" brings terror to the garden and must be dispatched with "out-stretch'd hoe." The calculated swagger of "The Colubriad," the poem in which this incident is related, at once releases and controls Cowper's apprehension of the fearful truth that "We are never more in danger than when we think ourselves most secure." And it is precisely this irony that seizes his imagination in the stanzas on the loss of the Royal George in 1782: the crew of eight hundred go down not in tempest or battle but when they are seemingly safe in harbor. The commander of the Royal George, visited by fate while his fingers hold the pen, is, like the caged bird and the harmless old cat, one of Cowper's many doubles. The latter, however, are the more telling self-projections. Their vulnerability is oddly intermixed with a saving resilience as the one has the last laugh on his sadistic captor by speaking from beyond the grave and the other paws the invading snake out of curiosity to learn what the phenomenon might mean, just as Cowper wrests wisdom and shrewd artistic capital from the enigma of violence and threat that threw its shadow over his own life.
At this time Cowper developed several significant friendships: with William Bull, Independent minister of Newport Pagnell, whose encouragement led to Cowper's fine translations of the poems of the French Quietist Madame Guion (begun in 1782, published in 1801); with William Unwin, who replaced Newton as literary go-between once Poems had been seen through the press; and, most importantly, with Lady Austen, whom he met in 1781 just before she took up residence at Olney vicarage. Relations between Cowper and Lady Austen, until Cowper broke them off in 1784, were plagued by mutual irritation. She was domineering, he was subject to his habitual difficulties over intimacy with the fair sex. A chance remark suggests that he saw in her the threat of woman's destructive power, his Delilah, and in 1782 they quarreled bitterly when he rejected what he presumed was a veiled proposal of romantic attachment and marriage. Yet of all his muses she was the one who made the most difference. Her vivacity undoubtedly lay behind both the freer creativity of "Retirement" and the inception of The Task in the autumn of 1783, and it was her idea for a narrative poem that inspired "The Diverting History of John Gilpin," which Cowper drafted during a single night in October 1782 and which was published anonymously soon after in the Public Advertiser.
Spectacularly successful from the start ("hackney'd in ev'ry Magazine, in every News paper and in every street," as Cowper put it in 1785), the tale of citizen Gilpin's thwarted plans for a day out and his furious nonstop ride through an amazed metropolis has appealed to successive generations as sheer farce and inoffensive caricature, and may be read too as subtle parody of the genre of the street ballad and of romance conventions, with more than a hint of conscious rivalry with the burlesque of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Sir Thopas." Yet this jeu d'esprit was written in "the saddest mood," and concentrates in its hero's predicament a whole cluster of the poet's bleakest obsessions: the meaningless violence of the world, the aloneness of being beyond self-help or the help of others, the individual's insecurity within a field of unaccountable force. John Calvin gave rise to John Gilpin no less than to Cowper's periodic reports from the "fleshly tomb" where he was "buried above ground"; humor was not a thing apart from the inner nightmare but a visitant like "harlequin . . . intrud[ing] himself into the gloomy chamber where a corpse is deposited in state," not so much lightheartedness as an antic exuberance performed on the very edge of horror.
Cowper's vision of the world and being-in-the-world found fullest expression in The Task, which, originating inauspiciously in Lady Austen's playful request for a blank-verse poem on "the sofa," grew over a period of twelve months into a magnum opus of six books and around five thousand lines. Poor sales of the 1782 volume of poems were of little consequence to Cowper; the reviews had been encouraging, if mixed, and this response, together with the popularity of "John Gilpin," pushed him into eager negotiations with Joseph Johnson for publication of a new volume. The Task appeared in July 1785 to universal acclaim. In composing it Cowper had behind him the example of Thomson's The Seasons and other works in the "georgic" tradition but evolved a wholly independent bent, texture, and range of subject matter. He produced a large-scale investigation of Man, Nature, and Society which was also the first extended autobiographical poem in English.
"God made the country, and man made the town," Cowper says in Book I, "The Sofa." The moral scheme of the work is at once apparent and is carried forward not only in denunciations of "gain-devoted cities" but in more particularized responses to such contemporary issues as the slave trade ("human nature's broadest, foulest blot"), the modishness of the Church and the universities, and the weakness of a postwar government shamelessly winking at what Cowper calls in Book II, "The Time Piece," "the perfidy of France, / That pick'd the jewel out of England's crown." Cowper is the conscience and monitor of the age, tracing the faults of the England he loves to a general want of those standards, grounded as much in the classical ideals of humanitas and gravitas as in the Christian ethic, to which he customarily subscribes, and speaking for many at a time of anxious soul-searching after the loss of empire. The scope of its satiric and patriotic interests, alongside its explorations of rural and domestic life, make The Task a truly national poem.
From the beginning, however, the public aspects of the poem are interwoven with or usurped by distinctly personal ones. Confessional passages like that on the "stricken deer, that left the herd / Long since" in Book III, "The Garden," are the overt face of a process of self-revelation that persists elsewhere in repeated image patterns and preoccupations involving such oppositions as imprisonment and freedom, disease and health, chaos and order. The figure of the paralytic in Book I, who "can hold her cards, / But cannot play them" and "sits, / Spectatress both and spectacle, a sad / And silent cypher," is introduced as an exemplum of the debilitating effects of frivolous social pleasure but grows into a stark symbolic representation of the death-in-life of irrevocable isolation and desperate survival at the outer limits of normality. This passage, like the nearby piece on "crazy Kate," is the surfacing of the dark side of Cowper's imagination, his hard-won knowledge of the prison house of the self. But in the Ouse Valley episode (on which Wordsworth based his "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey") one discovers a countervailing impulse as Cowper, taking a cue from "Retirement," reaffirms his gift for finding peace and joy in the presence of nature. First he uses retrospection to establish the lifelong continuity of his love of "fair prospect" and nature's service to that love; then he enacts this same reciprocity in a characteristically dense landscape description where mental activity, the poet "feeding at the eye," combines with the welcoming flow of the autonomous life without, the spirit of place that "Conducts the eye." The Task thus moves between tragic and epiphanic or therapeutic vision, projecting that perpetual oscillation between thoughts of "a happy eternity" and of being "thrust down to Hell" which Cowper reported to Newton as his inveterate condition. The topos of country versus town becomes a topography of psychic tension, the contemplation of nature the locus of emotional stability.
Books III and IV, "The Winter Evening," deal more particularly with the poet's life of retirement. The routine and objects of home and garden--cucumbers, stercoraceous heap, and all--offer the occasion for some of Cowper's most adept exploitation of the disparity between high style and ordinary subjects, that humorous magnification of Olney minutiae which is one means by which he elevates and shares his experience with the reader. He weaves from his materials both parables of how human beings should function in the world and microcosmic visions of how the world should ideally be. He does so in spite of a powerful awareness of an actual "civilization" restructuring itself on the basis of advancing manufacture, consumerism, and commercial enterprise, so that merchants "Incorporated ... / Build factories with blood" and the "Midas finger of the state" reaches even into the countryside, making debauchery bleed gold for the exchequer. Unlike John Dyer in The Fleece (1757), or sometimes Thomson (who, for example, celebrates "gay Drudgery"), Cowper can reach no accommodation with industrialization and the other accompaniments of an expansionist economic system reflecting the popular doctrine, elaborated in Bernard de Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714 and 1728), that "private vices" make "publick benefits": he registers only a perverse harmony of dehumanizing excess and a corrupt polity. Alienated from the collective present, in a posture that emphatically signalizes the Romantic and post-Romantic split between value and the practical sphere, he fashions in his accounts of the innocent and fruitful pursuits of the sequestered man a sustaining myth of optimal existence which revivifies all the traditional motifs--friendship, books, cultivation of the mind--but stresses most the fertile cooperation and "glad espousals" of Art and Nature.
Human skill and nature are both viewed ambiguously elsewhere in The Task: the gentle savage Omai in Book I, for instance, is envied for his paradisal home and pitied because he is deprived of the "manners and the arts of civil life." But in Cowper's garden skill and nature are seen in a perfectly balanced and creative union that represents the apogee of man's relationship with his environment, a union operating in the work not only of the sensitive laborer but of the true poet, who ultimately traces in his surroundings the model of a goodly social order:
Few self-supported flow'rs endure the wind
Uninjur'd, but expect th' upholding aid
Of the smooth-shaven prop, and, neatly tied,
Are wedded thus, like beauty to old age,
For int'rest sake, the living to the dead.
Some clothe the soil that feeds them, far diffus'd
And lowly creeping, modest and yet fair,
Like virtue ...
All hate the rank society of weeds,
Noisome, and ever greedy to exhaust
Such moments of visionary insight underline one of the major messages of the poem--that imagination, which gives access to the ideal and the beautiful, is superior to every other form of production. The task of the writer, which the world might consider mere idleness, is presented in the end as the most important "business" of all, for it keeps people alive to "wisdom" and the best they may aim for.
Books V, "The Winter Morning Walk," and VI, "The Winter Walk at Noon," move back from a mythopoeic to a more contemplative register and bring to a climax Cowper's experiential and religio-philosophic interest in the natural world. One notable feature is their buoyant expansion of the anti-Deist arguments of "Retirement," this time with Pope's Essay on Man (1733-1734) an evident object of criticism. For Cowper, there is "A soul in all things, and that soul is God"--the God of divine revelation rather than mechanical causes. Yet he insists that this God is not only the end of inspired perception but also its source ("Acquaint thyself with God, if thou would'st taste / His works"), so that responsiveness to nature is made more forcibly than ever the touch-stone of spiritual wholeness. The give and take between the energies of self and nature in The Task generates an incredible range of moods and perspectives, from the set-piece prospects of Book I through the reverie amid the frost on the "variegated show" and hidden stirrings of the fields in Book IV (which inspired Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" ) to the vast kaleidoscope of ever-changing engagements with the sentient and nonsentient life of the Creation in the later books. The desire to worship and the longing for grace are satisfied in the temple of the universe, Cowper's substitute church, but leave room still for humbler, yet necessary, dispensations of harmony and repose:
The roof, though moveable through all its length
As the wind sways it, has yet well suffic'd,
And, intercepting in their silent fall
The frequent flakes, has kept a path for me...
The redbreast warbles still, but is content
With slender notes, and more than half suppress'd:
Pleas'd with his solitude, and flitting light
From spray to spray, where'er he rests he shakes
From many a twig the pendent drops of ice.
Here the poet's double is the redbreast happy in his solitude and at home in a closed recess of beauteous forms. Yet Cowper finds in meditation not only entry to a private earthly paradise but a medium of enlightenment for all: in one of the poem's most influential statements he offers a philosophy elevating wise passiveness, where "the heart" gives lessons to "the head," above the "spells" and "unprofitable mass" of intellectual knowledge and learning from books.
The Task closes, however, in irresolution. Cowper's enjoyment of a second Eden fades before renewed thoughts of postlapsarian conflict and depravity, oddly but strikingly communicated in unsparing diagnoses of the cruelty of blood sports and the pseudoreligious ritualism of the recent George Frideric Handel and David Garrick festivals ("Man praises man"). These thoughts bring on a wishful prophecy of the Last Day, when all will be swept away and the greater Paradise restored. But Cowper was no mystic: his heart is not in the distant hope, and the reality pressed upon the reader in a final return to the theme of the sequestered life is the struggle of the individual to glean what consolation he can in the here and now of a fallen world. The poet's last review of his life in The Task is assertive but not glorious: to his sense of his uselessness in people's eyes he opposes the "fair example" of his patient privacy and humble strains. He concedes that he was "doom'd" to obscurity but sees it as a fate to be chosen for its rewards; he knows that "in contemplation is his bliss" but recognizes a continuing "warfare ... within." The classical "happy man" and the Puritan introspective saint shade perceptibly into the Romantic solitary, trying yet vulnerable, armed with the powers of creation and self-creation but endlessly threatened by uncertainty and despair.
Cowper's own pride in The Task is summed up by his flourish in a letter of 10 October 1784 to William Unwin: "My descriptions 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. . . . In my numbers . . . I have imitated nobody." The reviews, rising in degrees of favorableness to the near-ecstasy of the contributor to the Monthly Review (June 1786) who had "got on fairy ground," read like expansions of these claims, recommending Cowper for his depth of feeling, fluency, descriptive realism, and the interest of his character. Coleridge later put this reaction in a nutshell when emphasizing Cowper's originality in uniting "natural thoughts with natural diction" and "the heart with the head."
Coleridge must have been thinking mainly of the unprecedented use of blank verse as a vehicle for the flow of consciousness, of Cowper as the progenitor of an "interior" mode in which the poetry is a continual outgrowth of the mind. This inwardness is an outstanding feature of Cowper's influence, although subsequent criticism tended to stress his more obvious contribution in furthering accurate observation of the countryside. Moreover, he brought to humanity's relationship with nature a religious and philosophic dimension that proved central, in the "natural faith" and "One Life" theory of Coleridge and Wordsworth, to the Romantic quest for models of well-being and numinous design in a world rendered potentially void of meaning by Newtonian science and John Locke's mechanistic psychology, which indicated particles of matter as the only reality and made the objects of perception a mere illusion. As recent interpretations have shown, The Task constitutes a psychodrama in which the troubled Cowper seeks a bliss peculiar to his needs but in so doing sets new bearings for the corporate imagination involving belief in the mind's access to the prodigies of "pow'r divine" (wonderfully exemplified in Book IV when the poet, in a positively "unthinking" mood, receives an unmediated vision of the universal discordia concors as well as the throbbing life of the single "tender blade" protected by the snow's warm veil) and belief in a liberty of soul surpassing even the political rights he so strenuously espouses (wings that nothing can cripple or confine, "No nook so narrow but he spreads them there / With ease, and is at large"). The poem made the self, though cast out to the periphery of an antipathetic society and inhabiting a small corner of an infinite universe, not only an abiding center of attention in its own right but the bastion of moral, spiritual, and aesthetic value. What the concluding movement then brings into focus, however, is the less comforting seam of the same post-Enlightenment subjectivity: the promise of ceaseless mental struggle and incompleteness of which the closest analogue is the existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard and Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818).
While The Task was in the press Cowper had gone back to an old project in couplets recommending private tuition in preference to school education. "Tirocinium" ("first training") eventually found a place alongside "John Gilpin" in the same volume as The Task. Cowper feared that his objections to the public schools would procure him enemies, but the poem caused no stir in spite of the agile reasoning which still makes it a worthwhile quarry for attitudes to the system before the period of nineteenth-century reforms. His major undertaking at this time, however, was the translation of the Iliad, begun toward the end of 1784. In The Task Cowper had unwittingly produced a revolutionary work, a personalization of the Miltonic sublime from which Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850) and a whole poetry of nature and the private realm soon flowed. Yet the task that exercised him most during his career was deliberately conservative and painstakingly objective--the faithful rendering into his own tongue of the harmony and energy of Homeric epic.
The encounter with Homer lasted on and off for the rest of Cowper's life, first in the prolonged preparation of The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer (1791) and afterwards in regular spates of revision. It was in some ways a heroic enterprise: ambitious, scrupulous, and driven by an unshakable antagonism toward Pope, whose standard version in rhyme he had set out to supplant on the grounds that--as he argued in a manifesto submitted to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1785--blank verse would do greater justice to both the unaffected grandeur and the detail of the original. Though Cowper loved Homer and wanted fame, his motivation was in part (like Pope's before him) undoubtedly financial. The long-lost Theadora settled a small annuity on the poet in 1785 in support of Lady Hesketh's plans to provide him with assistance. Publication of the Homer translation through the old-fashioned subscription method earned him one thousand pounds and the copyright; but it was a daunting affair, carried forward only by the indefatigable efforts of Lady Hesketh and Cowper's friend Walter Bagot. The watchful attentions of the publisher's reader, Henry Fuseli, were hardly less burdensome, despite Cowper's gratitude for help with a "long and arduous task" which he came to think might discredit him. His doubts were not altogether ill founded. Even among his contemporaries the translation achieved only a modicum of critical success. The basically literal approach helped to ensure a readership for the work well into the twentieth century; but as Fuseli and others were quick to suggest, while Cowper may be praised in theory for a respectful perspicuity, he avoided in practice neither dullness nor the awkwardness likely to arise from the use of Miltonic syntax. The opinion of informed posterity finds neat expression in Matthew Arnold's view in On Translating Homer (1861-1862) that "between Cowper and Homer . . . there is interposed the mist of Cowper's elaborate Miltonic manner, entirely alien to the flowing rapidity of Homer."
The studied competence of the Homer stands in marked contrast to the sprightliness of the vignettes on local events in the letters of the Olney years, such as the elegant farce of the visit of the "kissing candidate" at election time or the essais on the ballooning craze. In the spring of 1784 Cowper went to see a balloon go up at neighboring Weston Underwood on the estate of the Throckmortons, a distinguished Catholic family of "goodnature, complaisance, and innocent cheerfulness" with whom Mrs. Unwin and he soon became friends. At the Throckmortons' invitation he rented the Lodge at Weston Hall in November 1786. This change in residence was a removal to symbolic Parnassian splendor, as well as to the actual locality of the landscapes most warmly praised in The Task: in a 9 August 1791 letter to James Hurdis, imitator of The Task, Cowper was to describe how he had exchanged the life of a recluse at Orchard Side for that of a comfortable celebrity at Weston, exposed to "all manner of inroads" and "visited by all around." Cultivated and pleasant surroundings, however, could do nothing to prevent a fourth bout of extreme depression from setting in during 1787 after the sudden death of William Unwin. Mrs. Unwin herself cut the rope by which the poet once again tried to kill himself.
It was death in other quarters that gave Cowper his next chance to show a face to the world. One day in November he received a visit from the clerk of the parish of All Saints, Northampton, with a request for verses to affix to the forthcoming Bill of Mortality (the annual public list and analysis of deaths in the parish). He wrote Lady Hesketh on 27 November: "To this I replied--Mr. Cox, you have several men of Genius in your town. . . . There is a namesake of yours in particular, Cox, the Statuary, who, everybody knows, is a first-rate Maker of Verses. He is surely the man of all the world for your purpose. Alas Sir! I have heretofore borrowed help from him, but he is a Gentleman of so much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him." This wry anecdote brims with Cowper's confidence in his own powers as a man of genius and much reading who can, when he likes, write to be readily understood. He was never at a loss for an appropriate voice, and in the event supplied stanzas in "the Mortuary stile" six times between 1787 and 1793, using such shrewd devices as the disconcertingly grotesque idea of a predictive rather than retrospective Bill to bring a cutting edge to the genre's customary appeals for reformation, and recognition that no one can escape the fatal, often unexpected hour: "No med'cine, though it often cure, / Can always balk the tomb."
Cowper knew what a "sentence" was in more than one sense, and the aura of his private desert places undoubtedly contributed to the vivification of functional objectives in these poems, as it did also in the dramatic monologue of "The Negro's Complaint" and other lyrics commissioned in 1788 for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which were widely circulated and served as an effective guide to popular protest for Southey and later exponents of the cause. Nearer home, the residue of the psychotic disturbance of 1787 explains the return to nightmare at the heart of his uncanniest poem:
Just then, by adverse fate impress'd,
A dream disturb'd poor Bully's rest:
In sleep he seem'd to view
A rat, fast-clinging to the cage,
And, screaming at the sage presage,
Awoke and found it true.
Abstractly considered, "On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton's Bulfinch" is the perfect example of the special mixture of conscious artistry and subjective impulse in Cowper that prefigures the modern poetry of tragicomical happenstance and the surreal. Yet nothing is faked. On one level a brilliant performance in mock elegy and the art of cementing friendship, the poem is invaded by Cowper's instinctive vision of how the end can come at any moment, for caged birds and secluded bards alike. The moral of Bully's demise seems to be that pets had better be kept in wire cages, not pretty wooden ones; but Cowper takes a secret delight in Mrs. Throckmorton's improvidence, for to be broken in upon is also to be freed from the suspense of a world where sinister forces wait ever ready to strike. His response to the image of his own long-awaited destruction is poised between terror and exhilarated relief, foretelling the deathbed utterance of "The Castaway."
The last decade of Cowper's life began promisingly. There were attempts to get him the laureateship left vacant by the death of Thomas Warton, the translation of Homer was lodged with the publisher, and a surprise appearance by John Johnson, the grandson of his uncle Roger Donne, put him in touch with his mother's family after a break of twenty-seven years. Cowper felt an immediate bond with "wild boy Johnson," in whom he saw "a shred of my own mother," and a few weeks into 1790 he received from his cousin, Anne Bodham, the portrait of his mother which, in an atmosphere of spontaneous "trepidation of nerves and spirits," inspired one of the most unusual, and finest, poems of self-revelation in the language.
The critic Hazlitt valued "On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture out of Norfolk" for its extraordinary pathos. But one is struck no less by the way Cowper's wide-awake intelligence refines and directs the unguarded feelings that emerge as he looks back in intimate detail to the security of infancy and then to the desolate bewilderment that descended when his mother died in his sixth year. Biographers have used the poem to describe what Cowper's early childhood was like. Though it certainly unearths the main material fact behind his lifelong sense of adversity, and though the recollections of a previous bliss--the "fragrant waters" or "confectionary plum," the smile that met his efforts to prick into paper the patterns of the "tissued flow'rs" on his mother's dress--are no doubt authentic, he is patently involved in a process of construction, sorting his life into a history so as to be able better to comprehend it. Yet whereas the Puritan autobiographers customarily traced in their past the consoling patterns of a journey to salvation, Cowper here confirms, and faces up to, a tragic destiny: the child wretchedly bereaved, "dupe of to-morrow" in his disappointed hopes that his mother will return, is father of the man denied all promise of reaching the heavenly shore, "always distress'd":
Me howling winds drive devious, tempest-toss'd,
Sails ript, seams op'ning wide, and compass lost,
And day by day some current's thwarting force
Sets me more distant from a prosp'rous course.
The poet comes to terms with his predicament, which he climactically objectifies in the sea imagery that was a habitual component of his private iconography. But the triumph of the poem is not only that of acceptance; for, building on the idea of art being able to baffle time, he uses memory, the recovery of spots of time, to bring solace in the present: "By contemplation's help, not sought in vain, / I seem t'have lived my childhood o'er again; / To have renewed the joys that once were mine...." In a finely balanced ending he keeps faith with the "wings of fancy," with wishes and the answering charms of illusion, while admitting that they are only a provisional escape from harsh reality. "On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture" is related to eighteenth-century elegy but represents a new species of reflective meditation, the dialogue of the mind with itself commonly known as the "greater Romantic lyric." It was published in 1798 and at once entered the canon of essential English poetry.
The rediscovery and mapping out of a lost past was a liberating experience for Cowper. Another good chance came his way in 1791 when Joseph Johnson offered him the editorship of the works of Milton in a major publishing venture for which Fuseli was to design the engravings. This novel engagement, which Cowper welcomed as adding the rank of "Critic" to his other accomplishments, had an important offshoot in his friendship with William Hayley, who had agreed to write a life of Milton for a rival de luxe edition planned by the publishers John Boydell and George Nicol. Hayley's "handsome" and "affectionate" approach to a potential competitor, and his subsequent loyalty, are highlights of the later stages of Cowper's life. It was largely through his exertions that Cowper was granted a Crown pension in 1794 (an event made possible by the fact that, despite his Whig sympathies, Cowper had always been an outspoken monarchist and had publicly commemorated the king's recovery from madness in the panegyric "Annus Memorabilis 1789"); and it was in Hayley's Life of Milton, published in the same year, that Cowper's translations of Milton's Italian and Latin poems first appeared. These pieces and some fragmentary annotation on Paradise Lost (1667) and on Dr. Johnson's Life of Milton (1779), however, were the only elements of the Milton project ever to see the light of day. Enthusiasm had soon given way to frustration as domestic anxieties began to impinge mercilessly on Cowper's labors. In late 1791 Mrs. Unwin had suffered a paralytic stroke; the walls had started to close in again.
Mrs. Unwin lingered through several further attacks until 1796. To the poet who had undergone his own bouts of horrific stultification, the daily sight of his helpmate's living death must have seemed the cruelest visitation of all. Yet, as so often before, achievement was born of affliction. In "To Mary," written in 1793, he both subdues the fires and keeps the wraith of feeling alive. It is a marvelously poised and relentlessly painful love poem, altogether redeemed from sentimentality by an honest cleaving to the hard facts of the situation--Cowper's dependence on Mary; her incapacity; her blindness; and her "indistinct expressions"--and by the integrity of their artistic treatment:
Thy needles, once a shining store,
For my sake restless heretofore,
Now rust disus'd, and shine no more,
My Mary! ...
But well thou play'd'st the housewife's part,
And all thy threads with magic art
Have wound themselves about this heart,
Familiar objects have become forceful symbols of a desolation Cowper cannot evade, but which he can oppose by the magic of his own worthiest art, the sincere affection that transforms atrophy into beauty, Mary's "silver locks" into "orient beams," her lifeless hands into a "richer store" than gold.
Cowper's imagination was more often gripped in these years, however, by the old nightmare of worthlessness and damnation. He again saw himself being led to execution, and he dreamed of his "everlasting martyrdom in fire." Samuel Teedon, the Olney schoolmaster to whom he sent his visions for analysis, has gone down in biographical tradition as a sham who duped the ailing poet of his money; but he brought some comfort as a confidant, even after Cowper came to consider his promising notices from God about Mary's health and his own salvation to be a divine joke, the Almighty's "deadliest arrows." Less helpful to Cowper's condition was the dissension that broke out at Weston following his return from a visit in 1792 to Hayley's estate at Eartham in Sussex, where Mrs. Unwin's temporary improvement and the company of the painter George Romney and other celebrities had put him in a better frame of mind. Lady Hesketh grew increasingly antagonistic toward Mrs. Unwin, attacking her on a variety of issues, including the flirtatious behavior of her ward, Hannah Wilson. One gets the impression sometimes of jealous dislike and sometimes of well-meaning but counterproductive concern to prise Cowper free from an obvious burden. Whatever Harriot Hesketh's motives and hopes in taking personal charge of her cousin during 1793 and 1794, by 1795 there seemed little left to save: according to a 19 June 1795 letter from John Johnson to Catharine Johnson, Cowper looked like "a Ghost"--"nothing but skin and bone."
It was decided that Johnson should take Cowper and Mrs. Unwin into his care in Norfolk. After short stays at North Tuddenham, Mundesley, and Dunham Lodge, the three settled in 1796 at East Dereham. Mrs. Unwin's death in December had little effect on Cowper, for his health was already deteriorating rapidly. He heard voices both night and day and suffered hallucinations, recorded in Johnson's diary, of drinking "rankest poison," being "disjointed by the Rack," and being "taken up in his bed by strange women," which suggest complicated and disturbingly specific infantile repressions. The only person from whom he sought help was the housekeeper, Margaret Perowne, a middle-aged woman who followed Mrs. Unwin in stationing herself in the corner of his bedroom. The vigilant Johnson nevertheless tried out the ingenious, but hopeless, stratagem of sending encouraging suggestions down a speaking tube secreted behind the bed.
At intervals, however, another Cowper emerges from this eerie, claustrophobic picture of introversion and inexorable decline. On leaving Weston he had written a "farewell" to God "with a hand that is not permitted to tremble," and near Mundesley he had seen as an exact emblem of himself "a solitary pillar of rock" awaiting the lashing of the storm. A conviction of uniqueness had always run through his life and writings: "I am of a very singular temper, and very unlike all the men I have ever conversed with," he told Harriot Hesketh as early as 1763. But there is something newly decisive and heroic in these later self-projections. This is the Cowper who at last stood beyond both aid and despair, who hugged his fate to him and drew stature expressly from it--the lucid, unflinching Cowper of "The Castaway."
A similar shift of sensibility can be seen in a hardening compulsion toward the primitive, the oracular, and the demonic during this phase of Cowper's career. In "Yardley Oak," written in 1791, he had brooded in cramped, angular Miltonic verse on a terrible autonomous beauty and on the shattered oak as a form companionate with his own monumental persistence and decay, but he had also consented to the rationalizing constraints of a Christian view of nature and human history. "Montes Glaciales," composed immediately before "The Castaway" in March 1799, has an entirely pagan landscape of wondrous "portents." Cowper associates himself with the ice-islands whose true abode is primeval "Cimmerian darkness," and in ordering them back from the light and softer air of the Apollonian world into which they have ventured allegorizes his embrace of an imaginative destination, Godless and forbidding, that is the obverse of the paradise of contemplative seclusion in which he had once laid claim to spiritual ease and renovation. When he recapitulates to Lady Hesketh in 1798 the "rapture" to be gained from "delightful scenes" it is only to complain of a present "blindness" that makes them "an universal blank"; the radiance of inspiration is past and gone, "an almost forgotten dream." Yet with the approach of death came not autistic dereliction but power of a different order.
The immediate trigger for "The Castaway" was a passage in George Anson's Voyage round the World (1748) recording the "unhappy fate" of a seaman swept overboard in a violent storm. Cowper briefly identifies with the "destin'd wretch" at the outset, but then withholds precise definition of the interrelationship for eight narrative stanzas which delve into the particulars of the mariner's struggle yet express with piercing clarity that whole bleak view of human life and destiny that underlies so many of his works. The opening personifications--"Obscurest night involv'd the sky . . ."--evoke a setting of actively hostile, conspiratorial forces. And everything that happens to the protagonist in this grim universe is full of incredible irony: his courage is admirable but futile, "supported by despair of life"; his comrades try to help him but, "pitiless perforce," must race away to save themselves on the very wind that carries his cries for help toward them; he understands their haste, yet "bitter felt it still to die / Deserted, and his friends so nigh." The climax exemplifies the immense figurative depth that Cowper brings to the plain, logical style he inherited, along with the pulsating metre of "sixes" and "eights," from hymnodic practice: "For then, by toil subdued, he drank / The stifling wave, and then he sank." We drink to stay alive, but here the act of imbibing is a dreadful communion with death as the mariner, by the greatest irony of all, is exhausted through his own efforts to survive and voluntarily participates in the preordained ritual of his destruction.
In this uncompromising vision Cowper is clearly writing out of and reviewing his own experience, his lasting strife in a world of rigid predestination. Yet the poem overall is more a cathartic assertion of strength than a lament for helplessness and suffering. When he comes to specify his interest in Anson's bereft mariner it is pleasure, not pain, that he stresses:
But misery still delights to trace
Its 'semblance in another's case.
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he.
There is no self-pity here, but rather equanimity and gain. Cowper's "delight" is not simply the commonplace consolation of finding a fellow in affliction: on the contrary, he finally emphasizes "'semblance" as difference, taking status from the greater extremity of his lot in the "deeper gulphs" of inner turmoil. The end of "The Castaway" is his most audacious act of writing the self uniquely and positively into being. When talking of the absence of divine aid he is thinking of the episode from Pope's Odyssey (1725-1726).