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Happy Birthday William Cowper

November 26, 2016


Yes, on this day, in 1731, William Cowper was born.  I don’t mark this anniversary often enough – which is strange given that I devoted years of my life to him.  Alongside a friend of mine who was much better at cycling than I, I once cycled all the way from Cambridge to Olney to check out his former home and current (shared museum).  It’s a fairly flat part of the world to pedal but it was raining for much of the last part.

When trying to appreciate this important and influential figure, it’s good practice to walk a mile or three or four in his shoes.  He was sneered at (by Hazlitt among others) as an effeminate, querulous, feeble sort of figure – but once you’ve actually experienced the long walks that he enjoyed (endured) on a regular basis, then you’ll see him differently.  I for one have walked the walk and can talk the talk.   In his fifty-something literary prime, Cowper was a fit and healthy man.  Healthier than I am.

He was also someone who needed exercise – physical as well as literary.  He needed a “task” in hand.  Despairing of his own salvation (whenever he was allowed to think about it for too long), he focused on the salvation of others.  Unlucky enough to be claustrophobic and agoraphobic, the situation of being onboard a ship seemed to him to offer the most nightmarish combination of being simultaneously confined and yet exposed.   Partly as a consequence, he becomes the single most prominent anti-slavery poet of his his age.

Everyone acknowledged his influence.  Wordsworth is polite about him, though strangely troubled by the phrase “church-going bell” used in his anapestic verses on Alexander Selkirk.  There’s nothing wrong with “church-going bell”.  There’s no logical suggestion that bells go to church any more than “gardening trousers” implies that trousers plant carrots.  Byron wrote a delicious parody of one of Cowper’s most moving lyrics “My Mary” about his own publisher “My Murray”.

Others have been puzzled by Cowper’s sexuality (or lack of it).  My own position is the closest adjective that describes his relational identity is “Shandean”.  He liked to live with or close to at least one woman in a state of chaste but flirtatious unfulfilled possibility.  I also use the work of Eve Sedgwick to suggest that if homosocial rivalry and resolution is at the heart of heternormativity, then heterosociability is, paradoxically, profoundly anti-heteronormative.  In other words, he’s queerer than you think.

Cowper couldn’t hold down a job, but he needed to work.  He depended on the charity of others, but he also needed to live for others.  His poetic and epistolary body of work is impressive.  He wrote the best long blank verse poems of the eighteenth-century and produced one of the most interesting translations from Homer.   He was a satirist, a political commentator and a wonderful personal correspondent.   His animal poems are even better than those of Matthew Prior.  And a year before he died he sort of woke up from a sustained slump caused, in part, by the fact that his friends and family and unwisely removed him to Norfolk – a harsh flat landscape that robbed him of the gently undulations he needed to sustain his (partial) sanity.  He woke up and he wrote “The Castaway”.

Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
         Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
         Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
No braver chief could Albion boast
         Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast,
         With warmer wishes sent.
He lov’d them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.
Not long beneath the whelming brine,
         Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
         Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.
He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
         To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
         That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.
Some succour yet they could afford;
         And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
         Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.
Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
         Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
         Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.
He long survives, who lives an hour
         In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow’r,
         His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!
At length, his transient respite past,
         His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry 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.
I therefore purpose not, or dream,
         Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
         A more enduring date:
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 gulfs than he.
I have a sort of memory of shouting the last stanza of this verse (not unlike Mr Ramsay from To The Lighthouse) at the raging elements as we finally steered our bikes into Olney’s long wide street.
I devoted years of my life to William Cowper.  In terms of doing the thing that I do, and being the thing that I am – he helped make me.  And yet I repeatedly forget his birthday.  It won’t do, you know… it really won’t do.

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