Happy Birthday William Cowper
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”.