An Appreciation of The Task by William Cowper (1731-1800) – Poem of the Week #45

Old Cottages at Tiller by Helen Allingham

The paucity of great long poems in any given language (in English there are very probably less than ten of them–the one under examination being one) is evidence that the composition of poetry is hardly an act of a poet’s mere will. Were it so every language would be teeming with thousands of them, for what poet does not dream of putting his pen to one sustained work where the full flourish of his artistic acumen can be put on display?

And for anyone that has seriously tried their hand at writing verse, you will understand how much the poetry you want to write is rarely the one you commit to paper–understand how often the fire of inspiration transmutes into frigid ash–understand how often the slightest push of a thought or an impression informs the lines that you are in the end most content with.

As such I have a hard time imagining a poet like Milton envisioning the Paradise Lost or Dante conceiving the Commedia at the onset. Rather, I fancy those poems probably started out like any other verse of theirs (long or short, success or failure) and only revealed their full potential as the labour went on: their authors’ geniuses being ones perspicacious enough to seize the opportunity that presented itself–acute enough to sense the first subtle tow of what turned out to be a mighty current.

And for any detractors to this conjecture, I would present the poem at hand as more concrete evidence for the involuntary nature of the artistic process. Its origin was a kind of poetic challenge offered to the poet (hence its title, The Task): to write a heroic parody on an object of utter banality, namely a sofa. The mock-Miltonic beginning reads:

I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sang
Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe
The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,
Escaped with pain from that advent’rous flight,
Now seek repose upon a humbler theme:
The theme though humble, yet august and proud
The occasion—for the Fair commands the song.

From Book I: The Sofa

I should point out that this does not set the tone for the rest of the poem, at all. Very shortly after this, Cowper goes on to relate how the sofa would be good for somebody convalescing from gout but since he does not suffer from it he is free to stand up and walk outside–which is just what he does. What results is one of the most extraordinary works in the language: a perambulation of Cowper’s genius over the space of some 150 pages (depending on the edition you read). And what happens? Scarcely more than an inconspicuous ramble through the English countryside: its scenic impressions interrupted at every vicissitude by the poet’s reflections on life, the world and the eternal. The purpose is not narrative–the utter lack of which is underscored by the very ordinary titles of its six separate parts: The Sofa, The Timepiece, The Garden, The Winter Evening, The Winter Morning Walk and The Winter Walk at Noon.

All this is certainly not to say that the work is petty or disjointed, for this is the great didactical poem in English, whose every digression can be seen as united in a grander scheme of things in seeking an answer to the age-old question of how one ought to live a happy, meaningful life. A large part of the poem is therefore concerned with moral judgments on a variety of topics, many of which have their root in for Cowper contemporary issues. The most notable one probably being that of slavery. In a world still coming to terms with racial division and inequality this should still read as relevantly as ever: 

                                   The natural bond
Of brotherhood is severed as the flax
That falls asunder at the touch of fire.
He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not coloured like his own, and having power
To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause
Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.
Lands intersected by a narrow frith
Abhor each other.  Mountains interposed
Make enemies of nations, who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.
Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;
And worse than all, and most to be deplored,
As human nature’s broadest, foulest blot,
Chains him, and tasks him, and exacts his sweat
With stripes, that mercy, with a bleeding heart,
Weeps when she sees inflicted on a beast.
Then what is man?  And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush
And hang his head, to think himself a man?
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.

From Book II: The Timepiece

And so one wonders why Cowper is so neglected today. Perhaps it is because we are too allergic to moral nay-saying? Who knows? The answer would certainly not be want of artistic skill, however, for Cowper’s mastery of blank verse is as good as any, his imagery potently down-to-earth, his moralising unsuperciliously authoritative and his pathos candid. Moreover, his grievances are far from anachronistic but, as I pointed out, often as pertinent to our own times as they were for his. Here we see it on the subject of animal welfare: 

                                To make him sport,
To gratify the frenzy of his wrath,
Or his base gluttony, are causes good
And just in his account, why bird and beast
Should suffer torture, and the streams be dyed
With blood of their inhabitants impaled.
Earth groans beneath the burden of a war
Waged with defenceless innocence, while he,
Not satisfied to prey on all around,
Adds tenfold bitterness to death by pangs
Needless, and first torments ere he devours.
Now happiest they that occupy the scenes
The most remote from his abhorred resort,
Whom once as delegate of God on earth
They feared, and as His perfect image loved.

From Book VI: The Winter Walk at Noon

Perhaps the main thing that he rails against however is human vanity and its many manifestations (material greed, excesses of dress, hunger for fame, etc). None of these lead to happiness or a permanent fulfillment because they make of life a farcical pageant: they are things that lead man away from his natural condition. He takes particular aim at cities as being the greatest agglomerations of such vice:

Ambition, avarice, penury incurred
By endless riot, vanity, the lust
Of pleasure and variety, despatch,
As duly as the swallows disappear,
The world of wandering knights and squires to town;
London engulfs them all.  The shark is there,
And the shark’s prey; the spendthrift, and the leech
That sucks him.  There the sycophant, and he
That with bare-headed and obsequious bows
Begs a warm office, doomed to a cold jail
And groat per diem if his patron frown.
The levee swarms, as if in golden pomp
Were charactered on every statesman’s door,
‘Battered and bankrupt fortunes mended here.’
These are the charms that sully and eclipse
The charms of nature.  ’Tis the cruel gripe
That lean hard-handed poverty inflicts,
The hope of better things, the chance to win,
The wish to shine, the thirst to be amused,
That, at the sound of Winter’s hoary wing,
Unpeople all our counties of such herds
Of fluttering, loitering, cringing, begging, loose
And wanton vagrants, as make London, vast
And boundless as it is, a crowded coop.

From Book III: The Garden

As such, rural life is portrayed in a far more favourable light. That is not to say that Cowper shies away from pointing out its hardship–the pains of which he sympathises greatly with–but he points out that even in its ailing poverty and toil it comes much closer to what life is and how the world works:

Between the upright shafts of whose tall elms
We may discern the thresher at his task.
Thump after thump resounds the constant flail,
That seems to swing uncertain and yet falls
Full on the destined ear.  Wide flies the chaff,
The rustling straw sends up a frequent mist
Of atoms, sparkling in the noonday beam.
Come hither, ye that press your beds of down
And sleep not: see him sweating o’er his bread
Before he eats it.—’Tis the primal curse,
But softened into mercy; made the pledge
Of cheerful days, and nights without a groan.

By ceaseless action, all that is subsists.
Constant rotation of the unwearied wheel
That Nature rides upon, maintains her health,
Her beauty, her fertility.  She dreads
An instant’s pause, and lives but while she moves.
Its own revolvency upholds the world.
Winds from all quarters agitate the air,
And fit the limpid element for use,
Else noxious: oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams
All feel the freshening impulse, and are cleansed
By restless undulation: even the oak
Thrives by the rude concussion of the storm:
He seems indeed indignant, and to feel
The impression of the blast with proud disdain,
Frowning as if in his unconscious arm
He held the thunder.

From Book 1: The Sofa

The work is not just a series of opprobria though. When not occupied with censure, for example, Cowper can show himself to be a real master of portraying landscape:

‘Tis morning; and the sun, with ruddy orb
Ascending, fires the horizon; while the clouds,
That crowd away before the driving wind,
More ardent as the disk emerges more,
Resemble most some city in a blaze,
Seen through the leafless wood.  His slanting ray
Slides ineffectual down the snowy vale,
And, tingeing all with his own rosy hue,
From every herb and every spiry blade
Stretches a length of shadow o’er the field,
Mine, spindling into longitude immense,
In spite of gravity, and sage remark
That I myself am but a fleeting shade,
Provokes me to a smile.

From Book V: The Winter Morning Walk

This down-to-earth idiom and the sympathetic portrayal of the rural/natural world make comparisons with Wordsworth obvious. In fact, I cannot think of any other author who could have had such a great stylistic influence on Wordsworth as Cowper in his Task did. How could lines such as these not be the direct progenitors to similar ones in poems like Tintern Abbey or The Prelude?

                                      …scenes that soothed
Or charmed me young, no longer young, I find
Still soothing and of power to charm me still.
And witness, dear companion of my walks,
Whose arm this twentieth winter I perceive
Fast locked in mine, with pleasure such as love,
Confirmed by long experience of thy worth
And well-tried virtues, could alone inspire—
Witness a joy that thou hast doubled long.
Thou know’st my praise of Nature most sincere,
And that my raptures are not conjured up
To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
But genuine, and art partner of them all.

From Book I: The Sofa

There are big differences between the two, however–the greatest one perhaps being ideological. Whereas Wordsworth was at his artistic height thoroughly unchristian, Cowper can be read as an artistic embodiment of the currents of religious awakening that were going on in England at the time. Here he allegorically relates the story of his “born-again” experience that came about after a period of deep psychological anguish and spiritual longing:

I was a stricken deer that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixed
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by one who had himself
Been hurt by the archers.  In his side he bore,
And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts
He drew them forth, and healed and bade me live.
Since then, with few associates, in remote
And silent woods I wander, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene,
With few associates, and not wishing more.
Here much I ruminate, as much I may,
With other views of men and manners now
Than once, and others of a life to come.
I see that all are wanderers, gone astray
Each in his own delusions; they are lost
In chase of fancied happiness, still woo’d
And never won.  Dream after dream ensues,
And still they dream that they shall still succeed,
And still are disappointed: rings the world
With the vain stir.  I sum up half mankind,
And add two-thirds of the remaining half,
And find the total of their hopes and fears
Dreams, empty dreams.  The million flit as gay
As if created only, like the fly
That spreads his motley wings in the eye of noon,
To sport their season and be seen no more.

From Book III: The Garden

Being a didactical poem, it is natural for Cowper that Christianity should also to a great extent be a kind of practical relationship to all creation. Even when not explicit (and most often it isn’t), one senses that his moral judgments are rooted in an ideology that is religiously predicated: 

I venerate the man whose heart is warm,
Whose hands are pure, whose doctrine and whose life,
Coincident, exhibit lucid proof
That he is honest in the sacred cause.
To such I render more than mere respect,
Whose actions say that they respect themselves.
But, loose in morals, and in manners vain,
In conversation frivolous, in dress
Extreme, at once rapacious and profuse,
Frequent in park with lady at his side,
Ambling and prattling scandal as he goes,
But rare at home, and never at his books
Or with his pen, save when he scrawls a card;
Constant at routs, familiar with a round
Of ladyships, a stranger to the poor;
Ambitions of preferment for its gold,
And well prepared by ignorance and sloth,
By infidelity and love o’ the world,
To make God’s work a sinecure; a slave
To his own pleasures and his patron’s pride.—
From such apostles, O ye mitred heads,
Preserve the Church! and lay not careless hands
On skulls that cannot teach, and will not learn.

From Book II: The Timepiece

Unlike Wordsworth, Cowper did not endorse the revolutionary currents unfolding in Europe at the time. However, he was sympathetic towards a lot of their objectives and it is in quite a romantic vein that he expresses a love toward the concept of freedom. It is not above all freedom in a political sense, however, but a Christian one–the truth that shall set you free–it is a kind of capacity to discern of the truth and beauty of the world–and it’s a freedom not even the fiercest tyrant can lay claim to:

The soul that sees Him, or receives sublimed
New faculties or learns at least to employ
More worthily the powers she owned before;
Discerns in all things what, with stupid gaze
Of ignorance, till then she overlooked,
A ray of heavenly light gilding all forms
Terrestrial, in the vast and the minute
The unambiguous footsteps of the God
Who gives its lustre to an insect’s wing
And wheels His throne upon the rolling worlds.
Much conversant with heaven, she often holds
With those fair ministers of light to man
That fill the skies nightly with silent pomp
Sweet conference; inquires what strains were they
With which heaven rang, when every star, in haste
To gratulate the new-created earth,
Sent forth a voice, and all the sons of God
Shouted for joy.—“Tell me, ye shining hosts
That navigate a sea that knows no storms,
Beneath a vault unsullied with a cloud,
If from your elevation, whence ye view
Distinctly scenes invisible to man
And systems of whose birth no tidings yet
Have reached this nether world, ye spy a race
Favoured as ours, transgressors from the womb
And hasting to a grave, yet doomed to rise
And to possess a brighter heaven than yours?
As one who, long detained on foreign shores,
Pants to return, and when he sees afar
His country’s weather-bleached and battered rocks,
From the green wave emerging, darts an eye
Radiant with joy towards the happy land;
So I with animated hopes behold,
And many an aching wish, your beamy fires,
That show like beacons in the blue abyss,
Ordained to guide the embodied spirit home
From toilsome life to never-ending rest.
Love kindles as I gaze.  I feel desires
That give assurance of their own success,
And that, infused from heaven, must thither tend.”

From Book V: The Winter Morning Walk

Being so varied, it might be hard to sum up what Cowper practically means by a meaningful and happy life, but I suppose one way of seeing it would be as a kind of retired, introspective existence content with simplicitudes. It is certainly not one burdened by human vanity–the fruitless chasing of things on which we may win fame and recognition of others:

                                       Stillest streams
Oft water fairest meadows; and the bird
That flutters least is longest on the wing.
Ask him, indeed, what trophies he has raised,
Or what achievements of immortal fame
He purposes, and he shall answer—None.
His warfare is within.  There unfatigued
His fervent spirit labours.  There he fights,
And there obtains fresh triumphs o’er himself,
And never-withering wreaths, compared with which
The laurels that a Cæsar reaps are weeds.
Perhaps the self-approving haughty world,
That, as she sweeps him with her whistling silks,
Scarce deigns to notice him, or if she see,
Deems him a cipher in the works of God,
Receives advantage from his noiseless hours
Of which she little dreams.  Perhaps she owes
Her sunshine and her rain, her blooming spring
And plenteous harvest, to the prayer he makes
When, Isaac-like, the solitary saint
Walks forth to meditate at eventide,
And think on her who thinks not for herself.

From Book VI: The Winter Walk at Noon

The poem would warrant far more appreciation than I have given room for hare, as there is a lot that I have not included here. I hope above all that I might have encouraged somebody to read the whole thing. It can conveniently be found by clicking here.

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