Saturday, April 04, 2009

`Inexplicable Sense'

I happened upon a novel by an Irish writer new to me – Brian Lynch. Dalkey Archive Press has just published The Winner of Sorrow, based on the life of an English poet who has always interested me but seems not to be read much anymore – William Cowper (1731-1800). We all know something of his work without knowing him – “I am monarch of all I survey” and “God moves in mysterious ways / His wonders to perform.”

I’ve only just started reading Lynch’s novel but his mastery of voice makes it quietly compelling. Despite the Dalkey Archive imprimatur, The Winner of Sorrow is not an exercise in empty experimentation, formal showing off to no purpose. Cowper was insane periodically throughout his life, chronically depressed, and three times tried to take his own life. Lynch renders his consciousness with admirable restraint and without sensationalism or sentimentality. Here’s an example. Cowper, at the end of his life, sleeps with a portrait of his mother, who died when he was a boy, at the foot of his bed. He wakes at night, sees the painting and remembers lines from a poem he wrote years earlier, “On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture”:

“Oh that those lips had language! Life has pass’d
With me but roughly since I heard thee last.
Those lips are thine—thy own sweet smiles I see,
The same that oft in childhood solaced me
Voice only fails, else, how distinct they say,
`Grieve not, my child, chase all thy fears away!’”

Lynch follows the excerpt with this:

“It had cost him a great deal of argument with himself to write `Voice only fails’, but now he could not remember what it meant. It made inexplicable sense, which was the way of poetry.”

“Voice only fails” might be late Beckett. The crushing sadness of Cowper’s life is tempered by the solace of poetry, though it can turn without warning into torment. And here’s the line by Lynch I’ve already memorized: “It made inexplicable sense, which was the way of poetry.” I read this just hours before a reader sent an e-mail that includes this passage:

“I have to read with a magnifying glass and a whole lot of artificial light which is to say very slow reading indeed; however, I feel like a safe cracker when I read a poem because I'm able to slow down and savor each phrase. I've even begun the practice of reading aloud poetry to my children. Prior to my eye troubles I used to work in a steel mill something far removed from the glory of literature.”

Cowper’s mad existence in provincial English towns seems “far removed from the glory of literature,” but he left us lines like this (from The Task):

“'Tis pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat,
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the uninjur'd ear.”


Roger Forseth said...

A fine comment, Patrick. A chapt. of my dissertation is on Cowper. Do you know his Olney hymn, "There is a fountain fill'd with blood /drawn from EMANUEL's veins"?

--Best, Roger Forseth

Anonymous said...

With respect toe the meaning of"Voice only fails", I wonder if the meaning refers back to the portrait and his memory of his Mother. He might therefore refer to "they say" as being the memory of the lips and sweet smiles which speak to him comfortingly where the "voice" has failed with her death.