Sunday, April 05, 2009

`To Hear a Blackbird Whistle'

The letters of William Cowper are new to me and unexpectedly wonderful. The writing is elegant, conversational and often funny, in the manner of Lamb’s letters and essays, with hardly a suggestion of the suicidal depression that dogged him for decades. This, from a letter Cowper wrote his friend John Newton on Feb. 18, 1781, might serve as an abstract for an especially readable blog:

“My dear friend I send you Table Talk. It is a medley of many things, some that may be useful, and some that, for ought I know, may be very diverting. I am merry that I may decoy people into my company, and grave that they may be the better for it. Now and then I put on the garb of a philosopher, and take the opportunity that disguise procures me to drop a word in favour of religion. In short, there is some froth, and here and there a bit of sweetmeat, which seems to entitle it justly to the name of a certain dish the ladies call a trifle. I did not choose to be more facetious, lest I should consult the taste of my readers at the expense of my own approbation ; nor more serious than I have been, lest I should forfeit theirs.”

I admire the slyness and humility of Cowper’s voice – a rare combination – and the way he mingles friendliness and wit. The same tone predominates when he writes about his practice of poetry. This is from a letter to Joseph Hill on May 9, 1781:

“When I can find no other occupation I think, and when I think I am very apt to do it in rhyme. Hence it comes to pass, that the season of the year which generally pinches off the flowers of poetry unfolds mine, such as they are, and crowns me with a winter garland. In this respect, therefore, I and my contemporary bards are by no means upon a par. They write when the delightful influences of fine weather, fine prospects, and a brisk motion of the animal spirits, make poetry almost the language of Nature ; and I, when icicles depend from all the leaves of the
Parnassian laurel, and when a reasonable man would as little expect to succeed in verse as to hear a blackbird whistle”

It’s typical of Cowper’s humor to turn “seasonal affective disorder” to his poetic advantage. When he reads Dr. Johnson’s “Life of Pope,” he agrees with the great critic’s mixed assessment. On Jan. 5, 1782, Cowper writes William Unwin:

“[Pope] was certainly a mechanical maker of verses, and in every line he ever wrote we see indubitable marks of most indefatigable industry and labour. Writers who find it necessary to make such strenuous and painful exertions are generally as phlegmatic as they are correct; but Pope was, in this respect, exempted from the common lot of authors of that class. With the unwearied application of a plodding Flemish painter, who draws a shrimp with the most minute exactness, he had all the genius of one of the first masters. Never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united.”

The poet who wrote “There is a pleasure in poetic pains / Which only poets know” (from The Task) writes to his friend Unwin on Jan. 17, 1782:

“To make verse speak the language of prose, without being prosaic, to marshal the words of it in such an order as they might naturally take in falling from the lips of an extemporary speaker, yet without meanness, harmoniously, and without seeming to displace a single syllable for the sake of rhyme, is one of the most arduous tasks a poet can undertake.”


Anonymous said...

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather

(Yeats, 'Adam's Curse')

An Anxious Anglican said...

Wonderful posts on Cowper! Do you have a source to share on the letters, or are they excerpted in the novel?

Eric Thomson said...

Dear Anxious Anglican, the letters of this anxious Methodist are collected in volumes 3 & 4 of the eight-volume Works, edited by Southey (London: H. G. Bohn , 1853), which is the edition I have. Volume 1 is Southey’s Life of Cowper, but it is superseded by a wonderfully sympathetic and insightful biography by Lord David Cecil, The Stricken Deer (1930).