This week and next I’m assigned to work with a seventh-grade girl in a high-school special-education center. She doesn’t speak and communicates with moans and an acutely expressive face. Her smiles and frowns are cartoon smiles and frowns. She is happiest in motion so I take her on long walks around campus and pull her on an oversized tricycle with a handle in front. Once we circled the quarter-mile track while the marching band rehearsed “Oye Como Va” on the football field.
Spending seven hours in close company with an effectively mute companion ought to be unnerving, especially for someone who enjoys good conversation, but my thoughts can wander as we walk and she lets me know what she wants by tugging on my arm.
For lunch, along with a turkey sandwich and peach, I packed my 1950 Everyman’s edition of William Cowper’s poems, inscribed “Layce Harris Todd – 1951.” I wonder who she was and why she read Cowper. In April I wrote about a fine novel, The Winner of Sorrow, based on Cowper’s unhappy life (he was periodically insane). Its Irish author, Brian Lynch, wrote a note several weeks ago thanking me and confirming the echoes of Beckett I heard in the text. Since then I’ve been reading Cowper (1731-1800), keeping his poems on my bedside table. Most of his verse is conventional but it bursts now and then into memorable clarity. This stanza is from one of his “Olney Hymns,” “Vanity of the World”:
“The joy that vain amusements give,
Oh! sad conclusion that it brings!
The honey of a crowded hive,
Defended by a thousand stings.”
The bees lift the lines out of the ordinary. Cowper’s masterpiece is The Task, a wonderful spiritual autobiography published in 1785. The voice can be disarmingly modern:
“His warfare is within. There unfatigu’d
His fervent spirit labours. There he fights,
And there obtains fresh triumphs o’er himself…”
“How various his employments, whom the world
Calls idle; and who justly, in return,
Esteems that busy world an idler too!
Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,
Delightful industry enjoy’d at home,
And nature in her cultivated trim
Dress’d to his taste, inviting him abroad—
Can he want occupation who has these?
Will he be idle who has much t’ enjoy?”
And this, a Romantic pre-echo:
“There is a pleasure in poetic pains
Which only poets know. The shifts and turns,
Th’ expedients and inventions, multiform,
To which the mind resorts, in chase of terms
Though apt, yet coy, and difficult to win—
T’ arrest the fleeting images that fill
The mirror of the mind, and hold them fast,
And force them sit till he has pencil’d off
A faithful likeness of the forms he views…”
I had conversation though my companion was silent.