“At length I have done with verse making. Not that I relish other people’s poetry less,--theirs comes from ’em without effort, mine is the difficult operation of a brain scanty of ideas, made more difficult by disuse. I have been reading the `Task’ with fresh delight. I am glad you love Cowper. I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton, but I would not call that man my friend, who should be offended with the `divine chit-chat of Cowper.’ Write to me. God love you and yours!”
I’ve developed a late-blooming taste for William Cowper’s verse since last reading Charles Lamb’s letters and am pleased to discover the pleasure Lamb took in Coleridge’s pleasure in Cowper’s verse. That’s a tangled sentence written in grateful imitation of Lamb’s epistolary prose, which recalls the talk of the wittiest, most charming barroom conversationalist you have ever heard. Imagine how it must have felt to open one of Lamb’s letters, surely among the funniest in the language. The passage quoted above is from a letter Lamb wrote his childhood friend Coleridge on Dec. 5, 1796, when Cowper was still alive. Born in 1731, he would die on April 25, 1800.
I looked in the first volume of Richard Holmes’ biography, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804, to learn more about Coleridge’s fondness for Cowper’s verse. Holmes quotes Hazlitt’s wonderful “My First Acquaintance with Poets”: “He spoke of Cowper as the best modern poet.” And in an interesting footnote, Holmes completes the circle with Cowper and Lamb:
“The emergence between 1790 and 1797 of what I have called, rather schematically, Coleridge’s `plain style’ is an intricate question of literary history and influence…It is often said that Wordsworth was mainly responsible, but my narrative shows that Coleridge’s early reading of William Bowles’ sonnets, William Cowper’s The Task (one model for `Frost at Midnight’), Edward Young, and – above all – his very detailed correspondence on the subject with Charles Lamb (who insisted on `simplicity’) between 1794 and 1796, were prime sources.”
Lamb’s own poetry is middling at best, and all too freighted with “simplicity,” in contrast to his pun-filled, antiquarian (“antiquity-bitten,” he wrote elsewhere), discursive prose. Five days after the letter quoted above, Lamb wrote to Coleridge in reply to an intervening letter from his friend. In it, Lamb describes Cowper as “my old favorite,” and writes:
“With regard to my leaving off versifying, you have said so many pretty things, so many fine compliments, ingeniously decked out in the garb of sincerity, and undoubtedly springing from a present feeling somewhat like sincerity, that you might melt the most un-muse-ical soul, did you not (now for a Rowland compliment for your profusion of Olivers),— did you not in your very epistle, by the many pretty fancies and profusion of heart displayed in it, dissuade and discourage me from attempting anything after you.”