“His poems are not much read now. Bound in solid leather and adorned with the sober magnificence of gilt lettering, they rest upon the upper shelves of old-fashioned libraries, unread from year’s end to year’s end, their backs growing drab, drained of hue and lustre by the strong, destroying sunlight. They are become merely furniture, less valued because less noticeable than the globes and grandfather clocks and graying mezzotints that crowd the room around them.”
The words date from 1929 when David Cecil published his first book, The Stricken Deer or The Life of Cowper. They come midway through the prologue in a copy of the volume I ordered through interlibrary loan less than three weeks ago that arrived at our public library on Saturday. It’s the 1947 edition published by Constable & Company Ltd. of London, and is “merely furniture” in the collection of the Bill and Margot Lee Library at Crowder College in Neosho, Mo. – a school and city in southwestern Missouri I had never heard of before.
This is the sort of unlikely convergence, across time and space, that spices the experience of reading a book – a biography of an English poet, William Cowper (1731-1800), by an English writer, Cecil (1902-1986), published in London sixty-three years ago, acquired by a college near Joplin, Mo., and shipped across the continent to Bellevue, Wa., so I can sit in my comfortable leather chair and read it. Judging from the circulation card at the back of the book, I’m its first reader. Here are Cecil’s subsequent sentences:
“And the words seem dusty and faded as the paper on which they are printed. Pedantic epigram, antiquated compliment, pompous, didactic apostrophe, follow one another, as lifeless as the half-obliterated signs on an ancient and undeciphered papyrus. It seems impossible to believe that this was ever the genuine expression, however formal, of a living person’s mind. And then suddenly one’s attention is caught by a chance word; the page stirs to life; a bit of the English countryside appears before one’s mental eye as vividly and exactly as though one really saw it; or an ephemeral trifle, a copy of verses addressed to Miss M. or Mr. D., laughs out of the page with the pleasant colloquial intimacy of a voice heard over the teacups in the next room. And now and again, as if from the strings of a tarnished, disused harp stumbled against in one’s rambles round the library, there rises from the old book a strain of music, simple, plangent, and of a piercing pathos, that fairly clutches at the heart.”
Cecil then quotes two stanzas from Cowper’s “To the Rev. Mr. Newton (On His Return from Ramsgate”:
“To me the waves that ceaseless broke
Upon the dangerous coast,
Hoarsely and ominously spoke
Of all my treasure lost.
“Your sea of troubles you have past,
And found the peaceful shore;
I, tempest-tossed, and wrecked at last,
Come home to port no more.”
“The Rev. Mr. Newton” is John Newton, a curate and former slave-ship captain we know as the composer of “Amazing Grace” (Newton’s original title was “Faith’s Review and Expectation”). Cowper and Newton collaborated on a hymnal, Olney Hymns, published in 1779. (Go here for the site of the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney.) Here is Cecil’s next paragraph, following the excerpt from Cowper’s poem:
“Here is no Byronic pessimism, rhetorical, exaggerated, the expression of a posture or at best a passing mood. Through these quiet verse trembles the true voice of despair.”
Thanks to a dusty book, an unread piece of mere furniture, we know a man dead more than two hundred years. “The page stirs to life,” as Cecil writes.