Read this excerpt from a long poem and approximate its date of composition:
“Suburban villas, highway-side retreats,
That dread th' encroachments of our growing streets,
Tight boxes neatly sash'd, and in a blaze
With all a July sun's collected rays,
Delight the citizen, who gasping there,
Breathes clouds of dust, and calls it country air.
O sweet retirement, who would balk the thought
That could afford retirement, or could not?”
When most contemporary poets deign to write of suburbia it’s to denigrate the place where millions of people dwell in comfort and some degree of contentment. “Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!” froths Ginsberg, and the credulous mob chants: “Moloch!” It’s useful to remember that “suburb” entered English around the time of Chaucer’s birth and “suburban” close to Shakespeare’s death.
Snobbery had already tinged the word by Keats’ lifetime but the lines above were published a generation earlier by another English poet, William Cowper, in 1785. The source is his masterwork, The Task, and his admiration, even envy, for suburban life is striking. Cowper endured one of literature’s notably miserable lives – poverty, manic depression, suicide attempts, confinement in mad houses. “Suburban villas” were Cowper’s Xanadu. He takes a satirical jab at the citizen who sucks in dust only to call it “country air,” but the target is pretentiousness and the human capacity for delusion, not the suburbs.
Cowper has entered my small clutch of poets whose work I reread in steady rotation. I make no claims for his greatness, merely his congeniality. He is funny (especially in his letters) and observant of social custom and nature. He was a technically proficient poet on the cusp of Romanticism. I was reading The Task in school on Wednesday, in my worn green-covered Everyman’s edition. Visible through the window in my school room is a line of treetops, mostly conifers, above the roofs of a subdivision. The resulting green-black horizon looks like the teeth of a broken comb, and I read this in The Task:
“Nor less attractive is the woodland scene,
Diversified with trees of every growth
Alike yet various. Here the gray smooth trunks
Of ash, or lime, or beech, distinctly shine,
Within the twilight of their distant shades;
There lost behind a rising ground, the wood
Seems sunk, and shortened to its topmost boughs.
No tree in all the grove but has its charms,
Though each its hue peculiar; paler some,
And of a wanish gray; the willow such
And poplar, that with silver lines his leaf,
And ash far-stretching his umbrageous arm;
Of deeper green the elm; and deeper still,
Lord of the woods, the long-surviving oak.
Some glossy-leaved and shining in the sun,
The maple, and the beech of oily nuts
Prolific, and the line at dewy eve
Diffusing odours: nor unnoted pass
The sycamore, capricious in attire,
Now green, now tawny, and ere autumn yet
Have changed the woods, in scarlet honours bright.”
Outside the classroom window, except for the trees, it was strictly suburban.