Monday, October 07, 2013

`He Spoke No More'

With the grim comedy of Gogol’s final illness fresh in my mind, and Dr. Johnson’s ever vivid, I happened upon a description of the poet William Cowper’s protracted demise. Already a veteran of mental and spiritual suffering, having endured three bouts of depression and multiple suicide attempts, the proto-Romantic died on April 25, 1800, at age sixty-eight. In William Cowper: A Biography (Duke University Press, 1986), James King tells us an apothecary in the preceding days diagnosed the poet, like Johnson, with dropsy, after a friend suggested he suffered from a “prolapsus.” Two days later, a doctor prescribed a “draft.” Cowper was undergoing the horrors of medicine by committee, with the doctors often as ill-informed and poorly trained as the poet’s friends and relatives. 

A friend slipped Cowper a Mickey Finn, described as "Diuretic Drops," in his coffee. Another friend, Lady Hesketh, recommended “Dantzick Spruce [beer].” “When twenty drops of this were placed in a glass of wine for him, Cowper declared he `neither could nor world drink such horridly nauseous stuff.’ Five gallons of it had been delivered to Cowper’s house by a friend, Samuel Rose. Cowper's cousin, the Rev. John Johnson, known as “Johnny,” said he wished to anoint Rose with it “from head to foot.” Cowper’s some-time patron, William Hayley, made various treatment suggestions – electricity, roasted broom seeds, tamarinds. Lady Hesketh further suggested oysters, white wine with lemon juice, Hock, Rhenish, and Rota Tent Wine, “but Cowper soon returned,” King says, “to his daily bottle of port in which he sopped toasted bread.” 

Johnny reported to Hayley he was striving to preserve “this amiable sufferer’s cloudy existence—Death’s arrow, already on the nerve, will soon be on the wing.” Johnny also noted that Cowper’s body was “covered with plaisters where the bones would otherwise soon be through the skin.” In his own Life of Cowper (five volumes, 1803-04), Hayley writes: 

“On Thursday he sat up as usual in the evening. 

“Friday the twenty-fifth, at five in the morning, a deadly change appeared in his features. 

“He spoke no more.”

That’s Hayley’s way of saying that the most popular English poet of his day, at least for the last two decades of his life, was dead. The Irish poet Brian Lynch wrote a fine novel about Cowper and his suffering, The Winner of Sorrow (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009), in which a character says to the poet: “Misery usually stands in the way of creation, William, but in your case it opens the road . . . because you know that composing puts off your being decomposed.” In “Discovering Cowper,” in the October issue of The New Criterion, Barton Swaim draws similar conclusions. He audaciously, and I think rightly, says “Cowper’s verse is as consistently readable as Wordsworth’s and, at its best, quite as brilliant,” and the six books of Cowper’s master work, The Task, “repay reading more frequently, to my mind, than Wordsworth’s much longer Prelude.” To dispel the impression that he might be romanticizing suffering, especially mental illness, Swaim writes: 

“Cowper didn’t go in for a lot of philosophical talk about the Mind [unlike Wordsworth], though he had a great one. He simply felt that the builders of a thousand intellectual systems were `most of all deceiv’d’ [from Book III of The Task].”

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