Tuesday, November 26, 2013

`My Delineations of the Heart'

Let’s declare a moratorium on writing about poor people and those who are crazy or otherwise disadvantaged. Sentimentality, the lazy way out for writers, is too tempting for most. They lack the “cold certitude” necessary for writing about subjects that come with a packet of freeze-dried emotional responses. Whining and romanticizing have never comforted a soul nor resulted in good writing. Take this counter-example from a poet acquainted with misery, a failed suicide, veteran of multiple stays in the asylum. He skirts easy sentiment, to be sure, and his sympathy is plain, but his subject, a poor mad woman, remains a fallible human being, not a case study or tool of propaganda: 

“A tattered apron hides,
Worn as a cloak, and hardly hides, a gown
More tattered still; and both but ill conceal
A bosom heaved with never-ceasing sighs.
She begs an idle pin of all she meets,
And hoards them in her sleeve; but needful food,
Though pressed with hunger oft, or comelier clothes,
Though pinched with cold, asks never.—Kate is crazed.” 

The passage is drawn from the “Crazy Kate” section of The Task, William Cowper’s long poem published in 1785. The words that always stay with me are “She begs an idle pin of all she meets.” Even in madness, her wishes are modest.  I find Cowper’s choice of “idle” pitifully moving. The plainness of “Kate is crazed,” coming from a poet often clinically crazed himself, is chilling. In subsequent lines, Cowper describes a camp of “gipsies,” itinerant thieves who are “Loud when they beg, dumb only when they steal.” They too are made more humanly complex by Cowper: 

“Yet even these, though, feigning sickness oft,
They swathe the forehead, drag the limping limb,
And vex their flesh with artificial sores,
Can change their whine into a mirthful note
When safe occasion offers; and with dance,
And music of the bladder and the bag,
Beguile their woes, and make the woods resound.” 

Earlier in “The Sofa,” Book I of The Task, Cowper describes a paralyzed woman playing cards. The passage begins as a grotesque satire on frivolity and idleness (“the constant revolution stale / And tasteless, of the same repeated joys”), something Swift in a mellow mood might have crafted: 

“The paralytic who can hold her cards
But cannot play them, borrows a friend's hand
To deal and shuffle, to divide and sort
Her mingled suits and sequences, and sits
Spectatress both and spectacle, a sad
And silent cypher, while her proxy plays.” 

But Cowper modulates his tone. The savage note is not his, or at least not for long. He writes of the paralytic and her companions: 

“Yet even these
Themselves love life, and cling to it, as he
That overhangs a torrent to a twig.
They love it, and yet loathe it; fear to die.
Yet scorn the purposes for which they live.
Then wherefore not renounce them? No - the dread,
The slavish dread of solitude that breeds
Reflection and remorse, the fear of shame,
And their inveterate habits, all forbid.” 

Cowper at his best is a poet of nuance, especially about his fellow human beings. His imaginative projection into other lives won’t permit him either to savage his co-sufferers or sentimentalize them. Cowper was born on this date, Nov. 26, in 1731, and died on April 25, 1800, at the age of sixty-eight.  In a letter to his friend William Unwin, written Oct. 10, 1784, shortly after publishing The Task, he says: “My descriptions are all from Nature. Not one of them second-handed. My delineations of the heart are from my own experience. Not one of them borrowed. . . I have imitated nobody.”

No comments: