Saturday, January 03, 2015

`An Exact Emblem of My Mind'

“The new year is already old in my account.” 

The gloom is William Cowper’s in a Jan. 13 letter to his friend and fellow hymnist the Rev. John Newton, written in 1784. Cowper (1731-1800) was often quite mad, suicidally so, and was several times committed to the asylum. In all, he was a good, kind man, religiously devout, though sometimes to the point of madness. 

“I am not, indeed, sufficiently second-sighted to be able to boast by anticipation an acquaintance with the events of it yet unborn, but rest convinced that, be they what they may, not one of them comes a messenger of good to me. If even death itself should be of the number, he is no friend of mine.” 

I want to resist treating Cowper as a case study, but in his letter he anticipates and methodically dismisses every argument he expects Newton to muster. In doing so, he walks us through the thinking of a severely depressed, profoundly articulate mind. He even lends us, the less afflicted, a useful metaphor: “The weather is an exact emblem of my mind in its present state. A thick fog envelops every thing…” But the conceit darkens: 

“You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavour to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it;--but it will be lost labour. Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no more.” 

 "Lines Written During a Fit of Insanity."In one of his best lyrics, “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,”also known as “Hatred and Vengeance,” Cowper writes, “I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am / Buried above ground.” In “The Orange Bottle” (Accepting the Disaster, 2014), Joshua Mehigan updates Cowper with a schizophrenic who stops taking his Clozapine: 

“His walk was stiffened by fear,
But it took him where he was going,
Into the terrible world
Of children and daffodils growing…”


Subbuteo said...

Clearly, there is real mental illness for which the sufferer bears no responsibility and of which he or she is the victim. However, in this world where depression seems to be expanding exponentially one cannot help but wonder whether some conditions would previously have been seen as the result of moral failing; the failure to become oneself through laziness or cowardice for example. Now so much of this is medicalised because all has to be subject to science. This chimes nicely with your previous post and the natural, irrepressible cheerfulness of Edwards. One has to admire him.

Jonathan Chant said...

Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

Subbuteo said...

Just read the Mehigan. One assumes that he can only tackle the technicalities and write such poems in his medicated state. A novel take on "emotion recollected in tranquility"!