Tuesday, April 21, 2015

`The Past Is a Pledge for the Future'

When writing to or for dullards, a writer must work harder not to write dully. The witty whet our wit. We write up to them, not down. George Gordon writes in “Cowper’s Letters” (More Companionable Books, 1947): “The truth is, of course, that letter-writing is like conversation: a social thing. It takes two to make a good letter. The first article in the equipment of a letter-writer is not a turn for phrases, but a friend; and the first personal requisite is the generosity to value friendship. If these are available no obstacle need be apprehended; you have only to draw your chair in, dip your pen, and be honestly yourself.”

That William Cowper (1731-1800), a suicidally tormented man, should have written letters that are still readably charming, funny and moving after more than two centuries, defies the modern understanding of human personality. As poet and man, Cowper can’t be reduced to clinical categories for easy comprehension. Though depressed and reclusive, comfortable only among a small circle of friends and family, and then only in a rural setting, Cowper wrote letters that rival Keats’ as the finest in the language (that both poets suffered lends a plangent quality to everything they wrote, though that alone is not sufficient to explain their literary qualities). They carry philosophical and emotional freight lightly -- never a sermon or treatise, always a conversation. On Sept. 4, 1787, Cowper writes to his cousin, Lady Harriett Hesketh (1733-1807), whom he addresses as “My dearest coz.” The poet refers to his uncle, Hesketh’s father, who has been ill:

“But years will have their course and their effect; they are happiest, so far as this life is concerned, who, like him, escape those effects the longest, and who do not grow old before their time. Trouble and anguish do that for some, which only longevity does for others. A few months since I was older than your father is now [Cowper had suffered his fourth major breakdown between January and June 1787]; and though I have lately recovered, as Falstaff says, some smatch of my youth, I have but little confidence, in truth none, in so flattering a change, but expect, when I least expect it, to wither again. The past is a pledge for the future.”

The passage is a model of felicitous letter-writing. Cowper is witty, wise and trusting enough of his cousin to tactfully confide in her. He gives, but not too much, and without a hint of self-pity. He feels sufficiently free to cite Shakespeare, whom he misquotes, but in an interesting fashion. In Act I, Scene 2 of King Henry IV, Part Two, Falstaff actually says:

“Your lordship, though not
 clean past your youth, hath yet some smack of age in
 you, some relish of the saltness of time; and I must
 humbly beseech your lordship to have a reverent care
 of your health.

“Smatch” is misremembered, though Shakespeare uses it elsewhere. He gives it to Brutus in Julius Caesar:

“I prithee, Strato, stay thou by thy lord:
Thou art a fellow of a good respect;
Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it:
Hold then my sword, and turn away thy face,
While I do run upon it. Wilt thou, Strato?”

For “smatch,” the OED gives “taste, smack, flavour.” Cowper uses the word correctly if not accurately. Gordon, in his essay on Cowper’s letters, confirms this:

“Most of his own letters were written out of mere affection, without his knowing when he began what he intended to say, or whether he had anything to say at all. They are totally unpremeditated, and flow from him like talk.”

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