Sunday, January 03, 2016

`The Catalogue of Incidents'

The crazy are said not to have a sense of humor, at least not one the un-crazy are equipped to appreciate. William Cowper, the poet, hymnist, prolific letter writer, would-be suicide and occasional asylum inmate, is the exception. His humor is poker-faced, self-deprecating and tinged with a taste for the ridiculous, as much of the best humor is. On this date, Jan. 3, in 1784, after a prolonged silence, William receives a letter from his friend and benefactor the Rev. William Unwin. Cowper is living in Unwin’s home in Olney, along with Unwin’s mother. He expresses concern for his incommunicado friend and mocks the poor correspondent’s lament that he doesn’t write because he has nothing to say: “How can it be that you, who are not stationary like me, but often change your situation, and mix with a variety of company, should suppose me furnished with such abundant materials and yourself destitute ?” 

Cowper and Unwin trust each another enough to permit good-natured chiding. Then Cowper turns the situation on his friend: “I assure you faithfully that I do not find the soil of Olney prolific in the growth of such articles as make letter-writing a desirable employment. No place contributes less to the catalogue of incidents, or is more scantily supplied with anecdotes worth notice. We have one parson, one poet, one bellman, one cryer. And the poor poet is our only ’squire.” 

Cowper mocks the stereotype of the provincial bumpkin with nothing to report. He reminds me of Norm Sibum’s phrase in his poem “Sub Divo”:we poets addicted to the world.” The world’s bounty is too much with us to complain that we have nothing to say. Writer’s block when not a symptom of mental illness is nothing more than idleness. Cowper composes an essay in miniature on the subject of the front door: 

“The principal occurrence, and that which affects me most at present, came to pass this moment. The stair foot door being swelled by the thaw would do any thing
better than it would open. An attempt to force it upon that office has been attended with such a horrible dissolution of its parts that we were immediately obliged to introduce a chirurgeon, commonly called a carpenter, whose applications we have some hope will cure it of a locked jaw, and heal its numerous fractures. His medicines are powerful chalybeates and a certain glutinous salve, which he tells me is made of the tails and ears of animals. The consequences however are rather unfavourable to my present employment, which does not well brook noise, bustle, and interruption.”

A gloss to aid understanding: “chirurgeon,” the OED tells us, is “one whose profession it is to cure bodily diseases and injuries by manual operation.” In this context, it means a door surgeon or, as Cowper explains, a carpenter. “Chalybeates” are medicines “impregnated or flavoured with iron, esp. as a mineral water or spring; relating to such waters or preparations.” 

I wonder if the recipients of letters from epistolary masters – Cowper, Keats, Byron, O’Connor – appreciated the gifts they received in the mail along with bills and advertisements.

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