A poet in Canada writes me letters. They are long and journal-like, as were some of those written by John Keats, and put together over days or weeks, as time permits. His letters are chatty and digressive, like good conversation, and linger on nothing for long. They are also uncensored, provocative and funny, which is all we ever really want in our dealings with friends, especially since candor in some quarters has been criminalized. Honesty finds sanctuary in friendship. Reading my friend’s letters is doubly a pleasure. Judged as bull sessions in print – lamentations, gossip, ad lib lit crit – they are reminders that friendship can thrive across forbidding distances. Reading them is to indulge in nostalgia for a slower, more thoughtful age when even the marginally literate wrote letters. Now a letter is a novelty.
In his essay “On Reading the Great Letter Writers” (The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926-1948, Library of America, 2009), Thornton Wilder takes a rather elevated view of letter writing:
“Art is confession; art is the secret told. Art itself is a letter written to an ideal mind, to a dreamed-of audience. The great letter-sequences are written to close friends. But even the closest friends cannot meet the requirements of the artist, and the work passes over their shoulder to that half-divine audience that artists presuppose.”
I think Wilder means that the best letters transcend their original recipients and arrive in the mail box of anyone willing, even after centuries, to read and appreciate them. For him, the letter writers who do this most often are Horace Walpole, William Cowper and Edward FitzGerald. I haven’t read Walpole and only recently started reading Fitzgerald’s letters (after reading Nearer the Heart's Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat: A Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald by Robert D. Richardson, 2016), but Cowper (1731-1800) is an old friend. Of him Wilder writes: “. . . if William Cowper brought merely his charming news of eight persons, three Belgian hares, one dog, one cat, and one garden, I doubt whether he would be so surely surviving into a world of railroads, aviation, and steel construction.” The other ingredient found in Cowper’s letters, Wilder says, is personality: “Gradually a face hovers between the words.” That, not what Wilder calls “verbal felicity” (which always helps), is the quality shared by all the most rereadable letter writers (Swift, Cowper, Keats, Stevenson, Flannery O’Connor).
Consider the following brief Cowper sampler. Here he is on May 3, 1780, writing to his friend the Rev. John Newton and making piety playful:
“I delight in baubles, and know them to be so; for rested in, and viewed without a reference to their author, what is the Earth, what are the planets, what is the sun itself, but a bauble? Better for a man never to have seen them, or to see them with the eyes of a brute, stupid and unconscious of what he beholds, than not to be able to say, `The maker of all these wonders is my friend!’ Their eyes have never been opened, to see that they are trifles; mine have been, and will be till they are closed for ever.”
On Jan. 5, 1782, in a letter to the Rev. Robert Unwin, Cowper agrees with Dr. Johnson’s mixed assessment in his “Life of Pope”:
“[Pope] was certainly a mechanical maker of verses, and in every line he ever wrote we see indubitable marks of most indefatigable industry and labour. Writers who find it necessary to make such strenuous and painful exertions are generally as phlegmatic as they are correct; but Pope was, in this respect, exempted from the common lot of authors of that class. With the unwearied application of a plodding Flemish painter, who draws a shrimp with the most minute exactness, he had all the genius of one of the first masters. Never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united.”
And here is Cowper writing to his friend Unwin on Jan. 17, 1782:
“To make verse speak the language of prose, without being prosaic, to marshal the words of it in such an order as they might naturally take in falling from the lips of an extemporary speaker, yet without meanness, harmoniously, and without seeming to displace a single syllable for the sake of rhyme, is one of the most arduous tasks a poet can undertake.”
Here is Wilder accounting for the charm of Cowper’s letters:
“These pages gain all their richness from the fact that they are written against a background of despair. William Cowper lived an even more uneventful life than Edward FitzGerald. He seemed to be forever holding the wool yarn for elderly ladies. If a bee enters by the window it is quite an exciting event in the poet’s life. A balloon ascension in the neighborhood takes up about as much space in Cowper’s as all the wars and revolutions in Europe. A snake was caught under the kitchen door; an electioneering delegation intruded one night into the parlor.”
And those are a few of the reasons we enjoy Cowper’s letters after more than two centuries.