Saturday, February 18, 2017

`A Genteelish Toothpick Case'

In 1782, William Cowper published his first book, cumbersomely titled Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. In a letter to his stalwart friend, the Rev. William Unwin, written on April Fool’s Day, Cowper thanks him for publicizing the publication: “I could not have found a better trumpeter.” When not insane, Cowper was the most wittily gracious of men. He never says “thank you” when a more baroque expression of gratitude is handy. Two sentences later, and extending the musical metaphor, Cowper writes:

“Methinks I see you with the long tube at your mouth, proclaiming to your numerous connections my poetical merits and at proper intervals levelling it at Olney, and pouring into my ear the welcome sound of their approbation. I need not encourage you to proceed, your breath will never fail in such a cause; and thus encouraged, I myself perhaps may proceed also, and when the versifying fit returns produce another volume.”

Cowper was a fragile soul. His sense of self-worth was brittle at best. Writers tend to be children when it comes to wanting attention and approval. Cowper thanks Unwin for recognizing this need. He goes on to feign indifference to Edward Thurlow of the Inner Temple, who had become Lord Chancellor in 1778. Thurlow has said nothing about Cowper’s book. He feels unjustly snubbed, calling it a “mortification” -- but pretends otherwise. Cowper writes:
“. . . Mr. Newton tells me that my book is likely to run, spread, and prosper; that the grave cannot help smiling, and the gay are struck with the truth of it; and that it is likely to find its way into [King George III’s] hands . . . Now, if the King should fall in love with my muse, and with you for her sake, such an event would make us ample amends for the Chancellor's indifference, and you might be the first divine that ever reached a mitre, from the shoulders of a poet.”

Cowper launches into the obligatory writer’s rant, leavened with humor, against reviewers: “[They] are such fiery Socinians that they have less charity for a man of my avowed principles than a Portuguese for a Jew.” Spend a few hours unwrapping those metaphors. Cowper’s on a roll. He suggests to Unwin that each of them write a book and have the other review it (which, of course, is how book reviewing has always worked). More shenanigans follow, and a garden update, but my favorite part of Cowper’s letter is the coda, the post scriptum not preceded by a P.S.:

“If your short stay in town will afford you an opportunity, I should be glad if you would buy me a genteelish toothpick case. I shall not think half a guinea too much for it; only it must be one that will not easily break. If second-hand, perhaps it may be the better.”

Cowper was a man of modest needs, but with a taste for accessorizing. Elsewhere, he asked for a stock-buckle, a new hat (“not a round slouch, which I abhor, but a smart well-cocked fashionable affair”) and a cuckoo clock (a penchant he shared with Wordsworth).  

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