Saturday, November 26, 2016

`The Best That Is to Be Expected from a Crab-tree'

That the most charming and companionable of poets should often have been quite insane will not surprise seasoned readers or students of humanity. William Cowper (1731-1800) was frequently confined to asylums and at least three times attempted to take his own life. Like many afflicted with depression, he knew respites of exaltation and simple contentment. He loved animals and left accounts, in verse and prose, of history’s most famous hares-- Puss, Bess and Tiney. At one time he kept five rabbits, two guinea pigs, a magpie, a jay, a starling, two goldfinches, two canaries, two dogs and a squirrel. He was not a scientist but simply enjoyed the company of animals. He wrote one of literature’s great cat poems, and unlike some animal lovers Cowper had a genius for human friendship. On this date, Nov. 26, in 1781, Cowper wrote in a letter to his friend the Rev. William Unwin:

“There is a pleasure annexed to the communication of one’s ideas, whether by word of mouth or by letter, which nothing earthly can supply the place of; and it is the delight we find in this mutual intercourse that not only proves us to be creatures intended for social life, but more than any thing else, perhaps, fits us for it.”

The cynical will dismiss Cowper’s overture as empty etiquette, a rhetorical flourish aimed at charming his letter’s recipient. But his point stands: Writing and speaking are sublime pleasures, never to be dismissed as drudgery. Our gift for expression defines us as humans. Some of us remember learning for the first time the thrill of touching others with our words. In first grade, Miss McClain had us go to the blackboard and draw a picture that would suggest the job we hoped to have as adults. The class was then to decrypt the drawing and guess our future employment. I drew a pencil, and nobody knew what I meant. I’ve never hoped to be anything other than a writer. Cowper continues in his letter (which is worth reading in its entirety – with Keats and Flannery O’Connor, he is among the master letter writers in English):

“Now, upon the word of a poor creature, I have said all that I have said, without the least intention to say one word of it when I began. But thus it is with my thoughts—when you shake a crab-tree the fruit falls; good for nothing indeed when you have got it, but still the best that is to be expected from a crab-tree. You are welcome to them, such as they are; and, if you approve my sentiments, tell the philosophers of the day that I have outshot them all, and have discovered the true origin of society when I least looked for it.”

Cowper was born on this day, Nov. 26, in 1731.

[One of the best new novels I have read in the last decade is The Winner of Sorrow (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009). It’s a fictional account of Cowper’s life by the Irish writer Brian Lynch. No one I know has read it. Please do.]

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