Monday, May 08, 2017

`There Is a Sting in Verse'

“You do well to make your letters merry ones, though not very merry yourself, and that both for my sake and your own; for your own sake, because it sometimes happens, that by assuming an air of cheerfulness we become cheerful in reality; and for mine, because I have always more need for a laugh than a cry, being somewhat disposed to melancholy by natural temperament, as well as by other causes.”

Coming from the wrong person and delivered at the wrong time in the wrong tone, rah-rah morale-boosting can be soul-killingly depressing. Nothing so fuels murderous rage as one who unmindfully proselytizes for good cheer. Better to be cheerful than to implore cheerfulness, and let it go at that. No one knew this better than the author of the passage quoted above, William Cowper, in a letter written on this date, May 8, in 1784, to his friend the Rev. William Unwin. Cowper was a veteran of multiple suicide attempts and confinements in asylums. On occasion, he was quite mad. During one such spell Cowper wrote a poem in which he likened insanity to being “buried above ground.” This lends his advice to Unwin a credibility lacking in the congenitally well-balanced.

The militantly cheerful remain oblivious to the impact they have on others, and, in fact, are themselves often quite mad. Even Cowper lets go of his urging after one paragraph. Most of the rest of his letter is taken up with literary and publishing matters. He has almost completed his masterwork The Task, which would be published the following year. But a subsequent sentence is of more general application:

“There is a sting in verse, that prose neither has, nor can have.”

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