Thursday, July 20, 2017

`The Task Is Not Very Agreeable to Me'

How do you tell a correspondent not seen in decades that you have grown old and not make it sound self-evident, self-pitying or dull? You write like William Cowper. Despite bouts of madness, Cowper as a letter writer can be dignified, playful and witty, often simultaneously. On this date, July 20, in 1780, he writes to his cousin Harriet Cowper:

“You see me sixteen years older, at the least, than when I saw you last; but the effects of time seem to have taken place rather on the outside of my head, than within it. What was brown, is become grey, but what was foolish, remains foolish still. Green fruit must rot before it ripens, if the season is such as to afford it nothing but cold winds and dark clouds, that interrupt every ray of sunshine.”

Cowper manages to sound charming while recounting incipient old age (he was fifty and would live until 1800) and a difficult life (suicide attempts, asylums). He continues writing to his cousin, who was later Lady Hesketh:

“My days steal away silently, and march on (as poor mad Lear would have made his soldiers march) as if they were shod with felt; not so silently, but that I hear them; yet were it not that I am always listening to their flight, having no infirmity that I had not, when I was much younger, I should deceive myself with an imagination that I am still young.”

Cowper alludes to the wit of another mad man, King Lear, who in Act IV, Scene 6, says “It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe / A troop of horse with felt.” Age is a ready-made, temptingly easy subject for joking, one that lends joke-making confidence even to the humorless. Cowper winningly turns the subject on himself. Abruptly he changes subject, and articulates a familiar writer’s lament:

“I am fond of writing, as an amusement, but do not always find it one. Being rather scantily furnished with subjects, that are good for anything, and corresponding only with those, who have no relish for such as are good for nothing, I often find myself reduced to the necessity, the disagreeable necessity, of writing about myself. [Not unlike contemporary poets and memoirists.] This does not mend the matter much; for though in a description of my own condition, I discover abundant materials to employ my pen upon, yet as the task is not very agreeable to me, so I am sufficiently aware, that it is likely to prove irksome to others.”

If only more writers shared Cowper’s understanding of self-as-subject. Unless your name is Montaigne, beware. The self, like dreams, is of interest only to the self in question. Cowper continues:         

“A painter, who should confine himself, in the exercise of his art, to the drawing of his own picture, must be a wonderful coxcomb, if he did not soon grow sick of his occupation, and be peculiarly fortunate, if he did not make others as sick as himself.”

This sample suggests why Cowper, after Keats, is the most touching, amusing and stylistically accomplished letter writer in English. Both men never, despite their obvious suffering, succumbed to self-pity, bitterness or lousy writing.

[Addendum on Lady Hasketh: On Jan. 10, 1781, Dr. Johnson’s friend, Hester Lynch Piozzi, writes in her diary (Thraliana, ed. Katharine Balderston, 1942): “Dear Lady Hesketh! And how like a Naples Washball [a bar of soap for bathing] She is: so round, so sweet, so plump, so polished, so red, so white . . . with more beauty than almost any body, as much Wit as many a body; and six Times the Quantity of polite Literature, Belles Lettres as we call ’em. Lady Hesketh is wholly neglected by the Men: why is that? . . . I never can find out what that Woman does to keep the people from adoring her.”]

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