Monday, August 14, 2017

`The Calm Retreat, the Silent Shade'

William Cowper writes to his friend William Unwin on this date, Aug. 14, in 1784:

“I give you joy of a journey performed without trouble or danger. You have travelled five hundred miles without having encountered either. Some neighbors of ours about a fortnight since, made an excursion only to a neighboring village, and brought home with them fractured skulls and broken limbs, and one of them is dead. For my own part, I seem pretty much exempted from the dangers of the road.”

No, Cowper’s dangers were strictly internal. Few writers of his time and place travelled less, externally. Johnson had his Scotland, Gibbon his Switzerland, Keats his Italy. In the interior, Cowper’s journeys were unnumbered. Despite lunatic asylums and botched suicides, he wrote industriously, letters, poems and hymns, which often read like dispatches from that other world. Temperamentally, he was a homebody, unsuited for marriage and career, but blessed with a gift for friendship. In “An Epistle to Joseph Hill, Esq.”, he writes to another friend:

“Go fellow!—whither?—turning short about—
Nay. Stay at home;—you're always going out.”

The stuttered phrases and abrupt reversals tell the story. Cowper longed for nothing so much as peace, and it was denied him in this world. Consider the second stanza of his hymn (or poem – editors can’t make up their minds), “Retirement”:

“The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.”

Cowper’s redeeming literary quality, what keeps his work from succumbing entirely to earnest piety or despair, is a sense of humor. Sometimes whimsical or satirical, sometimes wildly Dickensian (as in the passage quoted at the top). Here’s how Cowper completes the passage:

“—thanks to that tender interest and concern which the legislature takes in my security! Having, no doubt, their fear lest so precious a life should determine too soon, and by some untimely stroke of misadventure, they have made wheels and horses so expensive, that I am not likely to owe my death to either.”     

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