Monday, December 04, 2017

`The Assistance of My Muse'

In a letter to his cousin Lady Hesketh, written on this date, Dec. 4, in 1787, William Cowper describes a visit from a “plain, decent, elderly figure,” the clerk of the parish of All Saints in Northampton. Part of the clerk’s job is to attach to a bill of mortality (a death certificate), published each Christmas, “a copy of verses.” That is, an epitaph – an exacting literary genre now extinct. The clerk asks Cowper if he would compose it. At first, the poet demurs, saying “`you have several men of genius in your town, why have you not applied to some of them? There is a namesake of yours in particular, . . . the statuary, who, every body knows, is a first-rate maker of verses. He surely is the man of all the world for your purpose.’”

The clerk, a literary critic of amateur standing, replies: “‘Alas! Sir, I have heretofore borrowed help from him, but he is a gentleman of so much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him.’” Cowper tells his cousin he “felt all the force of the compliment implied in this speech, and was almost ready to answer, ‘Perhaps, my good friend, they may find me unintelligible too for the same reason.’” Cowper learns the clerk had walked to Weston solely to ask his favor – to “implore the assistance of my muse.”

The poet says he felt his “mortified vanity a little consoled, and, pitying the poor man’s distress, which appeared to be considerable, promised to supply him. The wagon has accordingly gone this day to Northampton loaded in part with my effusions in the mortuary style. A fig for poets who write epitaphs upon individuals! I have written one that serves two hundred persons.”

Cowper, when not insane and “buried above ground,” was the kindest of men. His compassion for the suffering of others caused him to suffer in a literal, visceral way. He wrote an epitaph for his pet hare, Tiney. Cowper closes his letter to Lady Hesketh with another revealing anecdote:

“A poor man begged food at the hall lately. The cook gave him some vermicelli soup. He ladled it about some time with the spoon, and then returned it to her, ‘I am a poor man it is true, and I am very hungry, but yet I cannot eat broth with maggots in it.’ Once more, my dear, a thousand thanks for your box full of good things, useful things, and beautiful things.”

Cowper's neutral tone in his reporting is admirable. He never makes fun of the man's ignorance. I was surprised to learn that vermicelli – the word, the pasta – was already known to the English in the eighteenth century. The hungry man was not mistaken, in the etymological sense: The Latin vermis, “worm,” arrived a century earlier by way of Italian. In 1709, Matthew Prior had written in “Paulo Purganti and His Wife”:

“Thus tho’ She strictly did confine
The Doctor from Excess of Wine;
With Oysters, Eggs, and Vermicelli
She let Him almost burst his Belly.”

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