Monday, April 09, 2018

`I Have Waded Through Much Blood'

William Cowper is writing to his friend the Rev. Walter Bagot on Jan. 3, 1787:

“You wish to hear from me at any calm interval of epic frenzy. An interval presents itself, but whether calm or not, is perhaps doubtful. Is it possible for a man to be calm, who for three weeks past has been perpetually occupied in slaughter, letting out one man’s bowels, smiting another through the gullet, transfixing the liver of another, and lodging an arrow in the buttock of a fourth?”

Cowper was a fragile soul, given to spells of madness and religious mania. He attempted suicide and spent time in asylums. What he describes above is not psychotic blood lust but the labors of Homeric translation. His Odyssey and Iliad would appear four years later, and one thinks of War Music, Christopher Logue’s Peckinpah-esque rendering of the Iliad. Cowper goes on:

“Read the thirteenth book of the Iliad, and you will find such amusing incidents as these the subject of it, the sole subject. In order to interest myself in it, and to catch the spirit of it, I had need discard all humanity. It is woeful work; and were the best poet in the world to give us at this day such a list of killed and wounded, he would not escape universal censure, to the praise of a more enlightened age be it spoken. I have waded through much blood, and through much more I must wade before I shall have finished.”

Cowper often kept animals as pets and wrote poems to hares, dogs, cats and a goldfinch. He was loving and harmless, except to himself. The slaughters recounted in the epics tormented him, and one hears autobiography in his acts of translation. In his masterwork, The Task, Cowper directly addresses a hare: “I have gain’d thy confidence, have pledg’d / All that is human in me to protect / Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.” In his letter to Bagot he writes of the savagery depicted in the Iliad: “But were I an indifferent by-stander, perhaps I should venture to wish that Homer had applied his wonderful powers to a less disgusting subject. He has in the Odyssey, and I long to get at it.” Cowper reports his poems are out of print, though readers have told him of the pleasure his work has given them:I have at least been tickled with some douceurs
of a very flattering nature by the post.” But the heart of Cowper’s letter, and of his life and work, are these sentences from the final paragraph:

“But it is a sort of April-weather life that we lead in this world. A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm.”

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