Wednesday, April 25, 2018

`Prelude to a Storm'

In 1984, C.H. Sisson was reviewing newly published editions of letters by Thomas Hardy and William Cowper, along with other volumes, when he wrote in the London Review of Books:

“In outward circumstances, the microcosms presented in both the Hardy and the Cowper correspondence are nothing but the ordinary miserable world of old age, of which not less depressing versions are to be found everywhere.”

At the time, Sisson was seventy, not quite ancient, with almost twenty years left to live, but he could always be relied on to see the incipient darkness in the brightest vista. And grimness is preferable to the drooling optimism of Pollyanna. Cowper’s life was grim. That he wrote good poems and some of the best letters in the language is remarkable given his emotional fragility. He survived suicide attempts and confinement in asylums little better than indifferently run prisons. It’s best to read Cowper not as a psychiatric case study but as just another frail human. Sisson continues, and this goes to the heart of it:  

“It is not that what happens to writers is more remarkable than what happens to the rest of mankind, merely that through them we may see ordinary events more vividly because we have glimpses of how they appeared to minds exceptionally lucid or devious, and can measure how little separates such minds from our own, when it comes to the ordinary business of living.”

Cowper could write lucidly even when quite manic or depressed, and he was seldom devious. His witness is credible. In a letter to his friend the Rev. Walter Bagot on Jan. 3, 1787, he writes: “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.”

If I had to choose between Cowper’s poems or letters, I would take the letters, as I would with Keats. For sick men, both were funny and wise. I look for the literary value of letters, their worth as prose. Biography is interesting but secondary. Sisson is good on this point:

“In the end letter-writing is valuable less for its clues to the supposed personality of the author than as a form of literature in itself, subject to the same tests: Does it please us? Is it elegant? Does it appear to enlighten us as to a world beyond itself? – questions which I dare say are not allowed those who credit theories, political and otherwise, as to exactly how ‘texts’ should be read. The more fumbling reader would no more think of having theories about how to read books than about how to understand his friends.”

Cowper died on this date, April 25, in 1800. Happy birthday to my brother, Ken.

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