Sunday, December 02, 2018

'Born to Reanimate the Lyre'

Though a little of each, Charles Lamb was more than merely a joker, drunk or madman. The same can be said of William Cowper except, that is, for the drunk part. By all accounts, Cowper was a teetotaler. He seems not to have know of Lamb, who was forty-four years his junior. In May 1796, Lamb wrote to Coleridge: “You will rejoice to hear that Cowper is recovered from his lunacy.” In the previous year, Lamb had spent six weeks “very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton,” and in September 1796 his sister Mary would fatally stab their mother and spend intermittent spells for the rest of her life in asylums. That December he wrote to Coleridge: “I have been reading The Task with fresh delight. I am glad you love Cowper: I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton, but I would not call that man my friend who should be offended with the ‘divine chit-chat of Cowper.’” That same December, Lamb published “To the Poet Cowper” in Monthly Magazine:

“Cowper, I thank my God, that thou art heal’d.
Thine was the sorest malady of all;
And I am sad to think that it should light
Upon thy worthy head: but thou art heal’d,
And thou art yet, we trust, the destin'd man,
Born to reanimate the lyre, whose chords
Have slumber’d, and have idle lain so long;
To th’ immortal sounding of whose strings
Did Milton frame the stately-paced verse;
Among whose wires with lighter finger playing
Our elder bard, Spencer, a gentler name,
The lady Muses' dearest darling child,
Enticed forth the deftest tunes yet heard
In hall or bower; taking the delicate ear
Of the brave Sidney, and the Maiden Queen.
Thou, then, take up the mighty epic strain,
Cowper, of England's bards the wisest and the best!”

Not a great poem but we’re touched by Lamb’s magnanimity. He is doubly gracious, wishing  Cowper well on his recovery and praising him as a poet, “the destin’d man, / Born to reanimate the lyre.” So much for anxiety of influence. Cowper’s companion Mary Unwin died in 1796, and his depression returned. He revised his translation of Homer for a second edition and wrote one of his best poems, “The Castaway,” but most of his best work was behind him. He died April 25, 1800, at age sixty-eight.

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