“How various his employments, whom the world
Calls idle, and who justly in return
Esteems that busy world an idler, too!
Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,
Delightful industry enjoyed at home,
And nature in her cultivated trim
Dressed to his taste, inviting him abroad—
Can he want occupation who has these?”
Of course not. If friends, reading, puttering about in the garden and writing constitute idleness, I wish more of us were idle. It might keep us out of trouble. Cowper is writing out of hard experience. By the time he published The Task, he had already attempted suicide several times and been committed to an insane asylum. And yet, when in his right mind, Cowper was the sweetest of souls. He doted on his friends, wrote some of the finest letters in the language, composed hymns and adopted any animal seeking shelter. In the passage preceding the one quoted above, Cowper condemns hunting, “Detested sport, / That owes its pleasures to another’s pain, / That feeds upon the sobs and dying shrieks / Of harmless nature.” There’s nothing harmless about nature but we know what he means.
Cowper kept as pets three hares, Puss, Bess and Tiney. He was given them by a neighboring child who had become bored with them. He wrote a poem when Tiney died at the age of nine. When Cowper fed bread to his dog Marquis, he also fed Puss, who lived to the age of twelve. In The Task he writes of Puss:
“One sheltered hare
Has never heard the sanguinary yell
Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.
Innocent partner of my peaceful home,
Whom ten long years’ experience of my care
Has made at last familiar, she has lost
Much of her vigilant instinctive dread,
Not needful here, beneath a roof like mine.”
Some animal lovers are given to virtue-signaling, wishing to advertise their compassion and sensitivity. One never detects this in Cowper. He could never have lived in London among the crowds and social demands. In Olney he found respite. When Cowper writes of hares and other animals, one senses his identification with these creatures:
“Yes—thou mayst eat thy bread, and lick the hand
That feeds thee; thou mayst frolic on the floor
At evening, and at night retire secure
To thy straw-couch, and slumber unalarmed;
For I have gained thy confidence, have pledged
All that is human in me to protect
Thine unsuspecting gratitude and love.
If I survive thee I will dig thy grave,
And when I place thee in it, sighing say,
I knew at least one hare that had a friend.”
Cowper was born on this date, Nov. 26, in 1731. The Irish poet Brian Lynch published a wonderful novel about Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009).