Thursday, January 09, 2020

'To Be Convinced of Being Unworthy of Life'

“In the Morning, the sky was of a true January cast, gloomy as black clouds could make it; the wind was cold in the extreme, and now and then it rained. In defiance of all these difficulties I took my walk; not so long a walk indeed as I generally take, but long enough for the purposes that a walk is design’d to answer.”

And what are those purposes? One of Cowper’s Olney Hymns, “Walking with God,” offers a clue: “So shall my walk be close with God.” He knew a brisk walk was exercise, cardio and spiritual, a practice that recalls a poem written by Thomas Traherne in the preceding century:

“To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be.”

Cowper is writing on this date, Jan. 9, in 1788, to his cousin, Lady Hesketh. On returning from his solitary walk, he observes “all the family” preparing to take a walk of their own, and Cowper joins them for “a double share of exercise,” which leaves him “a little too weary and much too sleepy to be able to write you a very entertaining Epistle.” He then proceeds to write a 900-word letter. The American poet W.S. Di Piero writes in Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebook (Carnegies University Press, 2017):

“William Cowper cannily and amicably conceals his secret suicidal melancholia in the flowering shrubs of his letters, which craft a rather wholesome, amiable personality, but he admits to ‘[putting] on an air of cheerfulness and vivacity to which I am in reality a stranger.’ It was ‘the arduous task of being merry by force. . . . Despair made amusements necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement.’”

Di Piero is quoting a letter Cowper wrote to his friend the Rev. John Newton on Oct. 22, 1781. His diagnosis of Cowper’s epistolary strategy – “the flowering shrubs of his letters” -- is precise and memorable. The poet had attempted suicide and several times was confined to an asylum. Yet his letters are charming and often funny. We see him acknowledge his troubles while not inflicting them on his correspondents. He betrays mercifully little self-pity and wants no credit for his suffering. Di Piero continues:

“He lived with the unwanted companion and made him a good one. His pain, his madness, was the raised, rough grain of his sense of failure in belief, in life as devotion. To feel unworthy of God is, in derangement, to be convinced of being unworthy of life.”

The “unwanted companion” is melancholia, madness inflicted by God. Cowper concludes his poem “Lines Written During a Fit of Insanity”: “I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am / Buried above ground."

No comments: