Saturday, November 26, 2022

'Without Some Thistly Sorrow at Its Side'

On May 28, 1781, William Cowper writes to his friend the Rev. John Newton, Anglican priest, “Amazing Grace” lyricist, former slaver, former slave, abolitionist and hymnist: 

“You seldom complain of too much sunshine, and if you are prepared for a heat somewhat like that of Africa, the south walk in our long garden will exactly suit you. Reflected from the gravel and from the walls, and beating upon your head at the same time, it may possibly make you wish you could enjoy for an hour or two that immensity of shade afforded by the gigantic trees still growing in the land of your captivity.”


At age eighteen, Newton had been seized by a press gang into service with the Royal Navy. In 1745 he was left by his shipmates with a slave trader in West Africa, whose African wife made Newton her slave. Thus, “the land of your captivity.” Cowper continues:


“If you could spend a day now and then in those forests, and return with a wish to England, it would be no small addition to the number of your best pleasures. . . . The time will come, perhaps, (but death will come first,) when you will be able to visit them without either danger, trouble, or expense; and when the contemplation of those well-remembered scenes will awaken in you emotions of gratitude and praise, surpassing all you could possibly sustain at present.”


Cowper believed the souls of the dead may revisit the Earth, perhaps even returning safely to locations previously dangerous or with unhappy associations. The Irish writer Brian Lynch in his great novel about Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009), touches on this theme. Lynch begins a later poem, L’imperfection,” with two lines from the second passage quoted above:


“The time will come, perhaps,

(But death will come first)

When we may be able to visit

The dead and where they lived

When we first knew them,

And then, though they will not

Be able to see us, we shall

Look at those faces we

Loved once with better thanks

And more praise than we gave,

Or were able to give . . .”


The seven of us in the world who still read Cowper’s poems would likely agree with George Saintsbury: “Cowper would have been a great poet of the second class at any time, and in some times might have attained the first.” Barton Swaim describes Cowper as a “placeholder” who fell between two epochs in literary history, being neither Augustan nor Romantic but sharing traits with both. He was one of the “mad poets,”  having attempted suicide several times and been confined to asylums. His letters are among the best in the language and often enormously funny. He memorably wrote: “I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am / Buried above ground.” I’m reminded of these lines from Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of his masterpiece, The Task:


“In such a world; so thorny, and where none

Finds happiness unblighted; or, if found,

Without some thistly sorrow at its side;

It seems the part of wisdom, and no sin

Against the law of love, to measure lots

With less distinguish’d than ourselves; that thus

We may with patience bear our mod’rate ills,

And sympathies with others, suffering more.”


Cowper was born on this date, November 26, in 1731, and died in 1800 at age sixty-eight.


Richard Zuelch said...

For those interested, the complete works of John Newton are available as a well-done four-volume set from The Banner of Truth Trust. Among lots of other things, the set contains most, if not all, of his lyrics.

Faze said...

Newton's biggest hit, "Amazing Grace" lends itself to wide appreciation in the secular world. His next biggest hit, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood" does not.