In the summer of 1764, while a patient at St. Albans Asylum for the Insane, William Cowper underwent a conversion to Calvinist Evangelicalism. During an intense bout of paranoia and self-contempt, he found a faith to save him from despair, a revivalist brand of Calvinism which stressed the absolute efficacy of faith and the uselessness or "filthy rags" of human effort. The keynotes of this theology are sounded in the Memoir Cowper wrote several years later, in which he describes the precise moment of his conversion. He recalls searching the scriptures for "comfort and instruction" and discovering some apt verses in Romans: "Immediately I received strength to believe it. Immediately the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel."l In this episode Cowper emphasizes the miraculous and instantaneous nature of salvation by conversion - the only mode of salvation the Calvinists recognized and an event upon which they placed great importance because a sinner received his full pardon through Christ's blood at this moment. The faith that the sinner receives comes not from his own will or desire, but from outside agency. This faith ("strength to believe") brings the inner conviction of acceptance by God, which for Calvinists means conviction of election. As long as one maintains this felt conviction, election remains sure; but if the feeling of faith ever falters, the entire edifice of Calvinist salvation may come tumbling down.
In the case of William Cowper, it did indeed come tumbling down. We know from any number of good biographies - and from his letters themselves - that Cowper never renounced belief in the truth of Calvinism, but that he did lose faith in his own election. He had a "fateful dream" in 1773 during a second bout of madness, in which he heard God pronouncing his reprobation (actum est de te, periisti: "It is all over with thee, thou hast perished"). These Latin words may have been nothing more than an unconscious recollection of some Roman comedy Cowper had been reading or knew by heart.(2) Yet they were not at all amusing to him when he awoke into consciousness and pondered their meaning; indeed, he took them as his spiritual death sentence.(3)
Thus in 1773 Cowper had stripped from him the spiritual identity he had been given through his conversion some years earlier. Though once he had been saved by amazing grace, his salvation had been somehow revoked. And given the absolute dualism of the Calvinist system, which claims that one is either elected or reprobated, this loss of election amounted necessarily to proof of his reprobation - a state of permanent rejection by God that the tormented self can do nothing to redress. In letters written throughout his life, Cowper will persist in declaring himself a reprobate and in feebly lamenting the powerlessness and pathos of his fallen state. Cowper's Calvinist advisor, John Newton, could not help to free Cowper from the bondage in which Calvinism had tied him, for that would require rejecting Calvinism itself. As long as Cowper subscribed to Calvinism, he was bound inextricably in a psychic knot. He had been denied his Christian salvation, and he was powerless to bend the will of the Father who had withdrawn his blessing.
Yet the salvation that Cowper was not granted in life he seized for himself in his art. It is the thesis of this essay that The Task was Cowper's means to a poetic salvation, poetic in the sense that Cowper made or effected by artistic efforts at least an imaginary bestowal of God's gift of approval. Theologically it was impossible to force God's hand, but poetically Cowper was able to rewrite his life as a chosen "Servant of God," an Old Testament type which forms and transforms the poetic persona of The Task. The Task tells the story of Cowper's own experience of retirement at Olney, focusing on the development of the poet's employments during his rural seclusion. But Cowper's own life experiences merely supply the materials for writing the persona of The Task. Through the use of typological allusions to the Old Testament and other devices, Cowper constitutes his persona as a man whose works follow a salvific path, leading ultimately to a blessed state, a state prospered by God. The close parallel between Cowper's own life and that of the persona in The Task allows a transference of the persona's success onto Cowper: salvation is bestowed upon the poet at last, if only through poetic wish fulfillment.
James King and others speak of The Task as "spiritual autobiography,"(4) and I myself used similar language when I stated that The Task "tells the story" of Cowper's life. I have, however, also stated that Cowper fashions spiritual achievements for his persona in The Task that go infinitely beyond the somber facts of Cowper's own spiritual life. In order to maintain simultaneously these two seemingly contradictory ways of speaking, we must precisely define the sense in which The Task is spiritual autobiography. If autobiography means the "writing of one's own life," where ought we to let the emphasis fall? Is autobiography the writing of one's own life? or is it the writing of one's own life? In The Task the emphasis indeed falls on the writing or poetic shaping of the persona's life out of the raw materials of Cowper's life.
The scriptive or poetic achievement of The Task is best perceived against the backdrop of Cowper's biography, specifically his search for work after his spiritual crisis. As Cowper writes in a letter of winter 1784, he feels that his usefulness, in the church at least, has been rendered null by his reprobation: "Why am I thus? Why crippled and made useless in the church just at that time of life when my judgement and experience being matured, I might be most usefull. Why cashiered and turn'd out of service, 'till . . . there is no reasonable hope left that the fruit can ever pay the expence of the fallow?" (2:200). In another letter, written about a year after finishing The Task, Cowper catalogues the occupations that he had used to assuage his feelings of uselessness: "I have been emerging gradually from this pit [of despair]. As soon as I became capable of action, I commenced carpenter, made cupboards, boxes, stools. I grew weary of this in about a twelvemonth, and addressed myself to the making of bird-cages. To this employment succeeded that of gardening, which I intermingled with that of drawing . . . I renounced it, and commenced poet" (2:455). In the poem Retirement, written several years before The Task, Cowper again enumerates some of the occupations that exercised him during his rural seclusion. These "pleasures harmlessly pursued" (line 784) are mentioned in a sequence including gardening, landscape painting, anti poetry - occupations which, as John Baird has noted, "were all, at one time or another, Cowper's."(5) The Task shows Cowper's persona engaged in many of the same occupations as those named in Retirement and the letters. The difference, however, is that The Task weaves these activities into a shaping narrative that culminates in the persona's salvational triumph. In order to appreciate how the poem achieves this triumph, it is helpful to imagine two axes running through it, one horizontally, and one vertically. Along the horizontal axis Cowper charts his persona's search for useful work: the speaker's employments begin, as we shall see, in relative purposelessness, bog down in failure and frustration midway, and reach assurance and, indeed, exalted status at the end. As the speaker's labors evolve from aimlessness to exalted service, the poem itself develops from the frivolous to the sublime, from mock-heroic to millennial prophecy. Thus what I call the horizontal axis is really a narrating of two histories: that of the poet in retirement and that of the poem he writes. But the ultimate achievement of the poem is due not to these dual narrative lines alone so much as to the vertical line of typological allusion that Cowper cuts through them; for these allusions transfigure the persona into a Servant of God, whose pursuit of tasks becomes his progress through the stages of a life of blessedness.
THE TASK: a sign on the title page pointing to what? pointing in what direction? First of all a name, THE TASK is juxtaposed on the title page with A POEM, IN SIX BOOKS. BY WILLIAM COWPER, OF THE INNER TEMPLE, ESQ.(6) A name, then, without semantic depth, referring to the poem before us, a useful label for the volume in our hands. Yet THE TASK is more than a detachable label like the titulus or tag hanging from a papyrus roll. It is also a signifier with its …