A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Eighteen
COWPER

"OH, mamma," says Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility, "how spiritless, how tame was Edward's manner in reading to us last night! . . . To hear those beautiful lines, which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such imperturbable calm, such dreadful indifference!"

"He would certainly have done better justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper."

"Nay, mamma, if he is not to be animated by Cowper! . . ."

We hardly think to-day of Cowper, if we read him at all, as a passionate, animating poet. The romantics who followed were to provide us with so much more stimulating, not to say intoxicating, beverages that Cowper appeals, if he appeals at all, by way of contrast, as a poet of pious sermons or more frequently, e.g. to Sainte-Beuve, as the poet of quiet rural and domestic life, a life of quiet, controlled, pious epicureanism, a type of life which has apparently passed away for ever. Yet historically considered, to his own and the next generation it was the combination of sensibility with naturalness, the truth of feeling which the poets of "Feeling" often lacked that constituted the appeal of Cowper's blend of sermon and self-revelation. Indeed one might say that Cowper the man, revealed in his poems and letters supplemented by the facts of his life, is of greater interest to-day than his poems themselves, witness the recent Stricken Deer of Lord David Cecil.

For a History of Literature, a detached study of that poetry, it is necessary to distinguish the different strata in Cowper's, if not complex yet divided, personality. There is first the Cowper of the days before his nervous collapse in 1763 and confinement in a private asylum at St. Albans till 1765. Injury had doubtless been done to a not strong nervous system by his early experience of school in Bedfordshire.

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