"Meaner Themes": Mock-Heroic and Providentialism in Cowper's Poetry
Terry, Richard, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
William Cowper's poetry has traditionally been seen in two opposite ways: either as a late relic of English Augustanism or as a harbinger of a newer romantic aesthetic.(1) This ambivalence is nowhere more evident than in his handling of one particular form: mock-heroic. While Cowper's adoption of the form affiliates him superficially with the earlier poetic era of Dryden and Pope, his use of it generates a range of moral sympathies that are very different from those in Augustan poems of the same kind. Cowper's mock-heroic, unlike that of earlier practitioners, has also tended to be seen as the projection of a troubled personality, and, for a writer so prone to temperamental gloom, it easily invites criticism as a rather strained attempt at cheerfulness and whimsy. This accusation has been cogently made by Claude Rawson, who has also produced the sternest general reading of Cowper's mock-heroic against the tenets of Augustan exponents of the same form. He accuses Cowper's practice of having no "meaningful relation to a primary heroic idiom, none of Pope's assured loyalty to the grandeurs he subverts, and none of Swift's assurance in the debunking of grandeurs."(2) Apparently, Cowper's mock-heroic is seen either as psychologically driven (a thin whistling in the dark) or as a mere exercise in stylization, with all the gestural emptiness of a party-piece. How, then, do we read Cowperian mock-heroic? And must any reading inevitably be curtailed by the twin dilemmas identified by Rawson? This essay aims to place Cowper's mock-heroic in the context of his providentialist faith and, by doing so, to argue for both the magnitude and the gravitas of his achievement.
It is useful to begin by mapping out the main occasions of Cowper's mock-heroic writing. Cowper's practice essentially falls into two parts, the distinction being whether its formal register is drawn from Homer or Milton, the poets whose work, taken together, was mainly responsible for the repertoire of understood mock-heroic effects. The details of his creative association with Milton are well known, and reflect an attachment on Cowper's part so strong as to be called literary filiation.(3) He steeped himself in Milton's poetry from an early age, the first stirring of his enthusiasm being recorded in The Task, 4.709-17.(4) In later life, he defended Milton against Johnson's churlish (as Cowper saw it) "Life" and wrote a poem expressing outrage at the exhumation of Milton's supposed remains on 3 August 1790.(5) In 1793 Milton appeared to him in a dream and expressed a vague approbation for his poetical endeavors (Letters, 24 February, 4:297-98). Two years before the dream, he had accepted a commission to undertake a lavish edition of Milton's verse, involving the production of a corrected text as well as a translation of Milton's Latin and Italian poetry. Shortly after receiving the commission he wrote to Clotworthy Rowley, pluming himself on the strength of his credentials: "Few people have studied Milton more, or are more familiar with his poetry than [mys]elf" (Letters, 22 October 1791, 3:579). But this early buoyancy was mistaken, for the project came to pall on him and was never completed. Cowper's relationship with Homer, equally, was cemented by the undertaking of a professional labor. Shortly after composing The Task (1785), he embarked on a translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, a project that saw publication in July 1791. Moreover, the translation conflated Cowper's two areas of expertise, for he ill-advisedly cast his translation in Miltonics in the belief, set down in the "Preface," that the two styles had a fundamental affinity: "no person, familiar with both, can read either without being reminded of the other" (Letters, 5:65).
Cowper's Homeric translation and the experimental and unfinished poem "Yardley Oak" (1791) are the two principal occasions where his application of Miltonics seems "straight," serving neither an ironic or comic impulse nor demonstrating a stylistic verve purely for its own sake. …