William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society

William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society

William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society

William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society

Synopsis

"This book re-examines the literary significance of poet and translator William Cowper (1731-1800). Too often, Cowper is pigeonholed as an eccentric, a hopeless depressive, or even as a religious lunatic. Often regarded as an "early" Romantic, Cowper is reconsidered in this book in light of a rich eighteenth-century political and religious culture. Rather than read him as an old-fashioned Calvinist stranded in an increasingly secularized society, Cowper can be read as someone who well understood the increasingly imprecise and emotionalist quality of eighteenth-century religious discourse and who expressed this dominant tendency with uncanny insight." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

The Lord of all, himself through all diffus'd,
Sustains, and is the life of all that lives.
Nature is but a name for an effect,
Whose cause is God.

—William Cowper, The Task VI, 221–24)

Whosoever is free from the contamination of luxury and licence,
may go forth to the fields and to the woods, inhaling joyous
renovation from the breath of Spring, or catching from the odors
[sic] and sounds of Autumn some diviner mood of sweetest sad
ness which improves the softened heart. Whosoever is no deceiver
or destroyer of his fellow-men—no liar, no flatterer, no mur
derer—may walk among his species, deriving, from the commu
nion with all which they contain of beautiful or of majestic, some
intercourse with the Universal God. Whosoever has maintained
with his own heart the strictest correspondence of confidence,
who dares to examine and to estimate every imagination which
suggests itself to his mind—whosoever is that which he designs to
become, and only aspires to that which the divinity of his own
nature shall consider and approve—he has already seen God.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Essay on Christianity

ON THE BASIS OF THESE TWO EXTRACTS, COWPER AND SHELLEY Appear as soul mates, bathing together in a warm glow of pantheistic romanticism. Both poets apparently believe that communion with nature is a form of worship and both seem concerned to explode any division between Nature and God the Creative Demiurge.

The most elementary background reading tells us, however, that Cowper and Shelley were completely at odds regarding the nature and even existence of the spirituality they both affirmed. Shelley is a professed atheist. In paradoxical but studied biblical cadences, his essay abstracts Christ's message to the point where Deity, conceived of as distinct or separable from the truth of “Nature,” becomes inconceivable. Shelley's new understanding of “God” comprehends every-

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