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COWPER'S TASK: A LITERARY MILESTONE

It may be questioned justly if any other British poet, whose work contributed in so important a way to the permanent development of our literature, is now so disregarded as William Cowper. It is probable that no other single poem so largely influential in our letters is so seldom read as The Task. Which facts are the more surprising in that we live at a time markedly attentive to the calls of Mother Nature; nature books and studies were never more popular, periodicals dealing with every imaginary phase of country life, as distinct from urban and industrial themes, were never so numerous, and the very slogan of “back to nature” has grown a wearisome commonplace.

It may be that Cowper's rightful position is obscured in our view of the later eighteenth century because of his mightier contemporary, Burns; our affectionate regard for the Highlander may perhaps prevent due recognition of the Lowlander's claims. Yet it is Cowper, not Burns, who is the real bridge between Thomson and Wordsworth. The year 1785 brought out both The Task and the Kilmarnock edition of Burns's Poems, but it was the former of these which, more than any other book of all that period, showed that English verse had truly stepped forward along the path which was to lead to "Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey" and the “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” leaving far behind the cold “classicism” of those earlier bards whose academic methods were best to be described by one himself farthestre moved from them, the young Keats:

Men were thought wise who could not understand
His glories ; with a puling infant's force
They swayed about upon a rocking-horse,
And thought it Pegasus. Ah, dismal sould !
The winds of heaven blew, the ocean roll’d
Its gathering waves,—yet felt it not. The blue
Bared its eternal bosom, and the dew
Of summer nights collected still to make
The morning precious; beauty was awake !
Why were ye not awake? But ye were dead

To things you knew not of,—were closely wed
To musty laws lined out with wretched rule
And compass vile; so that ye taught a school
Of dolts to smooth, inlay, and clip, and fit,
Till, like the certain wands of Jacob's wit,
A thousand handicraftsmen wore the mask

Of poesy.

The back-swing of the pendulum from this extreme to a sincere expression of natural feeling, which had inevitably to follow, was seemingly delayed by a sort of interregnum in the kingdom of British letters. The sun, which men had called classic in its glory, had set, though the sky still glowed somewhat coldly with its reflected and failing rays. The other sun of naturalness has not yet risen.” Mr. Payne's metaphor is at fault in so far as it suggests night, however. Nothing could be farther from the fact fitly descriptive of a period when Richardson and Smollett and Fielding were forming English fiction; when Gray and Thomson and Chatterton were building English verse; when Burke and Gibbons were contributing to English prose work not since surpassed in its kind; when Goldsmith was creating both the Vicar Primrose and Tony Lumpkin, and Sterne was introducing us to “My Uncle Toby''; and that mighty leviathan of letters, Samuel Johnson, was holding rule over all. Yet this same period, compared with that which was to succeed it, was of secondary importance; a statement especially true of English verse. It was an “Age of Ideas" which linked this literary interim to the Victorian era, falling between 1785 and 1830, to mention two dates more or less arbitrary,– between the publication of Cowper's Task and the day when Wordsworth's popularity was at last generally admitted and his influence openly acknowledged.

That suggestive phrase of Leslie Stephens, “Age of Ideas,” expresses at once the cause of the movement and its period, when, so far as letters were concerned, the frost of classicism yielded to the spring of a genuine return to nature. The attempts of the Stuart pretenders were events of a well-passed yesterday; the American Revolution was a closed incident; Warren Hastings was being tried; and the French Revolution was rumbling along the horizon, unheeded, if not actually unheard.

Rousseau and Voltaire were attacking orthodoxy, Kant and Lessing and Goethe were at work; Southey was in his Bristol nursery, Scott and Wordsworth were at their youthful studies. It was the era of Reynolds and Gainsborough, Romney and Raeburn, Greuze and Flaxman. Garrick and Mrs. Siddons were acting; Mozart and Haydn composing. It was the noon-day of parliamentary reforms, of the rise of a great middle class. It was a time of broadening education among the people, aided by the appearance of those precursors of the manifold magazines of to-day, the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood's. It was the period of popularized science, of invention, of the growth of factories and factory towns. In every walk of life in England the practical was displacing the artificial, and British letters, mirror-like, began to show everywhere a turning back to "fact” both in description and sentiment. Taine tells the story of M. Roland presenting himself at the court of Louis XVI in plain evening dress, with shoes without buckles, and of the Master of Ceremonies throwing up his hands and exclaiming, like a true Frenchman, “All is lost!” Had he said "All is changed,” he would have been less dramatic but his statement would have been more suggestive of the truth of the day. The incident was exactly typical of this "Age of Ideas."

Someone has written that Goldsmith, albeit unconsciously, took the first step in this revolution as it appeared in England when he showed us Dr. Primrose playing the rôle of a Man of Feeling in the Aesh and making practical a philanthropy which, in Pope's day, would have confined itself to carefully rhymed couplets. It may be so,-but the fact remains that the first radical advance in the right direction was made by William Cowper. He went out of fashion when Sunday traveling came in. We think of him mainly as of mere academic value, leaving him “unvisited, unincensed and unread.” Certainly no present-day girl would dream of using his verse as a test of her lover's sensibility, as Miss Austen's Emma did.

Cowper's importance is not to be belittled, however. Much of his poetry was written in a blank verse suggestive of the rhymed pentameters of Pope, and it is often easy to see in the background some unintended influence of that “crooked little

thing who asks questions”; and yet the later poet, who justly blamed Pope for making poetry a merely mechanical art, walked wide of the Popean narrow path, following rather Thomson, who, a decade before, had pointed out just such a poetic highway as this wearer of nightcaps was to inaugurate. But Cowper left Thomson's Arcadian figures out of his landscapes. Hayley, whose life of “Olney's great man” has been long since obsolete (in spite of its vignettes by Blake), saw in his hero "the poet of Christianity, the monitor of the world.” We will no longer admit just that; we value him most for that he was in a real sense a literary pioneer. That he was genuinely a humanitarian is admirable; that there sounds in much of his work a note as manly as the greater part of the writer's temperament and life was unmanly is distinctly interesting, but it is of infinitely greater importance that he should have led the way in a true and lasting “return to nature."

“The poet of the domestic circle”—to use a turn of words more aptly descriptive than Hayley's—was born in Hertfordshire, November 26, 1731. His father, a chaplain to George the Second, was of a family “good” enough to boast several justices and at least one Earl; his mother was descended from Dr. John Donne. William was a delicate, sensitive, timid lad, ill-fitted to be thrust out into the world at eight, as he was when he was sent down to Dr. Pitman's school at Market Street. Westminster School followed, and certainly at one (only too probably at both!) he was made the victim of a fagging system whose refined cruelties he was himself to attack in the vigorous, Pompeian Tirocinium, thus pointing the way to the later and more potent attacks of Dickens and Tom Hughes. There is no story of the boy better known than that which he tells of being in such mortal terror of his fagmaster as seldom to dare look him in the face, recognizing his presence rather by his shoe buckles and heavy worsted stockings. Such a mental make-up and such a beginning would not suggest success in the law, and yet it was for the legal profession that young Cowper was intended, being called to the bar when twenty-three and living for some dozen years in the Inner Temple, though at that time he seems to have lightened his studies with writing

for the magazines and an occasional trip to the seashore or a visit to the theatre. When his uncle procured for him the appointment as Clerk of the Journals in the House of Peers, and while he was preparing to take his examinations to fill that post, the thought of that “day of execution” as he termed it, so weighed upon him that he went mad and attempted his life.

Augustine Birrell is of the opinion that but for this illness Cowper might have developed into a later Prior or an earlier Praed, for the essayist of Obiter Dicta makes much of the unwilling lawyer's deft touch and playful humor in the lighter vein of thought and poetic expression. “He loved a jest,” he writes, "a barrel of oysters and a bottle of wine.” The letters give ample proof of this but there is little of it in evidence in the poems; the three stanzas of “The Cricket" being a possible (and pleasant) exception, with their note of both of the versifiers whom Mr. Birrell mentions. One might quote, too, in this connection the lawyer-poet's well-known riddle on a kiss, which still stands the completest dictionary of that pledge of love and license. “Cowper from top to toe,” says Birrell of it. Is it not, as well, a far echo from the maternal ancestor Donne, he of such curious skill in just such cabalistic posies ?

I am just two and two; I am warm, I am cold,
And the parent of numbers that cannot be told.
I am lawful, unlawful, a duty, a fault,
I am often sold dear, good for nothing when bought,
An extraordinary boon, and a matter of course,
And yielding with pleasure when taken by force.

But Cowper was never to write another “Cupid in Ambush” nor anticipate "The Vicar.” That first attack of 1763 was to be followed by two other similar seizures, and the light poesy of those earlier years by the far more important poetry of The Task. There is a story that this insanity was induced by the opposition raised to his proposed marriage to his cousin Theodora, and the tale has been quite as emphatically denied. It is certain that the poet was in love with Theodora Jane Cowper, that he wrote reams of verse to her as “Delia,” that her father Ashly (who wore a white hat lined with yellow silk, and was on that account likened by his nephew to a mushroom) objected,

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