Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 5. Lady Austen; The Task

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IV. William Cowper

§ 5. Lady Austen; The Task

In connection with the satire Retirement, the name of Lady Austen was mentioned above. This charming and intelligent widow came into Cowper’s life in the year 1781 and touched his spirits and his poetry to fine issues. Unlike Mrs. Unwin, she belonged to the world and had a proper appreciation of the external things of life. In suggesting to Cowper a subject for his pen, she gave him not a moral topic but a simple object—the sofa in his room. The idea was very likely thrown off without full prevision of its far-reaching effect; but, in encouraging Cowper to write about something that he knew, in checking, so far as might be, his tendency to moralise and to preach by fixing his attention on the simple facts of his daily life, she gave him an impulse which was what his own poetry, and English poetry at that moment, most needed. The result of her suggestion was The Task, a blank-verse poem in six books, of which The Sofa formed the first. Cowper starts playfully, with a touch of the gallantry that was always his. He shows his humour by dealing with the ordained subject in the style of Milton. Milton was his favourite poet; Johnson’s life of Milton one of the writings he most disliked. Nevertheless, with his gentle gaiety, he begins his work with a parody of Milton.

  • No want of timber then was felt or feared
  • In Albion’s happy isle. The lumber stood
  • Ponderous, and fixed by its own massy weight.
  • But elbows still were wanting; these, some say,
  • An alderman of Cripplegate contrived,
  • And some ascribe the invention to a priest
  • Burly and big, and studious of his ease.
  • Thus, for a hundred lines or so, he plays with his subject. Then, breaking away from it by an ingenious twist, he speaks for himself; and, for the first time, we have a new voice, the voice of William Cowper:
  • For I have loved the rural walk through lanes
  • Of grassy swarth, close cropped by nibbling sheep
  • And skirted thick with intertexture firm
  • Of thorny boughs; have loved the rural walk
  • O’er hills, through valleys, and by rivers’ brink,
  • E’er since a truant boy I passed my bounds
  • To enjoy a ramble on the banks of Thames;
  • And still remember, nor without regret
  • Of hours that sorrow since has much endeared,
  • How oft, my slice of pocket store consumed,
  • Still hungering, penniless and far from home,
  • I fed on scarlet hips and stony haws,
  • Or blushing crabs, or berries that emboss
  • The bramble, black as jet, or sloes austere.
  • It is, perhaps, difficult to realise nowadays how new such writing as this was when The Task was published. Assuredly, these are not “raptures”
  • conjured up
  • To serve occasions of poetic pomp.
  • The truant boy, his pocket store, the berries he ate—there is something in these which his century might have called “low.” But the berries are exactly described; we feel sure that the boy ate them. The poet who describes them was, himself, that boy; and, looking back, he sees his boyhood through the intervening sorrow which we know that he suffered. In every line, there is actuality and personality. The diction is still a little Miltonic, for Cowper’s blank verse never moved far from his master; but, all the preceding nature poetry might be searched in vain for this note of simple truth—the record of actual experience which the poet perceives to have poetic value and beauty. A little later, he addresses Mrs. Unwin in a famous passage, beginning:
  • How oft upon yon eminence our pace
  • Has slackened to a pause, and we have borne
  • The ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew,
  • While admiration feeding at the eye,
  • And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene.
  • Hitherto, there had been nothing in English poetry quite like the passage that begins with the lines here quoted. The nearest parallel is, probably, Collins’s Ode to Evening, though that lovely poem wraps its subject in a glow of romance which is absent from Cowper’s description. But, when Cowper wrote The Sofa, he had never even heard of Collins. He owed as little to Gray’s Elegy, where the scene is far more “sentimentalised”; and nothing can deprive him of the title to originality. Here is a very commonplace English landscape, minutely described. The poet does nothing to lend it dignity or significance other than its own. But he has seen for himself its beauty, and its interest; little details, like the straightness of the furrow, the smallness of the distant ploughman, please him. And, because he has himself derived pleasure and consolation from the scene and its details, his poetry communicates that pleasure and that consolation. Familiar scenes, simple things prove, in his lines, their importance, their beauty and their healing influence on the soul of man. Nature need not any longer be “dressed up” to win a place in poetry. And, if The Task be the forerunner of Wordsworth, its manner of accepting facts as they are, and at their own value, contains, also, the germ of something very unlike Cowper, something that may be found in The Woods of Westermain.

    The nature poetry in The Task is, doubtless, of a humbler order than that of Tintern Abbey or The Excursion, though, in many passages of simple description, the similarity between Wordsworth and Cowper is striking. Cowper would have been unable to compose the books of The Prelude: On Imagination and Taste, how impaired and how restored. He would even have thought them unchristian and reprehensible. Where the great soul of Wordsworth broods over the world of sense, conscious of how it opens and affects the world of the spirit, Cowper hardly even asks how it is that these loved scenes console and enlarge the mind. He is not a philosopher, and he is not a mystic. For him, it is enough that the things he sees are beautiful and dear; he does not ask for anything more. But the nearness of his object, his familiarity with it and his fine taste in expression result in poetry which, if not, in itself, great, is wonderfully pure and sweet, and prepared the way for profounder work by others. While his simplicity and exactness in description mark him off from all preceding nature poets, even from Thomson, the spirit of his poetry differentiates him equally from Crabbe, who, though even more minute and faithful in detail, always regarded nature as a setting for the emotions of man. There are passages in The Task which sound a nobler music than that quoted above. One is the invocation to evening in The Winter Evening, beginning:

  • Come, Evening, once again, season of peace;
  • Return, sweet Evening, and continue long!
  • The earlier part of this passage is very like Collins. The whole of it, in spite of certain characteristic words—“ostentatious,” “modest”—is a little too fanciful and a little too elaborate to be entirely in Cowper’s peculiar manner. He is most himself when he is most closely concerned with the scenes and people that, in his restricted life, he had come to know and love. The six books of The Task (entitled The Sofa, The Timepiece, The Garden, The Winter Evening, The Winter Morning Walk and The Winter Walk at Noon) contain many passages of sympathetic description that have become classical. Such are the lines on the “rural sounds” and those on hay-carting in The Sofa; the man cutting hay from the stack, the woodman and his dog in The Winter Morning Walk; the postman and the waggoner in The Winter Evening; the fall of snow, in the same book. Each is the product of the poet’s own observation; each helped to prove, in an age which needed the lesson, that simplicity and truth have their place in poetry, and that commonplace things are fit subjects for the poet. Cowper’s simplicity is not the simplicity of Lyrical Ballads, any more than it is the glittering artifice of Pope. He is Miltonic throughout; but he speaks with perfect sincerity, keeping “his eye on the object.”

    There are, no doubt, stretches of didactic verse in The Task. That was almost necessary to Cowper in a poem of this length. But it is more important to observe how, in this poem, one quality, that has endeared Cowper to thousands of readers and was by no means without its effect on public opinion, finds its chief expression in his works. After concluding The Sofa with the famous and beautiful passage beginning:

  • God made the country, and man made the town;
  • he opens The Time-piece with a cry for some refuge where the news of man’s oppression, deceit and cruelty might never reach him. The love of man for man, the love of man for animals, for the meanest thing that lives—this is the principal moral message of The Task. Doubtless, this kind of “sentimentalism” was “in the air,” at the time. It belonged, to some extent, to Cowper’s section of the church; it was spread far and wide by Rousseau. Yet it was inborn in Cowper’s tender, joyful nature—a nature that was playfully serene when free from its tyrant melancholy; and Cowper remains the chief exponent of it in English poetry.