Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. John Gilpin; On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture

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

IV. William Cowper

§ 6. John Gilpin; On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture

When originally published in 1785, The Task was followed in the same volume by three shorter poems, an epistle to Cowper’s friend, Joseph Hill, Tirocinium, to which reference was made above, and The Diverting History of John Gilpin. In Tirocinium, the attack on the brutality and immorality of public schools may have been just and is certainly vigorous; but this is not the kind of poetical composition in which Cowper excelled. Of John Gilpin, there is little need to speak at length. Lady Austen told Cowper the story. He lay awake at night laughing over it, and made of it a ballad in a style of fun peculiarly his own, but not to be found elsewhere outside his letters. The more closely one looks into the poem, the finer seems the characterisation, and the more delicate and artful the precise simplicity of its manner. Subsequent editions included twelve more short poems in the volume, among them The Rose, admired by Sainte-Beuve, and the lines On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk. Cowper’s mother had died when he was six years old. As he tells us in this poem, nearly half a century afterwards he remembered distinctly and minutely the event and his feelings, and the poem is one of the most pathetic and moving in any language. Thanks to the poet’s use of detail, the woman and her little son live again before us, and the tenderness of the whole is unsurpassed. One other of the shorter poems, The Dog and the Water-lily, deserves mention for the light it throws on Cowper’s gentle, animal-loving life; and the collection included, also, one or two fables that link him with Prior, Gay and Northcote.

In 1786, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin had moved from dreary Olney to a cheerful house and neighbourhood at Weston, not far off, and had enlarged their circle of acquaintances, thanks partly, to his cousin Harriet (the sister of Theodora), now Lady Hesketh. Cowper’s life continued to be happy; and, during these pleasant years, he wrote a number of short poems, which were not published till after his death. Among them were several playful or serious personal addresses, much in the tone of the letters. Others were little narratives or expressions of everyday experience, like The Colubriad, an account of a viper which threatened the poet’s cat and her kittens, and the epitaph on the poet’s hare, “Old Tiney, surliest of his kind.” The remainder included a few religious poems, several epigrams and translations, one or two tales and some poems on the slave trade, written to order and not showing Cowper at his best. Among these posthumous works four stand prominent: the stanzas On the Loss of the Royal George, the sonnet To Mrs. Unwin, the poem To Mary and The Popular Field. The sonnet is one of Cowper’s finest achievements; the poem To Mary is redeemed by its tenderness from a certain monotony in the form. The Poplar Field contains the famous and exquisite second line of the couplet

  • The poplars are felled; farewell to the shade
  • And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade
  • which shows Cowper to have had possibilities in lyric poetry never fulfilled by him. Yet, it seems almost unjust to say this in view of On the Loss of the Royal George. Written to oblige Lady Austen, who wanted words set to the march in Scipio, this poem is one of the noblest dirges ever composed. By the directest, simplest means imaginable, Cowper attains an effect of noble grandeur. The plain statement reaches the sublime.