Essay Based on My Work Paradise and Poetry: An In-Depth Study of William Cowper’s Poetic Mind.

     Although William Cowper has always been regarded as a fitting subject for comment and research ever since his death 200 years ago, work done on the poet has been mainly biographical. Even this biographical work has tended to be very limited as its main subject has most often been the nervous breakdowns which occurred at roughly ten-year intervals during the adult life of the poet.

     Biographers have tended to view Cowper’s work as been primarily done under the influence of these times of acute depression and even insanity. The general picture left with any student who seeks to understand Cowper through the eyes of these biographers, is of a shy, nervous recluse of a man who merely wrote poetry as a kind of therapy to keep his mind stable and occupied. He was a man alienated from God and his fellow men. This impression is quite false as it is founded on a narrow presentation of a mere fraction of Cowper’s life.

     Those literary critics who have sought to analyse Cowper’s poetry objectively have been greatly influenced by the biographical emphasis placed on Cowper’s depressions. Thus five closely connected features of Cowper’s poetic development have been greatly neglected. These are, Cowper’s genuine, zealous faith, the influence on his writings and thoughts by other Christian writers, the part Cowper played in the general literary developments amongst Evangelicals in the 18th century, Cowper’s great humour and joy in believing and his sincerely felt calling to do the work, of a spiritual mentor by means of poetry rather than preaching. Because these factors have not been taken into consideration to any high degree, critics have not realised that Cowper had a highly developed, unified theory of poetry, in which he sought to totally merge message and language with no artificial embellishments which would debase true art into mere artifice. So relentless was he in pursuing this task that he was prepared, even ill his sixties, to drop theories of language and style which he had held for decades in favour of a new and more effective way of putting his message over. This message was to teach fallen man how he could regain Paradise.

     Before reaching this conclusion, however, the various critical works on Cowper, past and present, which might throw light on Cowper’s poetic mind, were examined. The authors of these works have, on the whole, not seen the synthesis intended by Cowper between his message and his message-conveyor, the English language. This is because Cowper’s faith which determined his message, has been seen mainly, as either a very subjective, inward-looking feature, or as a mask put on for convention’s or convenience’s sake, and not an essential factor in the poet’s poetic theory.

     In order to examine the great variety of factors which might throw light on Cowper’s poetic mind, a study was made of Cowper’s childhood and education covering the years from his birth in 1731 to 1749. Cowper was born into a family ideally suited, humanly speaking, to produce a poet. He had every encouragement possible to take up poetry and was often in contact with relations and friends who were no mean poets themselves. Cowper’s school-life confronted him with the Classics and he gained a lasting love for Homer and Milton. Cowper was enamoured by the language and sentiments of the former and jumped for joy at the melody and message of the latter. Cowper began to take up poetry in earnest. This was because of the school traditions, his interest in prosody, and boredom, rather than any special poetic calling.

     During Cowper’s law years (1750-1763), he developed a friendship, started at Westminster, with a group of young poets and writers who named themselves The Nonsense Club. Cowper now practised ballad writing composing mock-heroic poetry and writing amusing, chatty essays to various magazines sponsored by members of the club and allied wits. He turned his hand again to translation work, this time for publication, and translated various works of French authors including four cantos of Voltaire’s La Henriade. Cowper became particularly fond of translating Horace and assisted William and John Duncombe in publishing a translation of that poet’s satires. During this time Cowper fell in love with his cousin Theadora and their relationship prompted Cowper to write a number of love poems. Cowper already shows signs of the future poet in his use of blank verse, run-on lines, and his references to Eden.

     Cowper experienced the loss of his Theadora and the death of his best friend, and had great trouble with his conscience on various matters. He broke down in 1763 and became a patient in an asylum run by an Evangelical of poetic talents, Dr Nathaniel Cotton. Here Cowper was cured, at least for the next nine or ten years. He was also converted to the Christian faith as expressed by the Evangelicals of his day. Cowper now decided to put his talents to gospel use and write poetry to God’s glory.

     Poets were then considered who are commonly thought to have influenced Cowper such as Churchill and Vaughan. Any influence they had on Cowper must have been negligible. Another suggestion, James Hervey was found to be of special interest as Hervey and Cowper had much in common. There is scarcely any direct evidence, however, that Cowper was in any way influenced by Hervey, poetically or doctrinally. Milton influenced Cowper greatly, both in language and message, but this is commonly accepted. More novel was the close literary cooperation between John Newton, the Olney curate and Cowper, which was examined. Both friends shared the same faith, the same aims in life, and much of the same vocabulary, style and language as illustrated by their co-authorship of the Olney Hymns. Cowper wrote almost no nature verse at this time, but Newton composed much verse on nature topics. Many of these topics were taken up later by Cowper. Both Cowper and Newton stood firm in the traditions of the Puritans whom they knew well and loved. It is obvious that Newton influenced Cowper greatly as a writer and not only set him off on his poetic career but remained a mentor to him for many years and a guiding friend for life.

     Cowper’s high view of poetry and its origins was now examined. The poet’s view of language was shown as being genetically connected to creation and to poetry. Language was poetry, and poetry was a spontaneous means of communicating with God. All the tasks of unfallen man as God’s sub-creator produced true art. The Fall and the subsequent descent of man brought with it a Fall in animate and inanimate nature which became alienated from man as man was alienated from God. Poetry was divorced from ordinary language and now centred on man’s artificial culture by means of which he strove to create his own Eden. Art became a mere mockery and sham. Cowper, believing that the Church was not doing its task, and that he was not called to the ministry, but to be a mentor-poet, set about refitting poetry to win man back to God. Cowper believed that a language teaching Scriptural truths, used by a poet who had a Divine calling, could be used to reverse the Fall.

     Cowper, as his friend Newton, believed that there were four ways in which the poet could lead man back to God. These were, in order of merit, through God’s Word, through God’s works, through God’s ways with man, and through the delights of shared Christian experience. Cowper became thus the poet, not of nature alone, but of the Word revealing nature’s true purpose. His task was to show man God’s ways in His creation, and to foster in his brother men the awareness that God can be experienced, here and now. Only after enlightenment from above can man really understand God’s purpose in His world and enjoy nature to its full. In this way Cowper sought to work for the future, heralding in the re-creation of a fallen world: Paradise Regained.

     In order to do this Cowper had to work hard on his language to make sure that he only used the ‘sound words’ of plain speech for plain people. Coming from an Augustan background, this was no easy task for Cowper, who only became satisfied that he had found ‘his’ style when he was an elderly man and the bulk of his poetry lay behind him. Poetic language must be, in Cowper’s opinion, manly and sincere, and in a style suitable for the occasion. It must “catch the public by the ear” and must have the correct balance between fact and fancy. A poet must utilise the linguistic fashions of the day. Referring to the results of Cowper’s endeavours, a contemporary critic judged Cowper’s language and style to be most novel and like a magic creation.

     Cowper, who was a man of great feeling, felt that prose was suitable for humdrum themes but if the heart spoke or was addressed, then verse must be the means of communication. Measure is, however, quite secondary to message. The poet felt that contemporary versification was all embellishment and mechanical know-how and blamed Pope for this regression. Poetry must speak the language of prose.

     Although Cowper used most traditional verse forms throughout his career, his favourite two were the ballad and blank verse. He found both truly English and capable of expressing all the moods and manners of man. Blank verse was preferred as it freed the poet from being tied to the fetters of rhyme thus giving him greater freedom in formulating his message. Cowper found blank verse by far the most difficult verse form to use, as the flow must be maintained by the music of the words, rather than identity of sound. Not only did Cowper write more of Eden in blank verse than in other verse forms, it is obvious that he found blank verse more akin to original language.

     Most critics part company with their brother critics when viewing Cowper’s sense of structure. Where one finds order and form, the other finds chaos. Cowper has a conversational style which he termed, one of progress. His poems were rarely prefabricated but always premeditated. He knew where he was going, and discussed many a theme on the way in order to attract as many fellow wayfarers as possible and lead them to his goal. It is a fact that Cowper’s readership, at its height, was very broad, and a number of poems and over a dozen of his hymns still appeal to a wide variety of people.

     Cowper spent many years of his life translating works from the French, Latin, Greek and Italian. Few critics see this time as being productive, as far as Cowper’s creative capacities as a poet of original verse is concerned. Yet this work was fully in keeping with the times in which Cowper lived. Not only Evangelicals, but many men of letters in other spheres were translating, and sometimes, like Pope, transforming, works in other languages into English. English works were being read in most continental languages. Cowper’s translation work must be seen against the background of the Evangelical impetus into the world of culture, learning, and especially education. Apart from this fact, Cowper was trained from his earliest childhood to translate and it always served as a mind-soother and pass-time and saved the poet from many a spell of depression. Cowper’s translation work, especially his translation of Homer’s epics, gave Cowper a keener sense of the value of words and helped him to better his style. He became more aware of what was essential in language and what was mere decoration. Cowper’s later poems all show a marked movement away from the polysyllabic poetic diction of the Augustans, to a simplicity of language and style, ideally suited to express spontaneous feeling and an at-one-ment with nature as her divinely appointed steward and with nature’s God.