Hope "Truth Lies Somewhere, If We Knew But Where"

William Matthews

"Truth Lies Somewhere, If We Knew But Where"

Context: Cowper was primarily a poet of rural life; his writings deal with the quiet countryside and with domestic simplicity. His mood is one of meditation or of reflection with religious overtones. A descendant of John Donne, he wrote a few verses in his youth but did not turn seriously to the writing of poetry until much later. Trained for the law, he was called to the bar in 1754. He fell in love with his cousin but was forbidden to see or marry her after he suffered an attack of insanity. He was preparing for an examination in 1763 when he suffered a second attack and attempted suicide. After a lengthy convalescence, he moved first to Huntingdon and later, in 1767, to Olney, where he lived in rural seclusion. He did not begin to write poetry as a serious recreation until he was fifty. The first volume, Poems, was published in 1782. The same year he sent his humorous poem, "John Gilpin's Ride," to a newspaper; the poem enjoyed great popularity and remains one of Cowper's best-known works. The following year he began his greatest work, The Task. His friend Lady Austen had suggested he produce a major work, and had given him the subject: a sofa. Cowper dutifully started with the sofa but soon expanded the topic into an easy and natural description of the local countryside in winter, the simple routines and pleasures of the day, and of an outside world that was comfortably remote. In it as in his other poems, his deeper feelings arise from his religious convictions and carry with them a tendency to moralize. His Calvinism brought him both comfort and despair, and was a major factor in the recurring fits of melancholia from which he suffered. He wrote a number of important hymns. "Hope," one of the long poems in his first volume, is in many ways typical of his work. In it he reflects that the world is neither a place of despair nor one of unthinking joy, and that most of man's unhappiness comes from his own careless attitudes; what sustains us is hope. An imaginary conversation follows, in which several revelers discuss the nature of salvation:

Right, says an ensign, and for aught I see,
Your faith and mine substantially agree:
The best of ev'ry man's performance here,
Is to discharge the duties of his sphere.
A lawyer's dealing should be just and fair,
Honesty shines with great advantage there;
Fasting and pray'r sit well upon a priest,
A decent caution and reserve at least.
A soldier's best is courage in the field. . . .
. . .
Sir Smug! he cries (for lowest at the board,
Just made fifth chaplain of his patron lord,
His shoulders witnessing by many a shrug,
How much his feelings suffered, sat Sir Smug)
Your office is to winnow false from true,
Come, prophet, drink, and tell us what think you?
Sighing and smiling as he takes his glass,
Which they that woo preferment rarely pass,
Fallible man, the church-bred youth replies,
Is still found fallible, however wise,
And differing judgments serve but to declare
That truth lies somewhere, if we knew but where.