"He Shared In The Plunder, But Pitied The Man"

Context: William Cowper was the last English poet who belonged to what has been called the cult of simplicity; most of his work consists of quiet meditation and reflection, together with vivid though tranquil descriptions of rural life and the countryside. His Calvinism, although it comforted him, was also a source of despair and was a major factor in the attacks of insanity from which he suffered. He was trained in the law, and was called to the bar in 1754. He fell in love with his cousin but emotional stress brought on a breakdown and he was forbidden to see or marry her. Another breakdown occurred in 1763, while he was preparing for an examination, and he attempted suicide. A lengthy convalescence followed, after which he retired to the country and lived with friends, first at Huntingdon and later at Olney. He never married. He had written some verse in his youth but did not turn seriously to the writing of poetry until he was fifty; the first volume, Poems, appeared in 1782. His greatest work, The Task, was published three years later. Its theme, a sofa, had been suggested to him by his friend Lady Austen. Cowper expanded the theme into a long and tranquil poem on the beauties of the winter countryside, the simple pleasures and routines of daily life, and his own meditations on human existence and the outside world. Another collection of poems was published in 1798; his other works include an edition of Milton and a translation of Homer. He wrote a number of hymns. Little of his spiritual and emotional suffering appears in his work, though he moralizes frequently. He had a sweet disposition and a good though quiet sense of humor; one of his humorous poems, "John Gilpin's Ride," was enormously popular and is still famous. He was also satirical upon occasion; an example, "Pity for Poor Africans," comments both on the frailty of human nature and upon the evils of slavery: decent people react to the latter as does the boy invited to rob a poor man's orchard:

They spoke, and Tom pondered–"I see they will go;
Poor man! what a pity to injure him so!
Poor man! I would save him his fruit if I could,
But staying behind will do him no good.
"If the matter depended alone upon me,
His apples might hang till they dropped from the tree;
But since they will take them, I think I'll go too;
He will lose none by me, though I get a few."
His scruples thus silenced, Tom felt more at ease,
And went with his comrades the apples to seize;
He blamed and protested, but joined in the plan;
He shared in the plunder, but pitied the man.