The Task "Books Are Not Seldom Talismans And Spells"

Denise Levertov

"Books Are Not Seldom Talismans And Spells"

Context: This quotation is from the sixth book, or section, of the poem, entitled "The Winter Walk at Noon." As in the other books of the poem, Cowper here mingles meditations on many subjects with descriptions of nature. In this book, as in the one preceding, the descriptions are of the English countryside in the wintertime. One also finds in this section the poet's thoughts on a wide variety of subjects: bells ringing in the distance, the origin of cruelty to animals, the difference between lawful and unlawful destruction of animals, man's extravagant praise of himself, and, among other topics, the effect the spring season has upon the shrubbery. The particular quotation is taken from the section containing Cowper's commentary on meditation, in which he opines that meditation is better for man than the study of books. Walking in the silent woods of winter, the poet says, "Meditation here may think down hours to moments." He says also that he believes the heart must give lessons to the head, that knowledge and wisdom often have little or nothing in common. He goes on to compare knowledge and wisdom:

Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which wisdom builds,
Till smooth'd and squared and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber whom it seems t'enrich.
Knowledge is proud that he has learn'd so much;
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.
Books are not seldom talismans and spells
By which the magic art of shrewder wits
Holds an unthinking multitude enthrall'd.