The Task "Detested Sport, That Owes Its Pleasures To Another's Pain"

Denise Levertov

"Detested Sport, That Owes Its Pleasures To Another's Pain"

Context: Cowper, descendant of John Donne, was the last English poet to belong to what has been called the cult of simplicity. He began his adult career in the legal profession and was called to the bar in 1754; however, he was forced into early retirement by attacks of insanity. The first of these made it impossible for him to marry the girl he loved. Another, brought on by the strain of preparing for an examination in 1763, led him to attempt suicide. His convalescence lasted for some time; he then retired to the country and settled eventually at Olney, where he turned to poetry as a serious avocation. He was then fifty years of age. The first volume, Poems, was published in 1782; his greatest work, The Task, was completed two years later. Its ready sale was ensured by the inclusion of a few other poems to round out the volume, notably his popular humorous ballad John Gilpin's Ride. The Task, widely praised, brought him lasting renown. It is a lengthy poem in blank verse and explores, quietly and meditatively, the life of seclusion that Cowper leads. He describes the beauty of the countryside, the simple pleasures and routines of the day, and considers the outside world that he has renounced. He dwells at some length on the nature of human existence and upon moral and spiritual problems; his strong Calvinism, a factor in his recurrent periods of depression, encourages him to moralize. The poem is a task given him by his friend Lady Austen, who suggested he write about a sofa. He begins with the sofa and then describes his morning walk and his accompanying thoughts. In the second book he discusses at some length his view of the outside world and its problems. In Book III he takes up the subject of his garden and the pleasure it gives him; but he prefaces this description with some remarks concerning people who visit the country only to disturb the peace and serenity of it: holiday-seekers, hunters, and fishermen. To the mild and gentle Cowper, such people are vandals, utterly lacking in sensibility:

We persecute, annihilate the tribes
That draw the sportsman over hill and dale
Fearless, and rapt away from all his cares;
Should never game-fowl hatch her eggs again,
Nor baited hook deceive the fish's eye;
Could pageantry, and dance, and feast, and song
Be quell'd in all our summer-months' retreats;
How many self-deluded nymphs and swains,
Who dream they have a taste for fields and groves
Would find them hideous nurs'ries of the spleen,
And crowd the roads, impatient for the town!
They love the country, and none else, who seek
For their own sake its silence and its shade;
Delights which who would leave, that has a heart
Susceptible of pity, or a mind
Cultured and capable of sober thought,
For all the savage din of the swift pack,
And clamours of the field? Detested sport,
That owes its pleasures to another's pain,
That feeds upon the sobs and dying shrieks
Of harmless nature. . . .