The Task "Studious Of Laborious Ease"

Denise Levertov

"Studious Of Laborious Ease"

Context: Cowper, although he wrote a few verses in his youth, did not turn seriously to the writing of poetry until he was fifty. He was trained in the law and was called to the bar in 1754. Attacks of insanity forced him into an early retirement; the first of these made it impossible for him to marry the cousin he had fallen in love with and the second, occurring while he was preparing for an examination in 1763, drove him to attempted suicide. After a long convalescence he moved to the country and finally settled at Olney, where he lived with his friends the Unwins. Here he began to write poetry and the first volume, Poems, was published in 1782. A humorous poem, John Gilpin's Ride, was sent to a newspaper the same year and enjoyed great popularity. His greatest work, The Task, appeared in 1785 and ensured his lasting fame. Cowper was the last English poet who belonged to what has been called the cult of simplicity; he was primarily a poet of rural life. The Task was written at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen, who also provided him with the subject: a sofa. Cowper dutifully began with the sofa but soon enlarged the topic with a pleasant and natural description of the countryside and of the simple tasks and pleasures of his days. His reflections upon human nature and moral problems, together with his thoughts regarding the troubles of the distant outside world, form a considerable portion of the work. Cowper's strong Calvinism, a factor in his recurrent periods of severe depression, was also a source of comfort to him; he moralizes frequently and some of his poems are akin to sermons. After describing the beauty of the countryside in winter, he discusses the troubled world and thus completes Book II of The Task. He continues these thoughts in Book III, and remarks sadly on those people who come to the country only to raise holiday havoc, without any true appreciation of its beauty. Then he turns to a description of his garden, and of the simple and wholesome pleasure it gives him:

How various his employments, whom the world
Calls idle, and who justly in return
Esteems that busy world an idler, too!
Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,
Delightful industry enjoy'd at home,
And nature in her cultivated trim
Dress'd to his taste, inviting him abroad–
Can he want occupation who has these?
Will he be idle who has much t' enjoy?
Me, therefore, studious of laborious ease,
Not slothful; happy to deceive the time,
Not waste it; and aware that human life
Is but a loan to be repaid with use,
When He shall call his debtors to account,
From Whom are all our blessings; bus'ness finds
Ev'n here: while sedulous I seek t' improve,
At least neglect not, nor leave unemploy'd
The mind He gave me; driving it, though slack,
Too oft, and much impeded in its work
By causes not to be divulged in vain,
To its just point–the service of mankind.