The Task: A Poem in Six Books by William Cowper is an interesting, remarkable, and influential work that helped shape the writing of such literary giants as Jane Austen, William Wadsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it played an important role in ushering in the literary period known as the Romantic Movement.
Published in 1785, The Task: A Poem in Six Books is written in blank verse (iambic pentameter that does not rhyme) and is surprisingly conversational and natural in tone, given the prevailing norms of the era in which it was written.
The six lengthy poems that make up the volume are entitled: "The Sofa," "The Timepiece," "The Garden," "The Winter Evening," "The Winter Morning Walk," and "The Winter Walk at Noon."
Cowper begins with a parody of Milton in a passage that describes the origin of the sofa and turns into a reflection on the blessings of nature. The thoughts Cowper expresses are drawn from the simple things in his daily life, not from grand-scale (and sometimes heavy-handed) contemplations of the Bible, theology, or classical antiquity, yet they are compelling, innovative, and thought-provoking.
Cowper not only revels in the beauty of the natural world and extols the virtues of a retired life, but he also attacks the evils of slavery and expresses dissatisfaction with church officials who are lukewarm in their treatment of others. He draws inspiration from the most ordinary of daily objects and events, and from such points of departure he discusses darker and more difficult subjects in a refreshingly conversational tone.
Jane Austen quoted Cowper widely in her novels, and Scottish poet Robert Burns expressed his admiration and delight in The Task frequently and openly. Cowper's influence may well be seen in Burns's own work, which also draws deep inspiration from daily life and the natural world. William Wadsworth's poem "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," is a particularly significant example of the power of Cowper's influence. In this landmark work of the Romantic period, Wadsworth employs conversational diction to bring poetry to new heights.
William Cowper's The Task: Six Poems, albeit gently unconventional, was beloved by many and introduced a new style of expression to many literary giants who followed.