Nature is by far the most pervasive of the themes presented in The Task. Cowper turns to nature as the thread by which this work is woven. Once he leads the reader away from his comical opening subject, the sofa and the indolence it symbolizes, we are taken from the stuffy and stagnant world of the parlor to that of the refreshing woodland. The reader is brought along, almost as a walking companion, as Cowper creates vivid and detailed images of the peaceful and well-ordered world he sees in the woodland. Here there is not only peace and beauty, but deep and eternal wisdom.
In the first book, "The Sofa," he observes that the personification of Nature "rides upon a wheel" that sets into motion all aspects of life, making herself all the more beautiful and hale by this movement. He writes, "By ceaseless action all that is subsists." Indolence has no place in nature, as it should not among humans. He observes the farmer threshing grain; though cursed by the Original Sin of Adam (he alludes to the Bible's first book, Genesis) to labor and sweat for his bread, he keeps in pace with the constant motion of nature and is rewarded with truly restful sleep, which evades the lazy. In each Book within The Task, we are immersed in the natural world and its seasons, which invoke a life lesson the author shares.
In a powerful line in the second book, "The Time Piece," Cowper laments the brutal practice of slavery by the English: "He finds his fellow guilty of a skin / Not coloured like his own," and they thereby justify the enslavement of another human. Cowper points out the horrible truth that although slavery has been abolished in England, it is still a legal practice in English colonies.
Cowper also tenderly laments human cruelty toward animals in the practice of the aristocratic English fox hunt in the third book, "The Garden." He alludes to the baying of foxhounds, "the savage din of the swift pack," dogs in frenzied pursuit of a fox who has been his neighbor for ten years, an "innocent partner of my peaceful home."
Corrupting Effect of Town/City Living
Cowper argues that when people step away from the simple goodness of life in a rural environment and are brought close together, some of the nastier aspects of human nature come to the surface. This includes vanity: obsession with appearances and making much of fashion. In the fourth book, "The Winter Evening," Cowper extols the virtues of a quiet life away from the busy streets, and he presents a bitter rejection of city life.