"Pleasure Is Labor Too, And Tires As Much"
Context: Cowper, the last English poet to belong to what has been called the cult of simplicity, was late in blooming; though he wrote a few verses in his youth, he did not turn seriously to the writing of poetry until he was fifty. His education was in the legal profession and he was called to the bar in 1754. He fell in love with his cousin, but emotional stress brought on an attack of insanity and he was forbidden to see or marry her. Another attack occurred while he was preparing for an examination in 1763, and he attempted suicide. There was a lengthy convalescence, after which he retired to the country, living first at Huntingdon and later at Olney. He never married. Cowper was a Calvinist and a deeply religious man; though his faith brought him comfort, it also brought despair and was undoubtedly a major factor in the recurring periods of depression from which he suffered. During one of these, he was convinced, God had told him he could have no hope of salvation. At another time he believed God had told him to kill himself, but that the Deity had subsequently retracted this command. Comparatively little of this intense spiritual suffering appears in Cowper's work; his poetry deals with simple rural life, with the quiet countryside, and the unassuming pleasures and routines of the day. His descriptions of the landscape are vivid but tranquil; he meditates and reflects, and his religious convictions encourage him to moralize. His first volume, Poems, appeared in 1782 and was followed three years later by his greatest work, The Task. Hope, a poem of moderate length in the first volume, is typical of his more consistently meditative poems. In it he considers the nature of man's earthly life and reflects upon human attitudes toward it. The world is neither the place of despair we sometimes believe it to be, nor is it one of unthinking joy: what really sustains man is hope. Cowper's poem begins with the negative attitude of the disillusioned:
Ask what is human life–the sage replies,With disappointment low'ring in his eyes,A painful passage o'er a restless flood,A vain pursuit of fugitive false good,A scene of fancied bliss and heartfelt care,Closing at last in darkness and despair.–The poor, inured to drudgery and distress,Act without aim, think little, and feel less,And nowhere, but in feign'd Arcadian scenes,Taste happiness, or know what pleasure means.Riches are pass'd away from hand to hand,As fortune, vice, or folly may command;As in a dance the pair that take the leadTurn downward, and the lowest pair succeed,So shifting and so various is the planBy which Heav'n rules the mix'd affairs of man;Vicissitude wheels round the motley crowd,The rich grow poor, the poor become purse-proud,Bus'ness is labour, and man's weakness such,Pleasure is labour too, and tires as much,The very sense of it foregoes its use,By repetition pall'd, by age obtuse.Youth lost in dissipation, we deploreThrough life's sad remnant, what no sighs restore;Our years, a fruitless race without a prize,Too many, yet too few to make us wise.