"Some People Are More Nice Than Wise"
Context: Although he produced a few verses in his youth, Cowper did not turn to the writing of poetry as a serious form of recreation until he was fifty. He was a descendant of John Donne, and the last English poet who belonged to what has been called the cult of simplicity. His education was for a career in the legal profession; he was called to the bar in 1754. He never married; he fell in love with his cousin but suffered an attack of insanity and was forbidden to see or marry her. The strain of preparing for an examination in 1763 brought on another breakdown, during which he attempted suicide. His convalescence was lengthy; he then retired to the country, first living at Huntingdon and later, in 1767, moving to Olney. Though his Calvinism brought him comfort, it also brought despair; it was a major factor in the recurring periods of depression from which he suffered. He began to write poetry in 1781 and the first volume, Poems, appeared in 1782. His poetry is primarily a view of rural life, of country pleasures and domestic simplicity; its mood is meditative, reflective, and quiet. The deeper feelings he expresses arise from his equally deep religious convictions. The resulting tendency to moralize, and his lack of fire, have earned him a certain amount of criticism. His greatest work, The Task, was written at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen, who also provided him with the subject: a sofa. Though he began with the sofa, the poem soon became a pleasant description of the countryside in winter, the simple rural life he led, and a distant view of the outside world. He also wrote a number of lasting hymns. In addition, he occasionally wrote humorous verse. One such poem, John Gilpin's Ride, enjoyed great popularity and became one of his best-known works. Another, perhaps more typical of him, is Mutual Forbearance. The latter half of this brief poem is a moral lesson in the values of human tolerance; the first half is an amusing dialogue between a bored, dissatisfied wife and her deaf husband. (The word "nice" is here used in its older sense of "finical" or "punctilious.")
The lady thus address'd her spouse–What a mere dungeon is this house!By no means large enough; and, was it,Yet this dull room and that dark closet,Those hangings with their worn-out graces,Long beards, long noses, and pale faces,Are such an antiquated scene,They overwhelm me with the spleen.–Sir Humphry, shooting in the dark,Makes answer quite beside the mark:No doubt, my dear, I bade him come,Engaged myself to be at home,And shall expect him at the doorPrecisely when the clock strikes four.You are so deaf, the lady cried,(And raised her voice, and frown'd beside,)You are so sadly deaf, my dear,What shall I do to make you hear?Dismiss poor Harry! he replies,Some people are more nice than wise,–For one slight trespass all this stir?What if he did ride, whip and spur,'Twas but a mile–your fav'rite horseWill never look one hair the worse.