The poetry of William Cowper is notable for its heralding and fostering the transition to a more natural and simple style than that of Alexander Pope and other neoclassical poets. Cowper uses material which is autobiographical, personal, and subjective, and he demonstrates an interest in rural and domestic settings. Although his primary mood is lyrical, he is also a poet of satire which is characterized by good humor and is, consequently, deficient in verve and incisiveness. His sense of man’s limitations leads him, unlike the neoclassical poets, to urge a reliance on the plan and mercy of God.
Cowper’s poetic contribution to the sentimental movement emphasizes serenity and quietness rather than the emotional turbulence of his personal life. As a young man he suffered fits of depression which developed into suicidal mania, causing him to withdraw for convalescence to a secluded life in the country. He then lived for about two years in Huntingdon in the home of the Reverend Morley Unwin. After Unwin’s death in 1767, he moved with Mrs. Unwin and her two children to the village of Olney, where he wrote his best work. At Olney he also came under the influence of John Newton, the evangelical curate there. Cowper became engaged to Mrs. Unwin, but another outbreak of mania in 1773 prevented their marriage. In the years just preceding this illness he had written most of the sixty-eight hymns which he contributed to Newton’s OLNEY HYMNS.
At the end of 1779, Newton moved to a London rectory, and for Cowper the most placid years of his adult life ensued. Mrs. Unwin encouraged him to a more serious literary effort than the composition of light, playful verses which had occupied much of his time since his recovery, and during one winter, 1780-1781, he wrote “Progress of Error,” “Truth,” “Table Talk,” and “Expostulation.” In February, 1782, these and four other long poems, besides various shorter pieces, appeared in the volume POEMS BY WILLIAM COWPER, OF THE INNER TEMPLE, ESQ. The book was variously evaluated by the literary journals but was warmly praised in a letter from Benjamin Franklin, who was then in France. For the most part, the poems in the volume satirize a society known to a religious recluse mainly by way of report or memory. With a definite theological bias about the corruption of human nature, he makes moral and didactic pronouncements about the “luxury” of his time. Frequently, however, the poems show forceful writing, quiet humor, and fine critical touches, and in “Table Talk” the volume contains the first unmistakable pronouncement of what later became Wordsworth’s revolution against elegant form.
The satire in Cowper’s “The Progress of Error” is directed against the most noticeable vices and foibles of the day. Lord Chesterfield (Petronius), for instance, appears as a corrupter of youth. The “quavering and semi-quavering” Occiduus apparently is not Charles Wesley, as has been supposed, but a clergyman of a parish not far from Olney. And the “cassocked horseman” apparently represents the Reverend Robert Pomfret, of Emberton, who was addicted to fox hunting.
The poem “Truth,” the second in order of composition, attacks not only pride but also intelligence and goes beyond a plea for humility to call for abject self-contempt. Declaring man “Sinful and weak, in every sense a wretch,” Cowper views learning and wit as snares and completely discounts Voltaire’s respect for truth and humanity as compared to an elderly cottager’s knowledge of “her Bible true.” He wrote:
Not many wise, rich, noble, or pro-foundIn science, win one inch of heavenlyground.
Although his attack on self-conceited, narrow rationalism and his exaltation of the integrity of the poor above the affectation of the rich are precursors of the truth later emphasized by Wordsworth, Cowper stresses not a Wordsworthian freedom but a direful penal threat. But the true foretaste of a Wordsworthian view first became evident in Cowper’s next poem, “Table Talk.” He asserts that, “with a sanction as severe/As vengeance can inflict, or sinners fear,” Jehovah guards his “perfect rule.” Then, unconvincingly, he declares that the Scriptures “shall teach you: read, believe, and live!” The quality of the verse in this poem merely increases the reader’s doubt of the sincerity of Cowper’s belief in the “religious truth” dominating it.
There is evidence of Cowper’s rising spirits in “Table Talk,” the poem written next. The poet himself wrote:I send you “Table Talk.” It is a medley of many things, some that may be useful and some that, for aught I know, may be very diverting. I am merry that I may decoy people into my company, and grave that they may be better for it. Now and then I put on the garb of a philosopher, and take the opportunity that disguise procures me to drop a word in favour of religion.
The poem says at least as much about the art of poetry as about the law of God, and the poet even calls upon Liberty in a manner not beneath comparison to that of a later Romantic:
Place me where Winter breathes hiskeenest air,And I will sing, if Liberty be there;And I will sing at Liberty’s dear feetInAfric’s torrid clime, or India’s fiercestheat.
The more impassioned style is promoted by the dialogue form of the poem. With “A” always around urging a discipline to prevent anarchy caused by “Freedom, grown freakish,” why should not “B” extravagantly praise Liberty? This is not to say, however, that the whole poem is written on a level of tame moderation; against the conventionalized diction and sentiment of Augustan verse, Cowper lashes out with the eloquence of high personal conviction. The virtue which Cowper demands of poetry is not a religious or a social bigotry but a creative strength and integrity. Quite unlike the earlier poem “Truth,” his “Table Talk” views Christ as a poet because he was ideally creative, and not because he was edifying. Also, because Religion has generally demanded edification of its poets, it “has so seldom found/A skilful guide into poetic ground.” Yet Cowper also included passages which called upon poets to extol Orthodoxy’s God or to preach morality.
The next poem, “Expostulation,” summarizes the history of the Jews, giving an account of their abuse and of their miraculous preservation. This history is compared to that of the English nation, and both gratitude and reform are urged. Other poems in the volume, such as “Hope” and “Charity,” are also expositions of the liberty represented by Nature, but invariably marred by assertions of limiting, orthodox Evangelicism. However, in the later poems, “Conversation” and “Retirement,” there is evidence of a humor which signals Cowper’s eventual liberation from the fundamentalism of the Reverend John Newton.
These poems, with more than a score of occasional pieces, were published in March, 1782. The diction was Cowper’s own, even though it was often as conventional as the religious views which it expressed. The unreality of the substance in these poems is attributable largely to his frequently declaiming a faith and morality which neither in literature nor in life could rouse his creative powers to their potentiality. Although Cowper claimed that the volume was “at bottom a religious business,” it seems far more “a summary of such truths” as Newton thought it proper to enforce than a transcript of Cowper’s own experience.