"Remorse, The Fatal Egg By Pleasure Laid"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Cowper, the last English poet who belonged to what has been called the cult of simplicity, was a descendant of John Donne. He was trained for the law and called to the bar in 1754. He fell in love with his cousin but suffered an attack of insanity and was forbidden to see or marry her. A later emotional crisis, the strain of preparing for an examination, brought on a subsequent attack. On this occasion, in 1763, he attempted suicide. After a long convalescence, Cowper retired to the country and spent the rest of his life in rural seclusion with friends, first at Huntingdon and later at Olney. He never married. His Calvinism brought him both comfort and despair, and was an important factor in his recurrent fits of depression. He believed that on one occasion, God had told him he was irrevocably damned; that on another, God had ordered him to kill himself–but that the command had been retracted. Little of this melancholia appears in his poetry, which is primarily a quiet view of rural life; Cowper reflects and meditates, describes the pleasant countryside, and extols domestic simplicity. The deeper feelings he expresses come from his religious convictions, and he frequently injects moral lessons into his work. He had written a few verses in his youth, but it was not until he was fifty that he turned to the writing of poetry as a serious form of recreation. The first volume, Poems, was published in 1782; his greatest work, The Task, appeared three years later. The latter was written at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen; he began with the subject she had assigned him, a sofa, but soon expanded the topic into a meditative description of the rural world about him. He also produced a number of hymns. Of his more consistently moralistic poems, The Progress of Error is a good example. In it Cowper attacks the dangers of high living, with its innumerable daily temptations; such pleasures are harmful, and endanger the soul even when enjoyed in moderation:

Is man then only for his torment placed,
The centre of delights he may not taste?
Like fabled Tantalus, condemn'd to hear
The precious stream still purling in his ear,
Lip-deep in what he longs for, and yet curst
With prohibition and perpetual thirst?
No, wrangler–destitute of shame and sense,
The precept, that enjoins him abstinence,
Forbids him none but the licentious joy,
Whose fruit, though fair, tempts only to destroy.
Remorse, the fatal egg by pleasure laid
In every bosom where her nest is made,
Hatch'd by the beams of truth, denies him rest,
And proves a raging scorpion in his breast.
No pleasure? Are domestic comforts dead?
Are all the nameless sweets of friendship fled?
Has time worn out, or fashion put to shame,
Good sense, good health, good conscience, and good fame?
All these belong to virtue, and all prove
That virtue has a title to your love.