"A Mind Quite Vacant Is A Mind Distressed"
Context: Cowper, descendant of John Donne and the last English poet who belonged to what has been called the cult of simplicity, began his adult life in the legal profession. He was called to the bar in 1754. His early retirement from this career was forced upon him by attacks of insanity, the first of which prevented him from marrying. During the second, in 1763, he attempted to commit suicide. Following a long convalescence, he retired to the country. After living for a time at Huntingdon he settled at Olney. Here, at the age of fifty, he turned seriously to the writing of poetry; the first volume, Poems, appeared in 1782. Cowper's poetry is quiet and meditative; in it he reflects upon the serene beauty of the countryside and upon the simplicity and peace of rural existence. He considers the nature of conditions and events in the outside world, but it is remote. Deeply religious, he tends to moralize; although his Calvinism was an important factor in the recurrent periods of despair it was also a source of comfort, and it is the comfort rather than the despair which is most apparent in his work. The Task, his greatest poem, is most eloquent of Cowper's powers at their best. He also produced a new edition of Milton, translated Homer and a number of minor works, wrote nearly seventy hymns, and produced a few humorous verses. Some of his poems are akin to sermons. Retirement, for example, meditates upon the destructive qualities of everyday life in the competitive urban world. Cowper considers the moral dangers and the dreary labor, the temptations and the problems; and he notes also the universal dream of a place to which one can escape. Describing the various walks of life and their stresses, he prescribes God's handiwork in nature as the best cure–beneficial even when enforced. He also notes, shrewdly enough, that retirement and inactivity are a deadly combination:
Lucrative offices are seldom lostFor want of pow'rs proportion'd to the post:Give ev'n a dunce th' employment he desires,And he soon finds the talent it requires;A business, with an income at its heels,Furnishes always oil for its own wheels.But in his arduous enterprise to closeHis active years with indolent repose,He finds the labors of that state exceedHis utmost faculties, severe indeed.'Tis easy to resign a toilsome place,But not to manage leisure with a grace;Absence of occupation is not rest,A mind quite vacant is a mind distress'd.The vet'ran steed, excused his task at lengthIn kind compassion of his failing strength,And turn'd into the park or mead to graze,Exempt from future service all his days,There feels a pleasure perfect in its kind,Ranges at liberty, and snuffs the wind.But when his lord would quit the busy road,To taste a joy like that he has bestow'd,He proves, less happy than his favour'd brute,A life of ease a difficult pursuit.