"Play The Fool, But At A Cheaper Rate"
Context: Cowper, a descendant of John Donne, did not turn to the writing of poetry as a serious occupation until he was fifty. He entered upon the legal profession as a career and was called to the bar in 1754, but was forced into retirement by attacks of insanity. The first cost him the girl he had hoped to marry; the second drove him to attempted suicide. After a long convalescence he retired to the country, moving first to Huntingdon and later to Olney, where he lived with friends in quiet seclusion. His Calvinism, a source of both grief and hope to him, was undoubtedly a factor in his recurrent melancholia; it also led him to moralize in his writings. His first volume, Poems, appeared in 1782. Cowper is primarily a poet of rural life; he surveys the pleasant countryside and deals with the simple routines and pleasures of his days. He reflects on the nature of human existence, meditates on man's higher destiny, and considers the outside world. His love of nature is revealed in his vivid, if tranquil, descriptions of its beauty. His greatest work, The Task, exhibits these qualities at their best. Comparatively little of Cowper's emotional and spiritual stress appears in his poetry; he had a sweet disposition and a few of his works are humorous, whimsical, or quietly satirical. He translated Homer and a number of lesser writings, edited Milton, and wrote a number of lasting hymns. His religious convictions are always more or less apparent in his work, and some of his poems are akin to sermons. Retirement meditates on the stresses and moral dangers of competitive activity in the world, notes that some form of escape is the dream of all, and prescribes God's handiwork–nature and rural simplicity–as the best refuge. He then describes many walks of life and their problems, indicating the benefits a vacation might provide. Among them is the example of a young heir and his encumbered estate: his debts force him into retirement which he heartily dislikes:
Anticipated rents and bills unpaidForce many a shining youth into the shadeNot to redeem his time, but his estate,And play the fool, but at a cheaper rate.There, hid in loathed obscurity, removedFrom pleasures left, but never more beloved,He just endures, and with a sickly spleenSighs o'er the beauties of the charming scene.Nature indeed looks prettily in rhyme,Streams tinkle sweetly in poetic chime,The warblings of the blackbird, clear and strong,Are musical enough in Thomson's song,And Cobham's groves and Windsor's green retreatsWhen Pope describes them, have a thousand sweets.He likes the country, but in truth must own,Most likes it, when he studies it in town.