Last Updated on October 2, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643
William Cowper's epic poem The Task (1785) is replete with characters that come and go as the poet reflects on such themes as nature, religion, people's lot in life, and vices of contemporary society.
Crazy Kate, whom Cowper introduces in book 1, is a poor woman whose beloved has died at sea. Cowper describes her as follows:
There often wanders one, whom better days
Saw better clad, in cloak of sattin trimm'd
With lace, and hat with splendid ribband bound.
A serving maid was she, and fell in love
With one who left her, went to sea and died.
Kate has lost her sanity and lives in the world of fancy, still hoping that her beloved will return one day. She is lonely and walks about aimlessly day and night without ceasing. Although cold and hungry, she never begs for food or clothing. Rather, she asks for pins, which she sticks in her sleeve. Kate is commonly seen as a reflection of Cowper's own struggles with mental illness and a sense of abandonment that had roots in his religious background. A devout Calvinist, he reportedly once had a dream in which a voice told him that he was eternally damned. Kate's attachment to her lost beloved is also sometimes seen as a projection of Cowper's feelings toward the love of his life, Theadora, whom he lost.
Admiral Richard Kempenfelt
Cowper's spiritual struggles find further expression in a passage in which he depicts Admiral Kempenfelt, a historical figure. The Royal George, his flagship, was anchored at Spithead before a relief mission to Gibraltar. Undergoing a routine yet hasty maintenance procedure, the ship sank almost in a moment. Eight hundred people, including the crew, were drowned. Among them was Kempenfelt himself, who at the moment was busy writing in his cabin. Cowper bemoans the loss of the admiral and his men:
Toll for the Brave—brave Kempenfelt is gone,
His last Sea-fight is fought—his work of glory done—
It was not in the battle—no tempest gave the shock,
She sprang no fatal leak, she ran upon no rock,
His sword was in the sheath, his fingers held the pen,
When Kempenfelt went down, with twice four hundred men.
This scene reflects Cowper's fear of sudden destruction in an apparently safe situation—yet another projection of his religious struggles. The tragedy of Admiral Kempenfelt is seen as an act of God, whose ways are unsearchable and whose judgments are unfathomable.
Cowper lived in an age at which idyllic rural life was increasingly giving way to a new urbanistic order. In the poem, landscape architect Lancelot Brown, another historical figure, becomes an embodiment of this new philosophy against nature. The rich hire him to create new gardens in the country. But he neglects the interests of the poor, who lose their land as a result of his projects. The affluence of the new order marches forward, devouring the simple delights of pristine nature:
He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn,
Woods vanish, hills subside, and vallies rise,
And streams as if created for his use,
Pursue the track of his directing wand
Sinuous or strait, now rapid and now slow,
Now murm'ring soft, now roaring in cascades
Ev'n as he bids. Th' enraptur'd owner smiles.
'Tis finish'd. And yet finish'd as it seems,
Still wants a grace . . .
Satirically, Cowper presents Brown as a kind of anti-God who mars and mocks original creation by his artifice. Brown is a gardener, just as God is first presented in the Bible as maker of the garden of Eden. He speaks, just as God speaks creating the world. He transforms the scenery just as God transforms the face of the earth. Yet Brown's creation "still wants a grace." This is only a deplorable parody of the original order of things. Cowper laments the loss of the purity and simplicity of the idealized past.
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