"The Parson Knows Enough Who Knows A Duke"
Context: Cowper's work is quiet and meditative, and he is essentially a poet of rural life. A descendant of John Donne, he did not turn seriously to the writing of poetry until he was fifty. He was trained in the law, being called to the bar in 1754; but recurring attacks of insanity forced him to give up his career. The first of these destroyed his hope of marriage and the second led him to attempt suicide. He retired, after his convalescence, to the country and settled at Olney. Turning to poetry as a serious recreation, he published his first volume, Poems, in 1782. His greatest work, The Task, appeared in 1785. It was written at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen, who assigned him a topic: the sofa. Using the sofa as a point of departure, Cowper moved into a natural and vivid description of the countryside in winter, the simplicities of daily life, and the world he now saw at a distance. The work exhibits Cowper's abilities at their best; it is a meditative poem, and in it he discourses freely on man's destiny and moral nature while extolling the virtues of rural life. His Calvinism led him to moralize, and some of his other poems are closely akin to sermons. One such poem is Tirocinium; it is one of several poems published with The Task. An extended commentary on public education, it decries the lack of moral instruction and encouragement in the schools. Cowper had been a slight and sensitive child whose mother had died early; he was bullied and harassed unmercifully in school. His memory of those sufferings leads him to denounce such places as a source of depravity. In them, he feels, the young are encouraged to become worldly and are in no way guided toward an honorable life. Sound learning is in a decline; all study is for worldly gain, even for those among the clergy:
"Ah, blind to bright futurity, untaughtThe knowledge of the world, and dull of thought!Church-ladders are not always mounted bestBy learned clerks and Latinists profess'd.Th' exalted prize demands an upward look,Not to be found by poring on a book.Small skill in Latin, and still less in Greek,Is more than adequate to all I seek.Let erudition grace him, or not grace,I give the bauble but the second place;His wealth, fame, honours, at that I intend,Subsist and centre in one point–a friend.. . .His intercourse with peers, and sons of peers–There dawns the splendour of his future years;In that bright quarter his propitious skiesShall blush betimes, and there his glory rise.. . .Let rev'rend churls his ignorance rebuke,Who starve upon a dog's-ear'd Pentateuch,The parson knows enough who knows a duke."–