William Cowper’s poetic achievement is marked by a tension between subjectivity and objectivity, a tension that, at its best, produces a unique poetry defying easy classification as either neoclassical or Romantic. Cowper wrote poetry to preserve his sanity. It was a way to distract himself from the terrible brooding on the inevitability of his damnation, and even when his gloom made it impossible to focus on subjects other than his own condition, at least the very act of writing, the mechanical business of finding rhymes or maintaining meter, defused the self-destructive potential of the messages of despair that crowded his dreams and came to him in the whisperings of mysterious voices. Because the poetry was not only by Cowper but also for Cowper, it displays a subjectivity uncommon in the neoclassical tradition. Although Cowper had his own opinions about poetry and disliked the formal, elegant couplet structure that dominated the verse of his day, he was not completely a rebel. Objectivity, Horatian humor, sentimentality, respect for the classics, the very qualities that define neoclassicism are all present in Cowper’sverse. Unlike William Wordsworth, he never issued a manifesto to revolutionize poetry. Indeed, the levelheaded detachment of the Horatian persona, so popular with Cowper’s contemporaries, was a stance that he often tried to capture for the sake of his own mental stability. When Cowper manages a balance between the subjectivity that injects his own gentle humanity into a poem and the objectivity that allows universal significance, he is at his best.
“On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture Out of Norfolk”
One of Cowper’s most famous poems illustrates the poet at less than his best when he manages almost fully to withhold his own personality and allows convention to structure his message. “On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture Out of Norfolk” was written in 1790, fifty-three years after his mother’s death and only ten years before his own. The poem avoids the theme of death and rather focuses on the mother with the only tool available to it: convention. The poem begins with a reference to the power of art to immortalize, a theme that might have supported some interesting content. The poet then introduces yet another worthy theme: “And while that face renews my filial grief,/ Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief”; while the art of the picture kindles an old grief, the art of the poem will provide the balm. Neither theme, however, survives beyond the first few lines of the poem. Instead, Cowper turns to the popular conventions of eighteenth century verse to produce a proper comment on a dead mother.
The verse form is the heroic couplet, the dominant form of the age. The diction is formal because the neoclassical notion of decorum—words appropriately matched to the subject matter—demanded formality in the respectful approach of a child to a parent. Ann Cowper, the poet’s mother, is unrecognizable in the poem; she has no individuality, no visual reality for the reader. Consistent with the neoclassical emphasis on the general and ideal rather than the particular and commonplace, Cowper creates a cloud of expected motherly virtues through which the face of Ann can be seen but dimly. Here it should be remembered, however, that the poet is reacting to a picture, an eighteenth century portrait, not to a tangible human being, and that portrait itself would have been an idealized representation reflective of the aesthetic principle voiced by Sir Joshua Reynolds: “The general idea constitutes real excellence. . . . Even in portraits, the grace, and, we may add, the likeness, consists more in taking the general air than in observing the exact similitude of feature.”
The poem, then, does accurately treat its subject if that subject is indeed the portrait. Still, the treatment is for the most part a catalog of hackneyed images—“sweet smiles” and “dear eyes”—mixed with a few images that need more than originality to save them, such as the extended simile that likens the mother to “a gallant bark from Albion’s coast” that “shoots into port at some well-havered isle,” a rather unflattering analogy if the reader attempts to use it to help visualize the mother. The overall sentimentality of the poem is also no departure from neoclassical convention. Sentimentalism in all literary genres had emerged as a popular reaction to the great emphasis placed on reason by so many eighteenth century thinkers. The universe, it was held, is logical and ordered, and all nature, including human nature, is ultimately understandable by the human ability to reason. Sentimentalism answered this by calling attention to emotions and feelings. Humanity is not merely rational; there are finer qualities beyond the power of logic to comprehend. At its best, sentiment could add an element of emotion to reason and make a work more reflective of the real human psyche. At its worst, sentiment drowned reality in maudlin fictions and saccharine absurdities. Cowper’s poem does not completely sink in the quagmire of sentimental syrup. It hangs on by the thread of an idea about the immortalizing power of art, a thread that is visible at the beginning and then again at the end but which for the greater part of the poem is lost in the swamp.
All this is not to say that “On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture Out of Norfolk” is a bad poem. Indeed, it remains one of Cowper’s most frequently anthologized works. If it is conventional, it is still worth studying as a good example of several aspects of the neoclassical tradition unknown to readers who name the age after Alexander Pope or Samuel Johnson. Cowper, however, was capable of doing better. The problem with the mother poem was that rather than writing about his mother, he pretended to write about his own feelings and memories. The memories after so many years were probably dim, and he seems to have chosen to avoid an expression of his dark fears and utter isolation in favor of a conventional grieving son persona.
Cowper succeeds more fully when his reaction to a situation or event includes, but also goes beyond, the feelings most readers would experience when he injects enough of his purely subjective response to allow the reader to see a somewhat different but still believable dimension to what it is to be human. The loss of a mother is certainly an appropriate correlative to the emotions expressed in the poem. Moreover, the emotional response is certainly believable; it is not, however, unique. The loss of a seaman overboard during a storm is also an appropriate correlative to the emotions of the speaker in “The Castaway,” but here Cowper does more than simply respond to a situation.
The episode of the seaman swept overboard in a storm, an account of which Cowper had read in George Anson’s Voyage (1748) some years before writing the poem, is actually an extended metaphor for the poet’s own condition. Interestingly, the analogy between poet and sailor is only briefly pointed out at the very beginning and again at the end of the poem. The metaphor, the story of the sailor, is for the most part presented with curious objectivity. The facts of the tragedy are all there: the storm, the struggles of the seaman, the futile attempts at rescue. There is also a respectable measure of grief in the subdued tone of the speaker; the reader, however, could not be misled by this seeming objectivity. It is at once apparent that the poem is really about the tragic fate of the poet, but it is precisely in this tension...
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