This is the excerpt in which Cowper tries to convince me that long winter evenings are really great and he even succeeds a little bit. The excerpt is anthologized under the title “The Winter Evening: A Brown Study”. It starts with an apostrophe to the evening, depicted as a kind of goddess “with matron-steps slow moving”, and followed by the night, treading on her train, putting birds and animals to sleep with one hand and people with the other. The evening is the more beautiful of the two and so she doesn’t need many twinkling ornaments like the night, just a few stars and the moon, which, although in the evening does not shine as brightly, is larger. The hours of the evening are spent by the poet in writing, reading, music, weaving nets for birds or helping ladies with their work by rolling yarn. The rooms are now ablaze with hearth fires, multiplied by the mirrors so large that Goliath himself might have a look at his reflection without stooping. But what the poet likes best is to gaze in the fire and fantasize, or think about nothing at all in particular. He owns that freely and is not ashamed of admitting that to those who can’t stop thinking for a minute. (I must admit I am one of such people. Whenever I see people on the train or in the waiting room doing nothing at all, I can’t imagine how they can do it for a second.) So he likes to stare at the shape-shifting cinders or the pieces of soot caught on the grate of the fireplace, which were called “strangers” because there was a superstition they mean an unexpected visitor. Meanwhile his face, he adds, perhaps with a touch of sly humour, looks like the face of somebody who is thinking really hard about something. But then he is awakened from his reverie by a gust of wind hitting the shutters.
He muses pleasantly about the difference between the warm room and the cold weather outside. He reminisces about the landscape he saw today: the faded green of meadows, the newly-plowed brown fields, the fallows where animals graze and the leafless dark woods on the horizon, merging with the approaching night. Tomorrow it will all change, because even now as he is writing, even though nobody inside can see that, the snow is falling slowly, covering the blades of grass and protecting them from frost.
This is a nice excerpt, clearly foreshadowing Romantic poetry, with its focus on the inner life of the mind, fuelled by the scenes the author saw during the day. Its language reflects the peace of the evening and the enjoyment the author feels because of being inside a warm home made me think, strangely enough, about some of Tolkien’s descriptions of creature comforts his creatures enjoy.
The next two excerpts are about the poet and other people dealing with mental illness. “Crazy Kate” used to dress fine and she was a serving maid, but her boyfriend died at sea. When she was waiting for him her mind would follow him to distant shores where she imagined him to be; she also often imagined the hardships of his life as a sailor and his joyous return. But from the moment she learnt he had died she never smiled again. Now, dressed in rags, she roams the fields by day and, unless somebody pities her, also by night. When she meets somebody, she begs for pins, which she hoards, but strangely enough, never for food, although she is often hungry.
In “The stricken deer” the poet compares himself to the deer who, wounded by arrows, looks for a refuge in the deepest wood, leaving his herd. There he was found “by one who had himself/Been hurt by archers”, i.e. Jesus. Cowper describes in this way his struggle with depression and his experience of conversion (the poem was written before another bout of psychosis left Cowper certain of his being damned). From that moment on he’s been leading the life of a recluse, looking from a distance at everything that preoccupies people normally and coming to the conclusion that “With the vain stir, I sum up half mankind/And add two-thirds of the remaining half” (that’s five-sixths, by my count) “and find the total of their hopes and fears/Dreams, empty dreams.”
Among many miserable biographies of artists Cowper’s life strikes me as particularly miserable – not because of material poverty (he was financially secure, though not wealthy), but because of the spiritual torment he lived in. He became convinced he committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit and for a big part of his life lived being assured of his eternal damnation. He also suffered from depressio, occassionally deepening into psychotic attacks, and made several suicide attempts. It’s hard to tell which one was the cause and which one was the effect: his belief in his being condemned made him depressed, but also his attacks of madness assured him that God turned away from him.
The Task, however, is for the most part a rather happy poem, even if rather subdued. The title refers to its origins: when Cowper complained about the lack of the subject for a poem, his friend Lady Austen told him he could write about anything, even his sofa. (This Lady Austen puzzles me: Cowper was Jane Austen’s favourite writer, but I could find no unambiguous information about whether Lady Ann’s late husband could be a distant relative of Jane or not. But it seems he wasn’t.) Cowper started writing a mock-heroic poem about his sofa and that task took him in various different directions. The first excerpt describes Cowper’s enjoyment of landscape around Olney, where he lived with Mary Unwin, his platonic friend, roommate and maternal figure (they were engaged for some time after Mary became a widow, but another bout of insanity put paid to Cowper’s dream of normal family life). He addresses unnamed Mary, saying that she knows best he doesn’t write to serve important occasions, but because he genuinely loves nature. He describes both of them climbing a nearby hill and stopping to admire the view: the plowman reduced from a distance to a tiny figure, the river Ouse winding through meadows, their favourite elms and the valley sloping to the horizon. They see this landscape every day and never stop admiring it. But it’s not only the landscape, but also the sounds: the wind rustling branches, the river and the nearby fountain, and of course the birds: not only the warbling ones, but even the screams of the bird of prey are pleasurable to Cowper, because in such peaceful scenes even they sound harmonious.
Crabbe describes the unfruitful fields overgrown by weeds: even though mallows and poppies may look colourful, there are really just symptoms of how poor the land is. He compares the fields to a girl splendidly dressed, but who has been betrayed by a man and her face is sad. The local people look sullen and suspicious. Forget about Goldsmith’s swains engaging in sports after work: these people spend their evenings and nights helping smugglers. Crabbe compares himself to a swallow waiting on a beach for favourable wind: he also fled this place as soon as he had a chance, feeling sorry for those who had to stay and surely will be reduced to poverty, and when the sea erosion destroys their houses, to begging from people hardly less poor than themselves. But is life better in other, more fertile lands? Maybe it is, but only for the select rich few, while others, working for them, are like slaves working in gold mines, who cannot reap the full benefit of their labour. He also has no time for the idea that peasants are healthy: they are worn down by their work and those who are physically weaker, trying to keep up with the pace of the work and feeling ashamed to admit to their weakness, sicken and die sooner. And the idea that peasant food is simple but good is also ridiculous, as none of the pastoral poets would even touch the actual peasant fare. So all these “gentle souls, who dream of rural ease” should actually have a look not only at the peaceful outside, but at the miserable inside of a peasant cottage.
I have this tendency of thinking about many historical people as if they belonged only to one cultural era: if somebody was born in the age of powdered wigs, they surely should die before 1800 at the latest. But of course it’s not true, and some people’s lives span at least two periods: Lorenzo Da Ponte, who outlived Mozart and died as a professor of Italian in New York in 1838; George Cruikshank, who started as the author of scabrous political caricatures and ended up as a serious illustrator of Dickens and a militant tee-totaller; and George Crabbe, who started his poetic career in the age of Johnson and outlived many of the second-generation Romantic poets, such as Byron (who admired him).
George Crabbe was born in a poor family in Aldeburgh, on the southern shores of Britain. Aldeburgh used to be a thriving seaport in the 16th c., but by the time Crabbe was born, it was degraded to the status of a struggling fishing village because ships got too big for its bay. (It didn’t revive until the 19th c., when seaside tourism was invented.) So he justifiably felt he knew how to write about the village life from the viewpoint of its poorer inhabitants, not the imagination of a city dweller or pleasant memories of childhood spent in a rural vicarage. In The Village Crabbe drives a stake through the heart of pastoral poetry. Even though there are no shepherd poets nowadays, he claims, the poets still feel they can imitate Vergil and write the same old stuff about shepherds and nymphs, while they have no idea about life in the country. The only one who could write about such matters was Stephen Duck. And the reason why they all pick this subject it’s because it’s easy. Of course “fields and flocks have charms”, but mostly to the animals or their owners themselves, not so much to the sweating shepherds who have to work hard. So Crabbe is going to write about cottages “as Truth will paint it, and as bards will not.”
The poet depicts the inhabitants of Auburn leaving their village, casting one last look. He describes them by their familial roles: the father, leaving as the first of his family, the dutiful daughter following him, the wife crying and holding her babies, the husband trying to comfort her, although he himself is silently grieving. He returns to the motive of luxury as something unnatural: kingdoms fuelled by it are like over-fertilized plants, because they grow quickly, but they die as fast. In a scene parallel to the scene of villagers leaving England, he imagines various virtues sch as Loyalty, Piety and Love, emigrating from England too. In a somewhat self-centred move, he imagines among them also Poetry, the “source of all my bliss, and all my woe”, which is leaving England as well. He hopes that in the faraway countries, where she is going to settle, she is still going to teach man how corrupting and fleeting luxury is. In the last four lines, written by Dr Johnson, Trade is compared to a breakwater, swept away by a storm, while self-dependency is like the rocky shore, resisting the waves. Dr Johnson apparently didn’t realize that erosion is a thing.
The poet addresses politicians directly, asking them whether this is a desirable state of affairs when the luxury of 1% comes at the cost of the poverty of 99%. There is a difference between “a splendid and an happy land”. The ostentatious consumption is, in fact, the sign of the country’s decline: Britain is like an aging beauty, who in her youth didn’t need expensive dresses or jewellery, but now feels she has to dress up to the nines. So where can all the dispossessed people go? If they want to go to tend their flocks on the village common, the greed of the local landlord has enclosed it. The city is this place of luxury rubbing arms with abject poverty, where a ruined woman shivers from cold near the door of her seducer, cursing the moment when she let herself be lured from her spinning wheel by the fake splendor of the town. Are women of Auburn among these female wretches, too? No, they left England and went to America, or more precisely to Georgia, identified by the Altama (Altamaha) river. America is depicted here as a dangerous jungle, with no birds singing but only bats, where one can be attacked by a tiger (the Helpful Footnote explains Goldsmith really means a puma) or natives far worse than predatory animals.