Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
William Cowper (1731–1800)
[In the life of Cowper (1731–1800) there are few entries of literary work—only a few essays, some occasional verses, and his Olney Hymns—before the wonderful revival of his spirits in 1780. The Progress of Error was written in 1780; Truth, Table Talk, Expostulation, in 1781, at the bidding of Mrs. Unwin: the subject of The Task was prescribed by Lady Austen in 1783. John Gilpin took the town in 1785; the translation of Homer, begun in that year, was published in 1791. Cowper in his earlier days had been interested in books, but never very zealously. He was afflicted in 1763 by an alienation of mind, and an oblivion of his former friends and pursuits, that for a time threw him out of the world: under the too powerful influence of Mr. Newton he was not inclined to read much, nor to write; though it was by Newton that he was induced to join in the composition of the Olney Hymns (published in 1779). From 1780 onward, for about twelve or thirteen years, Cowper had something like freedom; he set himself to work, and found that he could write; with the power of original work there returned also the pleasures of study, which had been dormant since his withdrawal from London.  1
  His prose is contained in his letters, and a few occasional papers (Works of William Cowper, Esq., edited by Southey, 1835–1837, 15 volumes). The five essays in the Connoisseur (1756) are the most considerable of Cowper’s writings in the first half of his life.]  2
COWPER, before his melancholy attacked him and drove him out to the plains of the Ouse, was accustomed to occupy his leisure with literary diversions, appropriate to the society of “Wits and Templars” in which he lived. The days of the “Nonsense Club,” and of his association with Lloyd, Thornton, and Colman, are marked, in his writings, by the five prose papers contributed in 1756 to the Connoisseur. These essays have nothing particular in their style to distinguish them from the common following of the Tatler and the Spectator; the matter of them, in the record of the practical jokes played by lively young ladies on an old bachelor, and of the aspect and ways of country churches and congregations, is matter as good as may be found in any similar studies from life.  3
  The influence of the Nonsense Club is to be traced in all Cowper’s life and writings: or, rather, it may be truer to say that the major part of his work reveals in him the same idleness, the same ease of style and disdain for pretentious rhetoric as characterise the five essays in the Connoisseur. In the embarrassed and belated course of his life there were many pieces of good fortune or good guidance; the melancholy that attacked him at the age of 32 was compensated by his extraordinary growth in strength and energy of spirit towards his fiftieth year. At the same time his old ideas and habits of thought were not discarded. There was a deepening of the power of observation which had been already shown in his essays, there was a livelier interest in literary workmanship: but still The Task is, in the main, a leisurely exercise of the faculties that had been tested, slackly enough, in the days of Cowper’s residence in the Temple and his association with the wits.  4
  His letters are his principal work in prose, if not the best of all his work. They differ from most of the prose of the time by the same interval as separates the verse of The Task at its best from the verse of The Botanic Garden. The phrase of Landor, in the preface to the Hellenics, “not prismatic but diaphanous,” applies more fitly to the style of Cowper in verse and prose, especially prose, than to any other writer. It is not that the style is insipid or tame; it is alive and light; but it escapes notice, like the prose of Southey, by reason of its perfect accommodation to the matter.  5
  The matter in this case is the life and experience of a man who followed consistently his natural bent for the quiet life and the Valley of Humiliation; who believed instinctively and sincerely, and without any parade of philosophy, that it was better to be a spectator than an actor in life (letter to Joseph Hill, 3rd July 1765). The chief part of the letters is a record of the unimportant things of Huntingdon, Olney, and Weston; though there are some heroic matters in them also, as in Cowper’s perseverance in work when he had once been roused to it, and the courage with which he protested at last against the officious counsels and rebuke of Mr. Newton. As Cowper’s poetry, at its best, is refreshing, because of its command of the object in view, its observance of the right distance, its calmness and simplicity, so the prose of his letters is able to give the aspect of things, and the essence of experience, in clear sentences that insinuate their meaning into the mind without display or affectation: there is no strain or friction or heat. The prose of Cowper is free from the extraordinary fragments of poetical diction that sometimes interrupt in a glaring manner the even-tempered diction of his poetical work: and though his letters are not wanting in literary conceits, these are not characteristic or frequent, as they are in the letters of Gray and Walpole. The excellence of Cowper’s style in his letters is its fluency and continuity; he is not, as a rule, epigrammatic.  6
  ‘Everything that we do is in reality important, though half that we do seems to be pushpin.’ This phrase from a letter of the year 1788 might be taken out of its context as a general confession of Cowper’s theory of life, and a justification of his want of spirit. Certainly no man with so feeble a hold upon life ever made so much out of an apparently narrow range of experience. The picture in Cowper’s letters of his life at Olney and Weston (were it not that he had bad dreams) is one of the brightest in the 18th century. And in so far as it is a memorable picture, the success is due to the writer’s faculty of seeing and appreciating things as they came to him, without leaving his own ground. His letters have the distinction of Miss Austen’s novels, with which they often seem to have a mysterious affinity; the subjects are so trivial, the value of the record so much out of proportion to the subjects. No letters in English are more absolutely free from the disgrace attaching to the manners of public and professional rhetoric. At the same time, they are good, not as any true account of incidents or people may be good, but good because they are written in the best way. The effect they produce is not that of documents, but of literature. There is no pretence of fine writing, no attempt at historical portraiture of characters, in the letters about the small adventures of Olney, the blue willows, the flooded meadows, the spinnie, the Throckmortons. But the perfect sincerity of the style is more captivating and more inimitable than all the graces and brilliances.  7

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