Wednesday 18 March 2020

The Selected Poems of William Cowper at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

It was a dark March evening, the wind was roaring around the courts and alleyways just off Fleet Street and 16 Gough Square, lit up with fake candles and warmed by real wine, was ready for a meeting of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.

A little emptier than previous gatherings, this proved the perfect comfortable environment to discuss the poet William Cowper and his writings. Having not discussed poetry before, the evening included as much sharing of favourite poems and letters by Cowper as it did discussion. 

Starting with a reading of a letter for The Gentleman’s Magazine, the same periodical which Johnson had been a regular contributor in his early days. This letter was about Cowper taking a young leveret off some children who found it hard to look after, and through his joy in this one leveret, ended up with more until he had three fully grown hairs in his house. Each of this hares, Puss, Tiney and Bess, grew to have very different personalities, my favourite being the intractable Tiney who as; “even his surliness was a matter of mirth.” What shone through the letter most, was Cowper’s simple emotional connection with these animals and the joy they gave him. The reader’s eyes shining slightly with fond tears, the letter showed Cowper at his best, simple and unaffected, blessed with a capacity for joy, observation and simple connection, despite the weight he carried about with him. 

And Cowper did carry a weight with him. He was a terribly bullied child who, when passed over for a job, fell into a deep depression in which he tried to kill himself three times. Part saved by a religious experience, he was also prone to huge religious depressions and at times believed he was peculiarly damned and peculiarly blessed. In his poem, Lines written in a period of insanity, he ends the poem with a description of his damnation, not to Hell put into; “a fleshly tomb” where he is “buried above ground.”

The poem, The Castaway, dealt not with a Castaway but with a man who had been washed off his ship, only to be lost in the waves. He describes the power of the wave, the panic of being knocked from the ship, the shouting from the men and their absolute powerlessness as they are driven further away from their shipmate who is swimming strongly but with little use. Finally, it shows how strongly he identified with the drowning man, describing himself as; ‘beneath a rougher sea, And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.”

But Cowper isn’t all self-pity and depression, a lot of it is utterly charming. His first published work was a comic poem called The Diverting History of John Gilpin, a nonsensical galloping bit of fun about a man being galloped about by a powerful horse. He even uses the same meter as his insanity poem to translate a latin poem describing the peculiar attributes of a snail, making the creature seem a quirky little chap in the process.

Cowper’s longest poem was The Task, which was loved by Jane Austen (who could quote big chunks of it) and inspired sections of the Lyrical Ballads. The initial task was to write about a sofa, but the poem becomes a description of a walk in the winter, then a description of the winter evening, then night and a last part about the coming of the spring.

One of the things we discussed was Cowper’s ability to simply watch and listen. The winter walk describes the quiet of winter as well as how it looks. There is the slip of wet grass and the snap of dry twigs. The evening part has him staring into his fire, taking time to simply be and watch the shapes and little wisps of smoke. His description of snow falling had us all remembering times in our life when we had been captivated by that same silent magic.

“To-morrow brings a change, a total change,
Which even now, though silently performed
And slowly, and by most unfelt, the face
Of universal nature undergoes.
Fast falls a fleecy shower; the downy flakes,
Descending and with never-ceasing lapse
Softly alighting upon all below,
Assimilate all objects.  Earth receives
Gladly the thickening mantle, and the green
And tender blade, that feared the chilling blast,
Escapes unhurt beneath so warm a veil.”

And this was the tone of this meeting, quieter than others but cosy and warm, sharing snippets of poetry and exchanging words of appreciation. Much like Cowper’s poetry it has been unpretentious and comforting, perfect for such a windy evening.

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