Monday, 2 January 2012

Cowper’s ‘The Task’ was a comfort for Jane Austen

For me it was Jane Austen from the moment I read her for the first time in 2001. It was just Jane Austen and then more Jane Austen, please. I had not read her at high school and in this, perhaps, I was lucky. For others the problem’s with the Romantic poets: school turned them off. This is a pity. After all (as I discussed in yesterday’s post on Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy’) we remain children of the revolution that turned up the dial on English culture so that it reached an expressive level not attained since the heyday of the Renaissance.

I did the usual thing, which is to look for precedents. I started to sniff around the stacks in Fisher Library. Paydirt came when I bought a copy of William Cowper’s collected works from a suburban Sydney second-hand dealer. Cowper was a favourite of Austen. The book was published in 1874 in London. Cowper’s The Task first appeared in print in 1785. That’s some longevity, I thought. And I found other signs of general esteem when I moved to the suburb of Campsie, in Sydney’s inner west. Among a number of streets named after famous English authors, there’s a Byron Street, a Marlowe Street, and a Cowper Street. There’s a Cowper Street in Glebe, too.

So the Victorians loved him. My copy is annotated by hand by the original owner, especially those passages that are most religious in their content. But Cowper is more than just a religious poet, and even the least religiously-inclined, such as Vladimir Nabokov, knew this. In 1964 Nabokov worked on a translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin because a recent translation had irritated him. He knew that Pushkin read 18th century English poetry in French translations. Eugene Onegin was published between 1825 and 1832. In order to get the vocabulary and grammar right for his new translation Nabokov began an intensive survey of English poets of the preceding era. It was Cowper that Nabokov praised most highly of all the poets he encountered during his studies.

Pushkin was a Romantic and the English Romantics loved Cowper as well. Cowper’s The Task is the model, if you like, for Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Yes, there’s a difference. While Wordsworth’s poem is an anatomy of the development of the author in terms of literature, culture, and spirituality – a growth chart for his personal politics, if you like – Cowper’s poem has a more prosaic point of origin. It’s called The Task because a lady of his near acquaintance tasked him with writing a poem about a sofa. Being the type of man he was, of course, Cowper could hardly keep his imagination anchored to such a humdrum item of domestic convenience. As you will see, his mind had a habit of wandering, and it’s a marvellous thing to watch his thoughts progress from one thing to the next. The result is a discursive portrait of the mind of an educated Whig of the day. Here, in the reading I made of part of ‘Winter Morning Walk’ from The Task, he goes from observations of his local winter landscape, to reflections on a Russian ice palace, to thoughts on the nature of kings and freedom. It runs to 18 minutes.

While Cowper was a Whig Austen was a Tory. The words ‘tory’ and ‘whig’ had a remote point of origin even in Cowper’s day. They had begun to be used in the decade or so after the political settlement that was organised following the death of Charles II. In a way these terms begin to gain currency at the same time as the middle class was establishing itself in England. The political settlement of 1688, when William of Orange invaded England with his army in order to take possession of the throne instead of the Catholic James, son of Charles II, coincided with the early growth of the middle class. This had to do with the state of global capitalism generally.

But the instatement of a thoroughly Protestant king in England was done in a distinctly English way, and ushered in a period of signal stability and peace. Of course there were a few problems. William died. Then so did Anne, who he reigned in concert with during his life. England then turned to the rulers of Hanover and George I was crowned king in 1714, the year the magazine The Spectator ceased publication. How difficult it was to replace a queen with a new king, from a different line of the family, is shown by the fact that there were few consequences. There was little outcry. Little turmoil. The Act of Settlement of 1701 kicked in and the crown was filled like any other government sinecure as soon as it became vacant. It was politics as usual, and the king’s party – the Tories – continued to vie for power and perks with the party of parliament – the Whigs. As they would do for centuries, with the middle class participating in the debates with gusto.

Growing up in this environment, William Cowper was simply a man of his time when he chose to go with the Whigs. Highly religious due to his persistent mental health problems, Cowper subscribed to an evangelical strand of Christianity. And while he could rail against fate on behalf of the poorest and most downtrodden, such as slaves, he remained solidly Whiggish. In the excerpt contained in the recording the notion of freedom comes up. It was the same sense of freedom that would make Edmund Burke, a famous Whig politician of the time, support the American colonists in the War of Independence. It was a rational, comfortable, and distinctly English sense of freedom. But once revolution took hold in France 13 years later, Burke would swing the other way, in favour of tradition. Some were surprised at this apparently whimsical about-face. But Burke was just reaffirming the values of the 18th century in England.

When Cowper was writing The Task England was prosperous, rational, calm and perfectly happy with itself. But by the time Wordsworth came to writing The Prelude – it was first published in 1799 – the world had been turned on its head. It was this disturbance that Burke railed against. England dug its heels in and went to war in 1793. It only ended with Waterloo in 1815. Two years later Austen would be dead.


David McKay said...

And please remember to pronounce it "Cooper." Not sure his mental health problems were his sole reason for being an Evangelical.

Matt da Silva said...

Please let's spend less effort worrying abt how to pronounce his name and more time reading him! As for his religion, Cowper's schizophrenia was deeply traumatic for him and its action on his life was the main reason for his writing all those hymns. He thought God had forsaken him and this belief immobilised him mentally, making it impossible to write when he was suffering an episode. The link betw religious observance and his mental health issue is easy to make if you read his diaries.