Oh, for a closer walk with God
WILLIAM COWPER: SELECTED LETTERS edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp OUP, £27.50, pp.268 Cowper is the poet who sang of the sofa, devoting the opening section of his long reflective poem The Task to a light- hearted disquisition on modes of seating through the ages. Such dedication to the upholstery of social comforts might seem to indicate a sedate Augustan sensibility, but in Cowper's case the fashionable cover of sofa-sophistication barely concealed a terrifying gulf of despair. In his life, as in his poetry, Cowper clung on to a set of reassuringly homely domestic objects his favourite sofa, his pet hare Puss, his faithful Mrs Unwin — to save himself from Plunging into 'Deeps unvisited, I am con- vinced, by any human soul but mine'. In this brief, fascinating selection of Cowper's letters, the editors, James King and Charles Ryskamp, having already compiled the massive five-volume scholar- ly edition of Cowper's complete Letters and Prose Writings, attempt to represent some of the violent alternations of mood afflicting the poet's life. The first batch of letters has the brash braggart tone of a would-be man-about-town, desperately labouring to appear casual and painfully striving to affect a style of languid noncha- lance. There is a conspicuous air of literary contrivance in the devil-may-care tone adopted to a chum rejoicing in the name Clotworth Rowley: 'This is a strange epis- tle, nor can I imagine how the devil I came to write it'.
Almost immediately afterwards the strain of literary and social affectations proved more than Cowper could bear. An unhappy love affair and a public humilia- tion drove him to attempt suicide. No letters survive from the years which he spent in Dr Cotton's `Collegium Insanor- um' at St Albans. But when in the summer of 1865 the letters resume, the change of tone is dramatic. Gone is the literary facetiousness, replaced by evangelical zeal; banished are references to the devil, re- placed by pious ejaculations concerning God's Mercy, God's Providence and God's Infinite Goodness. The rhetorical intensity of this new-found faith appears ominously fragile. Calling himself 'a convert made in Bedlam', Cowper works himself into fits of self-mortification, declaring, 'Though I am nothing and less than nothing & Vanity, yet the mighty God, the everlasting Lord, the Creator of the earth will hear me. Oh! To what privileges are worms advanced!' Poor worm! Another five-year gap in the correspondence marks the cavernous void of insanity and despair into which he plunged once more in the early 1770s. Most of the letters in this volume belong to the Olney years, the two decades of relative tranquillity that Cowper enjoyed in Buckinghamshire from 1774 to 1795. On the whole, the tone of these letters is charming, affectionate, often indeed lyric- al. Yet their charm has the vulnerability of a life led in a state of permanent convales- cence. Delicate sunlit descriptions of the countryside by day alternate with lurid and awesome nightmares. The house at Olney and, in particular, the greenhouse there, provided Cowper with an emotional re- fuge. In the security of his greenhouse world he created a domestic arcadia, care- fully observing and celebrating the habits of its Lilliputian inhabitants. In one letter he describes a mock-heroic confrontation between a philosophical cat and an intrud- ing viper. In another he rhapsodises on the courtship of a pair of goldfinches. The anthropomorphic tendencies, common to pet-owners, extend in Cowper's case to the whole of creation. Only Cowper could describe pigs as 'droll' or praise the musical delights of the song of the goose and 'the gnat's fine treble'. But his favourite was always Puss, the pet hare who for 12 years was sole occupant of the house's front parlour. Keeping a hare in the house had an inevitable tendency to discourage un- wanted visitors or guests. In particular, as Cowper describes in one hilarious letter, it can be highly recommended as a disincen- tive to canvassers at election time.
`My thoughts are like loose and dry sand', Cowper noted, and in his constant attempts to stabilise them he often set himself simple domestic tasks. He was never so happy as when making a squirrel- house, a rabbit-hutch or bird-cage. Yet the narrowing of his preoccupations to the comforts and needs of his pets produces a curious confusion of animals and human characters. At times, reading these letters, we seem to have stumbled into a Beatrix Potter world. There is a Mr Cock and a Mr Bull (an auctioneer and a clergyman re- spectively). There is a Mr Fish (a lighthouse-keeper) and there are 'the Frogs' (Cowper's name for his landlords, the Throckmortons). In 1785 the success of `John Gilpin' was only rivalled, according to A New Review, by that of 'A Cheshire Pig'; 'A gentle pig this same, a pig of parts) And learn'd as FRS or graduate in arts'. Cowper was greatly tickled to find himself 'a competitor for fame' with this learned Mr Pig.
Cowper's letters, like his poetry, offer moments of spell-binding lyricism alternat- ing with passages of sombre melancholy. At times there is a childlike playfulness in his descriptions of back-yard dramas, and he has a gossip's fondness for a well-told anecdote. But his real emotional support during the Olney years depended less on his pets than on the devoted friendship of Mary Unwin who provided him with a constant quasi-maternal affection. Throughout their 20 years together she slept in a separate bed but always in the same room since he could not bear to sleep alone from terror of the dreams that afflicted him nightly. After Mary's death in 1796 Cowper sank back into the dark chasm of despair. The editors comment on the 'unrelenting grimness' of his final letters in which he was tortured by the overpowering sense of God's contempt and hatred for him. 'He who made me, regrets that ever He did . . . One thing and only one is left me, the wish that I had never existed.' It is a sad end.