Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cowper the Revolutionary?

William Cowper is now probably mostly remembered for his comic poem "John Gilpin's Ride." Early on though, it was "Task," his epic poem of the evolution of the sofa--from stools into hardbacked chairs into the sitting room sofa--that was most admired.

Although technically Cowper preceeds the Romantic era, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake were all infatuated with him, Task in particular, during the years that they were working out the style that would eventually be collectively called Romantic. And one hears echoes of Cowper in some of the work of each of them. In fact William Blake published his own edition of the poetical works of William Cowper, complete with his own engravings.

Together with his pastor and close friend John Newton, he wrote an entire hymnal: the Ulney Hymnal. At the outset they were to be equal partners in the work. But when Cowper fell into a depression for a few years and failed to complete more than a handful of hymns, John Newton took up the slack and wrote most of Cowper's allotment for the hymnal. This was very much in character for each of them.

From that hymnal very few are now used, but you may have sung "Amazing Grace" (Newton) a time or two, and maybe even "God Works in a Mysterious Way" (Cowper). Though rarely now sung, the hymnal is an exquisite testimony to the passionate faith and friendship of these two extraordinary men.

So shy that, having studied years to become a lawyer, he was unable to complete the final step of an oral examination. When he attempted to stand in front of an audience his mind collapsed and he became quite literally mad, nearly dying from the experience. His recovery from the episode took years, and it was never really complete. Moving from London to a country town to avoid crowds, we was addicted to long lonely walks in the drizzly English countryside and to his private sitting room. There he would paint and write. And be alone. Very quiet and physically soft, I can not picture him even holding a dirty rock, let alone throwing it through a window.

Written while England was losing the war to her American colonies, the poem that follows is, I think, the most uncharacteristic poem that could be presented in terms of violent sentiment, yet it is entirely Cowper in sound and feel. And the love of freedom is also entirely Cowper. It must have been somewhat controversial, maybe even illegal, to write such a thing during the war.


Rebellion is my theme all day;
I only wish 'twould come
(As who knows but perhaps it may!)
A little nearer home.

Yon roaring boys, who rave and fight
On t'other side th'Atlantic,
I always held them in the right,
But most so when most frantic.

When lawless mobs insult the court,
That man shall be my toast,
If breaking windows be the sport,
Who bravely breaks the most.

But O! for him my fancy culls
The choicest flow'rs she bears,
Who constitutionally pulls
Your house about your ears.

Such civil broils are my delight,
Though some folks can't endure them,
Who say the mob are mad outright,
And that a rope must cure them.

A rope! I wish we partiots had
Such strings for all who need 'em--
What! hang a man for going mad!
Then farewell British freedom.

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