A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In his introduction to the 1984 Carcanet Press edition of William Cowper’s Selected Poems, Nick Rhodes says of Cowper:
“Aside from a few buoyant, devotional years , he spent most of his life in a state of severe internal conflict and doubt, suffering particularly from a conviction that he, uniquely among mankind, had been selected for an irrevocable, special damnation.”
… and it’s too easy, in a brief biographical sketch, to make Cowper’s life sound out-and-out tragic. His mother died when he was just six years old, he was bullied at boarding school, pursued a career in the law just to please his father, suffered a mental breakdown under exam pressure, attempted suicide, was haunted by extreme melancholia and the loss of his faith and finally descended into despair.
In fact, much of his youth was quite happy if not positively gilded, and for many of his 70 years he appears to have been reasonably contented – a benign if troubled soul with a wry sense of humour who appreciated life’s simple pleasures.
Following his suicide attempt, he spent 18 months in an asylum in St Albans run by an Evangelical but kindly doctor called Nathanael Cotton, and while he was there underwent something of a religious conversion. The story goes that he woke from a pleasing dream, picked up a bible, read St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and his recovery began on that morning. On leaving St Albans, in 1765, he moved to Huntingdon where he met the Unwins, a married couple with whom he formed a close friendship. When Mr Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, his widow Mary moved with Cowper to Olney in Buckinghamshire, where they remained for the rest of their lives, in a small house called Orchard Side (which is now the Cowper Museum).
The curate at Olney when they arrived was the Reverend John Newton. He was a major influence on Cowper, but not necessarily for the good. A former slave-trader turned Evangelical preacher, Newton was as strong-willed and certain in his faith as Cowper was aimless and tentative, and it’s unlikely to be coincidental that all of the poet’s best work dates from after Newton left Olney for London in 1780.
On the other hand, the cheerfully sensible Mary Unwin was Cowper’s rock. She ran the house for him and provided him with stability and companionship, as well as ideas for his poems. It was during the Olney years that Cowper – once freed from Newton’s dampening influence – produced most of his best-known and best-loved work, as well as a clutch of much-loved hymns. He wrote about his pet hares – Puss, Bess and Tiney – he gave us the whimsical masterpiece that is John Gilpin, he addressed a poem to his sofa, he wrote about dogs, cats and the natural world – and he bequeathed to us one of the loveliest verses in the hymn book:
“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footstep in the sea
And rides upon the storm.”
Although he was outwardly settled, his underlying despair never left him. In 1773 he had a peculiarly vivid and terrifying dream which tipped him over the edge yet again and although he did eventually recover – with patient nursing from the ever-faithful Mary – he lost his faith so completely that he couldn’t even bring himself to enter a church. He never regained it.
In 1796, after a protracted illness, Mary Unwin died and the effect on Cowper was nothing less than devastating. Without her, his life lost all sense of purpose and direction and he sank inevitably into the slough of despond that had always been there, just beneath the tranquil surface.
He wrote The Castaway in 1799 after reading a vivid account of a crewman being washed overboard during George Anson’s 1741 around-the-world voyage. Prevented from helping him by the ferocity of the sea conditions, his shipmates could only watch as he struggled with the waves:
“We … conceived from the manner in which he swam, that he might continue sensible, for a considerable time longer, of the horror attending his irretrievable situation.”
(‘A Voyage Round the World … by George Anson’. Richard Walter. 1748)
How long the man’s terrible fate preyed on Cowper’s fragile mind before he put pen to paper, we cannot know; but the end result was a poem so painful and personal that reading it seems almost like an intrusion.
Like all of his work, it requires no explanation. In spite of a classical education, he never went in for high-flown allusions or rhetorical flourishes. He wrote simply and from the heart – and in this case, the heart was broken.
No voice divine the storm allay’d,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.
The Castaway was Cowper’s final poem. He died a year later, at the age of 69.
It’s an achingly sad swansong from the man who once wrote a poem addressed to a sofa.
The Castaway – Audio file – Click to play: