Castaway

Roy Porter

  • The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Vol. I: 1750-1781 edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp
    Oxford, 640 pp, £27.50, June 1979, ISBN 0 19 811863 5
  • The Poems of William Cowper: Vol. 1 1748-1782 edited by John Baird and Charles Ryskamp
    Oxford, 500 pp, £25.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 811875 9
  • The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper. Vol. II: 1782-1786 edited by James King and Charles Ryskamp
    Oxford, 640 pp, £27.50, June 1979, ISBN 0 19 811863 5

‘Cowper came to me and said: “O that I were insane always. I will never rest. Can you not make me truly insane? … You retain health and yet are as mad as any of us all – mad as a refuge from unbelief – Bacon, Newton and Locke.’ ” Thus William Blake’s memo of a ghostly visitation from William Cowper. But how aghast Cowper would have been at the words put into his mouth! Blake revelled in his own prophetic ravings, soaring free from the mind-forged manacles of the rationalist trinity into the aether of mysticism and insight. For he, like every Romantic, knew that the lunatic and the poet – not to mention the lover – were of imagination all compact – the doctrine which the Augustans, with their cartography of Bedlam and Parnassus, had darkly feared. In Cowper’s eyes – as his early writings amply show – lunacy was not the foster-mother of literature. He had learnt this at first hand: from his youth he had been a chronic depressive, suffering four extended periods of breakdown. The last bout ended with his death, and most of them involved suicide attempts. The first crisis, in 1763 – the only one which led to confinement and medical therapy – is the subject of a unique autobiographical account, printed here from a previously unpublished version. The second, in 1773, was perhaps triggered by Cowper’s inability to go through with a proposed marriage to Mrs Unwin. The third, in 1787, followed from the death of his closest male friend, her son William Unwin, and the last set in during the 1790s when Cowper, in his sixties, became increasingly overwhelmed by fears of dying. All these intervals of derangement spelt only agony and terror for Cowper, a loathing of existence, a fear of extinction. At times he accused his unfailingly loyal friends of plotting and poisoning. His own memories of these collapses speak, not of Blakean release, but of the drowning of the soul. Madness was not a song of innocence, nor did it give ‘refuge from unbelief’.

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