‘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confinement and medical therapy – is the subject of a unique autobiographical account, printed here from a previously unpublished version.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’.
Above all, it did not fire creativity. Madness had made Kit Smart speak in tongues, shouting out vatic praise to the Lord in his ‘Jubilate Agno’. But derangement gave Cowper no flow of words, no jubilation, no pentecostal inspiration. Not for him the bohemian credo that only the purifying fire of acute mental and physical suffering can prove a poet’s mettle. Some of his most concentrated works – such as ‘Hatred and Vengeance, My Eternal Portion’ – chart the mind’s torture: but they are not the poetry of a consciousness from beyond, of visions of an unseen world, and it is not clear whether any were actually written during breakdown. His periods of crisis are, in fact, sealed in an almost total silence. No letters survive from between 1772 and 1776: was insanity unspeakable?
This is not to deny a link in Cowper between madness and poetry. Far from it. But it is not the connection which literary myth expects. Madness did not liberate poetic voices, as it did for Blake. Poetry – or at least the broils and toils of the poet’s life – did not precipitate madness, addiction or suicide, as it did for Collins, Chatterton or Coleridge. Cowper leant on verse as a therapy against insanity, a charm against evil spirits.
At the outset of his career, nothing was further from Cowper’s mind than a bardic calling. He had been a two-finger rhymster ever since his days at Westminster, and he continued his literary idling while trifling his twenties away as a man-about-the-Inner-Temple in the 1750s. This legal dead-end ceased dramatically in 1762. Nominated by his uncle to the clerkship of the journals of the House of Lords, he was summoned for examination before the House. Cowper was petrified, having a morbid horror of judgment and exposure. Cornered and paralysed, unable either to resign or to face up, he panicked and sought psychic flight: ‘I now began to look upon madness as the only chance remaining.’ He attempted suicide, but was reprieved time and again by ‘an invisible hand’. Sinking under guilt and wretchedness, he achieved the breakdown he had been seeking, and was confined within Dr Cotton’s collegium insanorum at St Albans.
An extreme reaction. But the seeds of Cowper’s nervous inadequacy had been long sown. He had always felt himself singled out for tribulation. His beloved mother had died when he was five; five siblings had died too. He had been bullied at school, and plagued by psychosomatic childhood illnesses; barred from marrying his first love, his cousin Theadora, by his uncle, who – reasonably – doubted if William could provide for her. Even his early verse is suffused with doubt, doom and predestination, anticipating shipwreck on a sea of troubles. ‘Thurlow,’ he told his old school friend, the future Lord Chancellor, ‘I am nobody, and shall always be nobody.’
Madness gave him a chance to become somebody. Through it, he escaped from his office, escaped the law, escaped from London; and then in turn he escaped from madness, thanks not to medicine or psychiatry, but to religious conversion. Lighting one day on a Bible text, he became suddenly assured of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice, and was born again, to Calvinist Evangelicalism: ‘Far from the world, O Lord, I flee.’ Newly set up amongst friends in rural retreat, he celebrated the chastising God’s rescue of a worthless sinner in his patchy series of Olney Hymns, written at the behest of his mentor, the ex-slave-trader-turned-gospeller, John Newton.
But the spell of Evangelicalism soon broke (there are signs even in the hymns: ‘Oh! for a closer walk with God’). When the placebo of faith ceased to work as a specific against despair, he was plunged into deeper gulfs of madness. He heard the vindictive voice of God pronounce: ‘Actum est de te: periisti.’ He believed that God demanded his suicide as a sacrifice, sure that he alone, in the whole universe, had had grace, once abounding, withdrawn. Though he gradually recovered his mind, he remained convinced for the rest of his days that he was a lost soul, irrevocably damned, hunted, doomed to persecution. All that remained to him, at bottom, was to fill in time. A bag of nerves, he took to gardening, to pets, to carpentry. And, above all, he took to writing – letters, verses and occasional pieces – as a drug, as therapy, knitting so many lines a day: a routine, a discipline, maybe an obsession. ‘I find writing, and especially poetry, my best remedy.’ Little wonder his magnum opus was to be entitled ‘The Task’; no wonder translating Homer was so attractive.
Pursuing ‘the jingling art’ for ‘amusement’, and in order to keep madness and self-destruction at bay, came readily to this Buckinghamshire Sheherazade. Lisping in numbers since his schooldays, he could now repay his friends’ kindness – their nursing, gifts of money, oysters and port – by making them verse-offerings and penning whimsical letters. He flirted with female admirers such as Lady Austen:
But when a Poet takes the pen
Far more alive than other men
He feels a gentle tingling come
Down to the finger and the thumb
Deriv’d from Nature’s noblest part ...
This was as near as his timidity ever allowed him to come to an erection.
In poems such as ‘The Progress of Error’ he satirised the ‘life of trash’ of abominable London – its power, pomp, profligacy, pretensions. London had wrecked his career. And, obsessed with his own personal sentence of doom, he constantly redrafted the scenario of God’s justice in poems such as ‘Charity’, offering moderation, virtue, hope and piety as earnests of salvation. His poetry spun a co-cooning Edenic vision of pastoral sanctuary and retirement, a still-life where Nature was civil, and peace, measure and protection reigned amidst the cosy comforts of friends. The fête champêtre of minor gentry life in the Home Counties which glows through the writings has enduring charm. It was restated in novels by Jane Austen – Cowper’s greatest fan – a generation later. Yet in both writers a sinister monster lurks. Just as a mocking Hobbesian anarch prowls around Longbourn and Highbury, so Cowper’s Olney Idyll is haunted by a Dostoevskian maniac, always liable to be discovered next morning swinging at his garter’s end.
These three expertly edited volumes take Cowper to the brink of his shooting from seclusion to public limelight. Editorial policy achieves an ideal mix of scholarship and readability, and there are just enough errors to keep the malicious happy: I liked the reference to the ‘Locke Hospital’, as though, with Blakean irony, the great Whig had infected all the nation’s private properties. A few new poems are printed and much unpublished correspondence appears (two-thirds of the letters contain material not printed before). Our vision, however, of the apprentice literary craftsman is not much changed. By the 1780s he had drilled himself into an accomplished correspondent – charming, mellifluous, observant: but the earlier verse leaps to life only in snatches. The great poems – from the Sternian black comedy of ‘John Gilpin’ to ‘The Task’, and finally the unbearable desolation of ‘The Castaway’ – were products of his late years.
What these volumes chiefly show is the Enlightenment sensitive soul in search both of a social role and of a spiritual identity. A poor relation in a family of public consequence, Cowper shied off a career in the law, never earned a living, fled from London, backed off from matrimony: a Pilgrim’s Progress walking backwards. He found shelter as a country para-gentleman, but only by proxy, with a greenhouse instead of estates, sponging off others (in another age he might have excelled as a monk). Abandoned in their respective fashions by his mother, his father and by God the Father, and seeking his inner self, he discovered that ‘Elijah among the teacups’ led merely to a certainty of alienation and hell. Yet he lacked the bravura to exploit this sense of exile and damnation in terms of a literary persona. It was too literal an experience to be turned without agony into art. ‘I have been a poor Fly entangled in a thousand webs from the beginning.’ The God that failed was God indeed. In an age when the dramas of salvation left a man all on his own before a secular psychiatry had emerged to aesthetise the pains into allegory, this was indeed an unbearable cross. How cruel the irony that Cowper’s earliest surviving line is ‘Fortune! I thank thee; gentle Goddess! Thanks.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.