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The Task and Other Poems
by William Cowper
INTRODUCTION THE TASK THE DIVERTING HISTORY OF JOHN GILPIN. AN EPISTLE
TO JOSEPH HILL, ESQ. TO MARY.
After the publication of his "Table Talk" and other poems in March, 1782, William Cowper, in his quiet retirement at Olney, under Mrs. Unwin's care, found a new friend in Lady Austen. She was a baronet's widow who had a sister married to a clergyman near Olney, with whom Cowper was slightly acquainted. In the summer of 1781, when his first volume was being printed, Cowper met Lady Austen and her sister in the street at Olney, and persuaded Mrs. Unwin to invite them to tea. Their coming was the beginning of a cordial friendship. Lady Austen, without being less earnest, had a liveliness that satisfied Cowper's sense of fun to an extent that stirred at last some jealousy in Mrs. Unwin. "She had lived much in France," Cowper said, "was very sensible, and had infinite vivacity."
The Vicar of Olney was in difficulties, with his affairs in the hands of trustees. The duties of his office were entirely discharged by a curate, and the vicarage was to let. Lady Austen, in 1782, rented it, to be near her new friends. There was only a wall between the garden of the house occupied by Cowper and Mrs. Unwin and the vicarage garden. A door was made in the wall, and there was a close companionship of three. When Lady Austen did not spend her evenings with Mrs. Unwin and Cowper, Mrs. Unwin and Cowper spent their evenings with Lady Austen. They read, talked, Lady Austen played and sang, and they all called one another by their Christian names, William, Mary (Mrs. Unwin), and Anna (Lady Austen). In a poetical epistle to Lady Austen, written in December, 1781, Cowper closes a reference to the strength of their friendship with the evidence it gave,--
"That Solomon has wisely spoken,-- 'A threefold cord is not soon broken.'"
One evening in the summer of 1782, when Cowper was low- spirited, Lady Austen told him in lively fashion the story upon which he founded the ballad of "John Gilpin." Its original hero is said to have been a Mr. Bayer, who had a draper's shop in London, at the corner of Cheapside. Cowper was so much tickled by it, that he lay awake part of the night rhyming and laughing, and by the next evening the ballad was complete. It was sent to Mrs. Unwin's son, who sent it to the Public Advertiser,
where for the next two or three years it lay buried in the "Poets' Corner," and attracted no particular attention.
In the summer of 1783, when one of the three friends had been reading blank verse aloud to the other two, Lady Austen, from her seat upon the sofa, urged upon Cowper, as she had urged before, that blank verse was to be preferred to the rhymed couplets in which his first book had been written, and that he should write a poem in blank verse. "I will," he said, "if you will give me a subject." "Oh," she answered, "you can write upon anything. Write on this sofa." He playfully accepted that as "the task" set him, and began his poem called "The Task," which was finished in the summer of the next year, 1784. But before "The Task" was finished, Mrs. Unwin's jealousy obliged Cowper to give up his new friend--whom he had made a point of calling upon every morning at eleven--and prevent her return to summer quarters in the vicarage.
Two miles from Olney was Weston Underwood with a park, to which its owner gave Cowper the use of a key. In 1782 a younger brother, John Throckmorton, came with his wife to live at Weston, and continued Cowper's privilege. The Throckmortons were Roman Catholics, but in May, 1784, Mr. Unwin was tempted by an invitation to see a balloon ascent from their park. Their kindness as hosts won upon Cowper; they sought and had his more intimate friendship, till in his correspondence he playfully abused the first syllable of their name and called them Mr. and Mrs. Frog.
Cowper's "Task" went to its publisher and printing was begun, when suddenly "John Gilpin," after a long sleep in the Public Advertiser, rode triumphant through the town. A favourite actor of the day was giving recitations at Freemason's Hall. A man of letters, Richard Sharp, who had read and liked "John Gilpin," pointed out to the actor how well it would suit his purpose. The actor was John Henderson, whose Hamlet, Shylock, Richard III., and Falstaff were the most popular of his day. He died suddenly in 1785, at the age of thirty-eight, and it was thus in the last year of his life that his power of recitation drew "John Gilpin" from obscurity and made it the nine days' wonder of the town. Pictures of John Gilpin abounded in all forms. He figured on pocket-handkerchiefs. When the publisher asked for a few more pages to his volume of "The Task," Cowper gave him as makeweights an "Epistle to Joseph Hill," his "Tirocinium," and, a little doubtfully, "John Gilpin." So the book was published in June, 1785; was sought by many because it was by the author of "John Gilpin," and at once won recognition. The preceding volume had not made Cowper famous. "The Task" at once gave him his place among the poets.
Cowper's "Task" is to this day, except Wordsworth's "Excursion," the best purely didactic poem in the English language. The "Sofa" stands only as a point of departure:--it suits a gouty limb; but as the poet is not gouty, he is up and off. He is off for a walk with Mrs. Unwin in the country about Olney. He dwells on the rural sights and rural sounds, taking first the inanimate sounds, then the animate. In muddy winter weather he walks alone, finds a solitary cottage, and draws from it comment upon the false sentiment of solitude. He describes the walk to the park at Weston Underwood, the prospect from the hilltop, touches upon his privilege in having a key of the gate, describes the avenues of trees, the wilderness, the grove, and the sound of the thresher's flail then suggests to him that all live by energy, best ease is after toil. He compares the luxury of art with wholesomeness of Nature free to all, that brings health to the sick, joy to the returned seafarer. Spleen vexes votaries of artificial life. True gaiety is for the innocent. So thought flows on, and touches in its course the vital questions of a troubled time. "The Task" appeared four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and is in many passages not less significant of rising storms than the "Excursion" is significant of what came with the breaking of the clouds.
BOOK I. THE SOFA.
["The history of the following production is briefly this:--A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed, and having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and, pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth, at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair--a volume.]
I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sang Truth, Hope, and Charity, and touched with awe The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand, Escaped with pain from that advent'rous flight, Now seek repose upon a humbler theme: The theme though humble, yet august and proud The occasion--for the Fair commands the song.
Time was, when clothing sumptuous or for use, Save their own painted skins, our sires had none. As yet black breeches were not; satin smooth, Or velvet soft, or plush with shaggy pile: The hardy chief upon the rugged rock Washed by the sea, or on the gravelly bank Thrown up by wintry torrents roaring loud, Fearless of wrong, reposed his weary strength. Those barbarous ages past, succeeded next The birthday of invention; weak at first, Dull in design, and clumsy to perform. Joint-stools were then created; on three legs Upborne they stood. Three legs upholding firm A massy slab, in fashion square or round. On such a stool immortal Alfred sat, And swayed the sceptre of his infant realms; And such in ancient halls and mansions drear May still be seen, but perforated sore And drilled in holes the solid oak is found, By worms voracious eating through and through.
At length a generation more refined Improved the simple plan, made three legs four, Gave them a twisted form vermicular, And o'er the seat, with plenteous wadding stuffed, Induced a splendid cover green and blue, Yellow and red, of tapestry richly wrought And woven close, or needlework sublime. There might ye see the peony spread wide, The full-blown rose, the shepherd and his lass, Lapdog and lambkin with black staring eyes, And parrots with twin cherries in their beak.
Now came the cane from India, smooth and bright With Nature's varnish; severed into stripes That interlaced each other, these supplied, Of texture firm, a lattice-work that braced The new machine, and it became a chair. But restless was the chair; the back erect Distressed the weary loins that felt no ease; The slippery seat betrayed the sliding part That pressed it, and the feet hung dangling down, Anxious in vain to find the distant floor. These for the rich: the rest, whom fate had placed In modest mediocrity, content With base materials, sat on well-tanned hides Obdurate and unyielding, glassy smooth, With here and there a tuft of crimson yarn, Or scarlet crewel in the cushion fixed: If cushion might be called, what harder seemed Than the firm oak of which the frame was formed. No want of timber then was felt or feared In Albion's happy isle. The lumber stood Ponderous, and fixed by its own massy weight. But elbows still were wanting; these, some say, An
alderman of Cripplegate contrived, And some ascribe the invention to a priest Burly and big, and studious of his ease. But rude at first, and not with easy slope Receding wide, they pressed against the ribs, And bruised the side, and elevated high Taught the raised shoulders to invade the ears. Long time elapsed or e'er our rugged sires Complained, though incommodiously pent in, And ill at ease behind. The ladies first Gan murmur, as became the softer sex. Ingenious fancy, never better pleased Than when employed to accommodate the fair, Heard the sweet moan with pity, and devised The soft settee; one elbow at each end, And in the midst an elbow, it received, United yet divided, twain at once. So sit two kings of Brentford on one throne; And so two citizens who take the air, Close packed and smiling in a chaise and one. But relaxation of the languid frame By soft recumbency of outstretched limbs, Was bliss reserved for happier days; so slow The growth of what is excellent, so hard To attain perfection in this nether world. Thus first necessity invented stools, Convenience next suggested elbow-chairs, And luxury the accomplished Sofa last.
The nurse sleeps sweetly, hired to watch the sick, Whom snoring she disturbs. As sweetly he Who quits the coach-box at the midnight hour To sleep within the carriage more secure, His legs depending at the open door. Sweet sleep enjoys the curate in his desk, The tedious rector drawling o'er his head, And sweet the clerk below; but neither sleep Of lazy nurse, who snores the sick man dead, Nor his who quits the box at midnight hour To slumber in the carriage more secure, Nor sleep enjoyed by curate in his desk, Nor yet the dozings of the clerk are sweet, Compared with the repose the Sofa yields.
Oh, may I live exempted (while I live Guiltless of pampered appetite obscene) From pangs arthritic that infest the toe Of libertine excess. The Sofa suits The gouty limb, 'tis true; but gouty limb, Though on a Sofa, may I never feel: For I have loved the rural walk through lanes Of grassy swarth, close cropped by nibbling sheep, And skirted thick with intertexture firm Of thorny boughs: have loved the rural walk O'er hills, through valleys, and by river's brink, E'er since a truant boy I passed my bounds To enjoy a ramble on the banks of Thames. And still remember, nor without regret Of hours that sorrow since has much endeared, How oft, my slice of pocket store consumed, Still hungering penniless and far from home, I fed on scarlet hips and stony haws, Or blushing crabs, or berries that emboss The bramble, black as jet, or sloes austere. Hard fare! but such as boyish appetite Disdains not, nor the palate undepraved By culinary arts unsavoury deems. No Sofa then awaited my return, No Sofa then I needed. Youth repairs His wasted spirits quickly, by long toil Incurring short fatigue; and though our
years, As life declines, speed rapidly away, And not a year but pilfers as he goes Some youthful grace that age would gladly keep, A tooth or auburn lock, and by degrees Their length and colour from the locks they spare; The elastic spring of an unwearied foot That mounts the stile with ease, or leaps the fence, That play of lungs inhaling and again Respiring freely the fresh air, that makes Swift pace or steep ascent no toil to me, Mine have not pilfered yet; nor yet impaired My relish of fair prospect; scenes that soothed Or charmed me young, no longer young, I find Still soothing and of power to charm me still. And witness, dear companion of my walks, Whose arm this twentieth winter I perceive Fast locked in mine, with pleasure such as love, Confirmed by long experience of thy worth And well-tried virtues, could alone inspire-- Witness a joy that thou hast doubled long. Thou know'st my praise of Nature most sincere, And that my raptures are not conjured up To serve occasions of poetic pomp, But genuine, and art partner of them all. How oft upon yon eminence, our pace Has slackened to a pause, and we have borne The ruffling wind scarce conscious that it blew, While admiration feeding at the eye, And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene! Thence with what pleasure have we just discerned The distant plough slow-moving, and beside His labouring team, that swerved not from the track, The sturdy swain diminished to a boy! Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain Of spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er, Conducts the eye along his sinuous course Delighted. There, fast rooted in his bank Stand, never overlooked, our favourite elms That screen the herdsman's solitary hut; While far beyond and overthwart the stream That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale, The sloping land recedes into the clouds; Displaying on its varied side the grace Of hedgerow beauties numberless, square tower, Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells Just undulates upon the listening ear; Groves, heaths, and smoking villages remote. Scenes must be beautiful which daily viewed Please daily, and whose novelty survives Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years: Praise justly due to those that I describe.
Nor rural sights alone, but rural sounds Exhilarate the spirit, and restore The tone of languid Nature. Mighty winds, That sweep the skirt of some far-spreading wood Of ancient growth, make music not unlike The dash of ocean on his winding shore, And lull the spirit while they fill the mind, Unnumbered branches waving in the blast, And all their leaves fast fluttering, all at once. Nor less composure waits upon the roar Of distant floods, or on the softer voice Of neighbouring fountain, or of rills that slip Through the cleft rock, and, chiming as they fall Upon loose pebbles, lose themselves at length In matted grass, that with a livelier green Betrays the secret of their silent course. Nature inanimate employs sweet sounds, But animated Nature sweeter still To
soothe and satisfy the human ear. Ten thousand warblers cheer the day, and one The livelong night: nor these alone whose notes Nice-fingered art must emulate in vain, But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime In still repeated circles, screaming loud, The jay, the pie, and even the boding owl That hails the rising moon, have charms for me. Sounds inharmonious in themselves and harsh, Yet heard in scenes where peace for ever reigns, And only there, please highly for their sake.
Peace to the artist, whose ingenious thought Devised the weather-house, that useful toy! Fearless of humid air and gathering rains Forth steps the man--an emblem of myself! More delicate his timorous mate retires. When Winter soaks the fields, and female feet, Too weak to struggle with tenacious clay, Or ford the rivulets, are best at home, The task of new discoveries falls on me. At such a season and with such a charge Once went I forth, and found, till then unknown, A cottage, whither oft we since repair: 'Tis perched upon the green hill-top, but close Environed with a ring of branching elms That overhang the thatch, itself unseen Peeps at the vale below; so thick beset With foliage of such dark redundant growth, I called the low-roofed lodge the PEASANT'S NEST. And hidden as it is, and far remote From such unpleasing sounds as haunt the ear In village or in town, the bay of curs Incessant, clinking hammers, grinding wheels, And infants clamorous whether pleased or pained, Oft have I wished the peaceful covert mine. Here, I have said, at least I should possess The poet's treasure, silence, and indulge The dreams of fancy, tranquil and secure. Vain thought! the dweller in that still retreat Dearly obtains the refuge it affords. Its elevated site forbids the wretch To drink sweet waters of the crystal well; He dips his bowl into the weedy ditch, And heavy-laden brings his beverage home, Far-fetched and little worth: nor seldom waits Dependent on the baker's punctual call, To hear his creaking panniers at the door, Angry and sad and his last crust consumed. So farewell envy of the PEASANT'S NEST. If solitude make scant the means of life, Society for me! Thou seeming sweet, Be still a pleasing object in my view, My visit still, but never mine abode.
Not distant far, a length of colonnade Invites us; monument of ancient taste, Now scorned, but worthy of a better fate. Our fathers knew the value of a screen From sultry suns, and, in their shaded walks And long-protracted bowers, enjoyed at noon The gloom and coolness of declining day. We bear our shades about us; self-deprived Of other screen, the thin umbrella spread, And range an Indian waste without a tree. Thanks to Benevolus--he spares me yet These chestnuts ranged in corresponding lines, And, though himself so polished, still reprieves The obsolete prolixity of shade.
Descending now (but cautious, lest too fast) A sudden steep, upon a rustic bridge We pass a gulf, in which the willows dip Their pendent boughs, stooping as if to drink. Hence ankle-deep in moss and flowery thyme We mount again, and feel at every step Our foot half sunk in hillocks green and soft, Raised by the mole, the miner of the soil. He, not unlike the great ones of mankind, Disfigures earth, and plotting in the dark Toils much to earn a monumental pile, That may record the mischiefs he has done.
The summit gained, behold the proud alcove That crowns it! yet not all its pride secures The grand retreat from injuries impressed By rural carvers, who with knives deface The panels, leaving an obscure rude name In characters uncouth, and spelt amiss. So strong the zeal to immortalise himself Beats in the breast of man, that even a few Few transient years, won from the abyss abhorred Of blank oblivion, seem a glorious prize, And even to a clown. Now roves the eye, And posted on this speculative height Exults in its command. The sheepfold here Pours out its fleecy tenants o'er the glebe. At first, progressive as a stream, they seek The middle field; but scattered by degrees, Each to his choice, soon whiten all the land. There, from the sunburnt hay-field homeward creeps The loaded wain; while, lightened of its charge, The wain that meets it passes swiftly by, The boorish driver leaning o'er his team, Vociferous, and impatient of delay. Nor less attractive is the woodland scene Diversified with trees of every growth, Alike yet various. Here the gray smooth trunks Of ash, or lime, or beech, distinctly shine, Within the twilight of their distant shades; There, lost behind a rising ground, the wood Seems sunk, and shortened to its topmost boughs. No tree in all the grove but has its charms, Though each its hue peculiar; paler some, And of a wannish gray; the willow such, And poplar that with silver lines his leaf, And ash far-stretching his umbrageous arm; Of deeper green the elm; and deeper still, Lord of the woods, the long-surviving oak. Some glossy-leaved and shining in the sun, The maple, and the beech of oily nuts Prolific, and the lime at dewy eve Diffusing odours; nor unnoted pass The sycamore, capricious in attire, Now green, now tawny, and ere autumn yet Have changed the woods, in scarlet honours bright. O'er these, but far beyond (a spacious map Of hill and valley interposed between), The Ouse, dividing the well-watered land, Now glitters in the sun, and now retires, As bashful, yet impatient to be seen.
Hence the declivity is sharp and short, And such the re-ascent; between them weeps A little Naiad her impoverished urn, All summer long, which winter fills again. The folded gates would bar my progress now, But
that the lord of this enclosed demesne, Communicative of the good he owns, Admits me to a share: the guiltless eye Commits no wrong, nor wastes what it enjoys. Refreshing change! where now the blazing sun? By short transition we have lost his glare, And stepped at once into a cooler clime. Ye fallen avenues! once more I mourn Your fate unmerited, once more rejoice That yet a remnant of your race survives. How airy and how light the graceful arch, Yet awful as the consecrated roof Re-echoing pious anthems! while beneath, The chequered earth seems restless as a flood Brushed by the wind. So sportive is the light Shot through the boughs, it dances as they dance, Shadow and sunshine intermingling quick, And darkening and enlightening, as the leaves Play wanton, every moment, every spot.
And now, with nerves new-braced and spirits cheered, We tread the wilderness, whose well-rolled walks, With curvature of slow and easy sweep-- Deception innocent--give ample space To narrow bounds. The grove receives us next; Between the upright shafts of whose tall elms We may discern the thresher at his task. Thump after thump resounds the constant flail, That seems to swing uncertain and yet falls Full on the destined ear. Wide flies the chaff, The rustling straw sends up a frequent mist Of atoms, sparkling in the noonday beam. Come hither, ye that press your beds of down And sleep not: see him sweating o'er his bread Before he eats it.--'Tis the primal curse, But softened into mercy; made the pledge Of cheerful days, and nights without a groan.
By ceaseless action, all that is subsists. Constant rotation of the unwearied wheel That Nature rides upon, maintains her health, Her beauty, her fertility. She dreads An instant's pause, and lives but while she moves. Its own revolvency upholds the world. Winds from all quarters agitate the air, And fit the limpid element for use, Else noxious: oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams All feel the freshening impulse, and are cleansed By restless undulation: even the oak Thrives by the rude concussion of the storm: He seems indeed indignant, and to feel The impression of the blast with proud disdain, Frowning as if in his unconscious arm He held the thunder. But the monarch owes His firm stability to what he scorns, More fixed below, the more disturbed above. The law, by which all creatures else are bound, Binds man the lord of all. Himself derives No mean advantage from a kindred cause, From strenuous toil his hours of sweetest ease. The sedentary stretch their lazy length When custom bids, but no refreshment find, For none they need: the languid eye, the cheek Deserted of its bloom, the flaccid, shrunk, And withered muscle, and the vapid soul, Reproach their owner with that love of rest To which he forfeits even the rest he loves. Not such the alert and active. Measure life By its true worth, the