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Teaching Romanticism XII: William Cowper

by Daniel Cook

As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with advice on future subjects or, indeed, with further thoughts on teaching Cowper, about which much more could be said, evidently. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months.

Tess Somervell, University of Cambridge
Alexander Pope
Teaching Cowper as part of a course on the long eighteenth century has advantages and disadvantages. After Pope, Thomson, and Gray, students can be excited (and relieved?) by poetry which seems more familiar to them, because it more closely resembles the Romantic and post-Romantic poetry which has shaped our modern tastes. Cowper can serve as a bridge from the Augustan and mid-eighteenth-century poets to the major Romantics, helping students to interrogate that tempting Romantic claim to revolutionary originality. But it would be a shame to reduce Cowper to the status of a useful ‘pre-Romantic’. The challenge I’ve found in teaching Cowper is to acknowledge his importance in literary history whilst making sure his poetry receives attention for its own sake, too. For this reason I like to approach Cowper through close reading, initially, then let the poems open up relevant questions about context and influence.

My favourite texts to give students are ‘Yardley Oak’, extracts from The Task—usually I.1-25, Books III and IV, V.733-906, and VI.1-117—and, mainly because it’s one of my favourite poems and I like to imagine that my enthusiasm might be infectious, ‘To the Immortal Memory of the Halibut, On Which I Dined This Day’. The second-year undergraduates I teach at Cambridge only have one week during term-time to read and write about Cowper, but I also encourage them to read more of the shorter poems and some of the Olney Hymns.

Themes which inevitably come up in discussion are the imagination, solitude and society, and time and history. These would all be worthwhile topics to open with. I like to use nature as the starting-point, because it leads so fruitfully in Cowper to the question of art and then to poetry itself, and how poetry can or should express ideas. This then allows students to return to thinking about those other themes with a clearer understanding of how Cowper’s poetry is working, and with heightened alertness to their own reading practices.

B97106887Z.120121114184603000GQI1OCGU.11I find the Halibut poem is a good place to start, in a group seminar before the students go away to read more Cowper, because it’s short, funny, and they are less likely to have any preconceptions about it. (For these reasons I’ve used it to teach Practical Criticism too.) I ask students what the poem is doing: what does it mean, what is it trying to tell us, what is it for? These are difficult questions to answer. The first half of the poem is a sensual immersion in sound and imagery, seemingly with little ‘meaning’ beyond this. The second is a return to the world of the ‘bard’, which attempts to invest the preceding lines on nature with social, economic, and cultural meaning and arguably fails. Students tend to say first that ‘to be prais’d in verse’ is shown to be an inferior fate to the freedom of being in nature. But of course, for the reader, it’s impossible to extract the beauty of that freedom from its expression in the poet’s language. Poetry and the poet are invested with a power that is disturbingly ambivalent; they kill nature as well as give it life.

When the students go away to read and write essays on The Task and ‘Yardley Oak’, this theme of nature and its relation to poetry and man is one they can build on. Eventually it will also lead neatly to considerations of Cowper’s predecessors, particularly Thomson, as well as later Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Keats. So too will the question raised by ‘To the Halibut’ about what poetry is for. Again Cowper is straddling two conceptions of poetry: the tradition of Pope, in which verse could with a straight face advance philosophical, political, moral, and even scientific arguments, and the later Romantic idea of poetry as an affective experience. During the previous weeks of the course and in the seminar on Cowper I make sure that students understand that the question of what poetry should do and how it should work was a controversial one in this period.

I’ve found that this helps students to approach The Task. In this light it becomes clearer how much is at stake in the mock-epic opening and the semi-mock-georgic scene on the cucumber in Book III. Students seem to appreciate and enjoy the balancing act which Cowper sustains between satire and celebration, despair and hope—particularly when they accept that they don’t have to choose between these.

OLNCN_4xBy the time they come to ‘Yardley Oak’, in order for them to enjoy the poem fully I think it’s important for students to be confident in their own balancing act between the search for intellectual meaning—what the poem says about time, history, man in nature, religion—and submission to the sensual pleasure of Cowper’s natural description. Reading the poetry aloud in small-group tutorials is an easy way to ensure they get the latter experience. This exercise sometimes gets neglected in the teaching of longer poems, but it isn’t necessary to have students recite the whole thing. The passage at the beginning on the jay ‘swallowing down / Thy yet close-folded latitude of boughs / And all thine embryo vastness at a gulp’ and the passage at the end on the tree’s ‘huge throat’ and roots ‘crooked into a thousand whimsies’ are my favourites. They’re just spine-tinglingly pleasurable.

Even if religion doesn’t take centre-stage in my teaching of Cowper, I do think it’s important to emphasize to students the centrality of religion to his thinking and writing. Giving students the daunting Olney Hymns isn’t the only way to convey this. Letting them recognize subtle religious anxiety in The Task and ‘Yardley Oak’ before talking explicitly about Cowper’s biography and his mental illness not only prevents a potentially reductive first reading of the poetry, but is I think more thrilling and empowering for students.

James Robert Wood, University of East Anglia
At the University of East Anglia I teach the first and second books of Cowper’s The Task as part of the second year “18th Century Writing” module. Cowper’s use of the mock-heroic mode provides a nice contrast with Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. Cowper’s poem also provides an opportunity to see how modes of sensibility we are studying in prose fiction of the mid- and late eighteenth-century poetry make their way into poetry. If I were teaching the class in a Romantic module the frames of reference would be different (Cowper’s relationship to Wordsworth would be more important than his relationship with Pope for example) but in most important respects I would approach the class in much the same way.

Joshua_Reynolds_-_Portrait_of_OmaiThe central idea I want students to come away with is Cowper’s status as a “transitional” poet, not simply because he seems to sit between two periods in literary history (“Augustan” and “Romantic”) but also because The Task itself is constructed around transitions. I found that a productive question to ask the class is how the poem gets from one topic to another. How, for example, do we get from the mock-epic opening on the sofa to the ramble through the countryside? We also look at transitional figures in the poem like Omai who transverses the space between Tahiti and England. Having Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait to hand helped since I found none of the students had any idea of who Omai was! Asking students to reflect on the differing representations of Omai by Reynolds and Cowper was a useful exercise for the class.

I also focus the class’ attention on transitions between different registers of language. While students have no problem with the more “conversational” diction of Cowper’s poem (“God made the country, and man made the town”) students have difficulty with words like “tramontane” which appears when Cowper is reflecting on the impossibility of writing pastoral poetry in the vein of Virgil and Sidney:

I still must envy them an age
That favoured such a dream, in days like these
Impossible, when virtue is so scarce
That to suppose a scene where she presides
Is tramontane, and stumbles all belief.

I had the online OED and a projector on hand, so the class can look at the various meanings and etymologies and come away with the idea that these kind of words open up interpretive opportunities. I try to get over the point that Cowper is not using words like “tranmontane” for the sake of doing so: the more rarefied diction has a specific purpose to play in the poem.

Approaching The Task in this way helps students see the poem as balancing between opposing tendencies: between the fixed view of the landscape and the moving tour, between ornate language and a simpler diction, between public philippic and private introspection.

Emma C. Salgard Cunha, University of Cambridge
William_Cowper_by_Lemuel_Francis_AbbottTeaching William Cowper is always a source of great pleasure. My students at Cambridge are usually first- and second-year undergraduates working through a compulsory module of eighteenth-century and Romantic literature and its contexts. With me they work though a series of classes and tutorials in their college setting, designed to compliment elective lecture programmes provided by the faculty. I like to drop Cowper in around halfway though the term (it is a truly long eighteenth century, ranging from The Glorious Revolution to the second half of the nineteenth century) – and well before we have begun to talk seriously about Romanticism. I begin by announcing him as the author of the first long autobiographical poem in English, a statement which I still find as remarkable as do my students. The key text is The Task, and especially Book V, and we also look at a variety of shorter pieces including those which are commonly anthologized: ‘The Castaway’, ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ and ‘Hatred and Vengeance’.

Teaching The Task is made easier by the comprehensiveness and clarity of the Clarendon Press Works edited by John Baird, James King and Charles Ryskamp and helpfully available through Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. We devote time in class to thinking about the editorial scholarship that went into the reconstruction of Cowper’s corpus, often from fragmentary manuscripts and unfinished verses, and in tracking down the letters and autobiographical prose which are so intrinsically a part of his reception. In particular, the late and unfinished ‘Yardley Oak’ is an example of his verse at its finest, and its abrupt ending only adds to the poignancy of its epitaphic tone. The poem gives us a sense of Cowper the lyricist, in contrast to Cowper the poet of The Task, and leads into discussion of his significance for the Romantic poets.

The Task is a resounding (and perhaps unexpected) success with students, many of whom have had little prior contact with eighteenth-century poetry and thus come refreshingly unburdened by notions of how Cowper may or may not relate to a traditional canon. The Miltonic qualities of the verse are immediately noted, and comparisons and contrasts with John Clare and James Thomson make a frequent appearance. We reflect on the reading experience associated with the long poem as a form. Students puzzle over the juxtaposition of The Task with ‘The Castaway’ with ‘John Gilpin’; and they unfailingly find ways to connect Cowper with whatever it is which has preoccupied them in their progress through the period so far.

28488It is this last quality which I find the most inspiring and energizing part of teaching Cowper. Almost every student discovers something to like in his work, so that a typical cohort of ten tutees can produce hugely different responses to the same poet and the same verse. Some themes emerge regularly, of course: retirement and leisure, masculine sensibilities, evangelical conviction and conversion, and sensitive readings of his appreciation of the natural world. Yet even within these well-trodden tropes, there are surprises. One student, himself a keen angler, produced a striking essay on eighteenth-century fishing handbooks – dug up out of ECCO – and related these whimsical, parochial, and highly sociable publications to Cowper’s conspiratorial tone in The Task, and his use of a light-touch moral satire. The essay rang true with my own sense of Cowper’s unusually intimate address to his reader throughout the poem, and led to fruitful discussions of how sociability and isolation, didacticism and humour work in counterpoint in his works.

Where we run into difficulty is in exploring the secondary literature on Cowper. The problem is twofold. Firstly, there is relatively little by way of introductory “handbooks” to Cowper. This can be an advantage, allowing students to trust their instincts and not to rely on the critical consensus. But the historic marginalization of Cowper which prevents him from being the subject of these kinds of accessible studies has also led to a characteristically defensive rhetoric being adopted by those scholars who have created more focused research into his work. Discussions of how to “reclaim” and “rediscover” Cowper can and do seep into the students’ writing, at the expense of fresh close reading. Relatedly, William Cecil’s 1929 classic The Stricken Deer has a tendency to impose itself on biographical readings of Cowper, depicting him solely as a victim of circumstances rather than as a literary agent in his own right.

Of course, the dejected, frustrated and cruelly unhappy Cowper of The Stricken Deer cannot be entirely ignored, as our readings of the haunting late poetry prove. But my recommended antidote to a one-sided portrayal of Cowper is to turn directly to the letters, where we find him in his full and idiosyncratic complexity, and also to the informal criticism of Lamb, Coleridge and their circle. There we discover a critical appreciation based on readerly pleasure in good verse, on a love of conversation and of sociability, and on the value of moral and religious certitude as a desirable element within good poetry. These qualities, it seems to me, are directly and honestly responsive to the texture, tone and the preoccupations of Cowper in The Task and across his wider writings.

I have been reading ‘The Task’ with fresh delight. I am glad you love Cowper. I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton; but I would not call that man my friend who should be offended with the ‘divine chit-chat of Cowper’. (Charles Lamb to Samuel Coleridge, Dec. 5th 1796)

Willliam_CowperEditor: As our contributors here can attest, Cowper’s poetry continues to excite tutor and tutee alike. Teaching The Task in particular lights up well-worn if vital areas of concern, including our relationship with nature, society and ourselves. Even though Cowper influenced many of the poets that followed in his wake, however, even now it is not always easy to fit him into a period survey without resorting to reductive teleological labels. Taking snippets from his works, as Tess Somervell suggests, helps students experience the immediate joy of comparison and contrast. Such an approach is aided by the greater availability of Cowper’s work online, as Emma C. Salgard Cunha reminds us.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English and Associate Director of The Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013).

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