Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday poetry - William Cowper

All I knew about William Cowper (picture from here) before I looked him up just now was that he was one of Jane Austen's favourite poets & she planted a syringa at Chawton because of a line in one of his poems. The son of a Hertfordshire rector, Cowper was a sensitive man who suffered from depression & religious melancholia. He was called to the bar but doesn't seem to have practised. He lodged with the Rev Unwin, an evangelical preacher & his wife & they encouraged his writing. After Mr Unwin's death, he moved with Mary Unwin to Olney where he wrote the poem I've chosen here, The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk was the original of Robinson Crusoe & I think it's the idea of Selkirk's loneliness on his island that attracted Cowper to the story. Cowper's own emotional life seems to have been quite solitary. He was engaged to a cousin but the marriage didn't happen & then to Mrs Unwin, his friend & patron but, again, they didn't marry. I didn't know any of this when I read the poem but I was struck by the gentle melancholy & resignation of the speaker.

I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms
Than reign in this horrible place.

I am out of humanity's reach,
I must finish my journey alone,
Never hear the sweet music of speech;
I start at the sound of my own.
The beasts that roam over the plain
My form with indifference see;
They are so unacquainted with man,
Their tameness is shocking to me.

Society, Friendship, and Love
Divinely bestow'd upon man,
O had I the wings of a dove
How soon would I taste you again!
My sorrows I then might assuage
In the ways of religion and truth,
Might learn from the wisdom of age,
And be cheer'd by the sallies of youth.

Ye winds that have made me your sport,
Convey to this desolate shore
Some cordial endearing report
Of a land I shall visit no more:
My friends, do they now and then send
A wish or a thought after me?
O tell me I yet have a friend,
Though a friend I am never to see.

How fleet is a glance of the mind!
Compared with the speed of its flight,
The tempest itself lags behind,
And the swift-wingéd arrows of light.
When I think of my own native land
In a moment I seem to be there;
But alas! recollection at hand
Soon hurries me back to despair.

But the seafowl is gone to her nest,
The beast is laid down in his lair;
Even here is a season of rest,
And I to my cabin repair.
There's mercy in every place,
And mercy, encouraging thought!
Gives even affliction a grace
And reconciles man to his lot.


  1. I think it makes such a difference if you know the poet's own circumstances when you're reading his/her work. While I was studying Romantic poetry with the Open University, I came across a poem written by John Clare, 'I am', in which he writes heart-rendingly of his loneliness, the fact that his friends have forsaken him and his wish to sleep as he had done as a child, 'Untroubling and untroubled where I lie/The grass below - above the vaulted sky.' My heart felt as if it was contracting when I then read that he had written it in a 'lunatic asylum' and it had been dictated to his warder! You may already know the poem. If not, do look for it. Or I can e-mail it to you.

    Thank you for the Cowper poem. Alexander Selkirk came from Lower Largo in Fife and we often pass the monument to him there.

  2. Penny, thank you for the link to Selkirk's monument. It's very evocative of the castaway, isn't it? I have the Clare poem in an anthology, I'll have a look at it at the weekend. So many poets had sad lives, I wonder if melancholy & misery are prerequisites? I hope it helped their unhappiness to express it in poetry anyway.

  3. I studied Cowper in graduate school, and a Google alert I had long ago set up led me here. The greatest poet no one reads, I would often tell my friends. Good to know at least someone is reading him. Cheers.

  4. There is sadness and an aura of loneliness in Cowper's portrait. He looks ill at ease. I'm not familiar with Cowper's work, but I'm glad I found it here, Lyn. This poem moved me very much. I have an English poetry anthology - an old Oxford one. I'm going to make myself a bit more familiar with Cowper.

  5. Thanks for commenting David & Yvette. I haven't read much 18th century poetry but I'd like to read more after reading Cowper, Thomson & Pope in this anthology. I have several more anthologies so I have lots to explore.

  6. You rarely hear of Cowper being read now yet he was a huge influence on Austen. Thank you for posting this to remind us to read Cowper. Love the syringa story - wish we'd kept the name syringa instead of lilac!

  7. I didn't realise syringa was lilac! Well, I learn something every day. I'm not much of a gardener, obviously!