Daniel Macklin, Hedges - Alexandra Harris on William Cowper

The Abyss Beyond the Orchard

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For about a hundred and thirty years after his death in 1800, William Cowper was one of those figures about whom every keen reader had something to say. He was up there with Milton and Johnson, though people felt more intimately connected with Cowper than they were ever likely to feel with Milton. His long poem The Task (1785) seemed to articulate all the longed-for goodness of familiar, homely things; it was a tribute to ‘Domestic Happiness, thou only bliss of paradise that has survived the fall!’ Yet here, and in hundreds of the letters that began to be published from 1804 onwards, things of joy were surrounded by gulfs of loss and desolation.

Anne Brontë remembered the silent tears she wept during her childhood reading of Cowper. She cried with him, and for him, and with a sense of recognition: ‘The language of my inmost heart’, she wrote, ‘I traced in every line.’ Jane Austen defined her heroines partly by showing us the spirit in which they read Cowper: Marianne Dashwood cannot bear to hear Edward’s calm rehearsal of ‘those beautiful lines which have so frequently driven me wild’, though it’s clear that her passionate enthusiasm may not be the only way of appreciating them.

Many young readers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century worked out what they felt about life in relation to Cowper, but you’d be hard pressed to find an 18-year-old driven wild by him today. Millions now read Austen and the Brontës, but they stop short of the poet and letter-writer who was so important to those novelists.

Discovering the letters for the first time, four years ago, at the ripe age of 31, I felt the full force of a literary revelation. Why had no one urged them on me before? The book I had in my hand as I sat in a blue cane chair at the end of the garden (I remember it vividly, as you do when you read things that matter) was a small collection of the letters, edited very helpfully and lucidly by the Romantic scholar Sim

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About the contributor

Alexandra Harris is the author of Romantic Moderns and Weatherland, which she adapted in ten parts for BBC Radio 4. She is Professor of English at the University of Birmingham. Having started out as a modernist, she is currently reading her way around the eighteenth century.

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