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A Snatch of Morning

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I bought David Cecil’s Life of William Cowper, The Stricken Deer, at a time, in my early twenties, when I was starting to devour literary biography, my preferred reading ever since. I was by then familiar not just with Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre and David Copperfield but with Jane Austen, the Brontës and Charles Dickens. Most of my literary friends were in the nineteenth century: the eighteenth was largely unfamiliar territory. All I knew about William Cowper was that he had been a favourite poet of Jane Austen’s.

It was David Cecil who changed that. At the time I knew no more about Cecil than I did about Cowper, but over the years, as his books lined up on my shelves, he too became a literary friend. A willowy figure who grew up in the Cecils’ ancestral home, Hatfield House, and married into the Bloomsbury group, he started out as a historian before becoming an Oxford literature don. The Stricken Deer was his first book, published in 1929 when he was only 27.

For Cecil, an unacademic academic who had little time for doctrine, reading literature was all about enjoyment, and teaching it was about transmitting that enjoyment. The imagination excited him more than scholarship, people more than theories. F. R. Leavis frowned on him as a dilettante, but students fondly recalled his breathless enthusiasm and the magical flow of his conversation.

It is surprising to learn from his friend L. P. Hartley that Cecil, an inveterate talker, found writing, by contrast, hard labour. On a train to Venice while he was writing The Stricken Deer, he kept his sleeping-car companion awake with his groans as he worked on the manuscript through the night, but by morning he had produced just three sentences. The lyrical flow of his prose gives no sense of the effort that went into it.

‘From the first the atmosphere in which Cowper passed his life was domestic.’ Like the opening of a novel by Jane Austen, a writer Cecil greatly ad

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I bought David Cecil’s Life of William Cowper, The Stricken Deer, at a time, in my early twenties, when I was starting to devour literary biography, my preferred reading ever since. I was by then familiar not just with Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre and David Copperfield but with Jane Austen, the Brontës and Charles Dickens. Most of my literary friends were in the nineteenth century: the eighteenth was largely unfamiliar territory. All I knew about William Cowper was that he had been a favourite poet of Jane Austen’s.

It was David Cecil who changed that. At the time I knew no more about Cecil than I did about Cowper, but over the years, as his books lined up on my shelves, he too became a literary friend. A willowy figure who grew up in the Cecils’ ancestral home, Hatfield House, and married into the Bloomsbury group, he started out as a historian before becoming an Oxford literature don. The Stricken Deer was his first book, published in 1929 when he was only 27. For Cecil, an unacademic academic who had little time for doctrine, reading literature was all about enjoyment, and teaching it was about transmitting that enjoyment. The imagination excited him more than scholarship, people more than theories. F. R. Leavis frowned on him as a dilettante, but students fondly recalled his breathless enthusiasm and the magical flow of his conversation. It is surprising to learn from his friend L. P. Hartley that Cecil, an inveterate talker, found writing, by contrast, hard labour. On a train to Venice while he was writing The Stricken Deer, he kept his sleeping-car companion awake with his groans as he worked on the manuscript through the night, but by morning he had produced just three sentences. The lyrical flow of his prose gives no sense of the effort that went into it. ‘From the first the atmosphere in which Cowper passed his life was domestic.’ Like the opening of a novel by Jane Austen, a writer Cecil greatly admired, that first sentence, containing the key words ‘atmosphere’ – all-important in a Cecil biography – and ‘domestic’ – the sphere in which he most loved to observe his subjects – pulls us straight into Cowper’s life. The cosy contentedness of Cowper’s early childhood in a Hertfordshire village was short-lived. His mother’s death when he was only 6 left him ill-equipped for life beyond Great Berkhamsted rectory, and this, and the bullying he encountered at his first school, must have contributed to the depression that dogged him thereafter. Timid and affectionate, he did not regain the stable domestic background so necessary to him until years later. Meanwhile he was happier at a second school, Westminster, and then learning law with a London solicitor, Mr Chapman, in Ely Place. He took little interest in his law studies but enjoyed the company of his fellow trainee:
Easy-going Mr Chapman did not bother them much; and they used to sit for hours, two excited boys in the formal dress of 1752, discussing books and people . . . and going off into fits of laughter and then growing very serious again, while the evening sky darkened to night behind the worn traceries of St Etheldreda’s, and the bending trees in its churchyard.
Cecil somehow succeeds in condensing the atmosphere of a whole epoch of Cowper’s life into a single sentence. Despite congenial male companions, what Cowper yearned for was family life and female company. These were provided on visits to a family of cousins, one of whom, Theodora, was his first love. When her father forbade their marriage and Cowper found himself, a briefless barrister, in dingy lodgings in the Temple, depression soon set in. The prospect of a viva voce examination for a clerkship in the House of Lords proved too much for his fragile mental state and precipitated the first of several periods of insanity. ‘There is in the human spirit’, writes Cecil, ‘an upward thrust of vitality that can only be defeated by death. Torn up by the roots, trodden underfoot . . . the soul will yet, after a little time, again revive . . . Cowper’s spirit, so fragile, so bruised, so resilient, once more began to climb from the abyss into which it had fallen.’ When he finally emerged, it was as a convert to Evangelicalism and in a state of exaltation that kept him buoyed up for some years. Unfortunate as Cowper was in some ways, his life was equally remarkable for its strokes of luck. Now 33, he had no sooner left Dr Cotton’s lunatic asylum for solitary lodgings in Huntingdon than he met a young clergyman called William Unwin who invited him to tea to meet his parents. The father, also a clergyman, was elderly, the mother, Mary, much younger. It was to her that Cowper became closest. He had found the family he needed. He moved in as a lodger with this quiet Evangelical household. On Mr Unwin’s death the remaining household moved to Olney to sit at the feet of an Evangelical clergyman with a chequered past called John Newton. Cowper was safe from depression as long as he was caught up in the whirl of Newton’s activities. But as his faith waned, a second spell of madness closed in, ten years after the first. It took the form of religious mania, a conviction that he was sentenced to eternal damnation. Thanks to Mary Unwin’s devoted care he recovered his sanity but not his religious fervour. He was now convinced, even when sane, that he was damned in the next life, but he resolved to enjoy this one, in a quiet way, as well as he could. Cowper and Mary Unwin had become indispensable to one another. A plan to marry came to nothing – the imminent prospect of matrimony threw Cowper into panic – but they continued, platonically, to share a home. He needed support and companionship, she someone to whom she could devote herself. In Orchard Side, their poky house on Olney High Street near Newton’s church, Cowper kept the forces of darkness at bay by constant occupation. At first this took the form of gardening and caring for a menagerie of pets, including his tame hares Bess, Puss and Tiny. Cecil is at his most vivid when evoking the scenes of domestic content so often described by Cowper himself. His favourite time of day was tea-time, particularly on winter afternoons when the candles were lit, the curtains drawn against approaching night and the kettle boiled for ‘the cup that cheers but not inebriates’.
The rain might drum on the window [Cecil writes], the wind whistle along the deserted street; it only emphasized the warmth and comfort inside, where the kettle hummed, and the cat lapped up its milk, and Cowper and Mary laughed over the day’s happenings. They were interrupted by the twang of a horn and the hollow sound of the galloping of hoofs outside. It was the post arriving at the Bull Inn.
The letters and newspapers from London were brought in, to be read aloud by Cowper to Mary while she darned his stockings. To this placid round was added versifying, which he took up as a diversion at the age of 49, often writing in his greenhouse in the garden. He became a poet of domesticity – starting the first book of his very long poem The Task with the words ‘I sing the sofa’ – and of the natural world, painting in verse the Buckinghamshire countryside around Olney where he and Mary took their walks. It was a landscape as tame as that of Hertfordshire. Even the Wilderness, a spot Cowper loved, was a tame wilderness, a creation of Capability Brown’s in Weston Park, the property of the local squire Mr Throckmorton. With the success of The Task Cowper found himself sought after, and his social circle expanded. Cecil tells us that Newton, as Cowper’s spiritual mentor, was concerned he was becoming less serious-minded. Cowper sought to allay his fears: ‘Newton need not worry. He was still fundamentally miserable, and Mrs Unwin still spent hours praying for him.’ However, Newton was not wholly reassured. ‘He had heard for a fact that Cowper had been seen in a green coat and had even taken part in an archery competition . . . ’ At the invitation of the Throckmortons, Cowper and Mary moved to more attractive accommodation in nearby Weston Lodge. The Throckmortons were ideal neighbours, and Weston Underwood, Cecil tells us in one of his most lyrical passages, was ‘the perfect English village of idyllic imagination, where red-coated huntsmen jingle gallantly to the Meet on a soft autumn morning, or, on a glowing evening in summer the cumbrous hay-carts creak home with sun-bonneted children perched atop’. But the fragility of Cowper’s mental health meant that the idyll could not last. There were always two Cowpers. However happy his sane, daytime life, his nights were often a frightful tussle with his demons. In fearful dreams he would hear from God’s own lips that he was doomed. The death of Mary’s son William and the breakdown of her health, resulting from a series of strokes, brought on new attacks of depression and madness. Yet this period produced one of his most touching poems:
. . . still to love, though prest with ill, In wintry age to feel no chill, With me is to be lovely still, My Mary!
The account of the pair’s last years is almost unbearably sad, and the devotion of the relatives who stepped in when Cowper could no longer cope almost unbearably moving. A further stroke changed Mary’s personality, transforming the calm presence who had been the rock of Cowper’s life into a querulous tyrant prone to persecution mania. Not surprisingly, his sanity shattered under the strain. They both died far from Olney in the house of a young cousin who cared for them in their final decline, Cowper, on his deathbed, unshaken in his expectation of eternal damnation. His poem of despair ‘The Castaway’ is perhaps his greatest, but the bulk of his poetry is that of the gentle, humorous Cowper who kept himself sane by writing about the small happenings of his life – the felling of a much-loved poplar grove, the death of a pet hare. In his introduction, Cecil speaks of the difficulty of understanding a past era in all its complexity. Each age, he says, tends to recreate past ones in ‘the image of its own desire’. Did he heed this warning himself? The Olney world he paints in The Stricken Deer is an idyllic one that could be summed up by his sketch of life in the Unwin household: ‘There was a snatch of morning about it, a nursery freshness, an innocent, lavender-scented sweetness.’ The sense of an idyll is enhanced by the beauty of his prose. Yet his account of Cowper’s world is substantiated by Cowper’s own descriptions in poems and letters. Cecil does, however, give us a brief glimpse of a very different eighteenth-century world. His account of John Newton’s life before his conversion to Evangelicalism seems to belong to another, darker, book: his early years at sea with his merchant-seaman father, then later being press-ganged into the Royal Navy, a spell working in virtual slavery on an African plantation and involvement in the actual slave trade as captain of a slave ship. Cowper wrote anti-slavery poems, and a biographer of our own post-colonial age would make more of this theme. But David Cecil was in his element writing about quiet lives. A subsequent study – of Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Grey – is called just that, Two Quiet Lives. His biography of Charles Lamb is the story of a placid life broken, like Cowper’s, by recurring madness (that of Charles’s sister Mary); Charles and Mary Lamb were another odd, devoted couple, like Cowper and Mary Unwin. I opened The Stricken Deer knowing Cowper only as a vague figure in a wig, as in the frontispiece of my edition, or sometimes in an odd turban – someone who belonged to an age I thought I didn’t know. By the time I closed it William Cowper was a friend, and the eighteenth century was no longer unknown territory but recognizable (at least Cowper’s bit of it) as the world Jane Austen’s novels came from. More than that, the book planted a seed. When, much later, I started to write in earnest, I knew I wanted to write literary biographies. I have read a lot of them since. Many have been more densely packed with information; most, unlike The Stricken Deer, have been equipped with indexes and annotations. But few biographical subjects have entered my imagination as completely as David Cecil’s gentle, tormented William Cowper.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 58 © Helen MacEwan 2018


About the contributor

Helen MacEwan is a translator and former teacher. In her free time she enjoys organizing literary events and writing. She is the author of books about Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels, which has been her home for the past decade, and of a life of Winifred Gérin, a Brontë biographer with a Belgian link.

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