One of the heroes of For The Love of Letters is the eighteenth-century poet and hymn-writer William Cowper, who has a museum (half) devoted to him in Milton Keynes, close to where he lived at Olney in Buckinghamshire.
Cowper was a reclusive eccentric who wore only green and brown clothes (‘almost as natural to me as a parrot’) and, on his bald head, a cap or bag.
He isn’t discussed much nowadays, but he gave us the phrases ‘Variety’s the spice of life’ and ‘God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform’. Although he found solace in hardcore evangelical Christianity, his certainty that he was doomed to eternal damnation eventually became all-consuming, and he spent his last years waiting mutely for God to do his worst.
As a young man he studied law and intended to practise. But at 32 he had his first nervous breakdown, triggered by a memory of an event from his childhood – he was walking home from school when a skull thrown by a gravedigger rolled over and struck him on the foot. He spent some time in a madhouse near St Alban’s, after which – as one critic has it – he ‘sought in the infinitesimal a cure for the disease of brooding on the infinite’.
He went to live in Huntingdon with a couple called the Unwins, but when the Reverend Morley Unwin was killed after a fall from a horse, he and Mrs Unwin moved to Olney to be near their friend the Reverend John Newton, a former slave-trader who had seen the error of his ways and found God. Actually, Newton sounds like a psychopath. He had a reputation for ‘preaching people mad’ and was eventually hounded out of the parish.
At Olney, Cowper worked in a summerhouse the size of a sedan chair, producing small poems like ‘On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ and long ones like ‘The Task’, written after Cowper’s friend and patron Lady Austen suggested he prove his skills as a blank versifier by writing a poem about a sofa.
Thus first necessity invented stools,/Convenience next suggested elbow-chairs,/And luxury the accomplished Sofa last.
‘The Task’ was enormously fashionable at the time (1785) – it was one of Jane Austen’s favourite poems.
Cowper liked cuckoo clocks but disliked travel: he never left England and was once traumatised by a visit to Norfolk (‘I have been tossed like a ball into a far country…’).
He was modest about his abilities, declaring: ‘I have no more right to the name of poet than a maker of mouse-traps has to that of an engineer.’
That such a man should be one of the sharpest, most casually hilarious letter-writers of his time is strange. But it’s true, even if what his letters have to chronicle is the smallest of small beer.
The following letter, written to his friend William Unwin on August 6, 1780 when Cowper was 49, is wryly wise about the importance of process in any kind of correspondence – in making an effort for the sake of making an effort because, in undertaking to correspond, you have established a form of social contract.
You like to hear from me – this is a very good reason why I should write – but I have nothing to say – this seems equally a good reason why I should not. Yet if you had alighted from your horse at our door this morning, and at this present writing, being 5 o’clock in the afternoon, had found occasion to say to me, Mr Cowper you have not spoke since I came in, have you resolved never to speak again? it would be but a poor reply if in answer to the summons I should plead Inability as my best & only excuse. And this by the way, suggests to me a seasonable piece of instruction, and reminds me of what I am very apt to forget when I have my epistolary business in hand: that a letter may be written upon any thing or nothing, just as that any thing or nothing happens to occur…
A letter is written, as a conversation is maintained, or a journey perforn’d, not by preconcerted or premeditated means, by a new contrivance, or an invention never heard of before, but merely by maintaining a progress, and resolving as a postillion does, having once set out, never to stop till we reach the appointed end. If a man may talk without thinking, why may he not write upon the same terms?
It’s a good question. But of course the answer is: because not every man can write as fluently and funnily as Cowper.