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William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Task: from Book I: The Sofa

(excerpt)


...

          150Thou know'st my praise of nature most sincere,
          151And that my raptures are not conjur'd up
          152To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
          153But genuine, and art partner of them all.
          154How oft upon yon eminence our pace
          155Has slacken'd to a pause, and we have borne
          156The ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew,
          157While admiration, feeding at the eye,
          158And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene.
          159Thence with what pleasure have we just discern'd
          160The distant plough slow moving, and beside
          161His lab'ring team, that swerv'd not from the track,
          162The sturdy swain diminish'd to a boy!
          163Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain
          164Of spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er,
          165Conducts the eye along its sinuous course
          166Delighted. There, fast rooted in his bank,
          167Stand, never overlook'd, our fav'rite elms,
          168That screen the herdsman's solitary hut;
          169While far beyond, and overthwart the stream
          170That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,
          171The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
          172Displaying on its varied side the grace
          173Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tow'r,
          174Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
          175Just undulates upon the list'ning ear,
          176Groves, heaths and smoking villages remote.
          177Scenes must be beautiful, which, daily view'd,
          178Please daily, and whose novelty survives
          179Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years.
          180Praise justly due to those that I describe.

...

          678      But though true worth and virtue, in the mild
          679And genial soil of cultivated life,
          680Thrive most, and may perhaps thrive only there,
          681Yet not in cities oft: in proud and gay
          682And gain-devoted cities. Thither flow,
          683As to a common and most noisome sewer,
          684The dregs and feculence of every land.
          685In cities foul example on most minds
          686Begets its likeness. Rank abundance breeds
          687In gross and pamper'd cities sloth and lust,
          688And wantonness and gluttonous excess.
          689In cities vice is hidden with most ease,
          690Or seen with least reproach; and virtue, taught
          691By frequent lapse, can hope no triumph there
          692Beyond th' achievement of successful flight.
          693I do confess them nurseries of the arts,
          694In which they flourish most; where, in the beams
          695Of warm encouragement, and in the eye
          696Of public note, they reach their perfect size.
          697Such London is, by taste and wealth proclaim'd
          698The fairest capital of all the world,
          699By riot and incontinence the worst.
          700There, touch'd by Reynolds, a dull blank becomes
          701A lucid mirror, in which Nature sees
          702All her reflected features. Bacon there
          703Gives more than female beauty to a stone,
          704And Chatham's eloquence to marble lips.

...

          749      God made the country, and man made the town.
          750What wonder then that health and virtue, gifts
          751That can alone make sweet the bitter draught
          752That life holds out to all, should most abound
          753And least be threaten'd in the fields and groves?
          754Possess ye therefore, ye who, borne about
          755In chariots and sedans, know no fatigue
          756But that of idleness, and taste no scenes
          757But such as art contrives, possess ye still
          758Your element; there only ye can shine,
          759There only minds like yours can do no harm.
          760Our groves were planted to console at noon
          761The pensive wand'rer in their shades. At eve
          762The moonbeam, sliding softly in between
          763The sleeping leaves, is all the light they wish,
          764Birds warbling all the music. We can spare
          765The splendour of your lamps, they but eclipse
          766Our softer satellite. Your songs confound
          767Our more harmonious notes: the thrush departs
          768Scared, and th' offended nightingale is mute.
          769There is a public mischief in your mirth;
          770It plagues your country. Folly such as yours,
          771Grac'd with a sword, and worthier of a fan,
          772Has made, which enemies could ne'er have done,
          773Our arch of empire, steadfast but for you,
          774A mutilated structure, soon to fall.

Notes

150] Begun in the summer of 1783 and completed by the autumn of 1784. First published in 1785. Asked by Cowper to suggest a subject for a poem, his friend Lady Austen submitted that he take a lighter subject than had been his custom, and facetiously set him the "task" of composing one about a sofa. His earlier poetry had, for the most part, been written in rhymed couplets, but The Task is Cowper's major work in blank verse. The poem is divided into six books, and comprises 5,185 lines. Starting with a mock-Miltonic narrative of the evolution of the sofa, Cowper soon turned to rural descriptions, the pleasures of gardening, the joys of domestic life, and other related topics. In addition, the poem is remarkable for its numerous meditative, reflective, and intensely moral didactic passages as the poet sets down, more or less at random, his comments upon the social, religious, and economic evils of his day. He had suffered throughout his life from severe melancholia, and in the early 70's had been close to insanity. His association with the Evangelical revival, through his friendship with the Rev. John Newton, had resulted in an ardent Christian devotion and belief that are essentially Calvinistic. His religion was, in one sense, the cause of his melancholy and despair, but, in another, it was the source of solace and comfort throughout a very troubled life.
150-80. Cowper describes the scenery most familiar to him--the level valley of the Ouse in the neighbourhood of Olney, where he lived.

178] Cf. Horace, Ars Poetica, 365: "Haec placuit semel, haec decies repetita placebit."

700] Reynolds: Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), celebrated English painter, first president of the Royal Academy.

702] Bacon: John Bacon (1740-1799), sculptor; a personal friend of Cowper.

704] Chatham: William Pitt, the elder, first Earl of Chatham (1708-1778). Among Bacon's best works are two monuments to Chatham, one in London's Guildhall, the other in Westminster Abbey.

755] chariots and sedans: fashionable carriages.

773-74] It has been suggested that these closing lines allude to the dismemberment of the Empire by the peace with America in 1782. Cf. II, 225-32; IV, 25-7.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Cowper, Poems (London: J. Johnson, 1782-85). 2 vols. B-10 5366 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1785
RPO poem editor: G. G. Falle
RP edition: 3RP 2.246.
Recent editing: 4:2002/2/17

Composition date: 1783 - 1784
Form: Blank Verse


Other poems by William Cowper