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William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Task: from Book II: The Time-Piece

(excerpt)


...

          206      England, with all thy faults, I love thee still--
          207My country! and, while yet a nook is left
          208Where English minds and manners may be found,
          209Shall be constrain'd to love thee. Though thy clime
          210Be fickle, and thy year most part deform'd
          211With dripping rains, or wither'd by a frost,
          212I would not yet exchange thy sullen skies,
          213And fields without a flow'r, for warmer France
          214With all her vines; nor for Ausonia's groves
          215Of golden fruitage, and her myrtle bow'rs.
          216To shake thy senate, and from heights sublime
          217Of patriot eloquence to flash down fire
          218Upon thy foes, was never meant my task:
          219But I can feel thy fortunes, and partake
          220Thy joys and sorrows, with as true a heart
          221As any thund'rer there. And I can feel
          222Thy follies, too; and with a just disdain
          223Frown at effeminates, whose very looks
          224Reflect dishonour on the land I love.
          225How, in the name of soldiership and sense,
          226Should England prosper, when such things, as smooth
          227And tender as a girl, all essenc'd o'er
          228With odours, and as profligate as sweet;
          229Who sell their laurel for a myrtle wreath,
          230And love when they should fight; when such as these
          231Presume to lay their hand upon the ark
          232Of her magnificent and awful cause?
          233Time was when it was praise and boast enough
          234In ev'ry clime, and travel where we might,
          235That we were born her children. Praise enough
          236To fill th' ambition of a private man,
          237That Chatham's language was his mother tongue,
          238And Wolfe's great name compatriot with his own.
          239Farewell those honours, and farewell with them
          240The hope of such hereafter! They have fall'n
          241Each in his field of glory; one in arms,
          242And one in council--Wolfe upon the lap
          243Of smiling victory that moment won,
          244And Chatham heart-sick of his country's shame!
          245They made us many soldiers. Chatham, still
          246Consulting England's happiness at home,
          247Secur'd it by an unforgiving frown
          248If any wrong'd her. Wolfe, where'er he fought,
          249Put so much of his heart into his act,
          250That his example had a magnet's force,
          251And all were swift to follow whom all lov'd.
          252Those suns are set. Oh, rise some other such!
          253Or all that we have left is empty talk
          254Of old achievements, and despair of new.

...

          285      There is a pleasure in poetic pains
          286Which only poets know. The shifts and turns,
          287Th' expedients and inventions multiform
          288To which the mind resorts in chase of terms
          289Thought apt, yet coy, and difficult to win,
          290T' arrest the fleeting images that fill
          291The mirror of the mind, and hold them fast,
          292And force them sit, till he has pencill'd off
          293A faithful likeness of the forms he views;
          294Then to dispose his copies with such art
          295That each may find its most propitious light,
          296And shine by situation hardly less
          297Than by the labour and the skill it cost,
          298Are occupations of the poet's mind
          299So pleasing, and that steal away the thought
          300With such address from themes of sad import,
          301That, lost in his own musings, happy man!
          302He feels th' anxieties of life, denied
          303Their wonted entertainment, all retire.
          304Such joys has he that sings. But ah! not such,
          305Or seldom such, the hearers of his song.
          306Fastidious, or else listless, or perhaps
          307Aware of nothing arduous in a task
          308They never undertook, they little note
          309His dangers or escapes, and haply find
          310Their least amusement where he found the most.
          311But is amusement all? Studious of song,
          312And yet ambitious not to sing in vain,
          313I would not trifle merely, though the world
          314Be loudest in their praise who do no more.
          315Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay?
          316It may correct a foible, may chastise
          317The freaks of fashion, regulate the dress,
          318Retrench a sword-blade, or displace a patch;
          319But where are its sublimer trophies found?
          320What vice has it subdu'd? whose heart reclaim'd
          321By rigour, or whom laugh'd into reform?
          322Alas! Leviathan is not so tam'd.
          323Laugh'd at, he laughs again; and, stricken hard,
          324Turns to the stroke his adamantine scales,
          325That fear no discipline of human hands.
          326      The pulpit, therefore, (and I name it fill'd
          327With solemn awe, that bids me well beware
          328With what intent I touch that holy thing)--
          329The pulpit (when the satirist has at last,
          330Strutting and vapouring in an empty school,
          331Spent all his force, and made no proselyte)--
          332I say the pulpit (in the sober use
          333Of its legitimate, peculiar pow'rs)
          334Must stand acknowledg'd, while the world shall stand,
          335The most important and effectual guard,
          336Support, and ornament of Virtue's cause.

....

Notes

214] Ausonia: poetic name for Italy.

216-18] Longinus likens the eloquence of Demosthenes to thunder and lightning.

229] The laurel wreath was the Roman reward for victory; the myrtle wreath was worn at banquets.

231] See II Samuel 6:6-7, and 1 Chronicles 13: 9-10.

237] Chatham: William Pitt, the elder. See I, 704, and note.

238] Wolfe: Major-General James Wolfe, killed at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, 1759. In a letter Cowper wrote: "Nothing could express my rapture when Wolfe made the conquest of Quebec,"

244] Chatham died during the disastrous war against the American colonies.

290-93] Cf. Pope, Essay on Criticism, 297-300.

298-304] "Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect, While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipped again" (Cowper, Letter to Newton, Dec. 21, 1780).

315] what can satire? i.e., of what efficacy or power is satire?

318] patch. Fashionable ladies wore black "patches" on face and forehead.

322] Leviathan: a great sea-monster; see Job 41: 1-10.

336] support and ornament: cf. Horace, Carminum, I, i, 2, and Carminum, II, xvii, 4.


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 2.248.
Recent editing: 4:2002/2/17

Composition date: 1783 - 1784
Form: Blank Verse


Other poems by William Cowper