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William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Task: from Book IV: The Winter Evening

(excerpt)


              1Hark! 'tis the twanging horn! O'er yonder bridge,
              2That with its wearisome but needful length
              3Bestrides the wintry flood, in which the moon
              4Sees her unwrinkled face reflected bright,
              5He comes, the herald of a noisy world,
              6With spatter'd boots, strapp'd waist, and frozen locks;
              7News from all nations lumb'ring at his back.
              8True to his charge, the close-pack'd load behind,
              9Yet careless what he brings, his one concern
            10Is to conduct it to the destin'd inn:
            11And, having dropp'd th' expected bag, pass on.
            12He whistles as he goes, light-hearted wretch,
            13Cold and yet cheerful: messenger of grief
            14Perhaps to thousands, and of joy to some;
            15To him indiff'rent whether grief or joy.
            16Houses in ashes, and the fall of stocks,
            17Births, deaths, and marriages, epistles wet
            18With tears that trickled down the writer's cheeks
            19Fast as the periods from his fluent quill,
            20Or charg'd with am'rous sighs of absent swains,
            21Or nymphs responsive, equally affect
            22His horse and him, unconscious of them all.
            23But oh th' important budget! usher'd in
            24With such heart-shaking music, who can say
            25What are its tidings? have our troops awak'd?
            26Or do they still, as if with opium drugg'd,
            27Snore to the murmurs of th' Atlantic wave?
            28Is India free? and does she wear her plum'd
            29And jewell'd turban with a smile of peace,
            30Or do we grind her still? The grand debate,
            31The popular harangue, the tart reply,
            32The logic, and the wisdom, and the wit,
            33And the loud laugh--I long to know them all;
            34I burn to set th' imprison'd wranglers free,
            35And give them voice and utt'rance once again.
            36      Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
            37Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
            38And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
            39Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
            40That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
            41So let us welcome peaceful ev'ning in.
            42Not such his ev'ning, who with shining face
            43Sweats in the crowded theatre, and, squeez'd
            44And bor'd with elbow-points through both his sides,
            45Out-scolds the ranting actor on the stage:
            46Nor his, who patient stands till his feet throb,
            47And his head thumps, to feed upon the breath
            48Of patriots, bursting with heroic rage,
            49Or placemen, all tranquility and smiles.
            50This folio of four pages, happy work!
            51Which not ev'n critics criticise; that holds
            52Inquisitive attention, while I read,
            53Fast bound in chains of silence, which the fair,
            54Though eloquent themselves, yet fear to break;
            55What is it, but a map of busy life,
            56Its fluctuations, and its vast concerns?

...

          120      Oh winter, ruler of th' inverted year,
          121Thy scatter'd hair with sleet like ashes fill'd,
          122Thy breath congeal'd upon thy lips, thy cheeks
          123Fring'd with a beard made white with other snows
          124Than those of age, thy forehead wrapp'd in clouds,
          125A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
          126A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
          127But urg'd by storms along its slipp'ry way,
          128I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem'st,
          129And dreaded as thou art! Thou hold'st the sun
          130A pris'ner in the yet undawning east,
          131Short'ning his journey between morn and noon,
          132And hurrying him, impatient of his stay,
          133Down to the rosy west; but kindly still
          134Compensating his loss with added hours
          135Of social converse and instructive ease,
          136And gath'ring, at short notice, in one group
          137The family dispers'd, and fixing thought,
          138Not less dispers'd by day-light and its cares.
          139I crown thee king of intimate delights,
          140Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,
          141And all the comforts that the lowly roof
          142Of undisturb'd retirement, and the hours
          143Of long uninterrupted ev'ning, know.
          144No rattling wheels stop short before these gates;
          145No powder'd pert proficient in the art
          146Of sounding an alarm, assaults these doors
          147Till the street rings; no stationary steeds
          148Cough their own knell, while, heedless of the sound,
          149The silent circle fan themselves, and quake:
          150But here the needle plies its busy task,
          151The pattern grows, the well-depicted flow'r,
          152Wrought patiently into the snowy lawn,
          153Unfolds its bosom; buds, and leaves, and sprigs,
          154And curling tendrils, gracefully dispos'd,
          155Follow the nimble finger of the fair;
          156A wreath that cannot fade, or flow'rs that blow
          157With most success when all besides decay.
          158The poet's or historian's page, by one
          159Made vocal for th' amusement of the rest;
          160The sprightly lyre, whose treasure of sweet sounds
          161The touch from many a trembling chord shakes out;
          162And the clear voice symphonious, yet distinct,
          163And in the charming strife triumphant still;
          164Beguile the night, and set a keener edge
          165On female industry: the threaded steel
          166Flies swiftly, and, unfelt, the task proceeds.
          167The volume clos'd, the customary rites
          168Of the last meal commence. A Roman meal;
          169Such as the mistress of the world once found
          170Delicious, when her patriots of high note,
          171Perhaps by moonlight, at their humble doors,
          172And under an old oak's domestic shade,
          173Enjoy'd--spare feast!--a radish and an egg!
          174Discourse ensues, not trivial, yet not dull,
          175Nor such as with a frown forbids the play
          176Of fancy, or proscribes the sound of mirth:
          177Nor do we madly, like an impious world,
          178Who deem religion frenzy, and the God
          179That made them an intruder on their joys,
          180Start at his awful name, or deem his praise
          181A jarring note. Themes of a graver tone,
          182Exciting oft our gratitude and love,
          183While we retrace with mem'ry's pointing wand,
          184That calls the past to our exact review,
          185The dangers we have 'scaped, the broken snare,
          186The disappointed foe, deliv'rance found
          187Unlook'd for, life preserv'd and peace restor'd--
          188Fruits of omnipotent eternal love.
          189Oh ev'nings worthy of the gods! exclaim'd
          190The Sabine bard. Oh ev'nings, I reply,
          191More to be priz'd and coveted than yours,
          192As more illumin'd, and with nobler truths.
          193That I, and mine, and those we love, enjoy.

...

Notes

5] he: the postman.

12] Cf. Dryden, Cymon and Iphigenia, 85: "And whistled as he went for want of thought."

25-30] The allusion here is to the concluding months of the American war. At the same time the English were engaged in fighting in India. Cf. I, 773-74, and note.

40] that cheer but not inebriate: Cowper borrows from Bishop Berkeley, Siris (1747), who describes his favourite "tar-water" as "of a nature so mild and benign, ... as to warm without heating, to cheer but not inebriate."

49] placemen: men with sinecures.

120] Cf. Thomson, The Seasons, "Winter," 139-43. "I see the winter approaching without much concern, though a passionate lover of fine weather and the pleasant scenes of summer; but the long evenings have their comforts too, and there is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fireside in the winter. I mean, however, an Englishman that lives in the country, for in London it is not very easy to avoid intrusion" (Cowper, Letter to Joseph Hill, Oct. 20, 1783).

174 ff.] Cf. Thomson, "Winter," 541-49.

190] the Sabine bard: Horace, called Sabine from his Sabine farm. The reference is to the Satires, II, vi, 65.


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 2.251.
Recent editing: 4:2002/2/17

Composition date: 1783 - 1784
Form: Blank Verse


Other poems by William Cowper