Freya Johnston

The "Advertisement" or "history of the following production" that prefaces Cowper's Task (1785) ascribes the work's style and initial choice of topic to an anonymous female acquaintance (Lady Austen), who, "fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the sofa for a subject." Abiding by a mock-chivalric code that, while it may have compelled him to "obey" such a whimsical command, also permitted him to do so at his "leisure," Cowper outlines the poem's loose, associative structure in biographically inviting terms: "He . . . connected another subject with [the sofa]; and pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair — a Volume" (Advertisement, in Cowper 1995: 113).

This way of phrasing it allows him to maintain that the seriousness of The Task may be no more than a question of size, while at the same time insinuating that the work is no trifling matter. The slipshod manner of the poem's emergence in its present form — as if Cowper's wandering, pregnant mind has accidentally produced earnest, directed offspring — forms part of a typically coy self-appraisal, one that only indirectly aspires to literary purpose. "Brought forth at length . . . a Volume" is also the first of many references in The Task to the conception, gestation, and growth to polite or corrupt maturity of literature, nations, and individuals (see e.g. i. 17, 23; ii. 581, 637, 708; iii. 144, 196, 318, 432-3, 436, 464, 502; iv. 280-1). The judicious or degenerate "leisure" of the author's "situation," implied by Lady Austen's elected subject, remains in dialog with the redemptive labor of writing throughout the poem.

So Cowper's "Advertisement" initiates a series of tensions: between inspiration and execution, a high style and a low subject, a brief, light "trifle" and a lengthy, serious "Volume," static "leisure" and active "task," fixed "situation" and mobile "turn of mind." His work might lay claim, like Laurence Sterne's, to being both circular and linear, "digressive, and . . . progressive too — and at the same time" (Sterne 1981: 95). It is not surprising, then, that The Task reveals such an attraction for the word "still," with its simultaneous perpetuations and arrests of movement, its impulses toward ambition and quietude, hunger and satiety, expansion and contraction: "Still soothing and of power to charm me still"; "And still they dream that they shall still succeed, / And still are disappointed"; "still ending, and beginning still" (i. 143; iii. 128-9, 627).

The first lines of Book I, "The Sofa," contain an announcement of Cowper's literary career and "situation" to date, one that teasingly expands the "history of the following production" to include his earlier publications:

I sing the sofa. I who lately sang Truth, Hope and Charity, and touch'd with awe The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand, Escap'd with pain from that advent'rous flight, Now seek repose upon an humbler theme; The theme though humble, yet august and proud Th' occasion — for the Fair commands the song.

The conventionally humble pose of the writer setting out on his enterprise collapses into the undignified physical image of him resting on his subject, the sofa — an image juxtaposed with his previous endeavor to "touch" intangible abstractions. The author of the sententious moral trinity of "Truth," "Hope," and "Charity" (1782) — all three of which remain key words in The Task (see e.g. iii. 289, 841, 196—7) — now seeks a real as well as a metaphoric refuge. His "Poetical Epistle to Lady Austen" (written in 1781) had presented Cowper as one whose verse conveyed "truths divine, and clear, / Which couch'd in prose" his audience "will not hear" (ll. 21—2). He could not then, perhaps, have imagined himself triply "couch'd" — in verse form, in subject matter, and in person — by Lady Austen's demand, although he assured another friend that he did not "lownge over" The Sofa, as The Task was originally to have been called (Cowper 1981: 269). Addressing his subject in "Charity," he wrote that he had endeavored "to redeem / A poet's name, by making thee the theme" (ll. 13—14). Now, however, he is a sufferer pursuing comfort through descent from sublime to humble topics, from solitary singing to courteous, sociable deference. He wishes for safety in numbers — both in the poetic sense, and in the sense of escaping from himself through company. The Task's characteristic "revolvency" (i. 372), its repeated circlings and hedgings about a topic, are already emerging: "sing . . . sang," "humbler theme . . . theme . . . humble." Such protective enclosure of a subject (and of the poet) is often communicated, as in the latter example, through the bracketing ABBA pattern of chiasmus. This can seal in two lines of blank verse as if seeking to approximate the finality of a rhyming couplet: "A wish for ease and leisure, and 'ere long / Found here that leisure and that ease I wish'd " (iv. 800—1, emphases added).

Yet Cowper's medium, while it offers such "shelt'ring eaves" and "loop-holes of retreat" through which "To peep at [the] world" (v. 65; iv. 88—9), is also flexible enough to overrun bounded vistas and line endings into larger prospects and broader interdependencies of meaning and of feeling. His form encourages self-concealments and emergences from cover, a sense of isolation and of kinship with mankind. The "boundless contiguity" endemic to blank verse (ii. 2) — what Cowper termed the "frequent infusion of one line into another" (Cowper 1981: 288), as opposed to the bounded heroic couplets of "Truth," "Hope," and "Charity" — is already being put to use in this opening to express mobility and stasis, freedom and limitation. The apparent trailing constituent "and with a trembling hand" might, in fact, be qualifying a retrospective or a present gesture. Its hesitant "infusion" into lines 2 and 4 thus suggests that it is treading water, deferring the moment of decisive action. Does the metonymic hand tremble as it touches the chords, or as it escapes "with pain" to a new sheet of paper and this poem, or both? Is the speaker's persona continuous or discontinuous with his former character? (Disembodied hands, like disembodied eyes and ears, are a leitmotif of The Task, isolating the senses of touch, sight, and sound from their possessors and from each other. See e.g. i. 157, 165—6, 229—30, 288—90, 333—4, 391, 405, 442, 456, 514; ii. 757; iii. 399—400, 413, 416—17, 428—9; iv. 92—3.) Line 6 similarly allows the reader, however briefly, to entertain the notion that Cowper's "theme" is at once "humble" and "proud" (akin to the "modest grandeur" of evening, iv. 257) — prefiguring further conflations of what are also represented as diametrically opposed qualities: country/town, solitude/company, strength/weakness, outdoors/indoors, God/man, nature/art, sincerity/pretense, labor/repose, among others. By allowing his subject (and, by extension, his authorial persona) the dual status of humility and pride, Cowper suspends a moral and literary paradox in front of the reader, only to retract it via enjambment.

This is hardly a promising start for a poem, since "repose" implies an ending rather than a beginning. For the moment, Cowper prolongs his current "situation" by rehearsing a mock-georgic progress-piece on the development of seats up to the point in time and space at which The Task opens, with the author plumping himself down to sit on and write about the summit of genteel domesticity. In the course of this section, recumbent "leisure" (including the poet's) is approached through the work necessary to produce it. The manufacturer's toil is comically replicated in the laboriousness of the speaker's mannered inventories — which also identify him, on the other hand, as the polite observer of a barbaric scene: "Time was, when cloathing sumptuous or for use, / Save their own painted skins, our sires had none . . . " (i. 8—9). As it turns out, this spectator wishes to set himself apart from, as well as to celebrate, both primitiv-ism and civilization. Each new, ingenious improvement on the joint-stool provokes, as Cowper might put it, a more deep-seated unease. The chair is a triply "restless" imposition in its slippery incapacity to offer comfort, in the ceaseless human effort to perfect it, and in the ungainly comedy of the poet's style: "so hard," he writes, is it "T' attain perfection in this nether world," punning on the obduracy of ancient chairs with a cheeky nod to their occupants' "nether" regions (i. 44, 84—5). Finally, the sofa is "accomplished," as is the burden of Cowper's first task (i. 88). Yet the achievement is delusory. Longed-for ease, once attained, transforms itself into laziness, ill-health, and neglect of duty, in light of which the poet's consummately "sweet" and sofa-bound repose, as well as his playfulness, begin to seem culpable (i. 89—102). In fact, the genealogy of seats has plotted a decline as well as a progression from the "rugged rock" or "grav'ly bank" of the seaside "chief' (i. 12—13), via the citizens' poky "chaise" (i. 80), to the luxurious sofa — from invincible maritime greatness to an attenuated national and individual hardiness that is associated with the city, as well as focused on the writer. For it is here that Cowper's opposition of town to country begins to surface. The growing sense of the poet's subject as a restriction, as well as a desire to turn away from manifestations of bankrupt luxury (including his own), impel him to celebrate rejuvenating activity in the great outdoors. The first-person voice, having disappeared for ninety-five lines, now returns:

Oh may I live exempted (while I live Guiltless of pamper'd appetite obscene) From pangs arthritic that infest the toe Of libertine excess. The sofa suits The gouty limb, 'tis true; but gouty limb Though on a sofa, may I never feel: For I have loved the rural walk through lanes Of grassy swarth close cropt by nibbling sheep, And skirted thick with intertexture firm Of thorny boughs: have loved the rural walk O'er hills, through valleys, and by rivers' brink, E'er since a truant boy I passed my bounds T' enjoy a ramble on the banks of Thames. And still remember, nor without regret Of hours that sorrow since has much endear'd, How oft, my slice of pocket store consumed, Still hung'ring pennyless and far from home, I fed on scarlet hips and stoney haws, Or blushing crabs, or berries that imboss The bramble, black as jet, or sloes austere. Hard fare! but such as boyish appetite Disdains not, nor the palate undepraved By culinary arts, unsav'ry deems. No sofa then awaited my return, Nor sofa then I needed.

But this switch in focus does not constitute the major change we have been led to expect: the speaker remains as drawn to polite society as he is attracted by the recollection of primitive simplicity. Accents of nostalgia for a solitary communion with nature will soon be repudiated, in favor of company, when he encounters the deprivations of "the peasant's nest" and the sad isolation of Crazy Kate (i. 221-51, 534-56). This passage's strange combination of pre- and postlapsarian vantage points (its allusions to an "undepraved" state, the illicit consumption of fruit, and wandering "far from home"), alongside the Latinisms, inversions, modifications, and deferrals of the first four lines, reveals the long-recognized influence on Cowper of Paradise Lost (1667)

— perhaps especially of Book IV, in which Adam and Eve's guiltless existence is filtered through the guilty eyes of Satan. It has a more subdued tone than its original. Unlike Milton, Cowper employs no superlatives, and the verse gradually uncoils (once outside the drawing room) into calm, orderly syntax.

Yet the speaker's childhood represents a condition not of blissful rest after welcome labor, but of active deprivation and vagrancy. He breaks his "bounds" to consume fruit as "a truant boy." And he recalls hours of happy frugality (not of innocence), accompanied by the morally pejorative overtones of divergence from a strait road that are also associated with the practice of blank verse. Similarly, the opening to Book III, "The Garden," in which the poet styles himself "As one who long in thickets and in brakes / Entangled, winds now this way and now that / His devious course uncertain, seeking home" and pursues "Domestic happiness, thou only bliss / Of Paradise that has survived the fall!" (iii. 1—3, 41—2), has as its source the point, in Book IV of Paradise Lost, at which Satan is about to enter the Garden of Eden:

Satan had journeyed on, pensive and slow; But further way found none, so thick entwined, As one continued brake, the undergrowth Of shrubs and tangling bushes had perplexed All path of man or beast that passed that way (Paradise Lost, iv. 173—7)

The increasingly negative implications of straying down a primrose path instead of pursuing "a cleanlier road," "unimpair'd and pure" (iii. 17, 43), entail that the speaker's youthful ramblings will need to be reined in. A state of nature, like a state of social refinement, comes to seem the province at once of happiness and corruption

— and this in spite of the fact that Cowper endeavors to draw a firm line between the two.

The landscape he next introduces meanders from a small, laboring human "scene" to a river that "Conducts the eye along his sinuous course" until it reaches "our fav'rite elms," concealing "the herdsman's solitary hut" (i. 158—68). This panorama facilitates a progressive slackening of pace and adjustment of scale. The speaker widens his field of vision from "The task of new discov'ries" to a positive appraisal of the earth's "ceaseless action" (i. 218, 367), then from England to the realms encountered through commerce (i. 592—677). Here, Cowper's nascent triumphalism slackens, as he realizes that "Doing good, / Disinterested good, is not our trade" (i. 673—4). An empire that locates its heart in "gain-devoted cities" (i. 682) rather than in the divinely ordained countryside is on the brink of destruction.

Book II, "The Time-Piece," continues to revolve the awareness of sin and suffering developed in Book I, presenting a disjointed catalogue of viciousness that singles out war, slavery, natural disasters, unjust imprisonment, divine wrath, trifling clergy, and wayward undergraduates: "There is no flesh in man's obdurate heart, / It does not feel for man" (ii. 8—9). Crazy Kate has grown in stature and influence to become a punitively "crazy earth" with her "shaking fits" (ii. 60). For Cowper, the peaks of social and literary refinement (represented at the opening of Book I by the sofa and the author's leisure, at its close by urban folly and artifice) often turn into the limits of tolerability and prompt a reflex reaction of disgust. Description — the art of graphic or ekphrastic writing (ii. 290—6; iv. 239—42), of tracing by physical motion (i. 109—58), and of marking a boundary (the "Argument" of Book VI involves "A line drawn between the lawful and the unlawful destruction' of animals [Cowper 1995: 235]) — requires the provision of natural and artificial limits: tracks (i. 161), rivers (i. 163), courses (i. 165), streams (i. 169), paths (i. 471), hedges (i. 514), punctuation, paragraphing, lines, and line endings, for example. As The Task proceeds, it also entails their dissolution: "The streams are lost amid the splendid bank / O'erwhelming all distinction" (v. 96—7). Cowper's blank verse gradually reveals itself as an art of brinkmanship. It rehearses the limits of social progress and of his own writing in ways that alternately support and reject formal, thematic, public, and private restriction: "For he that values liberty, confines / His zeal for her predominance within / No narrow bounds" (v. 393—5). Here, characteristically, Cowper's placement of "confines" and "within" at unpunctu-ated line endings gives the sense of formal constraint itself a limited power (we need twice to overrun the unit of verse to complete the unit of sense), while "No narrow bounds" finally declines to observe the parameters of feeling that the syntax has led us to expect. These lines provide a broad justification for the entire poem's fluidity of structure, while also setting up anticipations of a happier containment that will come to fruition in the domestic refuges of Books III and IV.

In Book II, Cowper weighs up the possibilities of human division and unity through similar effects. Returning to his hopeless wish for solitude — a "boundless contiguity of shade" that eschews his necessarily social "bounds" — the speaker despairs of "The nat'ral bond / Of brotherhood," destroyed by "Lands intersected" and the artificial "bonds" of oppression (ii. 2, 9—10, 16, 36). In the ancient seats of learning, where once "The limits of controul" restrained errant passions, "A dissolution of all bonds ensued" (ii. 719, 743). The ideal of this book — like that of Book V, "The Winter Morning Walk" (331—4) — turns out to be a self-control to which the individual voluntarily adheres, such as that imposed by the practice of writing blank verse: "no restraints can circumscribe them more, / Than they themselves by choice, for wisdom's sake" (ii. 792—3). Here, in a diametric reversal of the surprising failure to adhere to "confines" in v. 393—5, the first line seems to mark a liberation from every rule — "more" having the possible sense of "any more." Yet crossing the poetic line (thereby exercising a freedom) reveals that this liberty has been subordinated to the self-imposed dictates of wisdom (thereby declining a freedom). By testing the borders of his own verse, Cowper deftly fields the claims of both restrained and boundless speaking (in Book III, this will lead a "self-sequester'd man" to "confine / Remarks that gall," iii. 386, 36—7). Indeed, moments of relief from the apocalyptic non sequiturs of the "mutilated structure" (i. 774) that is Book II arrive only when Cowper is reflecting on his literary task as fulfilling a private need rather than the public good:

occupations of the poet's mind So pleasing, . . . steal away the thought With such address, from themes of sad import, That lost in his own musings, happy man! He feels th' anxieties of life, denied Their wonted entertainment, all retire. Such joys has he that sings.

This fragment presents the small-scale apposition of changes of mood and perspective, rather than lurching alternations from one scene of life to another. Four different, progressively enlarged assertions are contained within ll. 302-3: "He feels th' anxieties of life," "He feels th' anxieties of life, denied," "He feels th' anxieties of life, denied / Their wonted entertainment," and "He feels th' anxieties of life, denied / Their wonted entertainment, all retire," might each stand alone. Together, and via the imposed boundaries of punctuation and line ending that are successively "overleap'd" (ii. 718), they trace an arc from the "wonted" and unwanted shackles of anxiety to their temporary removal. Syntactic accretion ensures that as sense units are modified, threats to their stability recede. Yet Cowper's procedure is characteristically ambivalent, caught between denial and affirmation: in the midst of singing, he is simultaneously alive to the very troubles from which singing ought to distance him.

This localized poetic model provides a cue for Books III and IV, in which the speaker determines to move away from excoriating public abuses to a portrait of "Domestic happiness" (iii. 41). Here, sofa-bound repose once more takes its place (iii. 31-2). Having cast himself as a deviant Satan who, "seeking home," became distracted in the course of Book II (iii. 3), Cowper's act of "Self-recollection and reproof" ("Argument" of Book III [Cowper 1995: 161]) returns the speaker, via allusive literary archaisms that recall the "grassy swarth" of i. 110, to his first character in the "Advertisement" - that of the chivalric knight: "If chance at length he find a green-swerd smooth / And faithful to the foot, his spirits rise, / He chirrups brisk his ear-erecting steed" (iii. 7-10). Mingled with this Arthurian homecoming to Lady Austen's original demand (iii. 11-14) is a sense of Christian journeying through the "mire" and "Slough of Despond": "having long in miry ways been foiled / And sore discomfited, from slough to slough / Plunging, and half despairing" (iii. 4-6). Three strains of literary allegiance - Miltonic, courtly, and Bunyanesque - thus serve to locate this speaker as a reader, with a firmer sense of where he belongs geographically, artistically, and emotionally.

The tone of this opening sets Book II's sermonizing onslaughts in the distant past: "Disgust conceal'd / Is oft-times proof of wisdom" (iii. 38-9). "The Garden" seems temporally as well as spatially removed from the town. Yet within a hundred lines, Cowper is already experiencing the renewed temptations of "angry verse," directed at urban profligacy, thereby overrunning his limits in the act of upbraiding the same fault in others: "Virtue and vice had bound'ries in old time / Not to be passed" (iii. 64, 75-6). Returning the attention to "Domestic life in rural leisure pass'd" (iii. 292), the "sweet colloquial pleasures" of Books III and IV (iv. 398) arise from the happy coexistence of vernacular diction — "plump," "warm," "snug," "spiry," "ruddier," "Peep," "streaky," "homely," "sooty," "rough," "fleecy," "downy," "thorny," "thistly," "reeking," "sore," "clogg'd," "sluggish," "jutting," "rude," "sottish," "whiff," and "guzzling," for instance (iii. 511, 568, 570, 573, 574; iv. 245, 252, 292, 309, 326, 333, 335, 342, 343, 345, 350, 370, 431, 469, 473) — with a latinate register and literary allegiance that are especially conspicuous in the celebrated passage on cucumbers:

To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd So grateful to the palate, and when rare So coveted, else base and disesteem'd — Food for the vulgar merely — is an art That toiling ages have but just matured, And at this moment unassay'd in song. Ye gnats have had, and frogs and mice long since Their eulogy; those sang the Mantuan bard, And these the Grecian in ennobling strains, And in thy numbers, Phillips, shines for ay The solitary shilling. Pardon then Ye sage dispensers of poetic fame! Th' ambition of one meaner far, whose pow'rs Presuming an attempt not less sublime, Pant for the praise of dressing to the taste Of critic appetite, no sordid fare, A cucumber, while costly yet and scarce.

The object of the writer's painstaking cultivation — and, by implication, his verse itself — seems to lack inherent value. From this point onwards in The Task a reader senses that the external activities described by the speaker are blending into reflections on the formal experiment of "rais[ing]" and "dressing" them up as poetry. Thus, for instance, when Book V mentions "The feather'd tribes domestic" as "Conscious, and fearful of too deep a plunge" (v. 62, 64), it seems "Conscious" in the same moment of The Task's periphrastic elevation of a mere group of hens to "The feather'd tribes domestic." The poet, himself "fearful of too deep a plunge" by calling a hen a hen, must tread as carefully in writing about homely subjects as those subjects themselves on the slippery ground — "Half on wing / And half on foot" (v. 62—3), combining ascent with descent — and content merges with form. There is a feeling at such points of his self-identification with lowly topics and characters, but also of his distance from them. Samuel Johnson's famous dismissal of the "green-coated gourd," like this passage from Book III, implies a care in ornamentation that overlays unworthiness: "a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing" ( Johnson and Boswell 1984: 335). Subject to the whims of the market, Cowper's recalcitrant, "prickly" topic merges into the vehicle and author that celebrate it, both of them as weak and perishable as a hothouse plant, or the ice palace of Book V: "'Twas transient in its nature, as in show / 'Twas durable. As worthless as it seemed / Intrinsically precious" (v. 173—5).

Yet the speaker remains confident enough to be sarcastic at the expense of the critics; his overstated, panting desire to administer instruction in the form of a gilded pill (a cucumber disguised for fastidious palates) suggests that readers will be unwittingly improved by eating their greens. Recalling the jovial "Bill of Fare" with which Henry Fielding introduced Tom Jones (1749) (Fielding 1986: 51—3), Cowper's art of "dressing to the taste . . . no sordid fare" stakes a claim to both ripeness and unripeness. His topic is original — although the art of growing cucumbers is "just matured," it is "unassay'd in song" — yet also buttressed by its place within a recognizable literary genealogy, as a mock-heroic descendant of the pseudo-Virgilian Culex or "The Gnat," the pseudo-Homeric Batrachomyomachia or "Battle of the Frogs and Mice," and John Philips's Miltonic burlesque, The Splendid Shilling (first published, in pirated form, in 1701). The serious element of Book III's new idea of a poet's task — intimate, careful tending of matters close to home — is manifested in concrete activities that center on the garden (iii. 386—543). With the selection of "a favor'd spot" and enclosure of "Th' agglomerated pile," the real "task" of establishing a crop now "begins" (iii. 469—72). As a precursor to planting the seed (iii. 511—20), such vulnerable, laborious construction resembles the tottering structure of the poem thus far. Cowper seems again to be redefining his boundaries as he combines his subject with its poetic medium — suggesting that the first two books have a prefatory or foundational status (akin to the "Advertisement") in relation to the present one.

The opening of Book IV, "The Winter Evening," charts the arrival of the outside world — in the form of the postman — at Cowper's rural door. It continues to celebrate the distance of the metropolis from the speaker and defines him as another kind of reader: one fond of newspapers (reassuringly contained forms of urban life) as well as of books (iv. 5—35, 50—119). In a milder, cosier, but equally stagey version of Alexander Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735) — "Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd I said, / Tye up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead . . . What Walls can guard me, or what Shades can hide?" (ll. 1—2, 7), Cowper delights in surveying town gossip within the confines of his domestic fortress:

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in.

Like the permeable boundary of a line ending, closed shutters allow the evening to enter. As in Book II's lines on the joys of writing poetry, the speaker, in removing himself from the public, stays alert to the fact that such refuges are transient. This is the sole occasion on which "the sofa" appears in uncapitalized form - as a wholly incarnated object rather than as a semi-figurative presence - from which the speaker "Grieves" at, but is not alarmed by, external events (iv. 102). He then steps out from his position of security into a panorama of thrifty, sly, and ultimately threatening country life (iv. 333-690). The Arcadian image of a happy, laboring poor that prevailed in Book I yields to a more complex and realistic depiction, which sends the poet scurrying back to the domestic "niche he was ordain'd to fill" (iv. 792).

Book V begins with the apparent flourish of a Miltonic address to the sun:

'Tis morning; and the sun with ruddy orb Ascending fires the horizon. While the clouds That crowd away before the driving wind, More ardent as the disk emerges more, Resemble most some city in a blaze, Seen through the leafless wood.

Yet the image of clouds is compromised by a series of qualifications: the line beginning "More ardent" ends on another incipient "more"; then it only "most" resembles the disturbing vision of a blazing city, filtered through the imperfect shelter of a "leafless wood" ("leafless" because it has also been burned, or because it is winter? This book sees the most violent of The Task's changes in temperature). The internally rhyming "clouds / That crowd" are moving, not forward in synchronized combination, but away, dispersed by the wind; effect precedes cause. Placing the two prepositions "away before" alongside one another counteracts the feeling of progression still further; the temporal as well as spatial implication of "before" gives the image a sense of retroactive awkwardness, so that the clouds appear to be simultaneously ahead of, and behind, the wind. The viewer's presence, central to the previous book, is here absorbed by the passive "Seen." For most of Book V, the speaker will continue to be a submerged onlooker, his verse combining motion and immobility. Water takes over from the ramble as the governing dynamic metaphor, culminating in the portrait of the Russian empress's ice palace. Here, Cowper returns to the effects of artifice on nature, and vice versa:

In such a palace poetry might place

The armoury of winter, where his troops

The gloomy clouds find weapons, arro'wy sleet

Skin-piercing volley, blossom-bruising hail,

And snow that often blinds the trav'ller's course,

And wraps him in an unexpected tomb.

Silently as a dream the fabric rose.

No sound of hammer or of saw was there.

Ice upon ice, the well-adjusted parts

Were soon conjoined, nor other cement ask'd

Than water interfused to make them one.

Lamps gracefully disposed and of all hues

Illumined ev'ry side. A wat'ry light

Gleamed through the clear transparency, that seemed

Another moon new-risen, or meteor fall'n

From heav'n to earth, of lambent flame serene.

So stood the brittle prodigy, though smooth

And slipp'ry the materials, yet frost-bound

The same lubricity was found in all,

And all was moist to the warm touch, a scene

Of evanescent glory, once a stream,

And soon to slide into a stream again.

In keeping with a location in which warmth is the "enemy" (v. 159), Cowper restricts his own interventions to a cool minimum. It is a personified "poetry," rather than the speaker, who finds within such a construction "The armoury of winter," which begins to sound as if it is an instrument of martial oppression rather than of sympathy. Yet nature first appears to be conniving in a man-made fabric: mere water binds the "well-adjusted" building blocks. Discrete end-stopped lines (ll. 143—5) yield to "interfused" and overrunning blank verse units, mimetically cooperating with the trickling effect from brick to brick. (Since Cowper described his blank verse as working by "frequent infusion," it seems as if the ice palace is an especially happy combination of form with content.) The Miltonic, doubly qualified comparison of the frozen structure to a meteor's "lambent flame serene" heralds its demise. But it is the "warm touch" of a human being that propels the final dissolution "Of evanescent glory," a presage of the empress's transient power as well as a recollection of Cowper's own attempt, in earlier poems, to "touch" the "solemn chords" of "Truth, Hope and Charity." This passage seems, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (written in 1798), to encourage the idea that artistic creation may resist the flux and decay of the natural world, and at the same time to prove that it cannot. Like his attitude to the cucumber, Cowper's presentation of the ice palace is "Threat'ning at once and nourishing the plant" of art, including his own (vi. 36). When directly apprehended by the senses, the grandeur of a monumentally ambitious work disperses (like the "clouds" of the opening lines, which are included in the catalogue of verse's winter "armoury") into the frail constituents it was designed to survive.

Rebuked by such a threat, the meditative natural descriptions of The Task's sixth and final book, "The Winter Walk at Noon," restrict the poet's "comprehensive views" to those of his own experience: the comparatively narrow "windings of my way through many years" (vi. 15, 18). The speaker's endeavor to date is summarized in a newly comprehended narrative trajectory: "The night was winter in his roughest mood, / The morning sharp and clear. But now at noon . . . The season smiles resigning all its rage" (vi. 57—61). He reassures us that "The walk" of Book I is "still verdant" as a topic (vi. 70), but he now focuses his wandering persona's full attention on the poem itself:

It shall not grieve me, then, that once, when call'd To dress a Sofa with the flow'rs of verse, I play'd awhile, obedient to the fair With that light task, but soon to please her more Whom flow'rs alone I knew would little please, Let fell th' unfinish'd wreath, and rov'd for fruit. Rov'd far and gather'd much. Some harsh, 'tis true, Pick'd from the thorns and briars of reproof, But wholesome, well-digested. Grateful some To palates that can taste immortal truth, Insipid else, and sure to be despis'd. But all is in his hand whose praise I seek . . . Whose frown can disappoint the proudest strain, Whose approbation — prosper even mine.

This takes us back to the mock-chivalric beginnings of the "Advertisement," to the rambling after wholesome, hardy nourishment in Book I, and to the disdainful critical palates of the cucumber passage in Book III. The appropriate half-rhyme of "strain" with "mine" (appropriate because it formally strains against a tidy reconciliation of God with man), the rapidly swallowed "prosper even mine," fail quite to reach the finality of a couplet. As a likeness of the speaker's mind and life, the poem is "ended but not finish'd" (Cowper 1981: 269). The conclusion does succeed, however, in relocating the author and his work within a potentially receptive and redemptive environment. The phrase "fruit . . . Grateful some / To palates that can taste immortal truth" expresses the hope to please readers ambiguously poised between the fussy caprice of Lady Austen and the impenetrable, final determination of God — according to whom The Task will seem either a mere "trifle" or a "serious affair." Equally, Cowper's "grateful" conveys thankfulness for that original "taste" of "truth" he experienced in the process of writing the poem. The double meaning of "grateful" lies at the heart of recovering the domestic Arcadia that is, for Cowper, sole remnant of a paradise lost: "Sometimes ['grateful'] has the sense of 'thankful,' sometimes of 'pleasing' . . . Perhaps Milton's fondness for the word is a reflection of the fact that in a pre-lapsarian state there would be no distinction of this kind. Adam and Eve were thankful for what pleased them, and being thankful is itself a pleasure" (Ricks 1978: 113).

See also chs. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"; 14, "James Thomson, The Seasons"; 25, "Rhyming Couplets and Blank Verse"; 29, "The Georgic."

References and Further Reading

Cowper, William (1980). The Poems of William Cowper, vol. 1: 1748-1782, ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: Clarendon.

Cowper, William (1981). The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, vol. 2: Letters 17821786, ed. James King and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: Clarendon.

Cowper, William (1995). The Poems of William Cowper, vol. 2: 1782-1785, ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: Clarendon.

Davie, Donald (1952). Purity of Diction in English Verse. London: Chatto & Windus.

Davie, Donald (1978). A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 17001930. London: Routledge.

Dawson, P. M. S. (1983). "Cowper's Equivocations. " Essays in Criticism 33, 19—35.

Fielding, Henry (1986). The History of Tom Jones, ed. R. P. C. Mutter. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Griffin, Dustin (1981). "Cowper, Milton, and the Recovery of Paradise. " Essays in Criticism 31, 15-26.

Griffin, Dustin (1986). Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Samuel, and Boswell, James (1984). A

Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, ed. Peter Levi. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

King, James (1986). William Cowper: A Biography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Milton, John (1990). Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler. London and New York: Longman.

Newey, Vincent (1982). Cowper's Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Pope, Alexander (1989). The Poems of Alexander Pope: A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations, ed. John Butt. London: Routledge.

Ricks, Christopher (1978). Milton's Grand Style. Oxford: Clarendon.

Spacks, Patricia Ann Meyer (1967). The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sterne, Laurence (1981). The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Graham Petrie. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Terry, Richard (1994). " ' Meaner themes': Mock-Heroic and Providentialism in Cowper's Poetry. " Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, 617-34.

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