(1785) "The Stricken Deer" is among the poems included by William Cowper in his six-volume collection The Task, where it appears in book 3. Self-reflexive and thoughtful, the poem allows Cowper to compare himself to a deer, struck from his herd after wandering away. As a result of recurrent mental illness the poet also felt separated from his friends and cheated by his deteriorating mental acuity of achieving all he desired before dying. The figurative language (figure of speech) of the extended metaphor works well, reflecting through the suffering animal the agony Cowper experienced. As he shows, the alienation from one's familiar mental and physical surroundings can prove terrifying. The only time he knows hope is when he turns to spiritual faith.
Cowper begins by stating I was a stricken deer, that left the herd Long since; with many an arrow deep infixed My panting side was charged, when I withdrew To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
Abundant use of caesura and enjambment establishes a rhythm that pulls the reader forward through Cowper's 26 lines of blank verse. Where the deer has been "deep infixed" by multiple arrows, Cowper felt stricken, or attacked without provocation, by deep delusions that rendered him unable to function. He would eventually be cheated of the tranquil death that he imagines as a possibility for the deer. In this poem Cowper actually becomes the animal, and his speaker relates,
There was I found by one who had himself Been hurt by the archers. In his side he bore, And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
The description of the wounds makes clear that the speaker references Christ, whose side was pierced by a spear and hands and feet by nails as he hung on the cross. This poetic Christ figure uses "gentle force," as Cowper applies paradox to describe how "the darts" were withdrawn from his metaphorical body. The figure then "healed, and bade me live." The experience drives the speaker away from his former companions and concerns, wandering into a "remote / And silent woods." He has few "associates" and states, "Here much I ruminate, as much I may," with Cowper's use of repetition and alliteration again adding a pleasing effect.
With his healing the speaker can "see that all are wanderers, gone astray / Each in his own delusions," a line quite personal to Cowper. The speaker notes that these wanderers are lost, chasing
. . . fancied happiness, still wooed And never won. Dream after dream ensues; And still they dream that they shall still succeed, And still are disappointed.
Cowper's continuing interruption of the line's flow with insertion of punctuation prevents the reader becoming comfortable. The series of the word And connotes an endless progression, as does repetition of still, meaning a "continued state." The soft sounds allow Cowper to retain an appropriately gentle and melancholy tone. The adjective disappointed is especially poignant in its understatement. He ends with an observation, made more powerful by the continuing negative emphasis of the term dream:
I sum up half mankind And add two-thirds of the remaining half, And find the total of their hopes and fears Dreams, empty dreams.
While Cowper may have found peace in his faith, it proved only a temporary relief from his tortured delusions of damnation. However, because in his final lines the speaker suggests that at least a fraction of mankind does not suffer empty dreams, Cowper seems to imagine the possibility that some men's hopes and fears will not amount to the empty dreams he holds.
STRUCTURE See FORM AND FORMAT.
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