Cowper’s Spontaneous Task

  • Ted Underwood


In the eighteenth century, Virgil’s Georgics provided a model for poems that directly imitated Virgil’s didactic manner—like John Dyer’s The Fleece—and for poems that were “georgic” in the broader sense that they took agriculture as a subject. The georgic mode came to a stop, however, with or not long after William Cowper’s long poem The Task (1785). Whether critics view The Task as a georgic poem, or as a heterogeneous collation of different modes including georgic and mock-georgic, they have agreed that it is hard to find significant georgic poems written after 1785.


Eighteenth Century Regular Plan Rural Retreat Moral Struggle Moral Seriousness 
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  1. 1.
    Dustin Griffin has suggested that The Task “redefines georgic” by “redefining labor … as a virtually spiritual activity, and … shifting attention from the public sphere to the private.” Richard Feingold, on the other hand, feels that the poem’s failure is the real riddle to be explained; he discusses The Task as a sensitive, but essentially doomed, effort to fit late-eighteenth-century society into an antiquated poetic mode. Dustin Griffin, “Redefining Georgic: Cowper’s Task,” English Literary History 57.4 (1990): 876.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  3. 2.
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    The survey covered middle-class memoirs, diaries, letters, and family records in the East and West Midlands between 1780 and 1850. “Cowper is easily the most quoted writer in the records from both areas … usually occupying a place of honour.” The authors indicate that this remains true throughout the period of their study. Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 157, 157n.Google Scholar
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    Martin Priestman has similarly argued that Cowper’s Task struggles to reconcile a Christian work ethic with a tradition of retirement poetry. Martin Priestman, Cowper’s Task: Structure and Influence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 96.Google Scholar
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    In saying this, I echo John Chalker’s observation that Thomson’s “sensitively serious eighteenth-century imitation of the Georgics” was both more important for and more representative of its time than more formal imitations such as John Philips’s Cyder (1708) or John Dyer’s The Fleece (1757) that retain the Virgilian didactic structure. John Chalker, The English Georgic: A Study in the Development of a Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 92.Google Scholar
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  20. 33.
    William Cowper, “Table Talk,” The Poems of William Cowper, ed. J. D. Baird and C. Ryskamp, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1:257. The lines are, significantly enough, placed in the mouth of the Whig speaker in a Whig-Tory dialogue.Google Scholar
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    Cowper’s Task is followed by a long tradition of nineteenth-century works in which the activity of walking has to support this sort of medico-moral argument. Examining Cowper, William Wordsworth, H. D. Thoreau, George Eliot, and John Burroughs, among others, Anne D. Wallace’s Walking, Literature, and English Culture concludes that the georgic mode is replaced by a new mode she names “peripatetic,” which puts the walker in “the ideological space vacated by the farmer,” and “represents excursive walking as a cultivating labour capable of renovating both the individual and his society by recollecting and expressing past value.” Anne D. Wallace, Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 11.Google Scholar
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    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Complete Poetical Works, ed. E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 1:179, 1:181.Google Scholar

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© Ted Underwood 2005

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  • Ted Underwood

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