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Cowper’s Spontaneous Task

  • Ted Underwood

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Regular Plan Rural Retreat Moral Struggle Moral Seriousness 
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Notes

  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
  2. Richard Feingold, Nature and Society (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978): 121–92.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    John Dyer, The Fleece, Minor Poets of the Eighteenth Century, ed. H. Fausset (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930), 3:22–26.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    James King, William Cowper:A Biography (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), 155.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Francis Jeffrey, rev. of The Dramatic Works of John Ford, Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, ed. Henry Weber, 4 vols. (London: Longmans, 1944), 2:294.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    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
  7. 6.
    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
  8. 7.
    Feingold, Nature and Society, 5–7. See also C. A. Moore, “Whig Panegyric Verse, 1700–1760,” PMLA 41 (1926): 362–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 8.
    Virgil , The Georgics, trans. L.P. Wilkinson (New York: Penguin, 1982), 1.197–201.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Dwight L. Durling, Georgic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), 33–35.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Scott Elledge (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 94 [4:618–22].Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ben Jonson, “To Penshurst,” Poems, ed. I. Donaldson (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 88.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 29–31.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    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
  15. 18.
    James Thomson, “Summer,” The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, ed. J. L. Robertson (London: Oxford University Press, 1908), 1438–45.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    “Labour n. s. 2.The act of doing what requires a painful exertion of strength, or wearisome perseverance.” Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London: Strahan, 1755). Likewise, Burke’s description of the sublime as a kind of inward labor postulates a resistance overcome, since “labour is a surmounting of difficulties“ (Burke’s italics). Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J.T. Boulton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 135.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    “In agriculture too nature labours along with man; and though her labour costs no expence, its produce has its value, as well as that of the most expensive workmen.” Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, and W. B. Todd, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 1:363 (II.v.12).Google Scholar
  18. 26.
    William Cowper, letter to William Unwin, October 10, 1784, The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, ed. J. King and C. Ryskamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 285.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    Priestman, Cowper’s Task, 3, 14. See also Dorothy Hadley Craven, “Cowper’s Use of ‘Slight Connection’ in The Task: A Study in Structure and Style,” (PhD diss., University of Colorado, 1953).Google Scholar
  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
  21. 39.
    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
  22. 43.
    Wallace, Walking, 95–102. Thomas Pfau, Wordsworth’s Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 61–82.Google Scholar
  23. 44.
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 4 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 1957), 1:1589, 1:785.Google Scholar
  24. 45.
    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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