The editor of an anthology of Christian verse has, at the outset, to decide what the book is for. Pious browsing? Testimony to the predominance of Christianity in our culture, whether religious or secular? Evidence that adherence to Christian doctrine is compatible with the production of poetry that still seems good? An anthology of religious poetry would, you might suppose, be quite a different matter. Yet Helen Gardner’s Faber Book of Religious Verse contains nothing that is manifestly outside the Christian tradition, unless one defines that tradition very rigorously. She includes Shelley, Hardy, Housman, and Yeats, but no Jewish poetry, to stray no further from the middle of the road than that. Dame Helen professes to distinguish between Christian and religious, but only to let in a few errant masters like those named above.
The lazy confidence of the English assumption that religious, give or take a few marginal cases, means effectively the same thing as Christian, has its amusing side, especially in these days when it is harder than ever to draw the line. A few years ago the American scholar Charles Anderson prevailed on me to abet him in his campaign to install a monument to Henry James in Westminster Abbey. The main task before us, apart from collecting the cash and commissioning the stone, was to persuade the dean and chapter of Westminster that they should give the enterprise their blessing. We were called upon to make our case with proper ceremony, and in due time waited on the dean with the most impressive group of senior establishment figures we could muster; I remember the late C.P. Snow (a lord) and V.S. Pritchett (a knight) and Iris Murdoch; there were others, all in their best clothes. The dean required an assurance that Henry James could properly be called a religious man. We gave it without reservation; if the question had been whether he was a Christian we should have sipped our sherry with less composure. We succeeded; James was installed with all due observances, and Professor Leon Edel preached a notable sermon to a very grand congregation. More recently, the fans of George Eliot have got her in too, though she was quite positively not Christian; and the two novelists now hobnob with Hopkins, Eliot, and Auden, who satisfy much more rigorous standards.
It is a safe guess that if Donald Davie had anything to do with it neither James nor George Eliot would be commemorated in a Christian church. You will look in vain for Shelley, Hardy, Housman, and Yeats in his sacred space. Yet there are obvious reasons why his anthology is enormously superior to its Faber rival. The first is that he is himself a fine poet and critic, admittedly with strong and idiosyncratic tastes, but never likely to call a bad poem a good one. The second is that he has been thinking hard about Christian poetry. In a way his anthology is a companion to his recent book of lectures, A Gathered Church (1978), which argues aggressively that the literature of dissenters has had very unfair treatment in traditional literary history and criticism; to him it seems anything but marginal to English and American culture.
Davie’s choice of verse is illuminated by some forceful doctrinal assertions in A Gathered Church. Having remarked that few of us “would like to live with the Calvinist tenets of election and reprobation in their primitive seventeenth-century ferocity”—to which tenets he attributes both “masculine force” and the power to create “private terror and despair”—he says of Jonathan Edwards that his doctrine (“Calvinism in all its uncompromising rigour”) “has never been controverted, and perhaps it is uncontrovertible.” We have simply set it aside. Davie shows contempt for softened versions of Calvinism, and seems to be sorry that John Wesley, whom he admires, wasn’t a Calvinist. So we know where Davie stands, and also, incidentally, why he shows so much interest in American Christian poetry, including poems by Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Jones Very, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Emily Dickinson. (Gardner shows no sign of having allowed American poetry to come under her notice; some things, and the literary inferiority of Americans is among them, are apparently not negotiable.)
Davie returns to his doctrinal position in the preface to the anthology, but poetry is an even more important test for inclusion than Calvinism. This isn’t a work of piety, but as a matter of personal preference (he is “specially drawn to the plain style”) the editor chooses a lot of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century hymns, and leaves out the un-English baroque of Crashaw’s “Hymn to Saint Teresa.” Most of these hymns are the product of evangelical dissent, and they “preach doctrines more bleakly challenging than most modern Christians are accustomed to”; yet many of them are still familiar, though often in expurgated forms, to modern churchgoers who probably don’t even know they are chanting the words of John Newton, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Cowper. Such hymns treat, as a rule, of “one or more of the distinctive doctrines of the Christian church,” but for the present enterprise they must also satisfy the requirement that they be good poems; and since Charles Wesley alone wrote more than six thousand hymns we can see that the editor set himself no simple task. What he did, he says, was to assume that George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Christopher Smart, and William Cowper were “the masters of the sacred poem in English,” and then ask of each candidate for inclusion whether it deserved “to appear between the same covers as Herbert’s ‘The Collar’ or his ‘Church-monuments’ “—a criterion as admirable as it is surely almost impossibly severe.
This preface is a strong critical essay, and it includes a subtle study of Cowper’s hymn “Sometimes a light surprises” from the collection he published in 1779 with John Newton (coming upon it in an index of first lines you might want to attribute it to Emily Dickinson).
One may have read this poem, or more probably sung it, many and many a time before realizing that the crucial word in it is the first. “Sometimes”—only sometimes, not always, not even very often! The “holy contemplation” that is thereafter evoked, the sweet security, the unforced adoration—all this is distinctly not what any one, it seems, should expect to experience at all often, in church or out of it. It is not presented as the normal condition of the Believer. Above all therefore it is not the pay-off, the guaranteed reward for going to church and trying to behave well. On the contrary one earns such fitful and infrequent benefits (though “earn” is the wrong word anyway, for a Calvinist such as Cowper) only by first suffering through afflictions and desolations—the “season of clear shining” comes only “after rain,” only “when comforts are declining”; and there is no guarantee that it will come, even then. Similarly, one sings anyway; the consoling words that one sings strike dully and inertly Sunday after Sunday (one is even, so some might say, “insincere” in singing them); it is only sometimes, on one or two Sundays out of many, that “a light surprises” and the words take on heart-felt meaning, “while he sings.”
The emphasis in the preface, once again, is on the doctrinal “bleakness” Davie finds so attractive. For my taste there is a little too much relish in his admiration for the “appalling” certainties of Calvinism, but perhaps he is sure of election and would expect those who have no such confidence to feel some unease or resentment. However, it is undoubtedly in consequence of his beliefs that Davie regards “direct and unswerving English” as the only decent way to talk to God; “any prevarication or ambiguity is unseemly.” And he is beyond question a connoisseur of such English; so the bleakness of the theology contributes after all to the strength of the poetry.
This “New” Oxford book, then, reflects the personality of the compiler much more positively than its predecessor, the superseded volume of Lord David Cecil, or its rival, the Faber Book of Religious Verse. Resemblances are closest, not surprisingly, in the medieval sections; it is after the Reformation that Davie strikes out on his own. He includes three sonnets by the plain but difficult Fulke Greville, five of Mary Herbert’s psalm paraphrases from The Sidney Psalter; Francis Quarles’s one masterpiece which begins
Like to the arctic needle, that doth guide The wand’ring shade by his mag- netic pow’r,
And leaves his silken gnomon to decide The question of the controverted
First frantics up and down from side to side,
And restless beats his crystal’d iv’ry case,
With vain impatience jets from place to place,
And seeks the bosom of his frozen bride;
At length he slacks his motion,
and doth rest
His trembling point at his bright pole’s beloved breast.
E’en so my soul….
He has found two poems by one Thomas Washbourne that satisfy his criteria, nobly unearthed from Grosart’s Victorian edition. The many evangelical hymns seem worth their place. Wordsworth squeezes in with “Resolution and Independence,” on the faintly ridiculous plea that the old leech-gatherer of the poem is a Scottish Presbyterian. (Wordsworth, who says a lot about the old man in his remarkable letter to Sara Hutchinson, June 14, 1802, fails to make this point, speaking instead of “the fortitude, independence, persevering spirit, and the general moral dignity” exhibited by this impressive figure, in spite of “the necessities which an unjust state of society has entailed upon him.”)
The nineteenth century provides more hymns, and more American Christian poetry. From the twentieth century Davie gives us a highly individual selection: the anonymous Ozark Holy Roller song, “The Heavenly Aeroplane,” and, less contentiously, several poems by C.H. Sisson, including the remarkably fine “Letter to John Donne.”
Even if it were to turn out that there aren’t many readers who want Christian poetry so rigorously Christian and so rigorously poetry, this anthology will survive as the work of a distinguished poet when more conventional compilations are forgotten. Given the terms Davie so firmly and lucidly sets down there is, in my view, only one serious complaint to be made. Cowper is one of the heroes of the book, but his best poem, “The Castaway,” is omitted. This can hardly be because the editor thought it inferior as poetry. The reason must be doctrinal.
Cowper had earlier shown some fascination with the idea of death by drowning in the ocean, but “The Castaway,” written at the end of his life, grew out of prolonged meditation on a passage in a book about Admiral Anson’s voyage round the world. A sailor is lost overboard near Cape Horn: “We perceived that he swam very strong, and it was of the utmost concern that we found ourselves incapable of assisting him; and we were the more grieved at his unhappy fate since we lost sight of him struggling with the waves, and conceived…that he might continue sensible for a considerable time longer of the horror attending his irretrievable situation.”
Cowper might have written about this event as he did of the sinking of the Royal George, which capsized at the quayside with the loss of 800 lives: a patriotic lament for the brave that are no more. But he saw the lost sailor as a type of himself, and calls him “such a destin’d wretch as I.”
That is near the beginning of the poem; the bulk of it describes, with feeling but in a slightly stilted diction, the plight of the sailor: “Not long beneath the whelming brine, / Expert to swim, he lay.” The ship sails on, carried away by “the furious blast”; at length the man drowns: “by toil subdu’d, he drank / The stifling wave, and then he sank.” Heroic Anson shed a tear, and since this will immortalize the dead man there is no need for the poet to do so. There is a melancholy delicacy about all this, but the refusal to take on the job of commemorating the sailor is really a device to reintroduce the real subject; for “misery still delights to trace / Its semblance in another’s case.” And so to the last, worked-for stanza, with its complex peripeties:
No voice divine the storm allay’d No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.
First, the comment or complaint that God had omitted to intervene; then “We perish’d”—all the more surprising in that one half expects “We perish,” a generalization of the human condition. But no, it is Cowper and the sailor, only those two; and the subsequent claim that the poet’s is the worse case divides him not only from his “semblance,” the drowning sailor, but from the whole of mankind.
It seems clear that Davie accepts reprobation, the damnation of the non-elect, as the logical accompaniment of election. So did Cowper. Many years earlier, while a patient in a private asylum at St. Albans, just north of London, he had been converted to Evangelical Calvinism; but he subsequently suffered, as the elect should not, from a conviction that he was damned nevertheless. (If Thomas Pynchon’s Scurvhamite sect had existed, Cowper would probably have joined it.) Calvinism suited this poet’s dementia almost exactly; but it was not only mad but theologically incorrect of him to suppose himself singled out from the rest of humanity for both election and reprobation, and one can only guess that this is the reason why Davie excludes “The Castaway.” Yet it is surely as Christian as it is bleak, and since Davie is not given to failures of nerve we shall have to attribute this unhappy reprobation of a fine poem to heresy-hunting.
Cowper of course wrote a great deal of jollier stuff. It is pleasing that the Oxford University Press should, in these hard times, be proceeding with their edition of his poetry and prose almost in the grand old manner. The prose already runs to about 1,300 pages, and there is as much still to come; the first of the two verse volumes only takes us up to Cowper’s first volume of poetry, though he was over fifty when it was published in 1782. A second volume will include most of his best-known works; unfortunately the translation of Homer, which occupied the poet for eleven years and was in his view his principal work, is to be left out “on grounds of expediency” (neither the publisher nor the editors can afford the time and the expense).
Charles Ryskamp, of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, is the most distinguished of Cowper scholars. Twenty-three years ago he published his admirable William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esquire, which took the poet’s life up to 1768 (his thirty-eighth year) and added many uncollected letters and poems. Now, working with collaborators, he shows himself an exemplary editor, deeply learned in the poet’s life and times, ready but not over-ready to annotate. He and his helpers must have another gift—the capacity never to be bored by Cowper, an admirable letter writer certainly, but with a tendency to rattle on.
I suppose the high point of the prose must be the twin essays called Adelphi, the poet’s record of his own conversion and the deathbed conversion of his brother, who was a Cambridge don, thought by Cowper perhaps too clever to be religious. Depression ran in the family and after a bright start, at Westminster School and then as a student of law, William fell prey to it. At twenty-one he belonged to a rakish and talented group of young men; at thirty-two he made his third suicide attempt, the proximate cause being his terror at the prospect of a House of Lords inquiry into his tenure of an easy and remunerative post there. He describes vividly an attempt at hanging himself.
My garter was made of a broad scarlet binding with a sliding buckle being sewn together at the ends; by the help of the buckle I formed a noose and fixing it about my neck, strained it so tight that I hardly left a passage for breath or the blood to circulate. The tongue of the buckle held it fast. At each corner of the bed was placed a wreath of carved work fastened by an iron pin which passed up through the midst of it. The other part of the garter therefore which made a loop I slipped over one of these and hung by it some seconds, drawing up my feet under me that they might not touch the floor. But the iron bent, the carved work slipped off, and the garter with it. I then fastened the garter to the frame of the tester, winding it round and tying it in a strong knot. The frame broke short and let me down again….
So to the third attempt, jumping from a chair with the rope over the angle of the door; a voice said “‘Tis over, ’tis over, ’tis over,”‘ but he found himself face down on the floor, half dead only. All such failures Cowper attributes to the direct intervention of God, who, as he remarked in a famous hymn, moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
The genre of confessions was in vogue, but Cowper meant it when he said that “there was never so abandoned a wretch” as he. (As “The Castaway” suggests, he felt a special horror at the idea of abandonment; his mother died when he was six). He thought despair the unpardonable sin and Satan’s greatest weapon; but he was saved from it, or should have been, by his conversion. After his stay at St. Albans, he never went back to London but moved a little to the north, living first at Huntingdon and then, for many years, at Olney, as the boarder of the Revd. and Mrs. Unwin, and later, when Unwin died, of Mrs. Unwin alone. The curate of Olney was the reformed slave-trader and hymn writer John Newton, author of “How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds,” and it was he who extracted from Cowper his large contribution to the volume Olney Hymns.
He was now leading a placid village life, but in 1773 he was mad again, perhaps from the anxiety of supposing that he must marry Mrs. Unwin to put a stop to gossip. Thereafter he clung to the belief that he was, of all the elect, the only damned soul. This conviction is recorded in a remarkable poem, all the more horrible because of its stately Horatian sapphics:
Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution:—
Wait, with impatient readiness, to seize my Soul in a moment.
Damn’d below Judas; more abhorr’d than he was,
Who, for a few pence, sold his holy master.
Twice betray’d, Jesus me, the last delinquent Deems the profanest….
[Not, need I say, in Davie.]
From the time of this breakdown he never entered a church, and was convinced that, irrevocably damned, he had virtually ceased to exist. But he achieved some kind of equilibrium, began to write a great deal of verse, and made new friends. Then there were more relapses, in 1787 and 1792; the final collapse of 1794 lasted until his death in 1800.
Although a large quantity of biographical information survives, it isn’t easy to guess the cause of these illnesses. It was at one time not uncommon to speak of his “hereditary taint.” It appears, moreover, that sexual anxiety of some kind attended each collapse; the last coincided with the final illness and death of Mrs. Unwin. There were strong rumors that he was a hermaphrodite, and Charles Greville says so positively in his Journal; or that he had some genital defect. But perhaps the behavior that gave rise to such speculations was a consequence rather than a cause; we remember another uniquely elect figure, Dr. Schreber, who believed he must become a woman. However, Cowper’s fantasies were not messianic; they were fed by a demonic version of Calvinism. His sufferings arose from a conviction that absolutely nothing, including those sufferings, can occur without the direct concurrence of God; as he was so often hellishly depressed the moral seemed obvious.
Yet the great bulk of his writing is genial enough. He wrote about his Horatian retirement, his garden, his pet hares, his chats with ladies. Most of his letters—an immense collection—are gently animated and seem happy enough. Reading them, one remembers that he had almost no income and unashamedly depended on friends for his support and his luxuries. The quantity of good things sent him by coach from London is extraordinary—he is forever thanking people for salmon, halibut, oysters, sole, cod, mackerel, herring, and port. Now and again some political event excited him—the Gordon Riots of 1780, or the bad behavior of the American colonists; and he was clearly shaken out of his country clam by hot-air balloons, though the one he saw was a failure. “The endeavour was I believe very philosophically made, but such a process depends for its success upon such niceties as make it very precarious.” He decided against them.
But more often his letters are chit-chat, as might be expected from a correspondent whose only winter diversion is “to walk ten times a day from the fire-side to his Cucumber frame and back again.” He cracks some jokes (“Vive la bagatelle!” he cries, quoting that other melancholy man, Swift). He is sometimes priggish, especially when writing to Newton, after his removal to a London parish; he agreed that it was disgraceful to celebrate the centenary of Handel’s birth with a concert in a church. Worse, he consoles himself in a hard winter that the sufferings of the poor who can “wrap themselves up warm in the robe of Salvation” are less than his own, since he lacks this recourse. He had about him a touch of the contemporary Man of Feeling; but true men of feeling probably don’t become Calvinists.
Cowper wrote to hold off melancholy. In 1779, admittedly before he became famous, he told a correspondent, “I have no more Right to the Name of a Poet, than a maker of Mousetraps has to That of an Engineer.” Verse is to him what a fiddle might be to a gentleman. But he thought himself a good judge of poetry. He was harsh on Dr. Johnson, or rather he admired him as lexicographer and biographer, but declared he had no ear for verse. Of Pope he said that “never…were such talents and such drudgery united.” He came to see his own Homer as superseding Pope’s, which he repeatedly condemns in his letters. But he mostly clung to the idea of himself as an amateur, amusing the ladies with The Task and the whole nation with his poem The Diverting History of John Gilpin—for some time not known to be his.
Curiously enough, the event that did more than any other to propel him into serious authorship was a book by Martin Madan, the cousin who rescued him after his suicide attempt years before and consigned him to the asylum at St. Albans. Madan was now advocating polygamy, on the novel ground that monogamy was the chief cause of ruined women. He wanted every seducer to marry his victim, whether or not cohabitation continued, and so be responsible for keeping her off the streets. Cowper, greatly disturbed by all this, wrote diatribes against Madan. “Fear siez’d the trembling Sex, in ev’ry Grove / They wept the Wrongs of Honorable Love,” etc. Or, “What is there in the Vale of Life / Half so delightfull as a Wife…?” Well, how would he know? But these exercises got him going, and by the time he took on Homer he was turning out forty lines a day.
“I am become the wonder of the Post Office in this Town,” he once wrote. “They never sent so many letters to London in their lives.” Writing verse and letters is a palliative for melancholy little used, one supposes, in our day. But it kept Cowper for long periods calm and civil. Yet it was when depression mapped itself onto those bleak and appalling doctrines, and his writing faced in Calvinism a demonic projection of his own psyche, that he became, for a few moments in his seventy years, a great poet.
October 21, 1982