Cowper is the only really good English poet who seems actively repulsed by the prospect of startling his language. He writes as if he were wary of generating too great a shock to his system, as if the play of poetry were not any safer because it were play. The poems do not achieve a poise of contemplative cool, or a sturdy decorum, though they feign at both; they have too much sweat on the brow for either to seem genuine. Christopher Ricks has written on the disjuncture between Housman’s meter and message, his manner and matter: the sing-song of the one clashing with the willfully-false pessimistic claims of the other. Something similar happens in Cowper’s verse: the extremity of the matter, the feelings of guilt and isolation, should, we feel, at least looking at the poetry since Cowper (Hopkins is the obvious example), but even at the poetry before (Herbert, Donne), jar the verse more than it does—not only in meter, but in diction and phrasing. Cowper’s understatement, detachment, and wonderfully adept control of meter come to seem not insecure and self-doubting in themselves but, in relation to the human situation often implied (or stated) by the poems, symptoms of insecurity and self-mistrust: they are mustered, or mastered, as a response to the dis-ease the poems aver. It is an entirely different ideal of poetry from Romantic and post-Romantic generation where the gravity or extremity of a poet’s duress tend to be registered by formal fracture. But why should it have to be thus dramatized?
Geoffrey Hill calls him “desperately laconic,” suggesting the desperation is motivated by a wariness of religious enthusiasm. But “laconic” only captures one dimension of a performance that loathes performing much at all, in the direction of any of a number of extremes (and religious enthusiasm is not the only unbridled feeling he would fear raising). To startle the language too much would be to move towards one of them. The struggle to remain fairly dull tautens, toughens, and redeems even moments that might be dull.
Sometimes the language must be startled, of course–and yet when it is, it is so slight as to barely tremble:
Oh then! kind heaven, be this my latest breath;
Here then end my life, or make it worth my care;
Absence from whom we love is worse than death,
And frustrate hope severer than despair.
Donald Davie has thoroughly shown, in several essays, how difficult it is for modern sensibilities to trace the variegated surface of eighteenth-century poetic diction (we are not as rigid in rejecting and accepting words as the contemporaries of the critic who censured Shakespeare for the word “knife”), I think it safe to say that the word “severer” in the last line represents an instance of Cowper startling language within a quiet limit, the pun on “sever” lurking within “severer,” pertinent to a poetry about absences, partings, endings, and pertinent too as the final line of the poem. But it is modest and unassuming, tenderly guarded against the will to be something more.
The most brilliant of his poems is “Hatred and Vengeance my Eternal Portion.” Even this poem bears out my point though; especially this poem. The poem’s meter—it is in sapphics—is simultaneously a virtuoso confrontation with the feelings of self-contempt and a virtuoso distraction from them. Where the meter moves us, its success depends on the language’s not starting and acting out, but on its falling in place like the successive blows of a hammer on series of nails (driving into the poet). And in this poem, where Cowper’s language does startle, the poem moves to its conclusion abruptly, as if he were eager to be done with it, to release its hold, or prevent its hold on him. The result is as poignant as the imagery is grotesque.
But I think as good a key is the earlier poem, “Apology to Delia,” on the pleasure of dissembling dissatisfaction, for the sake of making up [in the last line “amply” should read “aptly”]. The poem is slight, but suggests the chief desire: to be able to play it safe, without real stir, in matters of pain.