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THE JUDGMENT OF THE POETS
1. Two nymphs. May and June. The former month in 1791 was unusually inclement. Cowper, in speaking of it in a letter to his friend Johnson, said: “Oh! what a month of May this has been! Let never poet, English poet at least, give himself to the praises of May again.”
“Yardley Oak” was written in 1791. The tree, to which the poem is addressed, was said by Cowper to be twenty-two feet, six and one-half inches in girth; it was situated three miles from Weston. In a letter to Lady Hesketh dated September 13, 1788, the poet spoke of it in this way: “I walked with him (Mr. Gifford) yesterday on a visit to an oak on the border of Yardley Chase, an oak which I often visit, and which is one of the wonders that I show to all who come this way and have never seen it. I tell them it is a thousand years old, believing it to be so, though I do not know it.” The oak is said to have been planted by Judith, daughter of William the Conqueror.
10. Our forefather Druids in their oaks. The religious services conducted by the Druids were held in oak groves.
35. Didst burst thine egg, as theirs the fabled Twins. According to one myth, Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Jupiter and Leda, were born at the same time with Helena, their sister, out of an egg.
41. As in Dodona. The oracle of Zeus was situated in an oak grove at Dodona in Epirus, northwestern Greece.
96. Some flagged admiral. Admiral's flagship.
99. Tough knee-timber. “Knee-timber is found in the crooked arms of oak, which, by reason of their distortion, are
easily adjusted to the angle formed where the deck and the ship's sides meet." (Author's note.)
161. Supply her with a theme. The poem was never finished.
TO THE NIGHTINGALE “To the Nightingale" was written in 1792.
16. Of happier days at hand. Cowper's hope, as expressed here, was not realized, for he said later that the year 1792 was the saddest he had yet known.
“To Mary” was written in 1793. The poem is addressed to Mrs. Unwin, with whom Cowper was so long associated. In December, 1791, she suffered a paralytic stroke from which she never fully recovered. Her death occurred in December, 1796.
1. The twentieth year is well-nigh past. A reference to Cowper's attack of insanity in 1773. (See Introduction, page xviii.)
9. Thy needles, once a shining store. Lady Hesketh, in a letter to Theodora Cowper, dated June, 1786, wrote: (Mrs. Unwin) constant employment is knitting stockings, which she does with the finest needles I ever saw. ... She sits knitting on one side of the table, in her spectacles, and he (Cowper) on the other, reading to her (when he is not employed in writing) in his.”
“The Castaway,” the last poem that Cowper produced, was written in March, 1799. It is based on an incident found in Anson's Voyages, which the poet had read several months before.
THE TASK THE WINTER EVENING (Book IV) The Task,” the longest, and, in many respects, the greatest of Cowper's poems, was written in 1783–1784. In the advertisement to the first edition of the work, the author accounted for its origin in this way: “The history of the following production, is briefly this: A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the Sofa for a subject. He obeyed; and having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth, at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair a Volume!”
The lady referred to was Lady Austen. She was an ardent admirer of blank verse, and time and again urged Cowper to attempt its use. At first he declined, but finally promised to grant her request if she would furnish the subject. “O!” she replied, "you can never be in want of a subject; you can write upon any: write upon this sofa!”
“The poet,” says Mr. Hayley, “obeyed her command, and from the lively repartee of familiar conversation arose a 3
poem of many thousand verses, unexampled perhaps both in its origin and excellence. A poem of such infinite variety, that it seems to include every subject, and every style, without any dissonance or disorder; and to have flowed without effort, from inspired philanthropy, eager to impress upon the hearts of all readers whatever may lead them most happily to the full enjoyment of human life, and to the final attainment of heaven."
The poem is divided into six books: The Sofa, The TimePiece, The Garden, The Winter Evening, The Winter Morning Walk, and The Winter Walk at Noon.
1. O'er yonder bridge. The bridge extending across the valley between Olney and Emberton.
25. Have our troops awaked? A reference to the English troops in America.
28. Is India free? In a letter to Newton dated January 25, 1784, Cowper wrote: “To speak here figuratively, I would abandon all territorial interest in a country to which we can have no right, and which we cannot govern with any security to the happiness of the inhabitants, or without the danger of incurring either perpetual broils, or the most insupportable tyranny at home."
50. This folio. The newspaper.
86. Katerfelto. A mountebank who used to exhibit in London in company with a black cat, and headed his advertisements with the words, “Wonders! Wonders !"
114. He travels, and I too. Cowper was very fond of books of travel.
189. O evenings worthy of the gods! Quoted from Horace:
“O noctes coenaeque Deum.”
- Satires, Bk. II, 1. 66.
190. The Sabine bard. Horace was so designated because he spent much of his time on his “Sabine farm," about thirty miles east of Rome.
363. The unhealthful east. The east wind, which, in classic mythology, was unvariably associated with storms.
427. I mean the man. The reference is to Robert Smith, the first Lord Carrington. In a letter to Unwin dated October 10, 1784, Cowper wrote: How I love and honor that man ! For many reasons I dare not tell him how much. My bosom burns to immortalize him. .. He sent forty pounds, twenty at a time. Olney has not had such a friend this many a day.”
437. Plashed. With the branches half broken, and then interwoven with others.
** 473. Indian fume. Tobacco was introduced into Eng
ind by Sir Walter Raleigh, who found it in use among the damerican Indians.
475. Lethean leave. Lethe, one of the rivers of the lower vorld of which the souls of the departed were obliged to Irink to make them forget the past.
507. Midas finger. Midas, a king of Phrygia, Asia Minor, who was given the “golden touch."
515. Arcadian scenes that Maro sings. Scenes of perfect joy and contentment which Virgil sings of in his “Eclogues.”
516. And Sidney. Similar scenes dealt with by Sir Philip Sidney in his “Arcadia."
517. Dianas. Diana, the goddess of the chase.
533. Tramontane. Literally, beyond the mountain; hence, barbarous.
627. Is balloted. Drafted.
642. Meal and larded locks. A reference to the use of hairdressing at one time common in the English army. It was forbidden by a general order in 1799.
676–683. Hence merchants, unimpeachable of sin, etc. Cowper is referring to the East India Company, whose un
fair treatment of the natives of India appealed strongly to * his sense of justice.
707. Tityrus. The shepherd boy in Virgil's first “EcI logue.”
723. Ingenious Cowley. Abraham Cowley (1618–1667), an English author best known for his Pindaric Odes and essays.
728. Chertsey's silent bowers. Cowley's estate at Chertsey, a few miles southwest of London.
757. Grace the well. That is, the garden hemmed in by walls.
765. The Frenchman's darling. “Mignonette.” (Author's note.)