Monday, 4 July 2016

William Cowper

William Cowper is a name mentioned before in this blog.Jerome Nicholas Vlieland raised a monument in Westminster Abbey.
When you read his writings of the sea it makes you wonder if they were based on The Vlieland family and their ships.
Whereas Crane's 'The Open Boat' uses the situation of the castaway as an implicit criticism and parody of Protestant hymns, the poetry of William Cowper, who himself wrote hymns, arrives at the same modern imaginative landscape by a very different route. Cowper's 'The Castaway', which is probably the best known of all English depictions of the swimmer in the waste ocean, confesses that 'misery still delights to trace/ Its semblance in another's case' and then describes the plight of one swept overboard by raging seas who drowns because help cannot reach him. He then closes the poem by emphasizing his own abandonment and spiritual destruction:
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 gulphs than he. [11. 61-6]
Cowper's poem is a turning-point in the iconology of spiritual shipwreck. Before it such shipwreck always represents a divine punishment, test, or lesson, whereas afterwards (perhaps in large part because of this poem's influence) the situation increasingly represents the disappearance of God. What makes 'The Castaway' so difficult to interpret finally is that, although it apparently presents this modern sense of abandonment, the evidence of biography and his other poetry argues that Cowper believed his experience as castaway was God's punishment for his sins.
Even when making apparendy straightforward uses of traditional Christian commonplaces, he makes this absence of God an unsettling element in his verse. 'Human Frailty', for example, points out that man inevitably shipwrecks without divine assistance:
Bound on a voyage of awful length
And dangers little known,
A stranger to superior strength,
Man vainly trusts his own.
But oars alone can ne'er prevail
To reach the distant coast,
The breath of heav'n must swell the sail,
Or all the toil is lost. [11. 17-24]
When placed in the context of his other poems, such a commonplace statement of man's dependence upon God takes on a particular poignancy, for even here Cowper has no confidence that God will in fact 'swell the sails'. He has stated the conditions of survival, but the conditional nature of the statement reminds us that here, as in so many of his poems, God is mentioned as not being present: He is a hoped-for presence, a condition necessary for success, survival, and salvation. Such a description of God is not all that unusual in religious verse and hymnody, but in his most powerful poems Cowper does not seem able to move from a conditional —and absent —deity to a present one who sustains him. 'Temptation', which expresses his hope that he will make safe haven, characteristically closes, not with the certainty that he has reached God or will reach Him, but with the injunction that the difficulties of the voyage might not prevent his search from continuing:
Tho' tempest-toss'd and half a wreck,
My saviour thro' the flood I seek;
Let neither winds nor stormy main
Force back my shatter'd bark again. [11. 1720]
Already envisaging himself as a wreck, he continues his voyage, but the frequently despairing Cowper seems to have little hope that he could close his voyage successfully. Several times, in fact, he expresses the conviction that he is a castaway. Thus, in the verses he wrote on John Newton's safe return from a sea voyage ('To the Reverend Mr. Newton on his Return from Ramsgate'), he tells his friend and Evangelical mentor, who had himself exchanged the life of a slave-ship captain for that of a preacher, that
Your sea of troubles you have past,
And found the peaceful shore;
I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
Come home to port no more. [11. 13-16]
The poet's sense of being isolated from both man and God led him to see himself in the guise of Robinson Crusoe, and once again, he employs the post-Christian intonation of this figure. In other words, he sees himself, not the way Defoe presented Crusoe as a man shipwrecked and cast away by God for his spiritual edification —but simply as an example of isolated, abandoned humanity. In Cowper's vision of the voyage of life,
. . . the wreck'd mariner may strive
Some desert shore to gain,
Secure of life if he survive
The fury of the main:
But there, to famine doom'd a prey
Finds the mistaken wretch!
He but escap'd the troubled sea,
To perish on the beach.
['Mortals! Around Your Destin'd Heads', 11. 1320]
Cowper, who so powerfully presents such vignettes of men perishing in isolation and despair, obviously saw himself living in this situation as the primal castaway, His verses 'On the Death of Sir W. Russell' overtly claim that he is such a hapless survivor of maritime disaster:
See me —ere yet my destin'd course half done
Cast forth a wand'rer on a wild unknown!
See neglected on the world's rude coast,
Each dear companion of my voyage lost! [11. 1518]
Similarly, his lines on Alexander Selkirk, the original of Robinson Crusoe, close with the abandoned mariner complaining, 'I must finish my journey alone', and although neither Selkirk nor Crusoe did in fact perish on his respective island, Cowper seemed certain he would do so on his.
The poet's Evangelical sense of sin so convinced him of his own depravity that he came to believe that God had abandoned him, despite his awareness that such conviction was despair, the greatest of sins. His despair thrust Cowper into the modern imaginative landscape in which God has disappeared. The very absence of God in 'The Castaway' makes it a precursor of much later work, for whereas the older Christian uses of the situation, which still appear in Coleridge, Hopkins, and Hugo, always rely on a dual perspective that presents both the abandonment and the presence of God, the later version concentrates solely on the experience of the man shipwrecked and cast away —in other words, on the consequences of God's absence

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