How did Cowper Love Women?

Volume:

Excerpt

Academics enjoy few things more than formulating questions and then refusing to answer them. This article is no exception, as it asks the question ‘How did Cowper love women?’ and then suggests that the question cannot, in the final analysis, be answered at all. Or rather, I would argue, such questions can be answered – but only by making Cowper less interesting than he needs or deserves to be. Putting a label on the way in which Cowper loved is to box him in, to define him, to ‘pluck out the heart of his mystery’ (as Hamlet complained to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Despite my devotion to the art (or science) of interpretation, I believe that certain mysteries are better appreciated unplucked and that they can be explored without being explained. In particular, I believe that the wrong kind of biographical criticism makes the reading of poetry a duller experience. Psychopathology is the medicalised term for the labelling of poets and poetry, the word that best describes attempts that have been made to define and confine the life and work of Cowper ever since his death. All psycho-pathological labels that seek to define both Cowper’s amorous predilections and what we now call ‘sexual identity’ are, in point of fact, anachronistic. They are drawn from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rather than the eighteenth. Victorian doctors tended to want a place for everyone and everyone in their place. Labelled love has little (thank goodness) to do with Cowper or his world. Unfortunately, over the next decade or so, thanks to the inattentive readings of one Andrew Elfenbein, we can expect the dominant label attached to Cowper to be that of ‘repressed gay man’1. Now Elfenbein doesn’t actually say that Cowper was gay, but he implies it, and I know full well from

Academics enjoy few things more than formulating questions and then refusing to answer

them. This article is no exception, as it asks the question ‘How did Cowper love women?’

and then suggests that the question cannot, in the final analysis, be answered at all. Or rather,

I would argue, such questions can be answered – but only by making Cowper less interesting

than he needs or deserves to be. Putting a label on the way in which Cowper loved is to box

him in, to define him, to ‘pluck out the heart of his mystery’ (as Hamlet complained to

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Despite my devotion to the art (or science) of interpretation, I

believe that certain mysteries are better appreciated unplucked and that they can be explored

without being explained. In particular, I believe that the wrong kind of biographical criticism

makes the reading of poetry a duller experience. Psychopathology is the medicalised term for

the labelling of poets and poetry, the word that best describes attempts that have been made

to define and confine the life and work of Cowper ever since his death.

All psycho-pathological labels that seek to define both Cowper’s amorous

predilections and what we now call ‘sexual identity’ are, in point of fact, anachronistic. They

are drawn from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rather than the eighteenth. Victorian

doctors tended to want a place for everyone and everyone in their place. Labelled love has

little (thank goodness) to do with Cowper or his world. Unfortunately, over the next decade

or so, thanks to the inattentive readings of one Andrew Elfenbein, we can expect the

dominant label attached to Cowper to be that of ‘repressed gay man’1. Now Elfenbein doesn’t

actually say that Cowper was gay, but he implies it, and I know full well from marking

student essays that anything that is offered as a vague suggestion by any scholar becomes

holy writ in the context of essays and examinations. And given the peculiar way in which

authors are organised and packaged for university syllabi, I think it more than probable that

very soon most young people studying Cowper (certainly in the United States) will regard

him as important only in terms of his gay identity. As a result, all of Cowper’s poems and

letters will be regarded as important only as evidence of his gayness. This has already

happened to Thomas Gray (whose homo-erotic friendships are fairly well documented), and

Cowper is about a decade behind Thomas Gray in this respect.

I intend to challenge the idea of a ‘gay’ or homosexual Cowper, not because I think

there is anything wrong with being gay or that Cowper needs to be defended from any

sinister accusation of being gay but rather for two (quite unrelated) reasons. Firstly for the

fairly trivial and secondary reason that there is not a single solitary shred of evidence to

support it. Nowhere in the entire body of Cowper’s poetry and correspondence is there ever

the slightest suggestion that Cowper ever felt romantically drawn to anyone of his own sex,

whereas his early poems to Delia (Theadora) contain some of the most heterosexual lyric

sentiment of their day. The more important reason why I do not believe that this label should

be slapped on Cowper is that I think that it threatens to enforce a dull way of reading his

work.

Clearly, Cowper did not enjoy what is far too casually called a ‘normal’ heterosexual

life. Certainly, there seem to have been forms of intimacy that Cowper shied away from,

certain expressions of physical affection that he could not commit to. Given the available

evidence, however, it seems logical to consider such refusals in terms of his fear of

damnation and an altruistic belief that he had no right to allow anyone to become ‘one flesh’

with someone as doomed as he felt himself to be. In other words, Cowper felt too spiritually

desolate too often to want to drag anyone down with him.

However, despite (or because of) Cowper’s failure in traditional romantic terms, he was

enabled to ‘succeed’ with women, in very different terms. To begin by considering one short

Cowper poem, we can see how fascinated Cowper was with the idea of intimacy with

women:

A Poetical Epistle to Lady Austen (17 December 1781)

DEAR Anna – between friend and friend,

Prose answers every common end;

Serves, in a plain and homely way,

T’express th’occurrence of the day;

Our health, the weather, and the news;

What walks we take, what books we choose;

And all the floating thoughts we find

Upon the surface of the mind.

But when a Poet takes the pen,

Far more alive than other men,

He feels a gentle tingling come

Down to his finger and his thumb,

Deriv’d from nature’s noblest part,

The centre of a glowing heart!

And this is what the world, who knows

No flights above the pitch of prose,

His more sublime vagaries slighting,

Denominates an itch for writing.

(1-18)

This poem illustrates an odd phenomenon: sexy Cowper! Cowper celebrates and yet mocks

his epistolary and poetic gift in the course of a developing relationship, and the tantalising

and rather naughty comma after the word ‘part’ shows that he was man of the world enough

to play with bawdy comedy, only to land safely on a bed of rarefied and platonic sentiment.

The word that best describes Cowper’s relationship with women is not to be found in any

medical textbook. The word is ‘friendship’: as simple and as complicated a word as that. The

friendship of women was the greatest blessing of Cowper’s life, the thing that made life most

bearable for him and the thing that inspired him to write many of his greatest poems,

including of course The Task itself. None of his male literary contemporaries (with the

possible exception of Samuel Johnson) enjoyed such important friendships with women, and

no other male author (not even Samuel Johnson) was as inspired creatively by these

relationships.

Cowper does have a poem, just called ‘Friendship’, which oddly enough contains a

final verse omitted from most editions:

True Friendship has in short a grace

More than terrestrial in its face,

That proves it Heav’n descended:

Man’s love of woman not so pure,

Nor when sincerest, so secure,

To last till life is ended.

This stanza has long perplexed me, since Cowper appears to claim that friendship is better

than the love between men and women, a claim that makes little sense if Cowper’s deepest

friendships were with women, if indeed he loved certain women more deeply than he ever

loved any men (something I for one believe). The only way to make sense of it is to suggest

that Cowper thought that there was a way of loving other human beings that was more divine

than that which is usually called the love between a man and a woman.

Friendship is about what should last, for Cowper. Certain key friendships, notably

between Cowper, Mary Unwin and Lady Austen, did not in fact last and the ‘three-fold cord’

was soon broken. More important for the modern reader is the question of how the idea of

friendship produced poetry that did last, friendship producing both the end and the beginning

of great poetry.

I sing the SOFA. I, who lately sang

Truth, Hope and Charity, and touch’d with awe

The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand,

Escap’d with pain from that advent’rous flight,

Now seek repose upon an humbler theme;

The theme though humble, yet august and proud

Th’occasion – for the Fair commands the song.

(The Task, I.1-7)

There is, of course, a flirtatious, even a sexual element to Cowper’s friendships. He did not

relate to women in the same way as to men. He enjoyed the difference between men and

women without seeking to exploit it or wanting a flirtatious friendship to go any further. It is

instructive to remember that Cowper and his friends had read and enjoyed the early volumes

of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Sterne was a master at delineating subtle,

incomplete and ambiguous sexual encounters.

Like Samuel Johnson, Cowper did not believe that intellectual engagement need

compromise a woman’s essential femininity. Samuel Johnson famously said of his friend

Elizabeth Carter that she could translate Epictetus from Latin into English and still bake a

pudding (though not, presumably, at the same time). Cowper is more flirtatious than Johnson

usually was, however. Interestingly, Johnson’s first biographer, Sir John Hawkins, thought

that Johnson was able to enjoy intellectual friendships with women because his eyesight was

so bad that he could not be distracted by how pretty they were. Cowper, on the other hand,

enjoyed (despite or because of his childhood residence with an oculist) excellent eyesight and

his poems and letters have an eye not simply for beauty but (strangely and movingly) for the

decay of physical beauty. Again, like Johnson, Cowper regards Mary Unwin’s domesticity as

fully compatible with her spiritual and intellectual intelligence:

To Mary

The twentieth year is well-nigh past,

Since first our sky was overcast;

Ah would that this might be the last!

My Mary!

Thy spirits have a fainter flow,

I see thee daily weaker grow –

’Twas my distress that brought thee low,

My Mary!

Thy needles, once a shining store,

For my sake restless heretofore,

Now rust disus’d, and shine no more,

My Mary!

For though thou gladly wouldst fulfil

The same kind office for me still,

Thy sight now seconds not thy will,

My Mary!

But well thou play’d’st the housewife’s part,

And all thy threads with magic art

Have wound themselves about this heart,

My Mary!

(1-20)

Cowper is fascinated and frightened by the mutual dependency between himself and Mary.

His own pain pains Mary and Mary’s pain pains him in what threatens to become a vicious

circle of sentimental identification. Lord Byron, incidentally, who disliked Cowper’s work

(and Laurence Sterne’s) and who never enjoyed comparable female friendships, parodied this

poem in his tribute to his own publisher entitled ‘My Murray’. Byron was sadly immune to

the poignancy of the poem’s central section:

Thy indistinct expressions seem

Like language utter’d in a dream;

Yet me they charm, whate’er the theme,

My Mary!

Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,

Are still more lovely in my sight

Than golden beams of orient light,

My Mary!

For could I view nor them nor thee,

What sight worth seeing could I see?

The sun would rise in vain for me,

My Mary!

Partakers of thy sad decline,

Thy hands their little force resign;

Yet, gently prest, press gently mine,

My Mary!

(21-36)

Again, Cowper asserts the pain of being too closely involved in the happiness of another. The

poem offers the exquisite mingled pain and pleasure of feeling for another’s distress – what

Cowper’s world called ‘sensibility’ and what the twenty-first century has no name for. There

is no name either that properly describes the intimacy of this William and Mary who lived

joint king and queen of their little domain. They were not husband and wife, they were not

live-in lovers, they were not brother and sister and they were not mother and son (though this

may have been closest). They were two people who cared for one another without ultimately

needing any further definition of that love:

And then I feel that still I hold

A richer store ten thousandfold

Than misers fancy in their gold,

My Mary!

Such feebleness of limbs thou prov’st,

That now at every step thou mov’st

Upheld by two; yet still thou lov’st,

My Mary!

And still to love, though prest with ill,

In wintry age to feel no chill,

With me is to be lovely still,

My Mary!

But ah! By constant heed I know,

How oft the sadness that I show

Transforms thy smiles to looks of woe,

My Mary!

And should my future lot be cast

With much resemblance of the past,

Thy worn out heart will break at last,

My Mary!

(37-56)

As the narrator of the poem folds its addressee to himself, we can conclude by observing that

Cowper’s relationships, like his verse, oscillated between possibilities rather than finding

definitional refuge in any one ‘form’ of relationship. William Cowper was a lover as well as a

poet sui generis.

Copyright

All articles are subject to copyright

Footnotes

The Cowper and Newton Journal includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.

References

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