Recalling Adam’s Dream: A Note on Keats and Cowper

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Excerpt

The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth. To Benjamin Bailey, 22 Nov. 18171 Keats’s reference to Adam’s dream recalls that section of Book VIII of Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Adam tells the angel Raphael what he remembers of his creation and entry into conscious life. A footnote in the standard edition of Keats’s letters directs us to lines 452-90,2 where we find a particular parallel in Adam’s report of his first encounter with Eve in all her prelapsarian beauty: ‘I waked / To find her … / Such as I saw her in my dream’ (478-83).3 Adam’s earlier discovery of Paradise itself – ‘I waked, and found / Before mine eyes all real, as the dream / Had lively shadowed’ (309-11) – provides perhaps an even closer recollection, not only because of the similar grammatical structure (where meaning is at once suspended and driven forwards by the conjunction ‘and’) but also because Keats proceeds in his letter to talk of experiencing through imagination ‘a Shadow of reality to come’. There may be, however, a further source behind Keats’s formulation – Cowper’s mock elegy ‘On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ (1789): Just then, by adverse fate impress’d, A dream disturb’d poor Bully’s rest; In sleep he seem’d to view A rat, fast-clinging to the cage, And, screaming at the sad presage, Awoke and found it true. (ll. 43-48: italics mine)4 There are grounds for thinking that Keats echoes Cowper elsewhere. It has been convincingly argued that his sonnet ‘When I have fears that Imay cease to be’ owes a debt to ‘Stanzas Subjoined to the Yearly Bill of Mortality, 1788’,5 while his persona in the epistle ‘To Charles Cowden Clarke’, a meanderer on the stream of rhyme labouring with ‘shatter’d boat,

The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream –

he awoke and found it truth.

To Benjamin Bailey, 22 Nov. 18171

Keats’s reference to Adam’s dream recalls that section of Book VIII of Milton’s Paradise

Lost in which Adam tells the angel Raphael what he remembers of his creation and entry into

conscious life. A footnote in the standard edition of Keats’s letters directs us to lines 452-90,2

where we find a particular parallel in Adam’s report of his first encounter with Eve in all her

prelapsarian beauty: ‘I waked / To find her … / Such as I saw her in my dream’ (478-83).3

Adam’s earlier discovery of Paradise itself – ‘I waked, and found / Before mine eyes all real,

as the dream / Had lively shadowed’ (309-11) – provides perhaps an even closer recollection,

not only because of the similar grammatical structure (where meaning is at once suspended

and driven forwards by the conjunction ‘and’) but also because Keats proceeds in his letter

to talk of experiencing through imagination ‘a Shadow of reality to come’.

There may be, however, a further source behind Keats’s formulation – Cowper’s

mock elegy ‘On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ (1789):

Just then, by adverse fate impress’d,

A dream disturb’d poor Bully’s rest;

In sleep he seem’d to view

A rat, fast-clinging to the cage,

And, screaming at the sad presage,

Awoke and found it true.

(ll. 43-48: italics mine)4

There are grounds for thinking that Keats echoes Cowper elsewhere. It has been convincingly

argued that his sonnet ‘When I have fears that Imay cease to be’ owes a debt to ‘Stanzas

Subjoined to the Yearly Bill of Mortality, 1788’,5 while his persona in the epistle ‘To Charles

Cowden Clarke’, a meanderer on the stream of rhyme labouring with ‘shatter’d boat, oar

snapt, and canvas rent’ (17), comes in the wake of the tempesttossed self of Cowper’s

confessional verses ‘On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture’ – the self who struggles with

‘sails ript, seams op’ning wide, and compass lost’ (103). An almost exact correspondence of

phrasing suggests that the dramatic line at the turning-point of Cowper’s bullfinch poem also

made an impression on Keats, lying dormant in his mind to emerge during the disquisition on

Imagination.6

Whether or not Cowper did influence Keats here, a comparison is interesting for the

way a shared allusion to Milton (whose works Cowper of course knew intimately) highlights

very different and even diametrically opposite motivations and creative temperaments. Keats

cites Adam’s dream to support an optimistic philosophy characterised in his assertion that

‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’. His concern is with the pleasures of

imagination and, beyond that, with uplifting moods where its working brings promise of a

greater joy in the hereafter, ‘happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone’. On one level

Cowper’s stanza constitutes a parody of the Miltonic event, all part of the humour that

throughout his poem of finely-judged condolence helps to nourish relations with his landlords

and near-neighbours, the Throckmortons. At the critical moment in the narrative, however,

this wide-awake literary and social exercise forms simultaneously into a subjective mental

topography expressive of its author’s deep-seated preoccupation with the horrors of

imagination and with sudden death. Whereas Milton’s Adam, opening his eyes in Paradise,

perceives the same benign ‘Presence Divine’ that had raised him up in his dream (VIII. 314),

Cowper’s memorable dream of the Deity had been of one consigning him to eternal

damnation with the words ‘Actum est de te, periisti’ (‘It is over with thee, thou has

perished’); his recurrent vision was of terror and baleful visitation.7 As caged bird, so captive

poet: Bully’s ‘sad presage’ and destruction are, psychologically understood, Cowper’s

nightmare of how his own end will come.

There is a bird in Keats’s letter as well as in Cowper’s poem. The young writer

eventually describes to Bailey his habit of identifying with the phenomena around him, so

that ‘if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in his existence and pick about the

Gravel’. Such sensation of ‘the present hour’, he claims, ‘will always set me to rights’,

dissolving the pressures of self-consciousness and ‘Misfortune’. Cowper’s identification with

the unfortunate Bully, the doomed creature that comes to stand as his double, is a more

complex affair determined by these very pressures and involving a mixture of impulses. He

too takes pleasure in the moment – strangely so, since his subject is a scene of death. This

response can be explained, however, as a melancholy delight in the fact that death is after all

an escape from uncertainty. Pitched between horror and glee, the account of Bully’s fate

projects not only the secret fears of the poet shut up in a fool’s paradise of domestic calm (so

markedly Cowper’s milieu at the Lodge, Weston Underwood, on the Throckmorton estate)

but also the knowledge that to be broken in upon is a species of breaking out. Mrs

Throckmorton’s improvident choice of a wooden rather than wire cage – ‘His teeth were

strong, the cage was wood – / He left poor Bully’s beak’ (53-54) – turns out to be in a sense a

happy oversight. From Cowper’s point of view, as one himself awaiting the fatal hour, metal

bars would only have prolonged the issue.8

The experience of sharing in the existence of the sparrow outside his window is a

good example of the kind of event Keats has in mind in his celebrated theory of ‘negative

capability’, the type of creative process where an author negates his or her own identity and

assumes that of another person or thing, which he expressly distinguishes fromthe ‘egotistical

sublime’ or genius which draws all to its own centre.9 Cowper’s poem inclines to this latter

end of the spectrum. Though there is nothing ‘sublime’ about it, except in burlesque form

(‘Where Rhenus strays his vines among, / The egg was laid from which he sprung …’ [7-8]),

it is certainly ‘egotistical’ in the way his deep-set obsession infuses the drama of Bully’s

passing. We may, moreover, also contrast the two writers in terms of the therapeutic gains

intrinsic to their respective acts of creativity. For Keats problems evaporate as he loses

himself in the life of his avian visitor. In Cowper, on the other hand, we find a positive

release or letting out of emotion, both in the catharsis of his envisioning of an abrupt

catastrophe, as we have seen, and in the humour of the mock-heroic play (‘Maria weeps –

The Muses mourn’ [61]), which throughout the poem yields diversion for the long-troubled

poet as well as for his bereaved addressee.10 Whatever personal or individual benefits Keats

and Cowper here ascribe to imagination, however, they offer at the same time configurations

of polarities in our collective inner lives. Keats expresses the proverbial yearning to be free as

a bird. Cowper touches the darker reaches, transmuting the reassuringly familiar into an

unsettling landscape of closed spaces (house, drawing-room, cage) where security is an

illusion,11 sinister forces roam, ironies abound (the ‘smoothest-shaven wood’ was preferred to

steel or brass because it would not damage Bully’s feathers [23-30]), and the only certainty is

death itself – and where bad dreams can come disastrously true. How far the dominant

metaphors of these complementary passages in literature – confinement and flight – underlie

or shape our ways of thinking about human existence is a question for another occasion.12

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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.

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