Monday, September 1, 2014
END OF SUMMER
An agitation of the air,
A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.
I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones
Amaded, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.
Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was forever over.
Already the iron door of the North
Clangs open: birds,leaves,snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.
-- Stanley Kunitz
Sunday, August 31, 2014
From The Poetical Works of William Cowper, Volume III
"Haste -- lest a friend should grieve for thy delay --
And the gods grant nothing thwart thy way!"
From Elegy IV, To His Tutor Thomas Young, translated by Cowper from the Latin of John Milton
Saturday, August 30, 2014
And what preoccupies me, instead of the things I should be worried about, like printing my airline tickets and booking my shuttle?
My next public reading is not until the Fall, and already there's a problem, though not the problem you might think. William Cowper?! Yeah, I know, but that's not the problem, not mine anyway. Who reads William Cowper? Well, I do, and will do, aloud, the last week in October. I realize that this makes even my evenings of Edward Lear and Ogden Nash sound like barn-burners by comparison. Still, there were nice little crowds for both of those, so I suppose I'm counting on what might blushingly be called "my fans," meaning mostly my friends, and a few of their mothers. But, William Cowper? The poet's reputation, as opposed to his once considerable popularity, remains secure, I should think, so long as he manages so much as a poem in The Norton Anthology of English Poetry (a book I refuse to open on principle, and now for fear of what I might not find.) Meanwhile, to the extent that the poet's fame has continued outside academia, it is in a form for which I have little sympathy and less interest; as a hymnodist, or better say, a specifically Christian poet. William Cowper wrote the words for quite a lot of hymns. We're not talkin' rockin' Gospel music here, either. These would be the rather stately, rather grim hymns one may or may not remember from church, or at least church as I remember it; slow, stiff, bloody-minded, dull. But even that is not quite the problem per se, so much as it's most obvious expression.
To put the problem baldly, the whole context of William Cowper is Christianity. His life, his work and his tragedy are all of a piece with his faith. In terms of his biography, his religious conversion and his mental illness all but coincide, or put it another way, almost from the moment he is "saved," he is both lost and found. As a writer, no one but scholars might now know of him had he not written so well about and in the service of his faith. His religious enthusiasm was very much of the moment in securing his first and lasting popularity with readers in his lifetime. He might never have written a thing anyone would now remember, had he not been encouraged to do so, as means of occupying his troubled mind, by his many friends, nearly Evangelicals all. It was with his friend, the Anglican clergyman, John Newton, author of "Amazing Grace," that Cowper wrote the Olney Hymns. The friends who took Cowper in, the Unwin family with whom he lived the rest of his life, were a clergyman and his Missus. Cowper's Evangelical, but also rather more aristocratic relatives saw his poetry and translating as not only the best way of keeping him both productively occupied and relatively sane, but also as a way back to God for a man who, inexplicably believed himself to be outside of Grace. God is everywhere in Cowper's life then, and his work.
Nevertheless, there are ways, as it were, of reading 'round Cowper's faith. That is something very like the point for me of doing a public reading of Cowper, and the point I hope to make with same, come the day. Cowper's place in the history of English poetry was secured not so much by his specifically religious verse as by the then refreshingly new and direct way in which he wrote about nature, country life, and what might be called the common communion with creation; God in the garden and the Gospel revealed on a walk in the woods. While he is still considered to be the major transitional figure between the Classical tradition of the late 18th Century and the Romantics of the next, that, to my purpose is as may be. I don't mean to lecture or preach. I'm not qualified to do either. All I want to do is to read Cowper out loud, and hopefully by doing so, encourage others to go and do likewise. My idea is to emphasize the domestic; his letters, and his "minor" poems, his pet hares and his country neighbors, his humor and his wit.
Nevertheless, I can't avoid his God altogether, nor do I intend to. I will read some of his religious verse, of course. Quite beautiful, much of it. I've also asked a talented coworker, a great singer who happens also to be my immediate supervisor, if she might sing a hymn or two. That's what's worrying me most, just now, before I go off on vacation, the damned hymns. Not that dear S. can't or won't sing them. She can sing anything. (Witness the fact that she will be singing a Bruno Mars song at a friend's wedding soon, even though she is no fan of the song or the artist, specially. She is, as they say, a trouper. That proves it before-hand, right there.) But how?
It's not the music that worries me. Cowper didn't write the tunes. Many of Cowper's hymns were actually set to music after the poet's death. I have no issue with anyone doing whatever they like with the music, so long as the words are his. But those words!
Perhaps his most famous hymn is called "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." Here it is:
O God, in a mysterious waygreat wonders you perform.
You plant your footsteps in the sea
and ride upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill,
you treasure up your bright designs
and work your sovereign will.
O fearful saints, fresh courage take.
The clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.
That's not so bad, is it?
Well, here's the other that's most performed still. It's called "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Here's the first verse of five:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains:
Lose all their guilty stains,
Lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
Believe me, it does not get better, despite the rather endearing directions, "Sing joyfully."
Explaining the particulars of bloody Evangelical Christian imagery is not what I intended the evening to be, brothers and sisters, no indeed. What choice will I have though? I must make reference to the hymns, as that is the one thing that has kept Cowper's name alive in America -- though admittedly not so much with a Seattle audience.
So, some time between now and the end of October, not only does my dear S. have to figure out how to sing these hymns, I need to figure out how to talk about them with a secular audience to whom I will be reading letters and poems mostly to do with the simple joys of English country life. I will need to be both reverent, for want of a better word, and honest. I just do not like all this blood. Still, I set myself the problem, didn't I?
I've decided to take at least one volume of Cowper's poems with me on vacation after all. It's going to take me some time, I fear, to find my way 'round this one, or through it. Meanwhile, I'm on vacation. Sigh.
Those that do, feel free to pray.
"In the evenings there was no way to avoid intellectual games, which gave the greatest advantage to a large vocabulary. Every time my limpid contribution was read. I wanted to sink behind my chair rather than face the condescending stares of the Mitchison women. To my relief, the large number of house guests never permitted my turn to come often, and I made a point of sitting near the evening's box of chocolates, hoping no one would notice that I never passed it."
From Chapter 15
Friday, August 29, 2014
I still have much to do before I go to the airport on Monday, but at least this much is done. An update, then:
I've added two Simenon novels; one Maigret, one not. (Truth be told, I've already nearly finished the Maigret. Couldn't wait.) Also, a Josephine Tey, and one volume of Cowper's poems, from a three volume set I bought this week at Magus Books, and the latest issue of The New York Review of Books.
I will not even mention the e-books on my iPad.
Oh, and clean handkerchiefs. Can never have too many clean handkerchiefs.