Cowper, Jane's Favorite Poet
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 gulfs than he.
"He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper."
"Nay, mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!–"
Sense and Sensibility
William Cowper (pronounced like Cooper) began writing most of his poems in 1780 when he was 49 and Jane Austen was 5. But because he wrote until 1800, most of his writing overlaps with Jane's. This not only explains his influence on her, but why both of them were a part of an important change from one literary style to another.
But though true worth and virtue in the mild
And genial soil of culitvated life
Thrive most, and may perhaps thrive only there.
Yet not in cities oft: in proud, and gay,
And gain-devoted cities.
It was in the country town of Olney that he wrote
many of his hymns, including his most quoted, A light
shining out of darkness:
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
He still suffered from melancholy, as his poem
The Castaway shows, but he was able to write several
volumes of poetry before he died in January 1800.
It is in their love of the countryside and belief in the improvement of the mind that Cowper and Jane Austen coincide the most, and which seem to have greatly influenced their writing. Of course this is no coincidence, and they are linked by more than just the fact that they lived at the same time. Jane Austen was an avid reader of Cowper's poetry from the time she was a young woman, and her father seemed to encourage it.
It is obvious that she was very familiar with it by the way it is mentioned in her novels and letters:
My father reads Cowper to us in the morning, to which I listen when I can.
Jane Austen, December 1798
We have got Boswell's "Tour to the Hebrides," and are to have his "Life of Johnson"; and, as some money will yet remain in Burdon's hands, it is to be laid out in the purchase of Cowper's works.
Jane Austen, November 1798
"Among the few, very few, who have possessed the gift of a spirit full of the sweetness and music of poetry, with its pure moralilty of purpose, is Cowper."
A contemporary of Cowper
William Cowper grew up in a small town in Hertfordshire. He was rather weak in body and spirit, with an inclination to melancholy, and this was somewhat increased by the rough treatment he suffered at school from his fellow classmates. As a young man he studied to be a barrister, but he decided that writing suited him better, so he turned from the law profession to becoming an author. He wrote for magazines and papers while living in the country, then in 1773 he suffered what could be described as an attack of depression (probably with a physiological cause). He didn't recover until 1778, when he began preparing his first volume of poetry for publication.
Even a cursory reading of Cowper's poetry reveals his preference for the country over the city because of its calming influence that allowed him to focus more easily on the beauty of eternal things. His masterpiece The Task expounds more than once on this conviction.
Being born in 1731 one would expect Cowper to write purely in the curt, witty, and practical Georgian style. A person might also expect Jane Austen's prose to be equally unromantic when they hear that one of her favorite authors was Samuel Johnson, the composer of his own famous dictionary. But just as reasonable is the expectation that because both authors wrote at the beginning of the Romantic movement their styles would be filled with drama and rapturous bursts about the beauty of nature.
But both Austen and Cowper fit into neither category – not neatly, anyway. They each blend both Georgian and Romantic styles, and injected a large dose of their own unique style that originated from their individual genius and experience.
"Does it not make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'”
Fanny Price, Mansfield Park
Her eagerness, her impatience, her longings to be with them, were such as to bring a line or two of Cowper’s Tirocinium for ever before her. “With what intense desire she wants her home,” was continually on her tongue...
...nor could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire at twilight,
"Myself creating what I saw"
I could not do without a syringa, for the sake of Cowper's line. We talk also of a laburnum.
Jane Austen, February 1807
He has more of Cowper than of Johnson in him -- fonder of tame hares and blank verse than of the full tide of human existence at Charing Cross.
Jane Austen, November 1813
The characters associated with Cowper in the novels, such as Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Mr. Knightley, also appreciate nature and prefer the country to the city – two very Cowper-esque attributes. Marianne and Fanny find great beauty and comfort in the natural world, and, like Marianne and her dead leaves, even gentle Fanny is capable of rhapsodizing on nature as she returns to Mansfield Park. Mr. Knightley is linked with the virtues of the country in a more physical way with his estate at Donwell. It is in her description of Emma's visit to the Abbey that Jane writes her most direct praise of the English countryside:
It was a sweet view – sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.
Mr. Knightley, possibly the most honorable of all her characters, has created a "view" by managing nature, but without destroying the beauty of it. Instead he makes the land useful by farming it and by ensuring it is accessible and safe for others. In other words, his is a perfect example of the virtuous life that Cowper believed was most possible in the quiet of the countryside.
Did Jane Austen believe in that same idea? Every one of her heroes (excepting Captain Wentworth) is a responsible landowner who keeps his land both productive and pleasing to the eye, so the answer appears to be yes.
Would she have been as convinced if she hadn't read Cowper? It's difficult to say. Jane loved nature herself, which probably drew her to read more of poets like Cowper who expressed her own feelings and beliefs about the merits of the countryside, and she was certainly capable of coming to those conclusions herself with her own powers of observation.
But her connection with William Cowper is clear, and it is easy to understand why he was a poet she loved, admired and learned from.
Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet, worthy of being read, some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.
Some glossy-leaved and shining in the sun,
The maple, and the beech of oily nuts
Prolific, and the line at dewy eve
Diffusing odours: nor unnoted pass
The sycamore, capricious in attire,
Now green, now tawny, and ere autumn yet
Have changed the woods, in scarlet honours bright.
The Task: Book I. -- The Sofa
Written by Anna Morton for Thither
The Poetical Works of William Cowper, Esq. with an account of the life and writings of the author., published by C. Daly, London, 1850
© Thither 2016