This week’s selection begins with Emma’s happy musings on Mr. Knightley and ends with his uncomfortable reflections on her. It is one of the few moments in the novel when we see the happenings from Mr. Knightley’s perspective. In the mix, we have the episode of Harriet and the gypsies. Major goings on. This dramatic moment in the text acts as a vehicle for Emma’s next major misunderstanding. I feel like it is in these paragraphs that the narrative voice begins to alter a bit, as a lot of “clues” start to drop. To delve into these further, please join us at The Writer’s Block for highlighted quotes and conversation. I’d like to hijack today’s blog post to chat briefly about William Cowper (1731 -1800), who makes a fleeting appearance in Chapter 41, when we are in Mr. Knightley’s head:
When he was again in their company, he could not help remembering what he had seen; nor could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire at twilight,
“Myself creating what I saw,”
brought him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane.
The line comes from the forth of six books the comprise the lengthy poem The Task (1785), generally considered Cowper’s finest work. I have transcribed the passage which it is from below for reference. It’s fitting that it is Mr. Knightley whose mind makes the reference, though the line pertains to Emma far better, for the qualities associated with Cowper’s poetry – a quintessential English homeyness – suit our hero’s personality. Indeed, he can almost seamlessly be mentally switched with the narrator, and the scene in which the verse unfolds be envisioned as Donwell Abbey. This quote captures it beautifully:
“If we wish to read about the simple steady pleasures and affections which are the sources of the deepest happiness…walks in the wood, talks by the fireside, laughter of friends over jokes and old times, the well-worn, well-loved room in which we have lived since children, the remembered sound of the church clock, the hollyhocks standing up so bravely over the vicarage wall, all the thousand tender daily ties that bind us to friends and family and home, if it is these of which we wish to read, we turn to Cowper.” Lord David Cecil The English Association, Pamphlet No. 81. April 1932.
With such a description, is it any wonder that Austen enjoyed Cowper so much? He is tied with Sir Walter Scott as Austen’s second most referenced poet after Shakespeare. He is quoted by Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (also from The Task – Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited), and is the subject of Marianne Dashwood’s intense admiration in Sense and Sensibility:
“Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!”–
“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, Mamma, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!”
So who was William Cowper? Considered the preeminent English poet of the generation between Pope and the Romantics, on whom he had a significant influence, he was a lawyer by trade, a profession forced upon him by his father. He battled mental illness all his life, attempting several suicides, and eventually spending time in an asylum. He was a vocal abolitionist and was an associate of John Newton, composer of Amazing Grace. Cowper was very religious and wrote a number of hymns for which he is famous. His anti-slavery poetry was often quoted Martin Luther King Jr. However, it is Cowper’s reverence for nature for which he seems to be best remembered, which certainly resonates thematically with Austen’s references to him. I hope this tangent has been gratifying for you. Now back to Emma! Please join us at The Writer’s Block as we dig into the meat of this week’s reading.
Just when our drawing-rooms begin to blaze
With lights, by clear reflection multiplied
From many a mirror, in which he of Gath,
Goliath, might have seen his giant bulk
Whole without stooping, towering crest and all,
My pleasures too begin. But me perhaps
The glowing hearth may satisfy awhile
With faint illumination, that uplifts
The shadows to the ceiling, there by fits
Dancing uncouthly to the quivering flame.
Not undelightful is an hour to me
So spent in parlour twilight: such a gloom
Suits well the thoughtful or unthinking mind,
The mind contemplative, with some new theme
Pregnant, or indisposed alike to all.
Laugh ye, who boast your more mercurial powers,
That never felt a stupor, know no pause,
Nor need one; I am conscious, and confess,
Fearless, a soul that does not always think.
Me oft has Fancy ludicrous and wild
Soothed with a waking dream of houses, towers,
Trees, churches, and strange visages, express’d
In the red cinders, while with poring eye
I gazed, myself creating what I saw.
Nor less amused, have I quiescent watch’d
The sooty films that play upon the bars,
Pendulous and foreboding, in the view
Of superstition, prophesying still,
Though still deceived, some stranger’s near approach.
‘Tis thus the understanding takes repose
In indolent vacuity of thought,
And sleeps and is refresh’d. Meanwhile the face
Conceals the mood lethargic with a mask
Of deep deliberation, as the man
Were task’d to his full strength, absorb’d and lost.
Thus oft, reclined at ease, I lose an hour
At evening, till at length the freezing blast,
That sweeps the bolted shutter, summons home
The recollected powers; and, snapping short
The glassy threads with which the fancy weaves
Her brittle toils, restores me to myself.
How calm is my recess; and how the frost,
Raging abroad, and the rough wind, endear
The silence and the warmth enjoy’d within!
I saw the woods and fields at close of day
A variegated show; the meadows green,
Though faded; and the lands, where lately waved
The golden harvest, of a mellow brown,
Upturn’d so lately by the forceful share.
I saw far off the weedy fallows smile
With verdure not unprofitable, grazed
By flocks, fast feeding, and selecting each
His favourite herb; while all the leafless groves
That skirt the horizon, wore a sable hue
Scarce noticed in the kindred dusk of eve.
To-morrow brings a change, a total change!
Which even now, though silently perform’d,
And slowly, and by most unfelt, the face
Of universal nature undergoes.
Fast falls a fleecy shower: the downy flakes
Descending, and with never-ceasing lapse,
Softly alighting upon all below,
Assimilate all objects. Earth receives
Gladly the thickening mantle; and the green
And tender blade, that fear’d the chilling blast,
Escapes unhurt beneath so warm a veil.
– from The Winter’s Evening, Book IV of The Task