William Cowper's Poetry: A Comparison With Pope and Wordsworth

Musser, Joseph Franklin, Department of English, University of Virginia
Duckworth, Alistair, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ehrenpreis, Irvin, Department of English, University of Virginia

The dissertation is primarily an attempt to understand Cowper's place in English poetry, and secondarily, the beginning Of a literary history that describes the change in English poetry between the Augustan and Romantic Ages. The usual classification of Cowper as a transitional poet is unsatisfying because it leads to the cataloguing of the classic and romantic elements of his verse, thus belying the essential unity of his poetic vision and denying the possibility that his style and point of view are uniquely his own and reflect a relatively consistent philosophical orientation. Yet it is possible to show that he may be placed between Pope and Wordsworth without detracting from his integrity as a poet if we define his place on the philosophical continuum between Popeā€¢s social vision of man as part of a cosmic order and Wordsworth's introspective vision of man as in some ways the source of that order (Chapter One).

The second chapter establishes Cowper's philosophical position midway between Pope's and Wordsworth1s as a point at which man appears part of an eternal order by way of his own personal relation with God. The increasing focus on the self as we move from Pope to Wordsworth is apparent in the assumptions underlying their use of literal and metaphorical landscape prospects--a kind of topos that by its very nature involves the poet's point of view and thus his orientation.

The subsequent chapters indicate how the basic assumptions of the three poets are reflected in other aspects of their verse. Chapter Three shows that their apologies for poetry vary with their fundamental orientation: Pope's apology for poetry is that it is socially useful, Cowper's that it is pleasing to God as well as spiritually invigorating for both reader and writer, and Wordsworth's that it is a source of moral truth. Their choice of poetic mode (Chapter Four) corresponds to the different notions of poetry apparent in the defense of their art. Pope's satire is directed at social reform, and Cowper's expostulation at individual repentance, but the two modes share the characteristic of revealing truth by drawing distinctions. Thus they are modes of "separation." Wordsworth' a poetry, on the other hand, achieves understanding and knowledge by means of sympathy. The mode of his verse-- meditation--reflects hie notion that poetry is the source of moral knowledge, rather than merely the restatement of received moral truths.

The syntax of their verse (Chapter Five) is related to the poets' basic assumptions too, for Pope's cumulative sentence structure insists on the fundamental order and pattern of the world, Cowper's complex syntax results from his notion of the world as a labyrinth through which one must pick his way, and Wordsworth's meditative sentence structure unfolds as his thought does and thus reveals his essentially introspective orientation.

The three poets also transform. the material of their experience in ways consonant with their fundamental orientation. They incorporate politics into their poetry, for example, in different ways (Chapter Six): for Pope political questions are social and moral, for Cowper they are reduced to personal, spiritual terms, and for Wordsworth they are changed into introspective terms. A brief consideration of their Apocalyptic visions (Chapter Seven) concludes the study, and shows that those visions reflect their basic differences.

In an Appendix, I present a detailed argument in support of my contention that Cowper's poetry is sacrificial because it represents an attempt to re-establish communication with God. His poetry is largely a defense of his way of life as Godly and Evangelical.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Cowper, William -- 1731-1800
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