Jane Austen and William Cowper

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Today’s guest post on Jane Austen and William Cowper is from Christine Grocott, who attended the Jane Austen Society of the UK conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia in June. Chris is a member of the Northern Branch of the Jane Austen Society and she lives in Stockport, England, near Manchester. I’m delighted to introduce her, and I’ll let her tell the story of how she came to write this guest post, which is a kind of sequel to the post I wrote in June about a Jane Austen poetry reading in the Halifax Public Gardens. I’m very pleased that she sent me what she wrote about Cowper, along with some wonderful photos.

Chris studied French and European Literature at Sussex University and she was a modern languages teacher for thirty-five years. She tells me her “home is not ‘five miles from Pemberley,’ to quote from the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice,” because the Pemberley scenes were filmed at Lyme Park. Chris is a volunteer at Lyme Park and she says visitors come to the beautiful house from all over the world, looking for Mr. Darcy. This year, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there have been several events in the House and grounds, including Regency dancing and readings from Austen’s novels.

The first Jane Austen novel Chris studied was Persuasion, and she says it’s still her favourite. She’s been a member of the Jane Austen Society since 1985 and she attends conferences and events both nationally and locally. She compiles Jane Austen-related quizzes for Impressions, the newsletter of the Northern Branch of the Jane Austen Society. A few examples: “Jane Austen’s Children—Naughty or Nice,” “If Ebay existed in Regency times,” “Jane Austen and the Name ‘Anne,’” and “Jane Austen’s Married Ladies.”

Chris Grocott reading in the Halifax Public Gardens

Chris reading in the Halifax Public Gardens (photo by Susan Kerslake)

Having looked out a poem by Jane Austen’s favourite poet, William Cowper, to read in the beautiful Halifax Public Gardens on Sunday 25th June, I was annoyed with myself when I could not find the materials I had brought all the way from Manchester, England. Fortunately, Sarah lent me a poem and I had such a lovely experience reading one of Jane’s mother’s comic poems in front of the bandstand.

Typically, I found my notes the next day and so at Sarah’s suggestion, now that I am back home after a three-week trip in the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, I would like to share an extract from the poem with you.

The Task, by William Cowper, was published as A Poem in Six Books in 1785 after a friend of Cowper’s called, coincidentally, Lady Austen (but no relation to Jane) set him a sort of challenge to write a poem in blank verse about nothing more than a SOFA!! He took the Task on and came up with the six poems from his reflections and musings as he sat on his sofa in front of the fire.

Extract from Book IV, The Winter Evening, from The Task, by William Cowper:

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 toys, restores me to myself.

It is The Winter Evening, Book IV which Jane Austen uses in Emma when she has Mr. Knightley quote a line from it to himself. He thinks he has seen signs of an intrigue between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax as he observes them exchanging looks and glances at a dinner party but is not sure whether it is just his imagination like Cowper’s in front of his fire seeing images in the flames:

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.

(Emma, Volume 1, Chapter 5)

Of course, we later discover that Mr. Knightley was not imagining what he saw and was right all along about the couple who are secretly engaged.

I have been to Cowper’s house in Olney in Buckinghamshire, England and seen the fireplace where he would sit and gaze into the fire almost in a trance and can imagine Jane Austen herself sitting in front of the fire in Chawton Cottage, her own imagination creating the wonderful characters in her books as she gazed into the flames.

Jane Austen and her family were enthusiastic readers aloud of poetry and prose in their private family circle, so it is not surprising that in Sense and Sensibility she has the romantic perfectionist Marianne Dashwood criticise poor Edward Ferrars behind his back for his failure to read Cowper properly. (Though, since this is a Jane Austen novel, we find Marianne’s remarks say as much about her character as they do about Edward’s!) Marianne exclaims, “Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! … If he is not to be animated by Cowper!”  (Sense and Sensibility, Volume 1, Chapter 3)

Perhaps, then, it was just as well that I had misplaced Cowper’s beautiful poem, as I am sure I would not have done it justice on that lovely sunny June evening in the Public Gardens in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Better that you read it to yourselves on a summer day, or on a chilly winter evening in front of a roaring fire!

Photos of Lyme Park, by Peter Howard:

The house and gardens at Lyme

At Lyme

Lyme Hall

Photos of Cowper’s house, Olney, Buckinghamshire, by Chris Grocott:

William Cowper's desk

William Cowper's bedroom

In the garden at William Cowper's house

William Cowper's "verse manufacturey"

Cowper described this building in the garden as his “verse manufacturey.”