There is a skein of allusion which connects Cowper to Fanny
Price in Mansfield Park, and although Cowper was primarily known
as a private man who loved the country and solitude,
and inveighed against the city and its corrupt world,
which view of Cowper Austen endorses in letters like that
to Cassandra in which she describes the temperament
of a servant who prefers the "country" to the City as having
"more of Cowper than of Johnson in him, fonder
of Tame Hares & Blank verse than of the full tide of human
Existence at Charing Cross (Jane Austen's
Letters, ed LeFaye 3 November 1813, p 250),
still Cowper was also known as a social critic in his
_Table Talk_. In these Cowper takes up real
political issues of the day--some of which we
find in Austen--as in the riots in the streets
Henry Tilney refers to. Cowper talks
about the war against the colonies, George
III, parliamentary figures who were well
known to Austen (from her letters we
can tell this).
Well the word "evangelical" tells us what else
they contain, all sorts of comments against the hideous
practice of slavery. Actually Cowper uses actual or
real chattel slavery (the selling and buying of human
beings as property) as a metaphor for other kinds of
slavery, the slavery of the poor to the rich, the slavery
of someone without political power to someone with
(he does not single out women at all, but talks
generally of all people who have little say over
the circumstances of their lives.
A good example of the way slavery is most often
brought up occurs in Expostulation. We are
to imagine Cowper talking to his fellow Englishmen:
"Hast thou, though suckled at fair Freedom's breast,
Exported slav'ry to the conquer'd East?
Pull'd down the tyrants India serv'd with dread,
And rais'd thyself, a greater, in their stead?
Gone thither arm'd and hungry, return'd full,
Fed from the richest veins of the Mogul,
A despot big with power obtain'd by wealth,
And that obtain'd by rapine and by stealth?
With Asiatic vices stor'd thy mind,
But left their vitures and thine own behind;
And, having truck'd to thy soul, brought home the fee,
To tempt the poor to sell himself to thee?" (lines 364-75).
There is also a remarkable sequence against chattel slavery
in Charity, which begins:
"Canst thou, and honour'd with a Christian name
Buy what is woman-born, and feel no shame?
Trade in the blood of innocence, and plead
Expedience as a warrant for the deed?
So may the wolf, whom famine has made bold
To quit the forest and invade the fold:
So may the ruffian, who with ghostly glide,
Here he attempts to make the reader identify with the slave.
The passage reminds me of one of Johnson's Idlers (No 81) where
he personates an Indian watching the French and English
slaughter one another over their "right" to the land they
have come to, and the Indian asks, "what is the claim
of either nation, but the claim of the vulture to the leveret,
of the tiger to the fawn?"
It is interesting though what works Austen has Fanny Price
quote from: The Task and Tirocinium. I don't know
if anyone else has read the latter poem; I have read it skimmingly.
Its subtitle is "A Review of Schools." At Portsmouth,
Fanny remembers the line "with what intense desire he
[the school boy at school] wants his home." The poem
is about _miseducation_, and is thus a quiet reinforcement
of one of the central themes of the novel--the miseducation
of the Crawfords at the home of the Admiral and of Bertram
children in Mansfield Park. The poem may be (if we are
allowed to talk in modern terms) about the effect of
environment on personality. There are also passages
in The Task which describe the miseducation of
young aristocrats, and sometimes you would think
Cowper had Tom Bertram in mind.
The Task is one of those poems Cowper is still famous for. I
love it. It is mostly known as a poem of retirement, but
it contains a number of passages of vitriolic criticism
of society and as harsh a social satire as one wants.
Book I ("The Sofa") does end on a peroration to the
country and contains the famous line: "God made the
country, and man made the town" (line 749). The lines Fanny
quotes come from Book I, which lines continue in a passage
of characteristic intricate description which also
characteristically shows Cowper's own retreat from
restlessness, wild movement, at the same time as he
is entranced by its strange beauty :
"Ye fallen avenues! once more I mourn
Your fate unmerited, once more rejoice
That yet a remnant of your race survives.
How airy and how light the graceful arch,
Yet awful as the consecrated roof
Re-echoing pious anthems! while beneath
The chequer'd earth seems restless as a flood
Brush'd by the wind. So sportive is the light
Shot through the boughs, it dances as they dance,
Shadow and sunshine intermingling quick,
And dark'ning and enlight'ning, as the leaves
Play wanton, ev'ry moment, ev'ry spot" (lines 338-349).
But a little later he declares and develops at length the
"By ceaseless action all that is subsists,
Constant rotation of th'unwearied wheel
that nature rides upon maintains her health,
Her beauty, her fertility" (lines 368-71).
The following long passage of the movements
of earth, sea, sky, people reminds me of some
of Johnson's other journalism in
which he talks of how life needs both work and rest, grief
and joy, that upon the one depends our enjoyment of the
other, and both underlie natural experience.
Are there any specific passages decrying slavery at length in The
Task? I can't remember any :).
But Cowper did write three powerful poems specifically
against the slave trade as it had come to be practiced
in the later 18th century. There's The Negro's Complaint,
Pity for Poor Africans, and The Morning Dream.
The first was popular, possibly because it reads like
an autobiographical narrative in part (like The Castaway)
As I have already probably tried the patience of those
who have read this, I shall quote only three stanzas
from it which I find to be the most powerful:
"Is there, as ye sometimes tell us
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood extorting screws,
Are the means which duty urges
Agents of his will to use?
Hark! he answers--Wild tornadoes
Stewing yonder sea with wrecks;
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks...
By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks receiv'd the chain;
By the mis'ries we have tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
By our suff'rings since ye bought us
To the man-degrading mart;
All sustain'd by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart:
Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!"
All the texts are quoted from an
old 1926 Oxford edition of Cowper's
poems edited by H. S. Milford.
I cross-posted the above to C18-l and Litalk, and received the
See the beginning of Bk 2. Cowper echoes the Mansfield judgment ("Slaves
cannot breathe in England; if their lungs/ Receive our air, that moment
are they free,/ They touch our country and their shackles fall.")
And then from Austin Meredith , "Stack of the Artist of Kouroo"
The author of the mysterious manuscript Narrative of the Life of
Frederick Douglass An Escaped Slave. Written by Himself, which was
offered in Boston in 1845 by the Anti-Slavery Society and which became a
19th-Century bestseller, positioned a phrase decrying slavery "there is no
flesh in his obdurate heart" in that manuscript -- and this phrase,
although not attributed in the mystery manuscript, is in fact from William
Cowper's very lengthy 18th-Century poem in honor of the sofa, The Task.
What might have been the line of provenance by which this particular line
containing this particularly obscure nonce term "obdurate," from a bucilic
occasional piece generally in regard to the pleasures associated with a
cottage hideaway above the Ouse, by this particular British author, found
its way into such a Boston manuscript, a manuscript ostensibly being
offered as his own production by a young man "Frederick Douglass"
(Frederick Bailey, an escaped Maryland slave) who had by the circumstances
of his early life been forced to acquire the alphabet surreptitiously by
inspecting individual letters scrawled on parts intended for the hull of a
ship, while carrying such pieces of wood about a shipyard? --A mystery,
which perhaps someone on this list can explicate!
From: David Mazella
Subject: Re: Cowper and Slavery: Allusions to in _Mansfield Park_
If this example hasn't been discussed yet, Lonsdale's 18th Century Verse
anthology contains this selection from Cowper:
Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce or, The Slave-Trader in the Dumps (1788)
A Trader I am to the African shore
But since that my trading is like to be o'er
I'll sing you a song that you ne'er heard before,
Which nobody can deny, deny
Which nobody can deny (pp. 602-3)
The poem has a Swiftean edge to it, and some shocking language:
Here's padlocks and bolts, and screws for the thumbs,
That squeeze them so lovingly till the blood comes,
They sweeten the temper like comfits or plums,
Which nobody etc.
Yet the ironies here seem pretty remote from the sort we are used to
discussing in Austen. I find the idea of an intertextual link to Cowper in
Mansfield Park very plausible, but this is just one of a series of strategic
modulations that reduce the immediacy, scale, and intensity of moral
judgments throughout her fiction. Her use of Cowper resembles her
transformation of the materials of writers like Lennox and Burney: she
takes morally-charged, highly-polarized situations from earlier writers and
renders them ambiguous.
In an odd way, it seems to me that contemporary critics are far more
comfortable with a poem like Cowper's than a novel like Mansfield Park. I
found a similar tension in Claudia Johnson's Equivocal Beings, which tried
hard to adjudicate between the competing claims of the 18c sentimental
fiction and Austen's rewritings of those earlier authors.
Dept. of English, Univ. of Houston