Category Archives: 18th C

On William Cowper, or, Why I’m Not a Calvinist

William Cowper (26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) wrote this poem, The Castaway, in 1799. Simply put, it’s about a sailor who’s washed overboard during a storm. It begins like this:
OBSCUREST night involv’d the sky,
     Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
     Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.
 Stanza seven, in the midst of the poem, offers this sentiment:

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
     Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
     Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

And then the poem ends like this:

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 gulphs than he.
Cowper’s tight rhyme scheme and short lines are incongruous with his theme of hopelessness and despair. What is Cowper trying to say, anyway? Is he attempting to teach his readers they need to rely on God in order that despair not consume them? I don’t know. Maybe he’s after his audience understanding what it will be like on the day of reckoning. 
Cowper doesn’t see a way out of judgment, and for that he’s “whelmed in deeper gulphs” than the sailor and, perhaps, all mankind. His poem ends in an unsettling manner. He believes God could intervene, that there is a God, and, yet, that very fact tears him apart. All men must die alone, and God can save us–but will he? Cowper won’t die a bleaker death than the sailor. No, definitely not, because that’s not the point. Instead, Cowper will die consumed by his own doubts. That, I suspect, is the meaning of this poem. 
Click the link above for all twelve stanzas.
I feel badly for Cowper, for the way he lived his life in bleakness, but his soul must be settled by now. Thank God.
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Mary Leapor, Poem and Perspective**

Several years ago, I wrote a poem about Mary Leapor (I’ll paste it to the end of this post).  I don’t expect anyone to gasp at this news.  It isn’t a particularly stellar poem, nor is it unusual for me to attempt such literary feats.  I have written poems about other historical characters.  Recently, however, I felt inspired to dig out the Leapor poem and post it on Eratosphere.  For those unaware, Eratosphere is a site in which the modern day heavyweights of metrical poetry mingle.  I’m not a heavyweight, but that’s all right–anyone who is serious about poetry, and who has a backbone, may post a poem.  The critiques can be brutal, so I was pleasantly surprised that several people really appreciated my Leapor poem. 

One critique, however, had me wondering about the nature of feminism.  To start with, the woman claimed my poem had inspired her to read about Mary Leapor.  That’s a good thing, I think.  Then, she asked me why I hadn’t focused a little more on Leapor’s feminist views, due to the highly irregular nature of such thinking in Leapor’s time.  I scratched my head.  Were feminist views really all that uncommon prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?

Sometimes, my brain rolls along like an unfolding scroll with snippets of things read, but this scroll is like the Dead Sea texts–old and damaged (the scroll is, not me!).  I don’t want to do any name-dropping, so please believe me when I insist that there are many literary and intellectual women from the 17th and 18th centuries who preceded Wollstonecraft.  Mary Leapor is but one who dropped into the world for twenty-four short years and managed, in that time, to leave a wealth of verse that includes these: “Yet, with ten thousand Follies to her Charge, / Unhappy Woman’s but a Slave at large (This, I believe, is from her poem, An Essay on Woman).”

Am I to believe that feminist women of the ilk of Leapor sprung on the scene suddenly, as if they emerged from the great deep in response to God’s voice: Let there be light, and there was?  Surely, that can’t be the truth.  People–of both sexes–have been known to rise against their oppressors throughout all epochs of history.  The fact is, though, that we want to cram the idea of feminisism into one definition–a modern one.  In the past, European women of a feminist slant attempted to reconcile their Christian beliefs with their desire for autonomy and independence.  It could be a quandary, but not necessarily.  Living under various authority figures doesn’t negate the passion of the individual.

Mary Leapor was a servant.  Some would say she wasn’t a good servant, but she was one, none the less.  Within the confines of her life, she still managed to read copiously and scribble out heroic couplets.  For my poem, I focused on her servitude because it’s the basic position that all people find themselves in: male or female, slave or free.

Here’s my blank verse poem, with its lines of trochaic pentameter:

The Short, Sad Life of Mary Leapor

Mary is a watcher without windows,
and I hear that under her disguises
hides a maid that stirs pea soup for servants
in the kitchen with the melted candles.
Who is like you, little Mira-Mary?
Turn the meat; don’t scribble in the shadows,
waiting for Cordia’s greasy clutches.
Stir the pot and stop your constant dreaming!
Out the door with nothing but your verses,
run from her, and leave behind her curses!

Mary runs to Brackley, hiding rashes
where her cap strings meet her woolen layers.
In her broken hands she clutches volumes,
wilted papers streaked with new pastorals.
Who has taught the serving girl her letters?
Better—who has led her to the pastures?
Pope and Swift together could not couple
thoughtful lines like you, my Mira-Mary.
When it’s morning, tend your father’s garden;
in the night, accept his wine and pardon.

Mary faints.  She falls by sparking embers;
spots are blazing on her pearly brow bone,
as adornment for her plain complexion,
beauty without gold, nor paint for blushes.
Mary, blind now, where are all your letters?
From your drowsy fever-words, drop riches
never heard from spinster serving ladies
sick at twenty-four with Peter waiting
at the gate–his ear to your oration,
kneeling down with words of your salvation.

**I originally wrote this post for The Female Quixote in the summer of 2009. I haven’t written poetry in years and, consequently, haven’t been over to Eratosphere for several years, either.

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The Secret Life of Mrs. Astell

Years ago, I ordered the book The Eloquence of Mary Astell by Christine Mason Sutherland on Amazon. It arrived with its cover upside-down and backwards, the pages set together right to left, instead of left to right. Looking back from modern days into the life of a person who lived three-hundred years ago is like that; isn’t it? It’s one thing to read what historians have to say about a historical personage, another to read source documents written by the person herself (in this case, Mary Astell), or by a contemporary who actually knew her. But we still don’t really know Mrs. Astell.

I’m going to propose the preposterous. Perhaps conjecturing that Mrs. Astell secretly kept a whore house would be a little much. What if, though, she didn’t really spend all of her time working diligently, eating plain food and drinking nothing but small beer, and dressing in coarse, plain clothing? What if, behind closed doors, after she had hung her head out the window at visitors and shouted the words Ballard claims she did, “Mrs. Astell is not at home right now;” what if she passed her time in daydreams?

I know of few authors who would not admit to wasting their lives in daydreams. Why should Mrs. Astell be the exception? What if she frequently languished on a sofa with a glass of port and watched a play unfold on the parlor wall of her mind? What if it was a bawdy play, to the style of restoration comedies, before the comedy of manners came into fashion? What if she saw herself as the heroine of the play: a lively Cornelia, as in the famed Feigned Courtesans?

Mrs. Astell, I’m imagining it now: You’re walking from church in your black garb, back from London to Chelsea, through the wintry mists. You enter through your garden, and then through the front door for all the world to see. You are the pious neighbor, the one who arises early on Sunday in order to attend a church that isn’t even in your neighborhood. You hang your bonnet and cloak, light a fire to warm your bedroom, and sit at your coffin.

What is a coffin doing in your bedroom? Well, as you would say, it’s there so you’ll always be thinking of God and the afterlife. When the afterlife is in your thoughts, your thoughts remain pure. It works especially well, you explain, as a writing desk. Your words must glorify God, rather than yourself and your own vanity. Isn’t the coffin empty, though? And isn’t that a sad way to consider your life with God?

You raise the lid of the coffin and peer inside. It’s not empty, but filled with clothes: yes, dress-up clothes. How astonishing! You dress yourself in one item of clothing; it’s a tunic made of bright red cloth. It’s to remind you, so you tell yourself, of the educated women of old, exotic Romans or Greeks, those unlike the English women of your own time. You pour yourself a glass of port, dip your pen in ink and begin to write. You’ve thought about dancing on previous occasions, but you still remain Mrs. Astell and no other. Dancing is not for you. Singing, on the other hand, is an ingenuous diversion well worth your time, as you yourself say in your Proposal to the Ladies. And so you sing.

You carry your books, your port, your papers down into the kitchen, where you prepare yourself a modest meal of bread and cheese. You may live in secret extravagance, but you simply don’t have the time or the money for more voluptuous meals. You carry your food back upstairs, too absorbed in your reading of Descartes to continue in song . . .

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Pleased With His Ingenuous, Open Way


Here is one of my favorite pieces of James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763: 

I then told my history to Mr. Johnson, which he listened to with attention. I told him how I was a very strict Christian, and was turned from that to infidelity. But that now I had got back to a very agreeable way of thinking. That I believed the Christian religion; though I might not be clear in many particulars. He was very much pleased with my ingenuous open way, and he cried, “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you.” He then confirmed me in my belief by showing the force of testimony, and how little we could know of final causes; so that the objections of why was it so? or why was it not so? can avail little; and that for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious.

One of the most famous parts of this journal, or of any of Boswell’s journals, is his initial meeting with Samuel Johnson, who would become a great friend and mentor to Boswell. This particular journal also happens to be the one that is most widely available. Many of his more than thirty years worth of diaries are available only if you hunt for them, or are willing to pay a high price (Abe Books is the place for used volumes no longer in print). I’m slowly, but surely collecting all of Boswell’s writings (B&N has several free e-texts, happily, though only of his travel journals and the Life of Johnson).

What fascinates me about this exchange with Samuel Johnson is the way Boswell reveals his heart for Christianity, as well as his willingness to question his faith. In his journal at large, he also reveals his failure to adhere to any moral convictions. Boswell regularly falls into fits of melancholy, picks up prostitutes in back alleys, and then ends his weeks of despondency and hedonism by sitting in church pews or having meals with the stalwart Johnson.

My obsession with James Boswell is difficult to explain, but it has something to do with his paradoxes, which get at the heart of the human condition. Boswell defines himself as an outsider, even while supping with numerous friends and literary acquaintances. Boswell tells the truth about himself, even when the truth is repulsive. But mostly, I appreciate him because he’s the embodiment of the Bible verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). For that, Johnson, who was no less human than Boswell, but was more mature, was a stable influence in Boswell’s intellectual world.

And–as an image of Johnson’s maturity–I’d like to highlight this sentiment of his: for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious. Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I find the unity movement of Christianity to be a tiresome affair–a tiresome, political affair. I’m frustrated when those involved in this movement highlight the differences between denominations and desire to bring all Christians together under one banner. The differences, according to Johnson, are trivial. They’re trivial enough that the gospel continues to go forth, despite the lack of unity.

As far as Boswell’s soul, I can’t make any claims about it. I can only read his words and surmise and feel wretchedly bad at his depravity, his honesty, and his continuous attempts at bravado, despite his overarching humility and lack of confidence.

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My Frail Attempt at Understanding Amazing Grace

Most of the words that come out of my mouth are meant to annoy others. When I hear yet another rendition of John Newton’s Amazing Grace on the radio or at a church gathering, my cynical response is generally, “Yeah, I know, 21st C Americans couldn’t begin to write poetry as well as 18th C Brits, so why bother?” But that isn’t it, is it? That’s not why this legendary song is so popular, despite that I really, really desire to annoy people. Our ineptness to pen powerful words in corresponding lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter is not the point.

The point is what the song represents. It’s no secret that I’m passionate about the Enlightenment, specifically the British Enlightenment. But what seems to have been lost to many of my fellow countrymen is that the values that inspired the American revolution sprang from British Enlightenment thinking. These values are not necessarily Christian in nature. However, consider for a moment some of these values: reason as a method to reform society and disseminate knowledge, the acceptance of intellectual debate, and the focus on the individual. All of these values fit neatly into the Christian ones of propagating the gospel, reforming problems and injustice in society, and bringing individuals to Christ. Furthermore, Enlightenment values inspired the necessary debates that ended slavery and began the feminist movement, because, according to the value system, all people are equal, not simply regarding the justice system, but in God’s eyes as well. God sent his son to save black and white, male and female, slave and free.

When politically minded Christians such as William Wilberforce fought to end slavery, he used Enlightenment values to do so–values not elucidated by philosophers, but by Jesus Christ, himself. For those in the dark, Jesus called his people to a higher standard than the law. Jesus wanted the hearts of men, and not simply the willingness to follow a set of regulations. Oh, didn’t you know? Slavery was regulated in the Old Testament law. It was regulated in order that corrupt men couldn’t take advantage of the system that kept the market system afloat with cheap labor. Slavery was regulated because God hates injustice. And for that reason, men such as William Wilberforce used Enlightenment values to altogether abolish slavery in the justice system.

That intangible freedom of the individual–that is the heart of the poem Amazing Grace. Mankind is corrupt and doesn’t deserve it, but that doesn’t change mankind’s need for it. We need freedom from slavery in so many ways, and when I hear that yet another singer has redone these words to yet another tune, has sung Newton’s words one more time, I realize that all is not lost in this country. The Enlightenment values we began with are not lost to us.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

John Newton (1725-1807)

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