Thursday, 4 December 2014

William Cowper: Hare of God

Finally Evangelicalism – and in this also it was unique among the philosophies of its day – could satisfy the temperament of the artist. For it alone set a supreme value on that emotional exaltation in which the greatest art is produced , it alone make the imagination the centre of its system and not a mere decorative appendage to it. An attitude of civilized disillusionment is all very well in its way, but it is not conducive to creative art. Wesley could have understood Dante as Voltaire or even Dr. Johnson could never have done. The Evangelicals may have disliked poetry, but their sublime conceptions of the universal plan is the most imaginative poem of its day.

Surging and swirling, flowed on the vari-coloured dream of eighteenth-century life. People were born and grew up; made money or lost it; were serious, were frivolous; yielded to a good impulse, yielded to a bad one; had moments of ecstasy and forgot them; made resolutions and failed to keep them married and grew old and died – their life an incoherent tangle of hopes and fears, desires and inhibitions, aspirations and apathies; heterogeneous, hand-to-mouth, without order or sequence. But though it moved a small band of people for whom the whole multifarious complex was resolved into a single and majestic action- that conflict which, as long as life lasts, the children of light must wage with the Prince of the powers of the air. They were sometimes feeble and sometimes erring, for they were mortal; but they never faltered in their effort to measure their every word and act by the highest standard they knew. They did what they though right whatever trouble it got them into, and whatever pleasure it deprived them of. Indeed, the ephemeral joys and sorrows of the world meant little to them. On their brows lay the shadows of the wings of death, and in their ears chimed ever the bells of Paradise.
(from The Stricken Deer (Life of Cowper) by Lord David Cecil)


William Cowper kept pet hares. They cheered and distracted him from the doom represented by the scrap of Latin that he retained from a dream:
Actum est de te, periisti (It’s all over with thee, thou has perished)

Epitaph on a Hare
By William Cowper

Here lies, whom hound did ne’er pursue,
Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne’er tainted morning dew,
Nor ear heard huntsman’s hallo’,

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
Who, nursed with tender care,
And to domesticate bounds confined,
Was still a wild jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
On pippins’ russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
Sliced carrot pleased him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out all his idle noons,
And every night at play.

I kept him for his humor’s sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more agèd, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney’s box,
Must soon partake his grave.

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