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My hero: William Cowper


He was a genius for reconciling extreme emotion with patient appreciate of life

I am newly in love with some of the most ordinary things in my life (the fireplace, the garden, the walk round the block) because I've been reading the work of an 18th-century recluse who spent large parts of his life gripped by religious mania and thought himself damned. This seems puzzling, but William Cowper had a genius for reconciling extreme and uncontrollable emotion with patient appreciation of daily life.

He steadied himself by growing cucumbers. He visited favourite trees and wrote their biographies. Challenged by a friend to write a poem about the sofa she was sitting on, he produced "The Task" in six books, one of the great celebrations of domestic peace. Home life, he thought, was a bit of leftover Eden; The Task was his answer to "Paradise Lost".

In the English visionary tradition, Cowper has a kinship with Stanley Spencer, that 20th-century interpreter of miracles found close to home. Grass and bricks and stones are talkative in Spencer's paintings, as they are in Cowper's poetry. "The very stones in the garden walls are my intimate acquaintance," wrote Cowper.

Cowper was a hero to many who came after him. Jane Austen's characters revere him (Marianne's suitors in Sense and Sensibility must have the right tone of voice for reading Cowper). For the Romantics, Cowper showed the way towards spontaneous expression, passionate response to nature, and the sacred stillness one finds, for example, in Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight". When Virginia Woolf quoted Cowper in her novels, she assumed her readers knew the poems. No one would assume that today. During his last, protracted, breakdown, the world became to him a "universal blank". And yet there had been times – preserved in his writing – when his wonderful roving, empathetic imagination found new pleasures every day just by looking at a hedge.

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