Cowper and Letter Writing

For many, many years a very dear friend of mine (probably my longest and most continual friend) used to treat me to hand-written letters on a regular basis.  She was, I think, trying to revive the art, and often waxed eloquent as she explained why the internet should not be permitted to be the death knell of hand written letters.  I loved getting her letters, but I don’t love writing them, so I was far more blessed than she in that friendship (and still amll).

I shouldn’t say I don’t love writing letters.  I don’t mind the writing of them.  but I can never find the address, the envelope, and the stamp I need all at the same time, and if I do find an envelope that fits, you can be sure I will have lost my pen in the meantime, so another search must ensue.  If you’ve read Give a Mouse a Cookie/Moose a Muffin, you might have some notion as to how my searches for missing pens there were just here in my hand five seconds ago might go, and why the desk and two whole rooms look like something visited by The Cat in the Hat before I find my pen- and it won’t be the pen I lost, either.  It will be another pen containing purple or green ink instead of the steady black ink the return address and the entire missive within are written in.

But I am trying to be better organized about all these and keep these things where I won’t lose them and they cannot hide from me.  My stamps, for example, now live in the very same Japanese floral zippered pouch in which I keep my spending money, credit cards, library cards and six months worth of receipts that have faded beyond recognition, oh, and a seashell.  The stamps go with the money for obvious reasons, they both are basic ally forms of cash.  The seashell… well, I don’t recall when or why it arrived in this little purse in the first place, but it has been there for so long that if I were to move it I wouldn’t know where it was, and that is not to be thought of.  One or two of the grand-daughters occasionally like to rummage through the various bags and pouches in my purse and one of them is always sure to ask about the seashell when she does.

I have given up on keeping my bedside table tidily organized and spare.  I moved it to another bedroom and replaced it with an entire bookcase, with three good sized shelves.  It stands perpindicular to the head of the bed, and there are boxes lining the shelves, boxes decorated with William Morris wrapping paper and and vintage illustrations of insects and cigar boxes and some Mary Englebreit pictures.  The boxes are there because I can fit ten books in a single box, facing out, in the same space where I could fit five books in the traditional way.  One of those boxes holds stationary, pens, envelopes, stickers for sealing the envelopes, since  I will go on sealing them shut and then remembering I wanted to add a photograph or a bookmark or a postscript, or, oh, well, an entire appendix of post scrips and a second letter.  This arrangement has worked very well for an entire two weeks, so I consider it a grand, no, a Grand, Success.

Of course I worry that my letters are boring, although my godson is too desperate for the companionship of even a boring letter to ever tell me so (and also , mostly, too polite and solicitous of my feelings).  So I have looked around for interesting bits of news or stories to write about, posts about reviving the lost art of letter writing, funny stories of things the grandchildren have said or done, and somehow, while wandering that maze of google searchs (only I use duckduckgo) as one does, I slipped through a magic door into the letters of William Cowper.

“Southey, no mean judge in such a matter, calls Cowper the best of
English, letter-writers. If the first place is shared with him by any
one it is by Byron, rather than by Gray, whose letters are pieces of
fine writing, addressed to literary men, or Horace Walpole, whose
letters are memoirs, the English counterpart of St. Simon. The
letters both of Gray and Walpole are manifestly written for
publication. Those of Cowper have the true epistolary charm. They are
conversation, perfectly artless, and at the same time autobiography,
perfectly genuine, whereas all formal autobiography is cooked. They
are the vehicles of the writer’s thoughts and feelings, and the mirror
of his life. We have the strongest proofs that they were not written
for publication. In many of them there are outpourings of wretchedness
which could not possibly have been intended for any heart but that to
which they were addressed, while others contain medical details which
no one would have thought of presenting to the public eye. Some, we
know, were answers to letters received but a moment before; and Southey
says that the manuscripts are very free from erasures. Though Cowper
kept a note-book for subjects, which no doubt were scarce with him, it
is manifest that he did not premeditate. Grace of form he never lacks,
but this was a part of his nature, improved by his classical training.
The character and the thoughts presented are those of a recluse who was
sometimes a hypochondriac; the life is life at Olney. But simple
self-revelation is always interesting, and a garrulous playfulness with
great happiness of expression can lend a certain charm even to things
most trivial and commonplace. There is also a certain pleasure in
being carried back to the quiet days before railways and telegraphs,
when people passed their whole lives on the same spot, and life moved
always in the same tranquil round. In truth it is to such days that
letter-writing, as a species of literature belongs, telegrams and
postal cards have almost killed it now.  (DHM note: isn’t that funny!? Goldwin Smitih published this in 1880)

The large collection of Cowper’s letters is probably seldom taken from
the shelf; and the “Elegant Extracts” select those letters which are
most sententious, and therefore least characteristic. Two or three
specimens of the other style may not be unwelcome or needless as
elements of a biographical sketch; though specimens hardly do justice
to a series of which the charm, such as it is, is evenly diffused, not
gathered, into centres of brilliancy like Madame de Sevigne’s letter on
the Orleans Marriage. Here is a letter written, in the highest spirits
to Lady Hesketh.”

“Olney, _Feb. 9th_, 1786.

“MY DEAREST COUSIN,–I have been impatient to tell you that I am
impatient to see you again. Mrs. Unwin partakes with me in all my
feelings upon this subject, and longs also to see you. I should have
told you so by the last post, but have been so completely occupied by
this tormenting specimen, that it was impossible to do it. I sent the
General a letter on Monday, that would distress and alarm him; I sent
him another yesterday, that will, I hope, quiet him again. Johnson has
apologized very civilly for the multitude of his friend’s strictures;
and his friend has promised to confine himself in future to a
comparison of me with the original, so that, I doubt not, we shall jog
on merrily together. And now, my dear, let me tell you once more, that
your kindness in promising us a visit has charmed us both. I shall see
you again. I shall hear your voice. We shall take walks together. I
will show you my prospects, the hovel, the alcove, the Ouse and its
banks, everything that I have described. I anticipate the pleasure of
those days not very far distant, and feel a part of it at this moment.
Talk not of an inn! Mention it not for your life! We have never had
so many visitors, but we could easily accommodate them all; though we
have received Unwin, and his wife, and his sister, and his son all at
once. My dear, I will not let you come till the end of May, or
beginning of June, because before that time my greenhouse will not be
ready to receive us, and it is the only pleasant room belonging to us.
When the plants go out, we go in. I line it with mats, and spread the
floor with mats; and there you shall sit with a bed of mignonette at
your side, and a hedge of honeysuckles, roses, and jasmine; and I will
make you a bouquet of myrtle every day. Sooner than the time I mention
the country will not be in complete beauty.

“And I will tell you what you shall find at your first entrance.
Imprimis, as soon as you have entered the vestibule, if you cast a look
on either side of you, you shall see on the right hand a box of my
making. It is the box in which have been lodged all my hares, and in
which lodges Puss at present; but he, poor fellow, is worn out with
age, and promises to die before you can see him. On the right hand
stands a cupboard, the work of the same author, it was once a
dove-cage, but I transformed it. Opposite to you stands a table, which
I also made; but a merciless servant having scrubbed it until it became
paralytic, it serves no purpose now but of ornament; and all my clean
shoes stand under it. On the left hand, at the further end of this
superb vestibule, you will find the door of the parlour, into which I
will conduct you, and where I will introduce you to Mrs. Unwin, unless
we should meet her before, and where we will be as happy as the day is
long. Order yourself, my cousin, to the Swan at Newport, and there you
shall find me ready to conduct you to Olney.

“My dear, I have told Homer what you say about casks and urns, and have
asked him whether he is sure that it is a cask in which Jupiter keeps
his wine. He swears that it is a cask, and that it will never be
anything better than a cask to eternity. So if the god is content with
it, we must even wonder at his taste, and be so too.

“Adieu! my dearest, dearest cousin.
W. C.”

I am afraid my own letters will never, ever be this charming and entertaining, but then, this is probably not at all the sort of thing my godson would enjoy receiving, either.

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  1. Susan Humeston
    Posted January 31, 2020 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    What strikes me is the activity they are looking forward to in that letter. Walks and talks, gazing at flowers and being shown the owner’s home with all its’ foibles. We don’t, in general, do that today. We are always busy and rushing. I’ve felt the sadness of not being able to share something that made me extremely happy, like a new species of butterfly, with anyone because no one would care like I do, or even want to hear about it. Such are our friendships today – rushed and filled with the petty details of life unrelated to enjoyment and comfort. I know your letters will cheer your Godson – he remembers you with love because you first loved him, and I also love to read your posts. They are always entertaining and filled with little details, very much like a Cowper letter only less personal because, after all, this is the internet. I hope and pray you are healing daily and taking delight in who you are in Christ – a wonderful person who is very important in the niche she has made in this life.

  2. NC Shari
    Posted February 1, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful idea, the bookcase beside the bed. Love that you look for What Works for You, and go with it. Sounds very joyously efficient!

    I considered it for myself, but I have a very thick cherry highboy along the exterior wall to absorb any stray shots from hunters/target shooters in the forest that begins across the street; if one comes through the wall, at least the head and heart are somewhat protected. And there isn’t room on the other side of the bed.

    I myself having been through a couple of episodes of life turned upside down and poured into a roller-coaster car, you are in my thoughts and prayers often.


    Oh. I have the Jesse Wilcox Smith illustrated nursery rhymes. If that is a book you got rid of and want another copy, please do let me know. I will send it to you. When I Find It.

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