Cowper's Grave

Table of contents

1. Cowper's Grave

It is a place where poets crowned may feel the heart's decaying.
It is a place where happy saints may weep amid their praying.
Yet let the grief and humbleness, as low as silence, languish.
Earth surely now may give her calm to whom she gave her anguish4
O poets, from a maniac’s tongue was poured the deathless singing!
O Christians, at your cross of hope, a hopeless hand was clinging!
O men, this man in brotherhood your weary paths beguiling,
Groaned inly8while he taught you peace, and died while ye were smiling!
And now, what time ye all may read through dimming tears his story,
How discord on the music fell, and darkness on the glory,
And how when, one by one, sweet sounds and wandering lights departed11,
He wore no less a loving face because so broken-hearted,
He shall be strong to sanctify the poet’s high vocation,
And bow the meekest Christian down in meeker adoration.
ever shall he be, in praise, by wise or good forsaken,
Named softly as the household name of one whom God hath taken16
With quiet sadness and no gloom I learn to think upon him,—
With meekness that is gratefulness to God whose heaven hath won him,
Who suffered once the madness-cloud to His own love to blind him,
But gently led the blind along where breath and bird could find him,
And wrought within his shattered brain such quick poetic senses
As hills have language for, and stars, harmonious influences22.
The pulse of dew upon the grass, kept his within its number,
And silent shadows from the trees refreshed him like a slumber24.
Wild25 timid hares were drawn from woods to share his home-caresses,
Uplooking to his human eyes with sylvan26 tendernesses.
The very world, by God’s constraint, from falsehood’s ways removing,
Its women and its men28 became, beside him, true and loving.
And though, in blindness, he remained unconscious of that guiding,
And things provided came without the sweet sense of providing,
He testified this solemn truth, while phrenzy31 desolated,
—Nor man nor nature satisfy, whom only God created.
Like a sick child that knoweth not his mother while she blesses
And drops upon his burning brow the coolness of her kisses,—
That turns his fevered eyes around—“My mother! where’s my mother?”—
As if such tender words and deeds could come from any other!—36
The fever gone, with leaps of heart he sees her bending o’er him,
Her face all pale from watchful love, the unweary love she bore him!—
Thus, woke the poet from the dream his life’s long fever gave him,
Beneath those deep pathetic Eyes40, which closed in death to save him.
Thus? oh, not thus! no type of earth can image that awaking,
Wherein he scarcely heard the chant of seraphs42, round him breaking,
Or felt the new immortal throb of soul from body parted,
But felt those eyes alone, and knew,—“My Saviour! not deserted!”
Deserted! Who hath dreamt that when the cross in darkness rested,
Upon the Victim’s46 hidden face, no love was manifested?
What frantic hands outstretched have e’er the atoning drops averted?
What tears have washed them from the soul, that one should be deserted?48
Deserted! God could separate from His own essence rather;
And Adam's sins have swept between the righteous Son and Father.
Yea, once, Immanuel’s51 orphaned cry his universe hath shaken—
It went up single, echoless, “My God, I am forsaken!”
It went up from the Holy’s lips amid his lost creation,
That, of the lost, no son should use those words of desolation!
That earth’s worst phrenzies, marring hope, should mar not hope’s fruition,
And I, on Cowper’s grave, should see his rapture in a vision.

2. Note on the text

In its tribute to the genius of poet William Cowpera1(1731-1800), this poem reflects the influence of poetical “grandfathers,” major and minor, on EBB’s development—although it is her search for poetical “grandmothers” that has more often been emphasizeda2. The poem also enters into early Victorian debates concerning the extent to which Cowper’s bouts of suicidal depression were caused by madness or by a religious mania induced by the Calvinist doctrine of reprobation: the belief that an individual might be eternally damned by Goda3. EBB had read at least three biographies of Cowper as well as his letters; she considered Robert Southey’s Lifea4 the “best & fullest.” Her own view, as expressed in extended comments to her friend Mary Mitford, was that “poor Cowper was mad, not in consequence of his theological views but altogether apart from them.” Southey’s account of Cowper’s life had a profound influence on her, lying upon her “heart like a weight of lead for days & days” (BC 5:306-7), perhaps because of religious doubts she herself had experienced. In her introspective, evangelical girlhood, she had moments when she was “tortured” by the idea of having so “offended” God that she “hardly hoped for pardon” and repeated “My God My God why hast thou forsaken me”a5 (BC 1:352). Like the climax of The Seraphim (ll. 931-32), “Cowper’s Grave” explores the implications of the moment when Christ on the cross cries out to God that he is “forsaken.” With its flowing mellifluous verse, the poem “pleased more persons . . . than all the rest put together” among works in EBB’s 1838 collection, as measured by letters she received from both strangers and friends (BC 4:267). It was also praised in Blackwood’s as “affecting and beautiful,” and in The Quarterly Review as “the best and most finished of Miss Barrett’s productions” (BC 4:382, 414). When first published in 1838, the poem was cast in unnumbered eight-line stanzas with alternating lines of four and three and a half metrical feet. EBB gave instructions to the printer altering the poem to its present quatrain form in preparing the copy for her Poems (1850). She also made numerous revisions in the text and punctuation, and deleted the epigraph from William Habingtona6 that prefaced the 1838 text:
I will invite thee, from thy envious hearse
To rise, and ’bout the world thy beams to spread,
That we may see there’s brightness in the dead.
For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

The real or fictitious visit to a poet’s grave is a conventional device in nineteenth-century memorial poetry, as “The Grave of a Poetess” in Felicia Hemans’s Records of Woman (1828) and “Haworth Churchyard” (1855), Matthew Arnold’s memorial to the Brontë sisters, indicates. In 1850 EBB altered the punctuation of this stanza to four full stops, syntactically bringing the reader to a stop in this evocation of the grave.

inly inwardly.

departed Cowper experienced his final breakdown in 1796, after the death of the woman who had cared for him, Mary Unwin.

household name nickname, like EBB’s own “pet-name” within her family, “Ba,” the subject of the last poem in her 1838 collection (“Cowper’s Grave” is the third from last).

influences here used in the older (and primary) astrological sense of emanations from the stars affecting the characters and destinies of human beings.

The pulse . . . number, the dew’s rhythmical recurrence or pulse helped to regulate the beat of his pulse.

Stanza VII in 1838, ll. 27-28 of this stanza preceded ll. 25-26.

sylvan belonging to or pertaining to the woods or forest.

Its women and its men this reversal of the conventional word order “men and women” may have been prompted by the meter. EBB does, however, in writing of religious believers sometimes make a point of including both genders; see, for example, her exchange with William Merry on doctrinal questions (BC 8:149)

phrenzy variant of “frenzy,” signifying mental delirium or derangement.

Like . . . other!— cf. the very similar images of divine love figured through maternal kisses in Stanza 5 of EBB’s “A Child’s Thought of God” (1850).

Eyes the eyes of Christ.

seraphs angels of the highest order; “seraphim” is the more usual plural form.

Victim’s Christ’s on the cross.

See H. Buxton Forman’s transcription of a ms fragment that contains two variants on ll. 45-48, although Forman does not connect these to “Cowper’s Grave” (HUPS 2:195).

Immanuel’s Christ’s; Immanuel or Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God with us) is the name of the child foretold in Isaiah 7:14 and thus applied to Christ in the New Testament.

Cowper Author of descriptive, religious, and political verse, satires, sonnets, and a translation of Homer. Cowper’s works include the influential collection of Nonconformist verse, the Olney Hymns (1779), and The Task (1789). In “The Book of the Poets,” her wide-ranging survey of the history of English poetry (published in the Athenæum, 1842), EBB describes Cowper as a writer in whom the spirit of the “fifth” era of poetry (i.e., the Romantic era) was “alive”; with his more natural style, he broke away from the “serf bondage” of the “Dryden dynasty,” participating in the revolution that culminated in the works of William Wordsworth and others (CW 6:298).

“I look everywhere for Grandmothers & see none” (BC 10:14), she commented in an often cited exchange with H.F. Chorley (1808-72), literary critic for the Athenæum (see BC 10:3-4, 13-15). In the same passage, however, she also speaks of her “reverent love” for her poetical “grandfathers.”

Cowper suffered from attacks of madness in which he was overcome by despair and the conviction that he was cast out by God into eternal damnation, leading him to attempt suicide on at least two occasions.

Life The Works of William Cowper, Esq., … With a Life of the Author written by Robert Southey (1774-1843), prolific author of both verse and prose, who became Poet Laureate in 1813.

My God … forsaken me echoing Christ’s words on the Cross (see Matthew 27.46; Mark 15.34).

William Habington (1605-64), author of love poems, elegies, sacred poems and a tragicomedy.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: March 10th, 2009
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