Friday, 25 February 2011
Sad and mad poets.
Putting a little footnote on poetry on my blog yesterday made me look up the histories of various poets. It really was most interesting.
The poet I mentioned was William Cowper who lived from 1731 to 1800 and who seems to be largely forgotten today.
Cowper came from quite a privileged background; his father was a vicar. He was educated at private school and then at Westminster but his school days appear to have been very unhappy. He was called to the Bar but suffered a severe mental breakdown. From then on his life seems to have been peppered with mental instability and depression.
John Clare was more or less a contemporary (1793-1864) and although he came from a very poor background, there were similarities in that his mental instability was so strong that he finally ended up permanently in what was then called an asylum, although within that environment apparently he had a lot of freedom.
The trouble was that by this time the fashion for rural/ploughman poets was dying out and the era of the romantic poet was being ushered in. Yet this time is also the time of Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) and Wordsworth was known to be a great admirer of the work of both Clare and Cowper. (Isn't words-worth a great name for a poet by the way?)
Reading up on the lives of these men does make me wonder - does a great poet need to be subject to mood swings and depressions and to be inward-looking? What do you think? I tried to think of a dead poet who did not fit into this category. Certainly Ted Hughes, and both Dyland and RS Thomas certainly fit the mould. Maybe TS Eliot is the exception - he always seems to be a cerebral poet to me. But then one wonders to what extent biographers try to 'dig the dirt' to make a poet fit the bill. What would our biographers make of us, I wonder? I suppose we all have some skeletons in our cupboards.
Anyway - I hope I am not breaking copyright when I write for you this lovely little Cowper poem which started off my rant. It comes from The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer and Illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund (pub: Collins)
The Nightingale and the Glowworm.
A nightingale that all day long
Had cheer'd the village with his song,
Nor yet at eve his note suspended,
Nor yet when eventide was ended,
Began to feel, as well he might,
The keen demands of appetite;
When looking eagerly around,
He spied far off, upon the ground,
A something shining in the dark,
And knew the glowworm by his spark;
So, stooping down from hawthorn top,
He thought to put him to his crop.
The worm, aware of his intent,
Harangued him thus, right eloquent
"Did you admire my lamp?" quoth he,
"As much as I your minstrelsy,
You would abhor to do me wrong,
As much as I to spoil your song:
For 'twas the self-same Power Divine
Taught you to sing and me to shine;
That you with music, I with light,
Might beautify and cheer the night."
The songster heard this short oration,
And warbling out his approbation,
Released him, as my story tells,
And found a supper somewhere else.
###There have been a number of gas leaks down our lane this winter and the sides have been dug up time and time again. I feared for a little secret patch of purple crocus growing in the hedge bottom, thinking they may well have suffered. Today Tess and I found them, flowering merrily and even spreading. The snowdrops may well be beginning to lose their lustre but the hardy crocus is taking its place and gives me great joy.