Because of my recent interest in William Cowper, an interest inspired by Brian Lynch’s novel about his life, The Winner of Sorrow (which I wrote about here), I requested from my library a copy of David Cecil’s 1930 biography of Cowper, The Stricken Deer. I thought I might just skim through it and see if I found anything interesting, but I took a look at Cecil’s prologue and quickly became entranced by the writing. Apparently they wrote biographies in the 1930s much differently than they do today — which is not to say there aren’t some well-written ones today, but they aren’t quite like Cecil’s.
The prologue isn’t actually about Cowper for the most part; he comes in only at the end of the 15-page essay as a transition into the biography itself. What it is, instead, is a meditation on eighteenth-century society and on the various preconceptions and misconceptions people in the early 20th century held about that time. Even so, he takes a while to get around to the eighteenth century itself. I always tell my students that if they want to open their essays with general statements and then move to more specific ones, they had better be careful not to start too generally (no “since the beginning of time” please), but Cecil shows how to start off very generally and how to do it beautifully:
Past periods, like foreign countries, become the fashion. Just as people like one sort of hat because it suits the type of beauty they admire, so people are attracted to a particular place or period because it suits their prevailing mood. Mankind, in its restless search for some ideal and fairy country which satisfies a fancy, dissatisfied with that in which it lives, will identify it with the civilization of some other time or people which appears to possess the qualities it most values, and to lack those which it most dislikes.
From there he goes on to consider various time periods and when they were fashionable, and only after four long paragraphs devoted to contemplating this phenomenon (including a leisurely discussion of objects we associate with various times and places) does he get around to the eighteenth century itself.
When he gets there, he argues that our conceptions of the era are entirely wrong and that we generalize about it too much and don’t understand its complexity. He sets about correcting our mistake by setting up a little library scene:
For a happy moment let us shut the door on the modern world and retire in fancy to some Augustan library. The curtains are drawn, the fire is lit; outside the silence is broken only the faint crackling whispers of the winter frost. How the firelight gleams and flickers on the fluted moldings of the bookcases, on the faded calf and tarnished gold of the serried rows of books: the slim duodecimo poems and plays; the decent two-volumed octavo novels; the portly quarto sermons, six volumes, eight volumes, ten volumes; the unity of brown, broken now and again by a large tome of correspondence, green or plum or crimson, only given to the public in our own time. The whole eighteenth century is packed into these white or yellowing pages; all its mutifarious aspects, its types, its moods, its morals, self-revealed; the indefinable, unforgettable perfume of the period breathing from every line of print. For the shortest, dullest letter really written in a past age can bring its atmosphere home to you as the most vivid historian of a later time can never do.
Can’t you picture yourself there? He goes on to take a short survey of important eighteenth-century writers in a similarly imaginative style, capturing the essence of respectable Whig aristocracy and nobility, the somewhat less-respectable middle classes, the travelers and adventurers, the fashionable men and women of sensibility, and the literary intelligentsia.
And then we get to Cowper himself. Much of his writing, Cecil says (rather surprisingly), is dull and lifeless. But then —
… suddenly one’s attention is caught by a chance word; the page stirs to life; a bit of the English countryside appears before one’s mental eye as vividly and exactly as though one really saw it; or an ephemeral trifle, a copy of verses addressed to Miss M. or Mr. D., laughs out of the page with the pleasant colloquial intimacy of a voice heard over the teacups in the next room. And now and again, as if from the strings of a tarnished, disused harp stumbled against in one’s rambles around the library, there rises from the old book a strain of music, simple, plangent, and of a piercing pathos, that fairly clutches at the heart.
He briefly discusses Cowper’s life, focusing on the thing that’s most memorable about it — his artistic creativity combined with his mental suffering. Here’s how the prologue ends:
But he was under a curse. From his earliest years there loomed over him, born in disease, nurtured in fanaticism, the frightful specter of religious madness. And his life resolved itself into a struggle, fought to the death, between the daylit serenity of his natural circumstances and the powers of darkness hidden in his heart. For a time it seemed that they would be defeated. Yet even when the light shone most brightly on his face, the shadow lurked behind his back; around the sunny, grassy meadows crouched the black armies of horror and despair. At a moment’s weakness they would advance; inch by inch they gained ground; till, with a last scream of anguish, his tortured spirit sank, overwhelmed.
Okay, in that last bit he goes a little overboard, but tell me, do you see writing like this in modern-day biographies? I found this prologue utterly charming, and I was tempted to read the entire book, although now I’m not sure I will, as time is short and my interest in Cowper does have its limits. But this book does make me a little sad that contemporary nonfiction prose can be so … prosaic.