Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
Shirley W. Neal
In The Task, dated 1785, William Cowper clearly anticipates certain major themes in early nineteenth-century British Romantic poetry. In his individual presentation of the central Romantic themes of this "transitional" work, however, Cowper differs significantly from the major Romantic poets whose work his own most resembles. This is largely due to the strain of Evangelical Christianity that pervades the poem, as the result of his contact with the Evangelical Revival that swept England during the second half of the eighteenth century. The orthodox Christian doctrine and morality that underlie the Romantic themes in The Task, together with the spirit of the Revival that inspires the literary use of those themes, become an important consideration in reading Cowper's work as significant nature and humanitarian poetry in its own right.
The first three sections of this paper are devoted to brief identification of some Romantic themes in The Task on the basis of clear similarities to the work of certain Romantic poets, particularly Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, and to demonstration of the religious basis for Cowper's individual presentation of those themes. I have discussed The Task first as Wordsworthian nature poetry saturated with the Evangelical message and spirit, then, as humanitarian poetry in which the sympathetic analysis of English manners and morals has its basis in New Testament doctrine. It is also idealist poetry of mankind in which the more universal themes of liberty, brotherhood, the immorality of war, and the prophetic vision of a perfected world are based on the poet's conviction of the unity of mankind under one God and intensified by his religious fervor. These three sections provide substantial evidence for the positive literary influence of Evangelicalism on Cowper's writing of The Task.
The final section is devoted to investigation of the unfortunate critical tendency to cite Evangelicalism as a limiting factor in Cowper's literary development. It has been suggested that had he not come under the influence of the Revival Cowper's imaginative and poetic powers could have developed more fully. This idea raises the more general critical problem of whether adherence to a conventional theology prevents the serious pursuit and high purposes of the true poet and interferes with the free exercise of the poetic imagination. Although one can probably assume that the orthodox Christian writer's conscious attitude toward his work will differ from that of the non-Christian, there is no evidence that adherence to a conventional theology in itself precludes the writing of imaginative poetry, and in fact, the achievement of such writers as Dante and Milton suggests the opposite. It seems much more plausible to conclude that The Task owes much to its Evangelical Christian strain, and that Cowper was not inherently a creative writer like Wordsworth, but a gifted essayist and letter writer whose personal and emotional religion moved him to poetic expression.
Johnson, Carol V., "Romanticism and Evangelical Christianity in William Cowper's The Task" (1976). Masters Theses. 3394.