Localizing the Problem of Evil: William Cowper and the Poetics of Perspectivalism

Abstract

One challenge to any approach to the problem of evil involves phenomenological distance-the distance between encountering evil at a safe cognitive and emotional remove and confronting evil when it invades the individualized space of personal experience. Philosophical approaches often maximize that distance by combating the problem of evil from an abstract, de-particularized perspective; concrete instances of evil are held at bay while the theodicy-maker squares off against the universal problem of evil. Narrative approaches, on the other hand, often minimize that distance by giving representation to concrete, particularized experiences of suffering; evil rushes in upon the reader as the narrative unfolds. This essay examines how the narrative approach adopted by the poet William Cowper provides the discursive framework for a more authentic theodicy by bridging that phenomenological distance and thereby localizing the problem of evil.

Six months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a major television network aired a commemorative documentary titled simply, 9/11. The film contains disturbing footage of shell-shocked New York City firefighters proceeding into the stairwell of Tower One of the World Trade Center minutes after the first attack and before the total destruction of the building. The documentary also depicts the massive, painstaking rescue operation launched the following day, with firefighters clearing away mountains of rubble using shovels, picks, and buckets. Spliced between these clips, the filmmakers interview a firefighter who painfully describes his experience on that day: “And I just realized [that] something that I always wanted to deny is how evil evil can be.”

The firefighter’s realization underscores the enormous phenomenological distance between encountering evil at a safe cognitive and emotional remove, and confronting evil when it invades the individualized space of personal experience and indelibly marks the human psyche. This phenomenological distance tends to bifurcate discursive approaches to the problem of evil. On the one hand, narrative approaches often occupy the personalized space of characters grappling with evil (in, say, a Dostoevsky novel or, more recently, a play like Margaret Edson’s Wit). Such narratives eliminate that phenomenological distance and give representation to concrete, particularized experiences of suffering; evil rushes in upon the reader as the narrative unfolds. Philosophical approaches, on the other hand, often operate from a de-individualized vantage point that, if successful, will render universally binding conclusions. In order to do so, such approaches necessarily maintain that phenomenological distance, combating the problem of evil from an abstract, de-particularized perspective; concrete instances of evil are held at bay while the theodicy-maker squares off against the universal problem of evil.[1]

Many philosophers have recognized the limitations of de-localizing the problem. Before launching his own theodicy, for example, Daniel Howard-Snyder makes a distinction between the “practical problem of evil and the theoretical problem of evil” (p. 82). He then admits that many of his readers will be disappointed by his exclusive focus on the theoretical problem: “I am in sympathy with them. After all, evil and suffering are too real to be dealt with on a merely theoretical level…. The premise here is true: for many people, there are times when ‘philosophical twaddle’ about God and evil cannot meet their needs” (p. 80). Philosopher Susan J. Brison also notes how philosophical discourse often empties suffering of its lived, individualized meanings. A victim of sexual assault, Brison struggles to localize terms that are easily dislodged from their particularized context: “And I felt that I had very little control over the meaning of the word ‘rape.’ Using the term denied the particularity of what I had experienced and invoked in other people whatever rape scenario they had already constructed.”[2] Evil assumes different hideous contours, impacting experience in alarmingly sundry ways, whenever it bridges that phenomenological distance and enters the orbit of individual lives. As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes in his moving account of the loss of his son, “Each person’s suffering has its own quality. No outsider can ever fully enter it.”[3] Individuals realize, in individualized ways, “how evil evil can be.”

One challenge to any discursive engagement of the problem of evil is thus to bring some sort of genuine resolution to bear on suffering by bridging that phenomenological distance, uniting the general and the particular, the abstract and the concrete. In this essay, I will examine the works of a poet who I believe accomplishes this task. The oeuvre of William Cowper (1731-1800) poetically instantiates the localization of the problem of evil, serving as an exponent of authentic narrative approaches to the problem. By perspectivizing his experience, Cowper contextualizes suffering whereby it assumes a discursive authenticity that resonates more fully with those who recognize the particularized nature of evil. The primary purpose of this essay is not to unpack Cowper’s theodicy or even to recommend it to others. (In some ways, Cowper’s solution to suffering is irrelevant to early twenty-first century readers.) Rather, the primary purpose of this essay is to explore the dynamics of experience-localization, which in turn might serve as the prolegomenon to a theodicy that melds the general and the particular. Cowper’s poetics might expand the lines of inquiry for contemporary discussions of the problem of evil by illuminating an alternative discursive avenue for confronting suffering.

What makes Cowper’s contextualization of experience even more remarkable—and why this essay focuses specifically on his poetics—concerns the antagonistic cultural and intellectual milieu within which he worked. The culmination of Enlightenment ideals, eighteenth-century British thought privileges universalized, generalized, de-contextualized notions of experience. This essay will thus also examine the historical conditions—established by one moment of eighteenth-century British culture—that gave momentum to abstract conceptualizations of experience, conceptualizations which figured prominently in future analyses of experience and, consequently, in discursive approaches to the problem of evil. Providing the framework for a localized theodicy, the essay will consider how Cowper swims against this universalizing tide to construct a poetics of perspectivalism.

William Cowper and His Time

Throughout his life, Cowper suffered from psychological disorders and traumas that racked his tempestuous mind and soul. In his provocatively titled study, Boswell’s Clap and Other Essays: Medical Analyses of Literary Men’s Afflictions, medical doctor William B. Ober diagnoses Cowper as a “psychotic who suffered from mental depression with suicidal tendencies. His madness was colored strongly by religious delusions centering about his own damnation.”[4] The death of his mother at the age of six constituted the first of a series of tragedies that brought Cowper to despair, eventuating in numerous suicide attempts later in life. Cowper suffered his first documented mental breakdown in 1763. Pursuing a career in law as a young man, Cowper was nominated to the office of Clerk of the House of Lords, but was terrified to learn that he would first have to pass a preliminary oral examination. Cowper’s fear of public exposure overwhelmed him; in his autobiography (c. 1767, pub. 1816), he writes, “They whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves on any occasion is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horror of my situation….”[5] On the night before his scheduled exam, Cowper attempted suicide by driving a penknife through his heart. When the tip of the penknife broke, Cowper then tried to hang himself using his garter. Though Cowper recovered from this attempt to take his own life, his desperate actions later convinced him that he had committed the unpardonable sin and was consequently damned. Cowper describes the terror of this conviction: “I laid myself down in bed, howling with horror, while my knees smote against each other. In this condition my brother found me; the first word I spoke to him (and I remember the very expression) was, ‘Oh brother, I am damned—damned. Think of eternity, and then think what it is to be damned’” (p. 29). In his last original poem, “The Cast-Away,” written in 1799, one year before his death, Cowper adopts the persona of a damned soul, analogized to a sailor lost overboard in rough seas: “We perish’d each alone; / But I beneath a rougher sea, / And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.”[6]

                Clearly for Cowper, evil was never at a phenomenological distance. The ever-sensitive and timid poet repeatedly slipped into psychological darkness. Despite these breakdowns, the records of Cowper’s life suggest that peace and resolution kept creeping in. In a letter composed in 1765, just two years after his first breakdown, after he became convinced that he was damned, Cowper writes that his “affliction has taught [him] a road to happiness which without it [he] should never have found…” (v. 1, p. 97). This sentiment registers the chiasma of Cowper’s psychological ups and downs, the paradoxical emergence of happiness in the midst of sadness. One literary source of this paradox, which gestures toward Cowper’s own theodicy, might be found by tracing Cowper’s lineage on his mother’s side to his famous poet ancestor, John Donne, the devotee of paradox, emotional and spiritual. Consider these sentences taken from Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624): “…[F]or affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”[7] Donne finds the positive in the heart of the negative; joy paradoxically proceeds from disaster.

Like his predecessor, Cowper discerns the paradoxes of affliction. In a short poem titled “Happy Solitude—Unhappy Men” (1782), he writes,

My heart is easy and my burden light;

I smile, though sad, when Thou art in my sight;

The more my woes in secret I deplore,

I taste thy goodness and I love the more. (v. 5, p. 285)

A smile paradoxically emerges in the midst of sadness; gustatory pleasure belies the experience of secret woe. And in one of his hymns, titled “Light Shining Out of Darkness” (1779), Cowper asserts,

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence,

He hides a smiling face. (v. 5, p. 56)

Again we find the centrality of paradox: ominous, threatening clouds pour out blessings; the forbidding face of the deity masks a benevolent smile. Cowper’s representations of paradox help explain how he finds peace and happiness where we would least expect it.

My sense, however, is that it is not paradox alone that affords Cowper with comfort in the midst of tragedy, but the metaphorical space within which paradox and other idiosyncrasies and particularities of experience are allowed to flourish. The creation of this space flies in the face of militating, Enlightenment conceptions of experience (idealized in the eighteenth century) that discourage the idiosyncratic and particular. It is to these conceptions that I now turn in order to emphasize proleptically the accomplishment of Cowper’s poetics and also to suggest the influence that these conceptions had on future discussions of evil.

Enlightenment notions of experience largely emerge from Enlightenment discourse, which is first and foremost a strongly public discourse, one in which the uniform achieves ascendancy over the contingent, in which the individual must bow to the dictates of a public consensus. In his recent study on Samuel Johnson and David Hume, Adam Potkay locates the two subjects of his analysis on the “universal stage of the Enlightenment,” where one leaves “behind a sequestered place and enter[s] a social world of experience and exchange.”[8] The public nature of Enlightenment discourse, as I will suggest, tends to universalize experience whereby individual experiences are filtered through the guidelines of this discourse and are disregarded—kicked off the stage—if they do not approach universality.

The distaste for the local and the private, and the concomitant elevation of the public and universal owe much to the religious prejudice against the Puritans. With the chaotic, destructive rise and fall of the Puritan-led Interregnum (1649-1660) ingrained in their collective minds, Augustans developed a contempt for all things Puritan. The foremost object of contempt was Puritan enthusiasm, the private and passionate convictions which Puritans claimed to have received from the Holy Spirit. To counter these supposed supernatural, idiosyncratic deliverances, Augustans privileged faculties maintained to be more uniform, more publicly acceptable. The dividing line between the public and private is forged when influential literary texts register their disapproval of Puritanism. In the preface to the Religio Laici (1682), John Dryden labels the Puritan “Fanaticks” as “Enemies,” because “they have assum’d what amounts to an Infallibility, in the private Spirit….”[9] Consistent with his Latitudinarianism, which upholds the external, demonstrable works of faith rather than the internal, private movements of faith, Henry Fielding robustly conveys his disapproval of enthusiasm. In Joseph Andrews (1742), Parson Adams is initially drawn by George Whitefield’s sermons. However, “when [Whitefield] began to call Nonsense and Enthusiasm to his Aid, and to set up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against Works, I was [Whitefield’s] friend no longer….”[10] Fielding’s disapproval of enthusiasm partially explains his scathing reaction to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), a novel which preserves the integrity of a young maid’s private, inner experience as a faithful transcription of truth. The narrative ideology of Richardson’s novel suggests a sympathy for enthusiasm; it is this narrative ideology, among other things, that Fielding attacks in his famous lampoon of Pamela, titled Shamela (1741). The reaction against enthusiasm was so charged that, in Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphrey Clinker (1771), the character of Matthew Bramble refuses to answer to his own first name because it is associated with Puritanism.[11]

Other historical forces occasioned the rise of public discourse. According to Jurgen Habermas, the rise of “capitalist commercial relations” brought a flow of “traffic in commodities and news,” what Habermas calls the “mercantilist phase.”[12] With this phase came an explosion of social spaces for public dialogue and information exchange. “Around the middle of the seventeenth century,” states Habermas,

after not only tea—first to be popular—but also chocolate and coffee had become the common beverages of at least the well-to-do strata of the population, the coachman of a Levantine merchant opened the first coffee house. By the first decade of the eighteenth century London already had 3,000 of them, each with a core group of regulars. (p. 32)

This phenomenon created a “public sphere of a rational-critical debate,” where private thoughts could be made public, placed upon that universal stage of the Enlightenment (p. 51). John Bender calls this public sphere “an arena of conversational and written exchange, epitomized by early English coffee houses and newspapers,” whereby “discourse was reordered to allow easy flow of ideas from one field of interest to another and from one social stratum to another….”[13] Well before the theorizing of Habermas and Bender, Bonamy Dobree identified a “general process,” completed by the 1730s, which witnessed the “convergence from above and below of distinct reading classes, which came together to form one large homogenous group.”[14]

Predisposed to favor homogeneity, then, public discourse acted as a unifying agent, uniting people around what they have in common rather than how they differ. In fact, appropriating a metaphor crafted by the French philosophes, Peter Gay identifies the Enlightenment as a “philosophic family,” with “common loyalties and a common world view.”[15] The metaphor also appears in A. R. Humphreys’ assessment of the eighteenth century. In the Augustan world, “[p]erpetually one seems to be part of a large but very real family…. [O]ne feels the social world of literate London bound together in a close linkage of experience.”[16] It would seem that entrance into this family necessitates that the private emerge from the enclosed spaces of idiosyncratic, inner experience in order to participate in that “close linkage of experience” formed in the public sphere. In Spectator no. 10 (1711), in fact, Joseph Addison proclaims, “I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and Assemblies, at tea tables, and in coffee houses.”[17]

Thus, in addition to the rampant contempt for Puritan enthusiasm, the rise of public spaces created a public discourse that tended to marginalize the validity of private thoughts and emotions. Squeezed out of Addison’s closets and libraries, such thoughts and emotions became absorbed into a familial discourse transacted in coffee houses and tea tables, the metonymic representatives of the public sphere.

The marginalization of private thoughts and emotions, and the rise of public discourse generated ubiquitous appeals to a mythical ideal of abstract, uniform experience. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), David Hume speaks of the universality of human nature, whose similarities cut across particularizing lines of culture and context:

It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: The same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self-love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular.[18]

Hume minimizes the possibility that individual or cultural contexts frame experiences and conceptions of reality. Such conceptional contexts bend to the foundational nature of human experience. Though their ideas often led to idiosyncratic conclusions, empiricists like Hume avoided the individualistic tendencies that empiricism would seemingly promote by appealing to Nature and/or Human Nature. In such a way, many empiricists found order and stability in a world cut off from external truths and instead constituted by sense perception and associated ideas. Appeals to Nature reflect the eighteenth-century ideal of abstract, uniform experience. When a writer of the period appeals to Nature, abstract, uniform experience is simply presupposed. Thus, Addison, in Spectator no. 70 (1711), can blithely proclaim, “Human Nature is the same in all reasonable creatures; and whatever falls with it, will meet with Admirers amongst Readers of all Qualities and Conditions.”[19] Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765) relies heavily upon this discourse of nature for its critical insights. According to Johnson, the genius of Shakespeare is to represent a universally shared experience that is rooted in nature:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.[20]

This paragraph encapsulates the binary opposition that separates natural from unnatural experience: the former is endowed with the laudable epithets of “common,” “general,” “whole,” and “species”; the latter is resigned to inferior designations such as “particular,” “peculiarities,” and “individual.” Prescribing uniformity and homogeneity, eighteenth-century notions of experience are laid upon a procrustean bed. Patricia Spacks significantly notes that many characters in novels of the period are fundamentally static, “absolutely fixed” in their identity.[21] The Tom Jones on page one is the same Tom Jones on page 762. This invariability of character is not surprising, considering the abstract, uniform nature of Enlightenment notions of experience.

The “Self-Sequester’d” Man

Placed within this intellectual and cultural milieu, Cowper attends to the concrete particularities of experience when abstractions reigned supreme. Ideologically separated from the universal stage of London culture, Cowper, two years after his first suicide attempt, physically separated himself from London as well, retiring to the rural town of Huntingdon. And it is there (and later in the town of Olney), in the serenity of a rustic retirement, where Cowper creates that metaphorical space within which paradox and the particularities of experience are allowed to thrive. Exiting the public sphere, Cowper relocates to a rural space of retirement, leaving behind the popular spaces of abstract, universalized experience. The enclosures of retirement, I suggest, enable Cowper to perceive the contingencies and paradoxes of his own experience. Closed off from the universal stage of the Enlightenment—the locus of public exchange and experiential uniformity—Cowper inscribes in his poetry an individualized frame of reference, a localized point of view, from which peace in the midst of suffering materializes. Retirement serves as a figure for the circumscribed space of particular experience, the site of perspectivalism, where the experience of suffering and redemption, liberated from the myth of uniform experience within the public sphere, assumes an identity unique to the individual. Experience becomes contextualized and therefore genuine; and individuals like Cowper, who, as he wrote in a 1756 letter, are averse to “public exhibitions,” “may be an instrument of turning many to the truth in a private way…” (v. 1, p. 153).

Much of Cowper’s poetry is shaped by the values of retirement. The Task (1785), Cowper’s most ambitious poem, recapitulates the pastoral thematic formula, simultaneously praising the country life and decrying the city life. In Book III of the poem, Cowper describes the inhabitant of the country as the “self-sequester’d man / Fresh for his task, intend what task he may” (v. 6, p. 62). Sequestration is an appropriate trope, for it connotes the withdrawal and seclusion of the retired life; it marks off the space separating the bustle of London from the serenity of the country life.

The image of sequestration also figures in other Cowper poems that address retired life. In “Ode to Peace” (1782), Cowper images peace as a resident of the sequestered space of retirement:

            The great, the gay, shall they partake

            The heaven that thou alone canst make;

            And wilt thou quit the stream

            That murmurs through the dewy mead,

            The grove and the sequester’d shed,    

            To be a guest of them? (v. 5, p. 244)

Given its myriad appearances in poems such as these, the language of sequestration clearly serves as a key image within Cowper’s thematics of retirement. But with what various shades of meaning does Cowper paint the image? As stated above, sequestration evokes the related image of a barrier, a buffer delimiting the rural life from the city. I find, however, another layer of meaning in Cowper’s image. The trope of sequestration calls attention not only to what is being fenced out but what is being fenced in. Withdrawn from the universalizing, abstracting tendencies of public discourse, the self-sequestered man turns inwardly, individualizing experience, forging an authentic understanding of suffering and redemption that originates and assumes its shape within the self and its space of residence. As Vincent Newey explains, for Cowper, retirement experience is not idealized, is not abstracted and constructed as a discursive model to which the general public should conform; rather, retired experience is genuinely lived experience: “In Cowper retirement is not so much a shared ideal, taken for granted or reproduced for common consumption, as something personally thought about, anatomized, known, and lived by the poet-individual himself.”[22] Cowper speaks to this notion of individualized experience when he writes in Book III of The Task that the retired individual “attends to his interior self” (v. 6, p. 62). Perspectivizing experience within the context of enclosure, the self becomes sensitive to its own intrinsic cognitive state.

Cowper devises images in his poetry that aptly symbolize the dynamics of intrinsicality, insularity, sequestration, and the enclosed space. Again in Book III of The Task, the figure of the green house microcosmically thematizes the contextualization of place. The green house, as I read it, serves as a metaphor for the self-enclosure of the retired poet:

            Who loves a garden, loves a green-house too.

            Unconscious of a less propitious clime

            There blooms exotic beauty, warm and snug.

            While the winds whistle and the snows descend,

            The spiry myrtle with unwithering leaf

            Shines there and flourishes. The golden boast

            Of Portugal and western India there,

            The ruddier orange and the paler lime,

            Peep through their polish’d foliage at the storm,

            And seem to smile at what they need not fear. (v. 6, p. 67)

The green house, like the country, is its own world, distinct from the outer world (or the city). It constitutes a self-contained unit, protected from the inclement weather outside. As with the retired life/city life opposition, Cowper also underscores not only what is excluded but what is included—what forms the context of the enclosed space. Regulating its own climate and balancing its own ecosystem, the interior of the green house produces an environment that thrives only under the particular conditions of the enclosure. The richness of the world inside the green house, like the experience of the retiree, hinges on its respective insular context. Cowper’s images and the language in which they are couched, then, evoke the dynamics of intrinsicality and insularity, which, in turn, establish conditions for localizing the problem of evil.

The Poetics of Perspectivalism

Once enclosed and insulated, the self-sequestered man, unlike the occupant of the universal stage of the Enlightenment, becomes attentive to perspective and particularity. Willfully divested of the universal vocabulary, the retiree erects a frame of reference that becomes anchored, in other words, to the context of place and sensitized to the minutia of the contingent.

In the opening lines of the first book of The Task, for example, Cowper re-focuses his poetic lens from mammoth generalities of Augustanism to the particularities of local experience:

            I sing the Sofa. I who lately sang

            Truth, Hope, and Charity…

            Now seek repose upon an humbler theme;

            The theme though humble, yet august and proud

            The occasion,—for the Fair commands the song. (v. 6, p. 2)

The “Fair” here refers to Mary Unwin, who encouraged Cowper to write a poem about his couch. From its starting point, The Task discloses the localized contingencies of its origin; it immediately creates an individualized context that perspectivizes the poem. In addition, the beginning lines of the poem allude to the opening Book of Milton’s Paradise Regained: “I who erewhile the happy garden sung / By one man’s disobedience, now sing….”[23] The generalized Miltonic theme of atonement and humankind’s salvation become, in Cowper’s rendition, the particularized poetic musings on a sofa. Again, the narrative of The Task begins (and ends, for that matter) as a local narrative; it is acutely conscious of its own context.

For this reason, the persona of The Task seems to take possession of the poem’s images or, at the least, to individualize them and re-cast them within the context of the poem’s idiosyncratic perspective. For example, in Book VI, Cowper hikes around the country landscape and declares, “These shades are all my own” (v. 6, p. 135). Again, the geography of the poem seems assimilated into the lived experience of the individual poet; representations of nature and the retired estate bear the stamp of the poet’s unique personality. Cowper thus conceptualizes nature outside of its conventional eighteenth-century representations. In Book III of The Task, Cowper re-fashions nature thusly:

            My charmer is not mine alone, my sweets

            And she that sweetens all my bitters too,

            Nature, enchanting Nature, in whose form

            And lineaments divine I trace a hand

            That errs not, and finds raptures still renew’d,

            Is free to all men, universal prize. (v. 6, p. 71)

Ostensibly, Cowper inscribes nature within the conventional Augustan universal vocabulary (in the last quoted line). But the predominance of first-person pronouns (five in the first five quoted lines) suggests that the poet personalizes and perspectivizes nature. Thus, though it is a “universal prize,” nature becomes personally situated once it is brought into the poem. William N. Free finds that same sort of significance in Cowper’s representations of nature. Cowper “insists,” explains Free, “on describing details with which only he could be familiar, an isolated cottage, a water wheel, a particular trip through the countryside…. He related the landscape of the poem to himself, not as a representative of man in general nor with the generalized responses of the persona, or depersonalized narrator.”[24] Felicity Nussbaum also notices strong expressions of personalization and individuality. Though she here refers to Cowper’s Memoir, her claim, I believe, amplifies my reading of Cowper’s poetry:

In arguing that God makes specific exceptions to natural law for him, individually, Cowper takes his place against arguments like David Hume’s that all events are submitted ‘to general laws by which the universe is governed.’ Thus Cowper is remarkable in arguing that there is no single law to which all men are subject, for God will make exceptions in order to influence individual lives.[25]

Nussbaums’ claim also reconnects my argument to its larger thesis: Cowper’s representations of individuality, contingency, and perspectivalism place him in opposition to the assumptions of eighteenth-century public discourse, illustrated in Hume’s presumption of general laws. Cowper’s experiential particularity, unlike the legacy of traditional Augustan universalism, provides the conditions under which the problem of evil can be authentically worked out.

The thematics of localization, place, and sequestration as it relates more specifically to the problem of evil finds rich representation in Cowper’s “Verses, supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk, during his solitary abode in the Island of Juan Fernandez” (1782). Selkirk created a small sensation in England when, after being stranded on a deserted island off the coast of Chile for five years, he was rescued and returned to London. He later became the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Cowper’s fictionalization of Selkirke’s experience models the removal of that phenomenological distance separating evil abstractly considered and evil concretely lived. I therefore wish to conclude this section with a close reading of the poem, tracing how the poetics of perspectivalism more specifically localizes the problem of evil.

The first lines of the poem indicate the assumed perspective of the narrator as he considers his situation on the island:

            I am monarch of all I survey,

            My right there is none to dispute,

            From the centre all round to the sea,

            I am lord of the fowl and the brute. (v. 5, p. 242)

Identifying himself as “monarch,” the narrator, in one sense, becomes ennobled, set above all other inhabitants of the island. Thus seated on his throne, the monarch “surveys,” a way of seeing that suggests visual breadth and accuracy. From this elevated and authoritative perspective, the monarch achieves a privileged vantage point from which he scans—not only physical, but moral and philosophical landscapes—with extensive view. The narrator becomes an absolute monarch viewing his domain with a kingly eye from a de-localized vantage point, interpreting his situation using absolute, non-particularized terms. As monarch, the narrator would be expected to mask the hermeneutical qualities of surveying—the localized touchstones of interpretation—and would instead render universalized judgments of his plight consistent with the role of ruler. That phenomenological distance maximized, the narrator approaches his situation—a concrete manifestation of the problem of evil—abstractly.

Of course, the narrator’s identity as monarch is ironic: his sovereignty brings him neither power nor wealth, but only loneliness and isolation. He later laments,

            I am out of humanity’s reach,

            I must finish my journey alone,

            Never hear the sweet music of speech,

            I start at the sound of my own. (v. 5, p. 242)

As the only human on the deserted island, the narrator is startled by his own voice, shocked by the sounds, alien to the environment, that he produces. The narrator’s uncanny reaction to his voice, however, also implies a splitting of the narrator’s self into two, one that creates the sound and one that starts at it. The latter is amazed by the former, underlining the discontinuity between the two selves. This doubling of self proceeds, I contend, from the affirmation of identity in the opening lines of the poem, when the narrator sheds the particularities of his personality to become monarch. At that moment, the narrator constructs a de-localized persona—an histrionic fiction—in disharmony with his localized persona, his ontological identity as a marooned sailor. The disunion occurs from the collision of conflicting personalities, one predisposed to de-contextualized generalities, the other sensitive to the concreteness of experience. It is the localized persona, therefore, who has difficulty recognizing the voice of his twinned counterpart, the self-proclaimed monarch. The poem thus establishes the two poles that frame the two discursive approaches to the problem of evil. In my critical narrative, the narrator-as-monarch symbolizes the common philosophical approach, operating on the level of abstraction; the narrator-as-abandoned-sailor represents more localized approaches, grounded in the particularities of lived experience.

At this point in the poem, the voice of the monarch clearly drowns out that of his double, evinced in the poem’s tendency to utilize rhetorical generalities when depicting the plight of the narrator. From his lofty perspective, the monarch is given to abstractions abstractly considered. He pines, for example,

            Society, friendship, and love,

            Divinely bestowed upon man,

            Oh had I the wings of a dove,

            How soon would I taste you again!

            ……………………………..

            Religion! what treasure untold

            Resides in that heavenly word! (v. 5, p. 243)

Unlike the lyricism of The Task, the tone of these lines calls attention to the artifice of the poem. The narrator seems not to contemplate his situation from within the experience, but from above it, from the vantage point of an Olympian perspective and its extensive view. The abstractions in the quoted lines above constitute the lexicon of the de-individualized narrator. Absent from these lines is the typical Cowperian strategy of localization, the poetics of perspectivalism.

I read the denouement of the poem, however, as the triumph of perspective, the reinstitution of the localized persona. The narrator becomes reconciled to his situation only when his attention shifts from abstractions—the de-perspectivized perspective—to particularities. I hear the reemerging voice of the localized narrator in the following lines:

            But the sea-fowl is gone to her nest,

            The beast is laid down in his lair,

            Even here is a season of rest,

            And I to my cabin repair. (v. 5, p. 243)

The poetic lens has been refocused: as abstractions fade from sight, quotidian individualities come into view, the bird soaring to its nest, the beast ambling toward its cave. The narrator likewise retires to his abode, a movement that emblematizes both the constriction of the poetic lens and the dynamics of the retirement motif. Entrance into the cabin metaphorically encloses the narrator’s horizons, attuning his experiential eye to the context of his own space by excluding the un-demarcated, de-personalized area of the universal, the experientially sterile realm of abstractions. This phenomenon recapitulates the retirement motif by recontextualizing experience within the compass of the idiosyncratic. The geographic enclosure of place figures the circumscription of perspective.

The double boundaries of place and perspective occasion the narrator’s attainment of peace of mind; he finds resolution to his experience of suffering. In the next stanza, the last of the poem, Cowper writes,

            There is mercy in every place,

            And mercy, encouraging thought!

            Gives even affliction a grace

            And reconciles man to his lot. (v. 5, p. 244)

The voice of the monarch and its echoes of universality and abstraction have been silenced. The narrator’s perspective has now been localized, and, consequently, his experience has achieved positive value inherent to his place. Previously scanning his situation with extensive view, the narrator now realigns his perspective in accordance with an intrinsic view, thoroughly probing his situation from within the experience itself.

The conditions of the narrator’s resolution, his experiential triumph in the midst of adversity and suffering, are the very same that operate in The Task and “Retirement,” conditions that formulate what I consider to be a promising, localized approach to the problem of evil.

Conclusion

Like many within the Christian tradition who write about their experiences of suffering, Cowper, despite his uncertainty about his salvation, ultimately finds the greatest comfort in the expectation of happiness, peace, and shalom in the afterlife. In Book VI of The Task, for example, he writes,

            He is the happy man, whose life even now

            Shows somewhat of that happier life to come;

            Who doomed to an obscure but tranquil state

            Is pleased with it, and were he free to choose,

            Would make his fate his choice; whom peace, the fruit

            Of virtue, and whom virtue, fruit of faith,

            Prepare for happiness; bespeak him one

            Content indeed to sojourn while he must

            Below the skies, but having there his home. (v. 6, p. 151)

Though complete happiness is deferred to the state of immortality, mortal life can prefigure the experience of the afterlife. The present can share, though obviously in an attenuated form, the anticipated shalom of the future. While many of his contemporaries close off present experiences from the eschatological future,[26] Cowper works to unite them, enabling faith in future happiness to irradiate the present in a process of experiential refraction.

Cowper’s effort to unite pre- and post-eschatological experiences returns me to the theodicy-making underpinnings of his poetics of perspectivalism, which meld the general and particular by localizing the former within the context of the latter. Influenced by his faith, Cowper engages the Christian narrative within that same localizing framework when wrestling with his own experiences of suffering. Consider what may be the most well-known lines of The Task, found in Book III:

            I was a stricken deer that left the herd

            Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt

            My panting side was charged when I withdrew

            To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.

            There was I found by one who had himself

            Been hurt by th’ archers. In his side he bore

            And in his hands and feet the cruel scars.

            With gentle force soliciting the darts

            He drew them forth, and heal’d and bade me live.

            Since then, with few associates, in remote

            And silent woods I wander, far from those

            My former partners of the peopled scene. (v. 6, p. 54)

Identifying himself as a “stricken deer,” mortally wounded by evil, Cowper is rescued by the archetypal stricken deer, who Himself shares in the poet’s suffering. Northrope Frye finds in these lines what he calls “psychological self-identification”:[27] Cowper as stricken deer retreats to a secluded retirement, tortured by despair, until he encounters and identifies with another Sufferer, both of whom have been “hurt by th’ archers.” The moment of self-identification is also yet another moment of Cowperian localization. For in identifying with God made flesh, Cowper localizes the transcendent, embracing the personal nature of God, contextualizing it within the parameters of his individualized retired life. The passion of Christ becomes the passion of the narrator. The space of seclusion witnesses the intersection of transcendence and immanence.

Cowper thus localizes not only what is temporally distant (post-eschaton happiness), but also—owing in part to the influence of eighteenth-century fideism—what is spiritually distant. The localization of the divine bridges the gap between the present and future by knitting together the particularized autobiographical narrative of a poetic persona and the universalized terms of a meta-narrative of the divine. Cowper’s poem further localizes the problem of evil in that instant of self-identification, that moment of experiential convergence when Christ—the embodied unification of general and particular, future and present, immortal and mortal—joins in a fellowship, paradoxically of both suffering and joy, with the self-sequestered man.

Endnotes

[1] Throughout this essay, I use the term ‘evil’ in its technical philosophical sense to refer to “undeserved, intense suffering and pain” and not just “horrific wickedness” (Daniel Howard-Snyder, “God, Evil, and Suffering,” Reasons for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 82.

[2] Susan J. Brison, “Violence and the Remaking of a Self,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 January 2002.

[3] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 72.

[4] William Ober, Boswell’s Clap and Other Essays: Medical Analyses of Literary Men’s Afflictions (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), p. 154.

[5] All Cowper quotations from biography and letters, The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, eds. James King and Charles Rykamp, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), v. 1, p. 15.

[6] All Cowper quotations from poetry, The Life and Works of William Cowper, ed. Robert Southey, 8 vols. (London: H.C. Bohn, 1854), v. 6, p. 308.

[7] John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1953), p. 109.

[8] Adam Potkay, The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume (New York: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 47.

[9] John Dryden, Religio Laici, in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, eds. Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell, Jr., and Marshall Waingrow (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), p. 153.

[10] Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 72.

[11] Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 191.

[12] Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 17.

[13] John Bender, Imagining the Penitentiary (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987), p. 6.

[14] Bonamy Dobree, English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 4.

[15] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York: Knopf, 1966), p. 6.

[16] A. R. Humphreys, The Augustan World (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 44.

[17] Joseph Addison, Spectator no. 10, 12 March 1711.

[18] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), p. 370.

[19] Addison, Spectator no. 70, 21 May 1711.

[20] Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare, in The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Eds. Jean H. Hagstrum and James Gray, 16 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), v. 7, p. 62.

[21] Patricia Meyer Spacks, Imagining a Self: Autobiography and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 8.

[22] Vincent Newey, Cowper’s Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment (New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1982), p. 84.

[23] John Milton, Paradise Regained in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1957), p. 483.

[24] William N. Free, William Cowper (New York: Twayne, 1970), p 110 and 121.

[25] Felicity Nussbaum, “Private Subjects in William Cowper’s ‘Memoir,’” in The Age of Johnson, ed. Paul J. Korshin (New York: AMS Press, 1987), p. 321.

[26] In The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Blanford Parker attributes this removal of the divine from the mundane to eighteenth-century fideism, which “exists whenever God is perceived as an absence. This is not to say that God is perceived as not existing, but rather that His empirical (and sometimes moral) absence from this world seems to be a strong proof of His presence in another” (p. 190). Fideism, Parker continues, “takes for its natural elements silence, remoteness, and distance…” (p. 191). (See Chapters Six and Seven.)

[27] Northrope Frye, “Toward Defining an Age of Sensibility,” in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, ed. James L. Clifford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 318.

Samuel Joeckel is an Assistant Professor of English at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. His essays and book reviews appear in Mythlore, The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, The Kentucky Review, Christianity and Literature, Christian Scholar's Review, and Women's Studies.

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