Advisor(s) - Committee Chair
Robert Ward, James Heldman, Mary Clarke
Department of English
Master of Arts
Hidden deep in the shelves of most libraries in England and America is an obscure, dusty volume of poetry containing one of the minor classics in the English language, a poem entitled The Task. Written by the eighteenth-century poet William Cowper, this very long and loosely structured poem won widespread recognition and acclaim in its day, only to gradually fade into a premature oblivion. Today The Task is known primarily to a handful of literary scholars whose arcane and esoteric business it is to go beyond the turnpikes of literary history into the labyrinthine lanes and paths of our literary past. This is an unfortunate situation, for William Cowper and his The Task have much to offer the world in which we live. The Task is a poem which offers a fertile soil for literary scholarship, since in this poem one can see a link between the neo-classic and the romantic. In addition, Cowper’s great poem carries a soothing spiritual message similar in content to that of Thoreau’s Walden. It is a message that needs urgently to spread in an age where insensitivity and spiritual dryness seem to everywhere flourish.
Since The Task was first published in 1785, it should be obvious that it would be more romantic than neo-classic. And so it is. Cowper’s abandonment of the heroic couplet, his attempts to make more natural the language of poetry, his love and close observations of the natural world, and the spontaneous, associational structure of The Task show the poem to be essentially romantic in nature. However, some of the finest portions of this poem were written in the neo-classic tradition; thus Cowper’s The Task may be viewed as a transitional poem, a poem which provides a link between Romanticism and Neo-Classicism. In short, an Augustan poet could not have written The Task; similarly, a poet of the romantic school could hardly have produced a poem so replete with stock diction and didactic advice as The Task.
It is truly unfair and unfortunate that the term “transitional poem” has come to connote a work of art somehow lacking in quality, and perhaps this is the stigma which has relegated The Task into a most undeserving obscurity. This connotation is based upon absolutely no, or at best erroneous, logic. Logically, it seems as though a work of art which draws from the best of two worlds should have the potential of being of the highest literary quality. Cowper succeeded in unconsciously blending together the characteristics of two opposite literary schools in The Task, and while the poem is not ----- masterpiece, it is a minor classic worthy of attention and study.
Living most of his life in the seclusion of the little village of Olney, Cowper bequeathed to posterity a poem of spiritual solace. Implicit in Cowper’s defense of a life of retirement is an appeal to man’s spiritual half, a plea to cultivate a life which engenders the nourishment of one’s soul. Like good poetry anywhere, Cowper’s purpose in writing The Task was to enrich, ennoble, encourage; and in an age which threatens to abolish man’s spiritual side, this poem is laden with wisdom and comfort.
This study of Cowper and The Task is an attempt to discuss the work as a transitional poem with all the competence and accuracy of scholarship which it deserves. Hopefully the study will be rendered with the sensitivity and understanding its spiritual message requires.
Comparative Literature | English Language and Literature
Crady, Roy Leo Jr., "William Cowper’s The Task: A Study in Transition" (1973). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 1661.