The Task: from Book II: The Time-Piece

Original Text: 
William Cowper, Poems (London: J. Johnson, 1782-85). 2 vols. B-10 5366 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
206      England, with all thy faults, I love thee still--
207My country! and, while yet a nook is left
208Where English minds and manners may be found,
209Shall be constrain'd to love thee. Though thy clime
210Be fickle, and thy year most part deform'd
211With dripping rains, or wither'd by a frost,
212I would not yet exchange thy sullen skies,
213And fields without a flow'r, for warmer France
215Of golden fruitage, and her myrtle bow'rs.
217Of patriot eloquence to flash down fire
218Upon thy foes, was never meant my task:
219But I can feel thy fortunes, and partake
220Thy joys and sorrows, with as true a heart
221As any thund'rer there. And I can feel
222Thy follies, too; and with a just disdain
223Frown at effeminates, whose very looks
224Reflect dishonour on the land I love.
225How, in the name of soldiership and sense,
226Should England prosper, when such things, as smooth
227And tender as a girl, all essenc'd o'er
228With odours, and as profligate as sweet;
230And love when they should fight; when such as these
232Of her magnificent and awful cause?
233Time was when it was praise and boast enough
234In ev'ry clime, and travel where we might,
235That we were born her children. Praise enough
236To fill th' ambition of a private man,
239Farewell those honours, and farewell with them
240The hope of such hereafter! They have fall'n
241Each in his field of glory; one in arms,
242And one in council--Wolfe upon the lap
243Of smiling victory that moment won,
245They made us many soldiers. Chatham, still
246Consulting England's happiness at home,
247Secur'd it by an unforgiving frown
248If any wrong'd her. Wolfe, where'er he fought,
249Put so much of his heart into his act,
250That his example had a magnet's force,
251And all were swift to follow whom all lov'd.
252Those suns are set. Oh, rise some other such!
253Or all that we have left is empty talk
254Of old achievements, and despair of new.
285      There is a pleasure in poetic pains
286Which only poets know. The shifts and turns,
287Th' expedients and inventions multiform
288To which the mind resorts in chase of terms
289Thought apt, yet coy, and difficult to win,
291The mirror of the mind, and hold them fast,
292And force them sit, till he has pencill'd off
293A faithful likeness of the forms he views;
294Then to dispose his copies with such art
295That each may find its most propitious light,
296And shine by situation hardly less
297Than by the labour and the skill it cost,
299So pleasing, and that steal away the thought
300With such address from themes of sad import,
301That, lost in his own musings, happy man!
302He feels th' anxieties of life, denied
303Their wonted entertainment, all retire.
304Such joys has he that sings. But ah! not such,
305Or seldom such, the hearers of his song.
306Fastidious, or else listless, or perhaps
307Aware of nothing arduous in a task
308They never undertook, they little note
309His dangers or escapes, and haply find
310Their least amusement where he found the most.
311But is amusement all? Studious of song,
312And yet ambitious not to sing in vain,
313I would not trifle merely, though the world
314Be loudest in their praise who do no more.
316It may correct a foible, may chastise
317The freaks of fashion, regulate the dress,
319But where are its sublimer trophies found?
320What vice has it subdu'd? whose heart reclaim'd
321By rigour, or whom laugh'd into reform?
323Laugh'd at, he laughs again; and, stricken hard,
324Turns to the stroke his adamantine scales,
325That fear no discipline of human hands.
326      The pulpit, therefore, (and I name it fill'd
327With solemn awe, that bids me well beware
328With what intent I touch that holy thing)--
329The pulpit (when the satirist has at last,
330Strutting and vapouring in an empty school,
331Spent all his force, and made no proselyte)--
332I say the pulpit (in the sober use
333Of its legitimate, peculiar pow'rs)
334Must stand acknowledg'd, while the world shall stand,
335The most important and effectual guard,


214] Ausonia: poetic name for Italy. Back to Line
216] Longinus likens the eloquence of Demosthenes to thunder and lightning. Back to Line
229] The laurel wreath was the Roman reward for victory; the myrtle wreath was worn at banquets. Back to Line
231] See II Samuel 6:6-7, and 1 Chronicles 13: 9-10. Back to Line
237] Chatham: William Pitt, the elder. See I, 704, and note. Back to Line
238] Wolfe: Major-General James Wolfe, killed at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, 1759. In a letter Cowper wrote: "Nothing could express my rapture when Wolfe made the conquest of Quebec," Back to Line
244] Chatham died during the disastrous war against the American colonies. Back to Line
290] Cf. Pope, Essay on Criticism, 297-300. Back to Line
298] "Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect, While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipped again" (Cowper, Letter to Newton, Dec. 21, 1780). Back to Line
315] what can satire? i.e., of what efficacy or power is satire? Back to Line
318] patch. Fashionable ladies wore black "patches" on face and forehead. Back to Line
322] Leviathan: a great sea-monster; see Job 41: 1-10. Back to Line
336] support and ornament: cf. Horace, Carminum, I, i, 2, and Carminum, II, xvii, 4. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.248.