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Man of Constant Sorrow

Ben McGuire

The Winner of Sorrow, by Brian Lynch, New Island, 360 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 1905494254

Brian Lynch’s subtle first novel, The Winner of Sorrow, is based on the life of William Cowper, a hugely acclaimed poet in late eighteenth century England whose work has gone into neglect in the last hundred years. In his thirties Cowper spent two years in Dr Nathaniel Cotton’s mental asylum in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and the poignancy and absurdity of this scene from the novel set there, with the paranoid Cowper seeing in the down-to-earth nurse Sam Roberts any number of allegories made flesh, might let it stand as an emblem of Cowper’s life:

He was writing feverishly with the stub of a pencil on a scrap of paper. When he stood up suddenly, other scraps fell from his lap. Reading what he had just written, he began walking erratically around the high-walled garden. A man followed, checking the gate to make sure it was bolted. Cowper went to him and said, almost angrily, ‘I see.’
‘What’s that, Mr Cowper?’
‘You are the watcher at the gate.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Is your name Pluto or Charon?’
‘No sir, I’m Sam.’
‘You’re a wise man, Samuel. Tell me, I’m not let out, am I?’
Sam shook his head. Cowper went off a few paces, then returned, his fists pressed against his temples. ‘I’m in a tomb, Sam. I’m in a fleshly tomb. I’m buried above ground.’
‘Ah no, sir. Look around you; it’s a garden you’re in.’
From the window of his office, Dr Cotton saw Cowper sobbing on Sam’s shoulder.

Both Sam, who was to be taken on as manservant to the “reformed” Cowper on his release from St Albans, and gardening itself were to become sources of relief from Cowper’s internal afflictions. “Look around you”: when, with sporadic success, he managed to do this, the achieved outwardness would enable Cowper to make something new in English poetry, with a frank focus on the quotidian as against the dark meanings his paranoia could detect anywhere.

The cinematic panning back to show a scene’s resolution from the point of view of a character on its edge, as with Dr Cotton above, is a characteristic of The Winner of Sorrow – which started life as a screenplay that the BBC eventually passed up the chance to film – and this gives the reader some ironic perspectives. (Later, with Cowper not only “cured” but “saved” as well after a religious epiphany, Dr Cotton asks, over an “unusually large brandy”, “I wonder was our friend saner when he was mad, or is he madder now he’s sane?”)

This is Lynch’s first novel, but he has published eleven books of poems since the 1967 collection he shared with Paul Durcan, Endsville. The novel put me in mind to read more of Cowper’s poems, and also to look out for Lynch’s own – the book dramatises the writing or reading of a few impressive Cowper pieces, but there is a sensuous poetry to the prose too. Towards his religious experience in the asylum garden, Lynch writes that Cowper walked, “leaving behind him slurred footprints in the dewy grass”. Later, before setting down the words to a hymn: “For a long time he stood in the yew-tree gloom.” In the midst of a fit of psychosis, Cowper is able to scrawl out another piece: “And then he was back in his mad body again.”

The Winner of Sorrow is a poet’s novel, a screenwriter’s novel, (the 1998 feature film Love and Rage, starring Greta Scacchi and Daniel Craig, was scripted by Lynch) even, as Lynch’s afterword on the book’s sources illustrates, an art critic’s novel. But there is also at play here an entirely novelistic knack of convincing the reader that any given character’s thoughts and tones are real. In descriptions and conversations, Cowper and the people who surrounded him are brought to involving as well as credible fictional life. The theatrical mode of being that Cowper and his upper middle class, sometimes ornamental, social set shared (though the book is far from being populated only by this set) suits the former screenplay’s intermittent emphasis on dialogue perfectly.

The feel of the eighteenth century is dextrously kept up in the novel’s mix of filth and elegance, wit and fundamentalism. The mores of the era are fully inhabited by the narration, which frequently looks through a character’s eyes, and yet irony blends with sympathy for the figures of the book, tending to heighten rather than dilute it. At times Lynch assumes perhaps too much knowledge of the Latin and biblical givens of Cowper’s milieu, but the price is worth paying for the narration’s intimacy of tone.

Lynch makes striking use of Cowper lyrics to elaborate some scenes. Though there are dangers in reading poems autobiographically – as the afterword points out, “The Winner of Sorrow is a novel, not a biography.” – Lynch has said that he sometimes didn’t check biographical details deliberately, perhaps so as not to hamper an imagination fired seemingly by years of casual interest in Cowper. As its back cover blurb says, the novel is also “a lost legend brought vividly back to life”: William Cowper’s poetry has long been read for its autobiographical interest (two biographies were in print just three years after his death), and held up as a paragon of poetic “sincerity” since his own Age of Sensibility, which led into the Romantic era in England. He was a significant influence for the first generation of English Romantic poets, and that he might be the earliest English language poet whose work is well-suited for use by a novelist as a “door into the life” from which it issued itself marks his originality.

In his work the eighteenth century view of poetry as based on rhetoric is displaced again and again by private needs he had in him to exorcise a version of his “self”. Lynch has him declare: “About verse I can say … that I go into it to get out of something worse … I’m drawn out of myself, the which is irksome.” His poetry’s Augustan classical elements, such as elegant formalism and a sense of judging society from within it (which shifts to a sense of being outside society and judged in several poems) mingle and alternate with such proto-Romantic tendencies as his sometimes necessary improvisation, and his emotive treatments of the solitary self and of nature.

Cowper was born in 1731, exactly 100 years after his ancestor John Donne’s death, and it is as if the reputations of the two related poets have started a slow game of leapfrog over the 200 years since Cowper’s own death in 1800. As the back cover of The Winner of Sorrow says, Cowper became “the most famous poet of his day”. In Cowper’s time, Samuel Johnson placed John Donne, with his love of paradox, in a school of “metaphysical poets” that he defined by their shortcomings, whereby “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”. Just three editions of Donne were produced in the whole of the eighteenth century. But John Donne’s reputation came into its own in the twentieth century, with the tastes ushered in by TS Eliot and the so-called New Criticism – at a time when Cowper’s work, on the other hand, was being rejected as overly moralising and discursive.

Cowper’s work has gone into obscurity, but it has also gone into the stream of English language literature irrevocably, through Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and even Austen, and through those writers’ successive influence. Coleridge, who like Wordsworth read Cowper’s 5,000-line masterpiece The Task soon after its publication in 1785, declared him to be “the best of modern poets”, combining “the heart with the head” and “natural thoughts with natural diction”; this conversational poetry anticipated Wordsworth’s notion of the poet as “a man speaking to men”. Jane Austen too saw a fellow spirit in Cowper, positing in his work a commonsensical ruralism as against the strengthening urban materialism. Towards the end of The Winner of Sorrow, an eccentric letter of admiration from one William Blake is received by an elderly Cowper (who misinterprets and incorporates it into the increasingly psychotic mythology of his life). Although the letter is fictional, it is a telling gesture on Lynch’s part towards the impact Cowper’s poetry had on the following generation.

The Winner of Sorrow alternates gothic strokes for depicting Cowper’s delusional episodes with little ironic touches to paint the surrounding social world, mimicking Cowper’s mental oscillations. At times the two modes grotesquely combine, as when at one point Cowper has a different conversation to the one everyone else in his country kitchen is having, in a scene that culminates with his melodramatically draining a cup of tea – a cup he “knows” to have been poisoned.

Participation in the domestic life of the houses in the rural midlands that Cowper inhabits does, however, prove a positive distraction. His longest poem, The Task, was begun when a character featured in The Winner of Sorrow, Lady Anna Austen, suggested his living room sofa by way of initial subject matter. As she thinks of him in the book, “He was making an exploration out of, or rather into, the ordinary – like Captain Cook, but in reverse.”

A sense of sought-after enclosure pervades The Winner of Sorrow. The main character is like The Snail of the Latin poem that he translated and that Lynch prints as an appendix to the book – “He and his house are so combined.” Unlike Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, Lynch’s Cowper reads auguries of his fate not in the flights of birds but in snails and trees, things more rooted and potentially uprooted.

The defining tragedy of Cowper’s psychically uprooted life was the death of his mother when he was five. Sent away to school just afterwards, in his mind mother and home became intertwined, and he would always try to recreate the domestic scenario he had before her death with the women he met. “Thy nightly visits to my chamber made, / That thou might know me safe and warmly laid” (On the Receipt of my Mother’s Portrait out of Norfolk): the sexually impotent Cowper has these visits re-enacted in the book by his long-term partner Mary Unwin and, in parodic fashion, at the end of his life by the reluctant servant Margaret Perowne.

In the chapters about his childhood memories there are some sickly-sentimental images that echo the adult Cowper’s emotional attitude to the time, and some fine passages showing the child Cowper’s linguistic hypersensitivity: “One Donne was a Dean. He said that again in his head. It went up and down the way the hills did.” “I was dizzy, so Daddy sent me to the Disneys. He liked the sound of that, then he hated it, but he couldn’t stop saying it.”

From boarding school, Cowper goes on to the Inner Temple in London to become a lawyer, but at the prospect of a public examination before the Bar of the House of Lords he breaks down and makes the first of several suicide attempts. Sent to St Albans to recover, after leaving the asylum he spends the rest of his life in rural seclusion, taking up with Mary Unwin, the widow of an Anglican priest, and coming under the influence of the forceful Evangelistic minister John Newton.

In his time with John Newton (who himself composed Amazing Grace) at Olney, Buckinghamshire, Cowper wrote some hymns that are still popular today, and some phrases that became part of the language: “God moves in a mysterious way”, “God made the country, and man made the town”, “The cups that cheer but not inebriate”. If there is a primness detectable in these last two lines, the treatment of such peccadilloes in the varying perspectives on Cowper of The Winner of Sorrow is such that he becomes eccentrically loveable for them.

The most sympathetic depiction in the book, however, is of one of his madness’s innocent bystanders, the widow Mary Unwin, whose decades-long partnership with Cowper is the central relationship of the novel. They never marry, and Cowper addresses her as “Mrs Unwin” to the end, but the development of their singular intimacy through the years, in sickness and in health, is delicately modulated and passionate.

Cowper’s relationships, though romantic, are never consummated – much to the disappointment of some of the women involved. Although we see women indirectly battle it out over him for several chapters, “as far as the act of connection was concerned, Cowper had only ever reached the point of being a calf butting its mother for milk”. The Winner of Sorrow is a love story in spite of impotence and mental illness, and a comic novel in spite of all, matching Cowper’s determined wryness with its own on the sometimes tragic characters.

One of the book’s most engaging characters is the evangelist John Newton: “A dog, hearing Newton’s laugh, barked in return.” Newton’s world view is black and white, mostly black. A larger than life preacher (a six-hour sermon is not unusual) and former slave-trader, his “mission in life was Christian death, death followed by the eternal hellfire, unless, that is, the sinner, by prior Election, was saved and entered heaven, but in Newton’s book paradise was found not in the narrative but as an appendix.”

There is a kind of beauty to the sense of religious mission that Cowper briefly shares with Newton at Olney but later, influenced by Newtonian predestination, Cowper becomes convinced in bouts of depression that he is cut off from God, and this grows to a lasting conviction. In later life he doesn’t go to church and absents himself from prayers, certain that he is “damned below Judas, more abhorred than he was”, to quote Lines Written During a Period of Insanity, which Lynch depicts him writing. These stanzas from the same poem reference Abiram, the rebel against Moses, who, with his followers, “went down alive into the pit, and the earth swallowed them up” (Numbers 16:33):

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me:
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all
Bolted against me …

I’m called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
Worse than Abiram’s.

Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgement, in a fleshly tomb, am
Buried above ground.

Lines Written … embodies the “outsider” aspect of Cowper that may retain more appeal to the twenty-first century than his main, domestic, social mode. In nightmare sequences and descriptions of Cowper’s perceptions in madness, Lynch refracts this aspect of Cowper’s poetry brilliantly: “ … as he gasped back to wakefulness a wheedling voice spoke to him, saying repeatedly, ‘I will promise you anything.’ It was the voice of God the father and what it said was a deliberate, malicious, mocking lie.”

As The Winner of Sorrow progresses,Cowper develops a near-biblical sense of divine persecution, with elements of what was in his time a newly developing valorisation of madness: “By the deliberative power of nature, which was God, he was a reprobate, a reject, a castaway in the gulf of time, and yet the glory of it was that he had realised his fate in the language of the race.”

The book’s cover design, of a flower in soft focus, gives perhaps too mellow an impression of the novel itself. The framing of the action of The Winner of Sorrow, which opens as the memories of Cowper in old age and closes with the conventional deathbed scene of its hero, also belies the singularity of what lies between: a powerful book.


Ben McGuire

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