Because of my recent interest in William Cowper, an interest inspired by Brian Lynch’s novel about his life, The Winner of Sorrow (which I wrote about here), I requested from my library a copy of David Cecil’s 1930 biography of Cowper, The Stricken Deer. I thought I might just skim through it and see if I found anything interesting, but I took a look at Cecil’s prologue and quickly became entranced by the writing. Apparently they wrote biographies in the 1930s much differently than they do today — which is not to say there aren’t some well-written ones today, but they aren’t quite like Cecil’s.
The prologue isn’t actually about Cowper for the most part; he comes in only at the end of the 15-page essay as a transition into the biography itself. What it is, instead, is a meditation on eighteenth-century society and on the various preconceptions and misconceptions people in the early 20th century held about that time. Even so, he takes a while to get around to the eighteenth century itself. I always tell my students that if they want to open their essays with general statements and then move to more specific ones, they had better be careful not to start too generally (no “since the beginning of time” please), but Cecil shows how to start off very generally and how to do it beautifully:
Past periods, like foreign countries, become the fashion. Just as people like one sort of hat because it suits the type of beauty they admire, so people are attracted to a particular place or period because it suits their prevailing mood. Mankind, in its restless search for some ideal and fairy country which satisfies a fancy, dissatisfied with that in which it lives, will identify it with the civilization of some other time or people which appears to possess the qualities it most values, and to lack those which it most dislikes.
From there he goes on to consider various time periods and when they were fashionable, and only after four long paragraphs devoted to contemplating this phenomenon (including a leisurely discussion of objects we associate with various times and places) does he get around to the eighteenth century itself.
When he gets there, he argues that our conceptions of the era are entirely wrong and that we generalize about it too much and don’t understand its complexity. He sets about correcting our mistake by setting up a little library scene:
For a happy moment let us shut the door on the modern world and retire in fancy to some Augustan library. The curtains are drawn, the fire is lit; outside the silence is broken only the faint crackling whispers of the winter frost. How the firelight gleams and flickers on the fluted moldings of the bookcases, on the faded calf and tarnished gold of the serried rows of books: the slim duodecimo poems and plays; the decent two-volumed octavo novels; the portly quarto sermons, six volumes, eight volumes, ten volumes; the unity of brown, broken now and again by a large tome of correspondence, green or plum or crimson, only given to the public in our own time. The whole eighteenth century is packed into these white or yellowing pages; all its mutifarious aspects, its types, its moods, its morals, self-revealed; the indefinable, unforgettable perfume of the period breathing from every line of print. For the shortest, dullest letter really written in a past age can bring its atmosphere home to you as the most vivid historian of a later time can never do.
Can’t you picture yourself there? He goes on to take a short survey of important eighteenth-century writers in a similarly imaginative style, capturing the essence of respectable Whig aristocracy and nobility, the somewhat less-respectable middle classes, the travelers and adventurers, the fashionable men and women of sensibility, and the literary intelligentsia.
And then we get to Cowper himself. Much of his writing, Cecil says (rather surprisingly), is dull and lifeless. But then —
… suddenly one’s attention is caught by a chance word; the page stirs to life; a bit of the English countryside appears before one’s mental eye as vividly and exactly as though one really saw it; or an ephemeral trifle, a copy of verses addressed to Miss M. or Mr. D., laughs out of the page with the pleasant colloquial intimacy of a voice heard over the teacups in the next room. And now and again, as if from the strings of a tarnished, disused harp stumbled against in one’s rambles around the library, there rises from the old book a strain of music, simple, plangent, and of a piercing pathos, that fairly clutches at the heart.
He briefly discusses Cowper’s life, focusing on the thing that’s most memorable about it — his artistic creativity combined with his mental suffering. Here’s how the prologue ends:
But he was under a curse. From his earliest years there loomed over him, born in disease, nurtured in fanaticism, the frightful specter of religious madness. And his life resolved itself into a struggle, fought to the death, between the daylit serenity of his natural circumstances and the powers of darkness hidden in his heart. For a time it seemed that they would be defeated. Yet even when the light shone most brightly on his face, the shadow lurked behind his back; around the sunny, grassy meadows crouched the black armies of horror and despair. At a moment’s weakness they would advance; inch by inch they gained ground; till, with a last scream of anguish, his tortured spirit sank, overwhelmed.
Okay, in that last bit he goes a little overboard, but tell me, do you see writing like this in modern-day biographies? I found this prologue utterly charming, and I was tempted to read the entire book, although now I’m not sure I will, as time is short and my interest in Cowper does have its limits. But this book does make me a little sad that contemporary nonfiction prose can be so … prosaic.
13 responses to “The Stricken Deer”
I love the library scene. He really does set it up wonderfully! I remember reading a biography of Maria Mitchell, called Sweeper in the Sky — it was written in 1949 and had similar flights of authorial fancy, which I quite enjoyed, actually.
I’m not sure I will ever read Cowper, but the Cecil biography certainly makes him sound tempting (especially the details of the 18th C.). The prologue especially sounds fun. You don’t usually see such emotionally descriptive writing in a biography, do you.
What an odd title; any insight into the choice of words?
I often ponder similar concepts about our memory of past times; or deeper still, the nature of historic truth. We claim something is fact and then a decade later and a few influential deconstructionist movements and something different is embraced. Sometimes I get a little depressed… this is also why I like source material.
I agree, he got quite melodramatic at the end, but the writing style generally suits me well.
What a fun beginning to the biography! Love the dramatic ending. No, they don’t write them like that these days. I suppose it is good that they don’t. Too much of that would get old really fast.
What wonderful quotations! Thanks for this glimpse of the biography. What fun.
Jane Austen had a fondness for Cowper, but I’m not sure that is enough for me to dedicate much time to him. Still, I love a good biography…
I know exactly what you mean. I think that’s why I’m drawn to fiction more often than nonfiction because of the writing style. I love language and in my experience, I don’t usually fall in love with the writing style and language in nonfiction writing of today.
Wow. Great stuff. C’mon–now you’ve gotta read the book and tell us about it. The thing is, it’s going to continue to be discursive, rather than exhaustive. He’ll bring the same touch to the characters in Cowper’s life. It’ll go pretty quick, and should be a good companion to the Tomalin Austen. In Tomalin, it went by quickly because there are some significant limits to what we know about her, and she had a short life. In this case, Cecil is constraining himself to scenes and themes and trying to write an interesting book about a singular writer. I think you’d enjoy it. You got off to a fantastic, magnificent start here. If it was a question of reading volumes of Cowper’s poems and correspondence it would be one thing, or if it was an exhaustive, semi-contemporary or brand new study of every incident in Cowper’s life, it would be different and not worth it. But this sounds like a nice book and Cecil is worth knowing more about.
Does it surprise you that I’m particularly drawn to that library scene? Although I could “for a happy moment,” shut the door on the modern world and retire in some fancy early-twentieth-century library.
You know, I wonder whether we aren’t going to move towards that kind of biography more and more. Non-fiction these days seems to go down better with a dose of creativity, or a bit of fantasy. Rachel Cohen’s excellent book, A Chance Meeting, is an imaginative biography that recreates the lives of the artists she discusses, and Jennifer Worth’s books Call the Midwife and The Shadow of the Workhouse both sort of fictionalise the lives of the people she discusses, to add zest to the events described. They may never get quite so magnificently flowery (which is a shame – those quotes are wonderful), but I think that style might be on the way back.
Melanie — interesting about the Mitchell biography. It makes me wonder how many other biographies there are like these two — I was curious if Cecil was doing something different, but it seems that he’s writing in the accepted style of the time.
Danielle — you really don’t see much of that kind of emotional writing! I think Cowper is interesting, but it’s probably best to read some of his most famous poems in an anthology or something. I don’t see myself reading his work extensively, but I wouldn’t mind reading some of the more famous poems.
Bikkuri — the title is taken from Cowper’s poem The Task: “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.” I think it’s a good choice of a title, as those lines describe Cowper pretty well. And yes, sometimes uncertainty about interpretations of the past can be hard to deal with — I’ve felt bothered by it too.
Stefanie — well, in his favor, I think that poetic flight at the end isn’t something he does a lot. If it were, I couldn’t take much of it either! But most of the book is just plain old well-written (as far as I’ve read, at least).
Jenny — glad you liked it!
Jenclair — I remember the Austen references to Cowper. I’d like to read The Task at some point and maybe some of the other most famous poems. I won’t do a major study, but a superficial one would be good, I think.
Lisa — I’ve managed to find some really good nonfiction writers, but I agree, there aren’t enough of them! When I do find them, I’m always thrilled. You definitely don’t find them among academic writers, for the most part, but some more general interest nonfiction writers can be great.
Zhiv — oh, you are tempting me! I may pick the book up again and see what happens. I’m curious, too, how Lynch drew on the biography in his novel; I know he read this one, and it would be cool to see what incidents come from the book. We’ll see. One problem is that I have the book on interlibrary loan and can’t keep it for long. But you’re right … with a beginning like that … 🙂
Emily — I know, I’d take the early 20th C library too. I thought you’d enjoy that scene!
Litlove — I do hope you are right. That would be a wonderful development, and you’re right that there are a number of interesting examples of the more imaginative kind of nonfiction you describe. I must get Cohen’s book! I’m still kicking myself for not getting it the one chance I had …
Cowper is very much worth reading. The Task, “The Castaway,” many of the hymns. I agree that the Collected Works is too much, but a Norton Anthology or whatnot won’t have enough.
No, you’re right Amateur Reader, the Norton won’t have enough. I’d like to read the entire Task. I’m pretty sure there’s something between the Norton and the complete works that I can find,when I’m ready.