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This article is taken from PN Review 14, Volume 6 Number 6, July - August 1980.

Homage to Cowper Donald Davie

THIS past year, reading for a revision of the Oxford Book of Christian Verse (one of the least often cited and doubtless least consulted of the Oxford Books), I've discovered that I want to represent Cowper more lavishly than any other poets except Herbert, Vaughan and Smart. It seems that for me he's one of the four greatest poets of Christianity in the language-at least since the Renaissance (and treating, I dare say, the Miltonic epics as a special case). I won't say this discovery struck me all of a heap, for it's thirty years since I began to suspect that Cowper's generally under-rated, and over that period my admiration has grown pretty steadily for the author of The Task and "Yardley Oak", "The Castaway"and "The Loss of the 'Royal George' ", "The Poplar Field" and that weirdly terrifying poem "On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton's Bullfinch". As soon as I began thinking about the anthology, I made a mental note to look again at his long poem in couplets with the bleak title "Truth", to see if it stood up to my memory of it as the most persuasive of all verse-statements of the Calvinist scheme of salvation. (I did, and it does.) But I was certainly caused some surprise-and inevitably some trepidation-when I discovered that one after another of Cowper's Olney Hymns held up serenely against the exacting standard set by Herbert's Temple. Can I be right about this? Do I not deceive myself? Is it anything ...


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