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This review is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

BRING BACK THE POPLAR FIELD Vincent Newey, Cowper's Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment (Liverpool University Press) £14.50

Every schoolboy used to know 'John Gilpin', if not 'God moves in a mysterious way', but perhaps I was unusual in liking both and knowing who wrote them. As a student I read The Task and acquired critical sophistication: compared with Blake, Cowper might cheer but could not inebriate. As a teacher I have used Brooks and Warren's comparison of The Poplar Field' and 'Bin-sey Poplars', and have found students not readily sharing the approved preference for the latter, so long as they do not know the poets' names. Most have never heard of Cowper but may have felt that some contemporary poets write in a style nearer his than Hopkins's. Recently scholars have been welcoming mighty Oxford editions of Cowper.

Hence Vincent Newey's book, aimed at ensuring the poet's survival as 'a living classic', is timely. It offers detailed, perceptive, and straightforwardly written critiques of the moral satires, The Task, and most of the occasional poems, hymns and lyrics. The lines on the paralytic in The Task, 'Lines written during a Short Period of Insanity', 'Mrs Throckmorton's Bulinch', and 'The Castaway' help to define the essential Cowper. In his worst moments he felt himself locked in an iron cage like Bunyan's Man of Despair: in his best work he makes poetry of such apprehensions, 'snatching affirmation from the jaws of denial'. Where he seems to free himself he is to be compared with Coleridge or Wordsworth, but in his sense of confinement he may remind us ...


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