The Task: Book I, The Sofa (excerpts)

William Cowper 1731 (Berkhamsted) – 1800 (Dereham)


  Thou know'st my praise of nature most sincere,
  And that my raptures are not conjur'd up
  To serve occasions of poetic pomp,
  But genuine, and art partner of them all.
  How oft upon yon eminence our pace
  Has slacken'd to a pause, and we have borne
  The ruffling wind, scarce conscious that it blew,
  While admiration, feeding at the eye,
  And still unsated, dwelt upon the scene.
  Thence with what pleasure have we just discern'd
  The distant plough slow moving, and beside
  His lab'ring team, that swerv'd not from the track,
  The sturdy swain diminish'd to a boy!
  Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain
  Of spacious meads with cattle sprinkled o'er,
  Conducts the eye along its sinuous course
  Delighted. There, fast rooted in his bank,
  Stand, never overlook'd, our fav'rite elms,
  That screen the herdsman's solitary hut;
  While far beyond, and overthwart the stream
  That, as with molten glass, inlays the vale,
  The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
  Displaying on its varied side the grace
  Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tow'r,
  Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
  Just undulates upon the list'ning ear,
  Groves, heaths and smoking villages remote.
  Scenes must be beautiful, which, daily view'd,
  Please daily, and whose novelty survives
  Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years.
  Praise justly due to those that I describe....

  But though true worth and virtue, in the mild
  And genial soil of cultivated life,
  Thrive most, and may perhaps thrive only there,
  Yet not in cities oft: in proud and gay
  And gain-devoted cities. Thither flow,
  As to a common and most noisome sewer,
  The dregs and feculence of every land.
  In cities foul example on most minds
  Begets its likeness. Rank abundance breeds
  In gross and pamper'd cities sloth and lust,
  And wantonness and gluttonous excess.
  In cities vice is hidden with most ease,
  Or seen with least reproach; and virtue, taught
  By frequent lapse, can hope no triumph there
  Beyond th' achievement of successful flight.
  I do confess them nurseries of the arts,
  In which they flourish most; where, in the beams
  Of warm encouragement, and in the eye
  Of public note, they reach their perfect size.
  Such London is, by taste and wealth proclaim'd
  The fairest capital of all the world,
  By riot and incontinence the worst.
  There, touch'd by Reynolds, a dull blank becomes
  A lucid mirror, in which Nature sees
  All her reflected features. Bacon there
  Gives more than female beauty to a stone,
  And Chatham's eloquence to marble lips....

  God made the country, and man made the town.
  What wonder then that health and virtue, gifts
  That can alone make sweet the bitter draught
  That life holds out to all, should most abound
  And least be threaten'd in the fields and groves?
  Possess ye therefore, ye who, borne about
  In chariots and sedans, know no fatigue
  But that of idleness, and taste no scenes
  But such as art contrives, possess ye still
  Your element; there only ye can shine,
  There only minds like yours can do no harm.
  Our groves were planted to console at noon
  The pensive wand'rer in their shades. At eve
  The moonbeam, sliding softly in between
  The sleeping leaves, is all the light they wish,
  Birds warbling all the music. We can spare
  The splendour of your lamps, they but eclipse
  Our softer satellite. Your songs confound
  Our more harmonious notes: the thrush departs
  Scared, and th' offended nightingale is mute.
  There is a public mischief in your mirth;
  It plagues your country. Folly such as yours,
  Grac'd with a sword, and worthier of a fan,
  Has made, which enemies could ne'er have done,
  Our arch of empire, steadfast but for you,
  A mutilated structure, soon to fall.

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Submitted on May 13, 2011


William Cowper

William Macquarie Cowper was an Australian Anglican archdeacon and Dean of Sydney. more…

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