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Poetry is one of humanity’s most treasured forms of expression and can be found in every culture across the world, possessing the power to bring people together. World Poetry Day encourages us to return to the practices of reading and writing poetry, honour poets and promotes the convergence of poetry with other arts such as theatre and dance.

To mark World Poetry Day, Dr Ashley Chantler, a senior lecturer in our English Department shares one of his favourite poems ‘The Colubriad’, by William Cowper (1731–1800). Ashley is Programme Leader of MA Creative Writing: Writing and Publishing Fiction.

On BA (Hons) English Literature and BA (Hons) Creative Writing, he teaches on the modules: Contemporary Literature; Varieties of Writing; Dissertation; Flash Fiction. On MA Creative Writing: Writing and Publishing Fiction, he teaches on the modules: Writing Short Fiction for Publication; Getting Published; The Writing Project.

Ashley is co-director of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA), and co-editor of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press.

The Colubriad
by William Cowper

Close by the threshold of a door nail’d fast              
Three kittens sat: each kitten look’d aghast.
I, passing swift and inattentive by,
At the three kittens cast a careless eye;
Not much concern’d to know what they did there,
Not deeming kittens worth a poet’s care.
But presently a loud and furious hiss
Caused me to stop and to exclaim – What’s this?
When, lo! upon the threshold met my view,
With head erect, and eyes of fiery hue,
A viper, long as Count de Grasse’s queue.
Forth from his head his forked tongue he throws,
Darting it full against a kitten’s nose;
Who having never seen in field or house
The like, sat still and silent, as a mouse:
Only, projecting with attention due
Her whisker’d face, she ask’d him – Who are you?
On to the hall went I, with pace not slow,
But swift as lightning, for a long Dutch hoe;
With which well arm’d I hasten’d to the spot,
To find the viper. But I found him not;
And, turning up the leaves and shrubs around,
Found only, that he was not to be found.
But still the kittens, sitting as before,
Sat watching close the bottom of the door.
I hope – said I – the villain I would kill
Has slipp’d between the door and the door’s sill;
And if I make despatch and follow hard,
No doubt but I shall find him in the yard –
For long ere now it should have been rehears’d,
’Twas in the garden that I found him first.
E’en there I found him; there the full-grown cat
His head, with velvet paw did gently pat,
As curious as the kittens erst had been
To learn what this phenomenon might mean,
Fill’d with heroic ardour at the sight,
And fearing every moment he would bite,
And rob our household of our only cat
That was of age to combat with a rat,
With outstretch’d hoe I slew him at the door,
And taught him NEVER TO COME THERE NO MORE.

Dr Ashley Chandler writes, Cowper was one of the most popular poets in Britain in his lifetime, and he was a significant influence on the early Romantics, particularly Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth: Coleridge wrote that Cowper was ‘the best of modern poets’. [2] He was Jane Austen’s ‘favourite poet’, [3] whom she quotes and alludes to in her novels, including Sense and Sensibility (1811), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815).

Cowper is now little read, but is unknowingly quoted: ‘God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform’ is the opening of his hymn ‘Light Shining Out of Darkness’ (1779). [4]

‘The Colubriad’ (written 1782; published 1806) is based on an actual incident recorded in a letter from Cowper to his friend William Unwin (3 August 1782), but what the poem does that the letter does not do is to create a character of whom the reader is supposed to be critical.

The mock-heroic poem opens with an earnest poet ‘passing swift and inattentive by’ three kittens in a doorway: ‘Not much concern’d to know what they did there, / Not deeming kittens worth a poet’s care’. However, when he sees a ‘viper’ by the kittens, one of which is being licked on the nose by the snake, he is spurred into action:

On to the hall went I, with pace not slow,
But swift as lightning, for a long Dutch hoe;
With which well arm’d I hasten’d to the spot,
To find the viper. But I found him not;
And, turning up the leaves and shrubs around,
Found only, that he was not to be found.

The rush to arm, the hastening to battle, the anti-climatic ‘But I found him not’, the desperate ‘turning up [of] the leaves and shrubs’, and the bathetic (and pathetic) ‘Found only, that he was not to be found’: all undermines the aloof authority of the man. He is brought down to earth, which, in its comicality, increases the reader’s distance from him. Furthermore, the repetition of ‘found’ not only emphasises the loss of the snake but also suggests that the poet is, ironically, lost for words, that he is unable to articulate his fall.

When the poet finally finds the snake, which is now in front of a cat who ‘with velvet paw’ is ‘gently’ patting the snake’s head, the man, ‘Fill’d with heroic ardour at the sight’, ‘slew him at the door, / And taught him NEVER TO COME THERE NO MORE’. The ‘heroic ardour’ and the slaying are, of course, unheroic, and to suggest that the snake has been ‘taught’ a lesson is absurd, not only because the snake is a snake but also because it is dead.

By writing with wit and honesty about a past ‘I’, the speaker implies that the incident taught him various lessons, one being that kittens are actually ‘worth a poet’s care’. But why? The snake was not an aggressor; the poet, the ignorant and unquestioning warrior, was: whilst he is finding his hoe, the snake does not attack the kittens, it leaves them and is befriended by the cat. Perhaps the ‘I’ who is writing in retrospect learned a wrong lesson? A dog might guide us towards a conclusion.

In Cowper’s poem ‘Beau’s Reply’, a dog responds to criticisms levelled against him in a previous poem, ‘On a Spaniel, Called Beau’ (both 1803), subtitled ‘Killing a Young Bird’. After the spaniel has justified his actions, he ends: ‘What think you, Sir, of killing time / With verse address’d to me?’ [5] This conclusion seems to undermine ‘On a Spaniel, Called Beau’, but if does so, it also undermines itself: while writing against writing about a dog, Cowper is simultaneously writing about a dog. Assuming that it is unlikely that Cowper actually believes the poems to be a waste of time, it seems that there is fictional ‘I’ narrating ‘On a Spaniel, Called Beau’, an obviously fictional ‘I’ narrating ‘Beau’s Reply’, and that detached from them both is the evasive Cowper. But why create two fictional speakers?

The conclusion of ‘Beau’s Reply’ invites the reader to consider what type of verse is not a waste of time. The antithesis of ‘On a Spaniel, Called Beau’ and ‘Beau’s Reply’ would be a humourless poem that preaches simplistic dogma to its readers, and as we know, such a poem is likely to alienate more of its readers than convince them of its arguments. By creating two speakers and by rendering images, Cowper can illustrate issues of power, violence, nature, education and ignorance, and deny the reader the use of the naïve categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Beau’s question does not undermine the poems; the poems undermine the question.

In the light of ‘On a Spaniel, Called Beau’ and ‘Beau’s Reply’, it seems that the speaker of ‘The Colubriad’ learned the right lesson, that kittens are ‘worth a poet’s care’ because they can be the stuff of which are made entertaining poems that subtly engage with complex issues. One of these issues is the possible result caused by the judgemental blind ‘I’. The three poems can then perhaps also be read as a satire on God and those who act in His image (Christian or otherwise). In the day we read thereof, our eyes shall be opened to the dangers of dividing the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’, the ‘elect’ and the ‘damned’, and to a different Cowper from that of his earlier hymn, ‘Light Shining Out of Darkness’.

Endnotes:

[1] William Cowper, Selected Poems, ed. Michael Bruce (London: Everyman, 1999), pp. 23-4.

[2] Vincent Newey, Cowper’s Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1982), p. 5. For further information about Cowper, go to: Cowper and Newton Museum.

[3] Newey, Cowper’s Poetry, p. 5.

[4] Cowper, Selected Poems, p. 43.

[5] Cowper, Selected Poems, p. 34.

 

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