restricted access "Upon the Rack": George Herbert, William Cowper, and the Hermeneutic of Dis/ability
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"Upon the Rack":
George Herbert, William Cowper, and the Hermeneutic of Dis/ability

In 1875, George Herbert and William Cowper were jointly memorialized on a window in St. George's Chapel in Westminster Abbey.1 The placement of the portraits of "Herbert at Bemerton, and Cowper at Olney" side by side seems natural given their shared history as students at Westminster school and Cowper's high regard for Herbert's spiritual vision.2 It is true that Cowper describes Herbert's poems as "gothic and uncouth" in Adelphi, his spiritual autobiography, espousing the standard eighteenth-century view of Herbert's poetic style as outmoded and unpolished.3 However, here and elsewhere, Cowper is adamant that Herbert's poetry is therapeutic for those on the "Brink" of "Ruin" (p. 214).

Although Cowper shares the emotional volatility of John Donne - from whom his mother, Ann Donne, claimed descent - it is in the poems of Herbert that he finds a restorative agent for the suffering mind and spirit. During one of Cowper's earliest depressive episodes, he describes suffering "day and night . . . upon the rack, lying down in horrors and rising in despair," finding a measure of relief only in the poems of Herbert. Immersing himself in them "all day long," he experiences "delight" in their "strain of piety" (p. 9). Though Cowper admits that the poems do not completely cure his ailment, in the act of reading them, his dis/abled mind is "much alleviated" (p. 9).4 Cowper returns to Herbert's poetry later in life when he finds his brother John near death and, he fears, damnation (p. 214). When John is so ill that "his case is clearly out of the Reach of Medicine," Cowper again succumbs to a psychological panic that only Herbert can assuage. "I go to Sleep in a Storm," he laments, "imagining that I hear his Cries, and wake in Terror lest he should just be departing," only to hear in his dreams the soothing voice of Herbert:

[I awoke] yesterday Morning with these Words, which are plainly an Imitation of [Herbe]rt, some of whose Poems I have been reading to my Brother: But what, my lovely One? and meek / Tho' maimed, who liv'st, with Bruises dying -.5 [End Page 54]

Herbert's words, for Cowper, serve a Eucharistic function, as he consumes them to experience divine presence and spiritual well-being: "I thought of them while at Dinner, and made a comfortable Meal upon them, while the Lord was pleased to spread my Table in the Wilderness" (p. 214). They comfort not only Cowper but others, like his brother, on the threshold of the unknown.

Cowper's indebtedness to Herbert has received sporadic and passing attention over the years. The Victorian critic John Nichol claimed that Cowper and Herbert "breathe[d]" the same "spirit," despite his conclusion that Herbert had the "more cheerful faith."6 More recently, Donald E. Demaray identifies "reminiscences of Herbert" in the Olney Hymns and Vincent Newey takes note of the influence on Cowper's poetry of Herbert's poetic expression of the "lived experience" of the Christian faith.7 However, the interpretive lens through which Cowper reads Herbert and the way in which he absorbs and reconstitutes Herbert's "strain of piety" in his own works have never received sustained critical attention.

The dearth of criticism in this area is unsurprising given Cowper's struggle to avoid the "gothic and uncouth" quality of Herbert's poems. Cowper rarely borrows linear features or structural patterns from The Temple. It is hard to find a single direct quotation of more than two words from Herbert's poems in Cowper's works and formal similarities are the exception rather than the rule. Yet, to use an expression recently invoked in John Donne studies, Herbert's "voiceprint" is clearly sounded in Cowper's hymns and verse. For example, there is something Herbertian about Cowper's lines, "Sin twines itself about my praise, / And slides into my pray'r" (ll. 3-4), even if they cannot immediately be linked to a single poem from The Temple.8 Raymond-Jean Frontain explains, "A voiceprint is a...