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ELH 70.1 (2003) 89-115

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William Cowper and the "Taste of Critic Appetite"

Priscilla Gilman

William Cowper's concern with what he refers to in The Task as "the taste / Of critic appetite" is truly obsessive. 1 While not often explicitly addressed in his poetry, this concern pervades Cowper's correspondence, a remarkable, heterogeneous collection of more than 1300 letters. To a reader of the letters, Cowper's critical monomania cannot be overstated; it is a radical feature of the self that emerges from the page. Yet biographers and critics have tended to follow William Hazlitt's lead in seeing Cowper as emphatically private, as a writer passive by disposition and professionally uninterested:

If in Thomson you are sometimes offended with the slovenliness of the author by profession, determined to get through his task at all events; in Cowper you are no less dissatisfied with the finicalness of the private gentleman, who does not care whether he completes his work or not, and in whatever he does, is evidently more solicitous to please himself than the public. 2

Hazlitt's distinction between "the author by profession" and "the private gentleman" is now commonplace as applied to Cowper and his work. Criticism has given us the religious Cowper, the pre-Romantic Cowper, and the Cowper of sensibility,but all have faced resolutely inwards, with little regard for outward appearances. 3 And while some recent work on Cowper's poetry has complicated this division, the letters have remained the province of those interested in documenting the author's spiritual despair or collecting anthropological details of eighteenth-century domestic life. Even more than the poems, the letters have by and large been used as evidence for the primacy of "the private gentleman" in Cowper's experience and career, to the exclusion of any notion of "the author by profession" on the part of either critics or Cowper himself. This habitual treatment has been owing in turn to critics' neglect of criticism as the key term in Cowper's musing on his public and professional existence. No one has fully acknowledged Cowper's consuming preoccupation with the [End Page 89] workings of criticism, nor the extent to which the letters evoke a paranoid world in which literary criticism and criticism of any kind become indistinguishable. This essay argues that Cowper uses the letters to define himself by means of his meditation on his own critics and on the effects of criticism generally—that he uses this most private of literary modes to work out a theory of the self that is insistently public, whether before the eyes of man or God. Far from being only "more solicitous to please himself than the public," the self Cowper invents and presents in his correspondence is an emphatically publicized or criticized self.

Paired with the assumption of Cowper's indifference to the public has been a concomitant tendency to regard him as idiosyncratic, that is, not only private but exceptionally so. But such characterizations miss Cowper's real representativeness. For while his relationship with criticism is no doubt eccentric, deeply personal, and even at times a kind of madness, it also bodies forth, albeit in exaggerated form, fears that were held in common by many writers of the period. Badgered by a newly pervasive critical press, unable to rely on the recognition of older standards of taste, and vulnerable to neglect by a reading public that read reviews first, literary writers in the second half of the eighteenth century shared Cowper's anxiety about his diminished power to be read as he wished, if not always his paranoia that damning criticism lurked around every corner. 4

Inasmuch as Cowper's career thus illustrates an attentiveness to critics and criticism that is becoming typical of authors, his correspondence may be regarded as the discursive space in which he tests and articulates both the special and the general versions of his theory of the self under criticism. Indeed, Cowper repeatedly defines his letters as a noncritical field in which to work out the problems of facing criticism.Mainly addressed to friends...


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