Monday, April 21, 2014

The Shrubbery - William Cowper

Oh happy shades - to me unblest!
Friendly to peace, but not to me!
How ill the scene that offers rest,
And heart that cannot rest, agree!

The glassy stream, that spreading pine,
Those alders quiv'ring to the breeze,
Might sooth a soul less hurt than mine,
And please, if any thing could please.

But fix'd unalterable care
Foregoes not what she feels within,
Shows the same sadness ev'rywhere,
And slights the season and the scene.

For all that pleas'd in wood or lawn,
While peace possess'd these silent bow'rs,
Her animating smile withdrawn,
Has lost its beauties and its pow'rs.

The saint or moralist should tread
This moss-grown alley, musing, slow;
They seek, like me, the secret shade,
But not, like me, to nourish woe!

Me fruitful scenes and prospects waste
Alike admonish not to roam;
These tell me of enjoyments past,
And those of sorrows yet to come.

Cowper's poem juxtaposes images of nature that one would normally find soothing with intense personal trauma and suffering.  Instead of finding relief and calm in the idyllic scenes of nature as one would expect, Cowper's narrator instead only has his personal trauma amplified by their beauty.  His suffering is so immense that it "shows the same sadness ev'rywhere, and slights the season and the scene."

Effectively, nature has completely "lost its beauties and its pow'rs" in the face of his suffering.  These images only "nourish" his woe.  Instead of finding peace in "the scene that offers rest" he sees "sorrows yet to come."  It's an extreme state of mourning and woe, and he does not let on what exactly caused it.  However, that does not matter.  The poem's aim, I think, it to set up in the reader's mind a scene of perfect natural beauty, and alongside it, an image of suffering so dreadful that the scene becomes dull and loses its power.

The first two stanzas are largely concerned with the beauty of the scene, a "glassy stream" and trees "quiv'ring to the breeze."  Though these scenes would "sooth a soul less hurt" than the narrator's, his pain is so great that he feels nothing before these images.  To relate this to a current event, the terrible ferry tragedy in Korea currently comes to mind.  All those connected with those directly impacted by this tragedy, how can they possibly look at the sea's beauty and take solace?  How can nature's beauty reach a soul pained by the worst grief imaginable?

I think it's a very effective duality that Cowper sets up, and a relevant idea, even today.

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