Tuesday, April 08, 2008


The Fate of the Shrubbery at Weston

William Cowper's friend, the physician William Heberden, recommended spending time outdoors to alleviate melancholy (Retirement, lines 279-282):
Virtuous and faithful Heberden, whose skill
Attempts no task it cannot well fulfil,
Gives melancholy up to nature's care,
And sends the patient into purer air.
But Cowper's gloom was sometimes so profound that not even "nature's care" could cure it. Cowper recorded one of those times in his poem The Shrubbery. Written in a Time of Affliction:
O 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!

This glassy stream, that spreading pine,
  Those alders quivering to the breeze,
Might soothe a soul less hurt than mine,
  And please, if anything could please.

But fixed unalterable Care
  Foregoes not what she feels within,
Shows the same sadness everywhere,
  And slights the season and the scene.

For all that pleased in wood or lawn,
  While Peace possessed these silent bowers,
Her animating smile withdrawn,
  Has lost its beauties and its powers.

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.
What became of the shrubbery and the surrounding grove Cowper related in a letter to Lady Hesketh (May 8, 1786):
The environs are most beautiful, and the village itself one of the prettiest I ever saw. Add to this, you would step immediately into Mr. Throckmorton's pleasure ground, where you would not soil your slipper even in winter. A most unfortunate mistake was made by that gentleman's bailiff in his absence. Just before he left Weston last year for the winter, he gave him orders to cut short the tops of the flowering shrubs, that lined a serpentine walk in a delightful grove, celebrated in my poetship in a little piece that you remember was called the Shrubbery. The dunce, misapprehending the order, cut down and fagoted up the whole grove, leaving neither tree, bush, nor twig; nothing but stumps about as high as my ancle. Mrs. T. told us that she never saw her husband so angry in her life. I judged indeed by his physiognomy, which has great sweetness in it, that he is very little addicted to that infernal passion. But had he cudgeled the man for his cruel blunder, and the havoc made in consequence of it, I could have excused him.
Compare the wrath of William Wordsworth's sea captain brother John, when the owner of John's favorite grove cut down all the trees in it: "I wish I had the monster that cut them down in my ship & I would give him a tight flogging."

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