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Begun in June or July 1783; finished in August or September 1784. It was offered to J. Johnson for publication in October 1784, but not published till July 1785. Both the subject and the metre were suggested by Lady Austen : see Life, vol. i. •If the work cannot boast a regular plan, (in which respect, however, I do not think it altogether indefensible,) it may yet boast, that the reflections are naturally suggested always by the preceding passage, and that except the fifth book, which is rather of a political aspect, the whole has one tendency—to discountenance the modern enthusiasm after a London life, and to recommend rural ease and leisure as friendly to the cause of piety and virtue.'— Cowper to Unwin, Oct. 1784 (S. iii. 139*). It does not appear to me,' wrote Cowper to Newton, Dec. II, 1784, that because I performed more than my task, therefore The Task is not a suitable title. A house would still be a house, though the builder of it should make it ten times as big as he at first intended.'
Book 1.-The Sofa.
Begun in June or July, and finished in the beginning of August 1783. In vindication of the title, Cowper wrote to Newton, Dec. II, 1784, “It seemed almost necessary to accommodate the name to the incident that gave birth to the poem . . Had I set off with a design to write upon a gridiron, and had I actually written near two hundred lines upon that utensil, as I have upon the Sofa, the Gridiron should have been my title.'
1. 1. Cp. the opening of Paradise Regained, and of the Faery Queene;all being imitated from the introductory verses prefixed to Virgil's Aeneid.
11. 3, 4. Cp. Paradise Lost, i. 13-16; iii. 13. 1. 7. The Fair :-Lady Austen.
* The references are to volume and pag of Southey's Works of William Cowper, ed. Bohn, (Standard Library), 1853–5, in eight volumes post 8vo.
1. 44. Restless :-here used with an active meaning, as .affording no rest.' So in Richard III, i. 2, the helpless balm' is the tear which brings no help: and in Venus and Adonis, st. 101, the helpless berries' are the painted grapes' which afford no relief to the hungry birds.
1. 54. Crewel :-fine worsted, chiefly used for working and embroidery. Beaumont and Fletcher (Noble Gent. v. 1) speak of a skein of crimson crewel,' used as a hat-band, and Izaak Walton bids the angler 'take silk or crewel, and make these fast at the bent of the hook.' The crewel was twisted up into knots or tufts on the seats of chairs.
1. 55. Adapted from Paradise Lost, ii. 666.
"Its arch'd and ponderous roof, By its own weight made steadfast and unmoveable.' 1. 78. The • Two Kings of Brentford' are characters in The Rehearsal; a farce written by Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, with assistance from Butler, Sprat, and others, as a satire on the playwrights of the day: London, 1672, 4to. In Act i. (p. 6) Bayes explains, “The chief hindge of this Play is, that I suppose two Kings to be of one place; as, for example, at Brentforde . the people having the same relations to 'em both, the same affections, the same duty, the same obedience .. these Kings concern'd in a reciprocal regard, as well to their own interest, as the good of the people.' In Act ii. Sc. 2, the stage direction is enter the two Kings, hand in hand,' and here it seems to have been a traditionary piece of acting, that they should be also “smelling at one rose.' In Act iii. 1, when asked, *But why two Kings of the same place ?' Bayes replies, “Why? because it is new, and that's it I aim at. I despise your Johnson and Beaumont, that borrow'd all they writ from nature. I am for fetching it purely out of my own fancie, I.' We need therefore seek no earlier origin for the phrase. The popularity of the farce made not only the Two Kings, but Bayes himself and Drawcansir proverbial names.
11. 89-102. For replicatory verses of this kind cp. Paradise Lost, iv. 641-656, x. 1086-1104; Comus, l. 221–224. 1. 131. Cp. Bk. vi. 995; Horace, Lib. ii. Epist. 2, 55:
•Singula de nobis anni praedantur euntes ;' and Pope, Imit. of Hor. Ep. ii. 2, 72 :
** Years following years steal something every day.' 1. 145. This graceful record of affection for Mrs. Unwin was probably added in a revisal, between 1783 (when the Task was commenced) and 1785 (when it was published). Cowper first met Mary Unwin a few weeks after he settled at Huntingdon, June 22, 1765. See Life.
1. 154. Here follows an exact description of a walk across the fields from Olney to Weston. There is a gradual ascent to the 'eminence,'—a hill on the grounds of Weston House overlooking the Ouse, and known as The Cliff.' 1. 167. Here is an error. The elms' should be 'poplars.' The editor of Cowper Illustrated (Lond. 1803, p. 45), says, “We have received a communication from Mr. Courtenay, who observes that Cowper wrote the passage which refers to these trees, under the influence of a mistake, and he had often told him of the circumstance.'
1. 173. square tower ;-of the Church of Clifton Reynes, one mile to the east of Olney.
1. 174. tall spire ;-of Olney Church.
1. 202. See Richard Crashaw's exquisite poem, Music's Duel, describing the contest between a nightingale and a sweet lute's-master'; and cp. John Ford's treatment of the same theme in The Lover's Melancholy (1628), act i. sc. I.
l. 227. Peasant's Nest ;--now a farmstead; no longer thatched, but tiled; with a well sunk, and the surrounding trees cleared.
1. 252. Colonnade ;-an avenue of chestnut-trees, leading up to the Rustic Bridge.
1. 262. Benevolus ; – John Courtenay Throckmorton, esq., of Weston Underwood'—C. He succeeded his grandfather Sir Robert as fifth Baronet of Coughton Court, co. Warwick, in 1791 ; and dying without issue in 1819, was succeeded by his brother Sir George, sixtli Baronet. “You say well, that in Mr. Throckmorton we have a peerless neighbour; we have so. In point of information upon all important subjects, in respect too of expression and address, and in short, everything that enters into the idea of a gentleman, I have not found his equal.'—To Lady Hesketh, Dec. 4, 1787. Weston came to this family through the marriage of Thomas Throckmorton, High Sheriff of Warwick and Leicester in 5 Edw. IV., with Margaret daughter and coheir of Sir Robert Olney of Weston, Knight.
1. 267. The bridge spanned a brook, which, after winding through the park, crossed the road leading from Olney to Northampton, at a place called Overs-Bridge. 1. 268. Cp. Hamlet, iv. 7:
• There is a willow grows ascant the brook,' &c. 1. 278. Ascending from the rustic bridge, along the northern boundary of the park, a walk 'under oaks and elms' through which is seen the embattled tower' of Emberton Church (see Bk. vi. 57-82), leads up to the Alcove. This was a covered seat or summer-house, which crowned the summit. It had six sides or compartments, of which three were left open for the purpose of viewing the surrounding scenery. 1, 283. Cp. Gray's Elegy, 1. 81:
• Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply.' 1. 316. dewy eve ;—from Par. Lost, i. 743. VOL. II.