A deep and sympathetic biography of the troubled eighteenth-century proto-Romantic poet and classicist, William Cowper, The Stricken Deer (1929) reveals the genius of its author, a young and determined Lord David Cecil, one of the most important, if forgotten, members of the Inklings. Cecil found the key to understanding Cowper in the mad poet’s embrace of Evangelical Christianity. Only it, Cecil explained, “could satisfy the temperament of the artist. For it alone set a supreme value on that emotional exaltation in which the greatest art is produced, it alone made the imagination the center of its system, and not a mere decorative appendage to it.” Whether Cecil was writing about Cowper or himself is unclear to the discerning modern reader. As always, Cecil revealed as much of himself as he did of his subject. “An attitude of civilized disillusionment is all very well in its way, but it is not conducive to creative art,” he claimed.[1]

While much of the biography successfully captures the mood of Cowper’s life, Cecil most critically captures the nuances of the age. Never, he wrote, should we take our “ideal” of what we would like the time to be. Too often, he feared, times and epochs came and went like fads, with later generations always projecting their own desires and uncertainties upon previous ones. “Mankind, in its restless search for some ideal and fairy country which satisfies a fancy, dissatisfied with that in which it lives, will identify it with the civilization of some other time or people which appears to possess the qualities it most values, and to lack those which it most dislikes.”[2] In reality, though, each age—the present as well as the past—is outrageously complex, so much so that each verges on being unknowable. Cecil described this gorgeously:

Only countries of the mind are so much of a piece. The past does not, any more than the present, escape that incompleteness, that inconsistency which is the essential characteristic of life as we know it, as opposed to life as we should like it to be. An historical period is not a water-tight compartment, containing only that it has itself created, sharing nothing with what has gone before and what comes after. It is a tangle of movements and forces, of various origin, sometimes intertwined and sometimes running parallel, some beginning, some in their prime, some in decay; streaked by anomalies and freaks of nature; colored by physical conditions, by national characteristics, by personalities; struck across by unexpected, inexplicable stirrings of the spirit of God or of man; yet with every strand part of what is past or what is to come: a great river ever fed by new streams, its course continuous and abrupt, checkered and unfaltering, now thundering over a sudden cataract, now partially diverted into a back-water, and carrying on its mysterious surface fragments of wreckage, survivals of an earlier day not yet dissolved into oblivion.[3]

In his own understanding of the world, Cecil called for nothing less than complete humility when approaching any subject.

Given his own views on the complexity of the world and the serious individuality of individuals, Cecil judged each work he read as a work taken on its own, giving the particular context and context the particulars. “A novel is a work of art in so far as it has an independent, individual life of its own—in so far as it is a world,” he wrote in his criticism of Sir Walter Scott. “And this independent life is begotten by the writer’s creative imagination on his experience.” In some artists, the well of imagination is seemingly inexhaustible, but, in others, it is shallow. Even the most shallow, Cecil argued, though, can be leavened by friendship and encouragement. Still, there are always limits. “But in any one writer there is only a certain proportion of this experience that can be so fertilised, only a certain proportion of what he sees and feels and knows that strikes deep enough into the fundamentals of his personality to fire his imagination to work.”[4]

Still, Cecil cautioned, one should not criticize the novelist with too much realism. Instead, one should treat the novel as one would treat the friend. “I had a book recommended to me the other day as brutally frank, uncompromisingly truthful, and austerely cruel,” he admitted in a lecture. “No one would recommend their friends on those terms.”[5] Too many, Cecil feared, would seek a novel or novelist for what was grim, realistic, frank, and ruthless.[6] Once again, Cecil noted, too many novelists and critics had adopted the scientific posture, believing novelists and their subjects as “scientific specimens. They are described, and we look at them, as though they were tadpoles in a tank.”[7]

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Notes:

[1] Lord David Cecil, The Stricken Deer (1929; Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1930), 100.

[2] Lord David Cecil, The Stricken Deer (1929; Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1930), 13.

[3] Lord David Cecil, The Stricken Deer (1929; Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co, 1930), 16-17.

[4] Lord David Cecil, “Sir Walter Scott,” Life and Letters (June 1932): 143.

[5] “Novelists without Romance,” The Scotsman (June 22, 1933), 15.

[6] Herbert W. Horwill, “News and Views of Literary London, New York Times (June 26, 1938), 78.

[7] “Novelists without Romance,” The Scotsman (June 22, 1933), 15.

The featured image is “Forest Landscape With Deer Hunt,” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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