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· Going to hell for writing poetry for fish.

By ROBERT PINSKY [Slate] – The Christian poet and hymnodist William Cowper (1731-1800) at times in his life believed that he was already and irrevocably damned: damned to hell, and facing the additional doom of carrying that knowledge while still walking around in earthly daylight.

In keeping with our contemporary notion of professional comics as tormented, gloomy souls, Cowper had a distinctive and weird comic gift. One of his poems has the engaging title “To the Immortal Memory of the Halibut, on Which I Dined This Day.” The charming “Epitaph on a Hare” presents what I consider a shrewd version of the role even a surly pet can play in a person’s life: “I kept him for his humor’s sake,/ For he would oft beguile/ My heart of thoughts that made it ache,/ And force me to a smile.”

“Lines Written During a Period of Insanity,” possibly Cowper’s best-known poem, delivers tremendous force, rooted, for me, in the self-contradiction of its energetic hopelessness: If the narrator’s predicament is so absolute and unrelievable, how can he describe it with such explosive intellectual strength?

Continued at Slate | More Chronicle & Notices.

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