“Crazy Kate” from William Cowper’s poem, “The Task,” struck a deep chord within my soul. I read the poem and felt a heart-wrenching dolefulness envelop my inner being. My melancholy feelings elicited by this poem were not felt for Kate the character, but rather for Cowper himself. I felt his longing for his one true love, Theadora. I felt his sorrow in having lost her. I felt the immense desperation of his many breakdowns and suicidality (15). Cowper’s personal struggles jumped forth from the page and shook my heart at the core just as it did with the early Romantic Poets.
I do fancy Roland Barthes’ literary criticism in “The Death of the Author” in that a work does exist and, in many cases should exist, independent of its author, the author’s background, or his/her purpose. However, I find that poetry carries with it the DNA of the one who penned it. Poetry is an exercise in pure emotion. The poet gives birth to the verse on a blank white page and it is as much a part of him as he is of it. I believe the two to be nearly inseparable, especially when dealing with poetry of such emotional power.
Cowper’s personal struggles with love, life, and mental illness come pouring out of “Crazy Kate” with an amazing emotional punch. Kate is a “serving-maid” who “fell in love” with a man who “left her, went to sea, and died” (19). She would think often of him and “sit and weep/ At what a sailor suffers” (19). The two most powerful lines of the poem read, “She heard the doleful tidings of his death/And never smiled again” (19). This is reminiscent of when Cowper was urged to marry Mary Unwin after the death of her husband, Reverend Morley Unwin, and he could not, having “promised Theadora he would marry no one else” (18). Duncan Wu indicates that Cowper subsequently “claimed to be androgynous [to avoid marrying Mary Unwin] then became suicidal once more, believing in January 1773 he heard a divine voice saying, ‘Actum est de te, periisti’…For the remainder of his life he believed himself eternally damned and never entered a church again” (18). The sentiment of eternal loss, sadness, and sorrow that sound from Kate’s nevermore smile channel directly from Cowper’s own feelings of loss and damnation. Cowper writes, “Kate is crazed,” to end that section of “The Task,” but I cannot help but feeling that the names Kate and William are somewhat interchangeable in this case.
According to Wu, “Cowper is not a Romantic poet,” yet the Romantic poets Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were all influenced by his work (17-19). I argue that Cowper’s use of stark emotion, and especially melancholy, with “Crazy Kate” lay the foundation for these Romantic poets to create their most famous work. Cowper channeled his emotion and life experiences into his poetry, illuminating his sense of loss, hopelessness, and eternal damnation.
Cowper, William. “The Task.” Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. 4th ed. Malden: Blackwell Anthologies, 2012. 17-20.