The Winner of Sorrow, Brian Lynch. Dalkey Archive Press. 364pp, $14.95.
William Cowper, an 18th-century British poet not widely read today outside of classrooms, lingers in our cultural memory as the author of some still-popular hymns and a collection of poems that include “The Castaway” and “The Task.” We may remember such lines as “Oh for a closer walk with God” and “God moves in a mysterious way,” even if we probably don’t remember Cowper as their author. But, he was beloved during and shortly after his time, known as a poet who cared deeply for animals and the natural world, and one who was sensitive to the plight of the poor.
In The Winner of Sorrow, originally published in Ireland in 2005 and has recently released Stateside by Dalkey Archive Press, poet Brian Lynch offers a fictional retelling of Cowper’s life. The novel is, obviously, historical fiction, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, at least when compared to the kind of historical novel that packs in period detail. Rather, Winner’s terrain is more interior: Cowper is a fascinating subject for a psychological study, and, rather than in describing Cowper’s material circumstances, Lynch’s interest lies in portraying the depths of Cowper’s consciousness through recurring images and dreams. Though he focuses tightly on Cowper, Lynch nonetheless captures the feeling of the man’s era (Cowper lived from 1731 to 1800); he does it through the characters themselves, utilizing thoughts, conversations, and letters that evoke an 18th-century sensibility.
Lynch opens the novel with Cowper as an old man, moving in and out of insanity and living with a young relative and a female caretaker (one of many mother-substitutes Lynch will discover in Cowper’s life). From here, flashbacks take us to scenes from his childhood, and we move back and forth between young and old Cowper in a series of abrupt shifts.
The novel’s early chapters weave a tapestry of Cowper’s troubled consciousness that then sets up and explains the middle section of the novel—Cowper’s adult life—where we see how his childhood wounds manifest themselves in maturity. This middle section is told in a more straightforward, chronological manner, but it still evidences some of the first section’s formal difficulty: the short chapters often introduce new material abruptly, jarring readers and forcing them to situate the narrative again and again. Eventually, a final section returns the story to the beginning: Cowper as an old man taking stock of his life. Lynch’s frequent jumps in time and scene require careful attention, but the attention is well-paid, as the juxtapositions reveal the recurring images and deep-seated patterns of Cowper’s life and offer the satisfaction of piecing together an identity and understanding the poet’s mind.
And what a mind it is: Cowper is a psychoanalyst’s dream. His mother dies in childbirth when he is six, and he never recovers from the loss, spending the rest of his life searching for replacement figures (which he is able to find in abundance). In addition to the wound left by his lost mother, Cowper is impotent: in a schoolyard bullying scene, two boys yank down his pants, revealing a penis “no bigger than a snail’s foot.” Afterward, a “secret voice” in his head chants, “I am a different boy, I am a different boy.”
It is a scarring experience, one that leaves him feeling isolated and inadequate. Snails begin to haunt Cowper, appearing in life and in dreams as images of sexuality and of death. When the young Cowper finds a snail in the eye socket of a skull, he picks it up and “he saw what the skull saw, and he thought, This is death, and this will happen to everyone else, but of all the people in the world, I, William Cowper, I alone am fated not to die.” This hope for immortality is soon replaced by an obsession with death and fear of sex, both of which Cowper continually approaches, only to shy away from.
At the age of 32 he has his first brush with his own death: Cowper suffers a mental breakdown, attempts suicide several times, and retreats to an asylum. In his convalescence he converts to Evangelicalism and inaugurates a pattern that continues for the rest of his life: hope in God mixing with despair, self-loathing and guilt mixing with compassion and love, the conviction that he is damned to hell mixing with the desire for life. As the very first paragraph of the novel explains:
William Cowper . . . believed in Christ and his infinite mercy, although he was also convinced that God hated him personally and was intent on sending him to hell, soon, for all eternity. That the belief and the conviction contradicted each other he understood clearly. He understood, too, that he was completely insane, or rather almost completely, but not quite. In the same nearly perfect way, he was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild hares and a linnet.
That Cowper places the three wild hares and the linnet on the same footing as the four women is revealing; those women become the mother figures he craves, as well as sisters and almost-lovers in a bewildering combination of roles and relationships, but they never achieve the top place in Cowper’s affections. Cowper’s wounds make him capable only of an abstract, partial kind of love, and it’s a testament to his attractive powers that he is continually surrounded by women who are willing to live with what he could offer. What we see, ultimately, is a deeply wounded man seeking the only kind of happiness he is capable of. Cowper feels both gratitude and guilt toward the women who care enough about him to make sacrifices for his sake. It’s a sad story: though Cowper knows he has much to answer for, he is powerless to do anything about it.
The Winner of Sorrow goes beyond psychology: it also hints at Cowper’s importance as a poet, making him into a quintessential late 18th-century figure in the way his poetic interests turn away from public, social matters and look to the interior world: “He was making an exploration out of, or rather into, the ordinary—like Captain Cook, but in reverse.” However, Lynch resists the common interpretation of Cowper as mere antecedent to the Romantics, instead portraying him as an important poet in his own right. Near the novel’s end, Cowper receives an illustrated letter from William Blake (an invention on Lynch’s part) in which he hails Cowper as “the Son of Albion in the Evening of his Decay” and claims him as “Your Friend in Milton.” Cowper wants nothing to do with this tribute. He thinks only that Blake “is obviously a revolutionary, or an agent for the government, or a plain lunatic, or all three” and later gives his servant permission to use the letter as lining for a bucket. Cowper does not understand, and does not wish to understand, why this representative of a new generation of poets reveres him. This episode, and the novel as a whole, implies that Cowper’s poetic achievement is important not so much for the way he helped usher in a new poetic era, but for his unique sensibility: his tormented mix of compassion, suffering, faith, and uncertainty. It is here that Lynch’s interests in Cowper’s psychology and his poetry combine: we should read him, the novel implies, because he shows us the difficult and unlikely conditions from which art can emerge.
In the end, perhaps the novel’s central insight is, as one character says, “Misery usually stands in the way of creation, William, but in your case it opens the road . . . because you know that composing puts off your being decomposed.” We are all composing and decomposing every moment of our lives, and the best we can hope for, like Cowper, is to compose something beautiful, if only to postpone the moment of decomposition a little longer. The Winner of Sorrow is itself a success on these terms: a beautiful composition that will challenge readers and reward them with both a glimpse into a struggling artist’s life and a contemplation of what it means to “win” at sorrow.
Rebecca Hussey is an assistant professor of English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She blogs as “Dorothy W.” at Of Books and Bicycles.
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