Poems … London: printed for J. Johnson … 1782. [With:]

_________. The Task, a Poem, in six Books … To which is added … An Epistle to Joseph Hill … Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools, and the History of John Gilpin. London: Printed for J. Johnson … 1785.

London, 1782-5.

2 vols., 8vo., pp. [4], ‘vii’ [i.e. viii, misnumbered], 367, [1, errata]; [8], 359, [1, advertisement for Poems 1782], Poems with the suppressed Preface, E6 and I6 are cancels as usual, The Task with half-title (‘Poems … Vol. II’); title-page to The Task shaved at foot touching the date, else good copies in contemporary tree calf, morocco spine labels; front board of volume I restored, joints rubbed in volume II, spines dry and rubbed; the Chawton copy, with the large roundel bookplate of Montagu George Knight and with the earlier Knight family shelf tickets ‘J 9 27-8’; scattered underlining or marked in the margin throughout in pencil and occasionally pen or red crayon.


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First edition of each volume, with the notoriously rare suppressed preface by John Newton.

This copy comes from the library of Chawton House, with an early shelf label and the bookplate of Jane Austen’s great-nephew George Montagu Knight. Austen’s ‘favourite moral writers were Johnson in prose, and Cowper in verse’ (‘Biographical Notice’, Northanger Abbey), and Cowper provides the moral framework for much of her writing, is referred to or quoted in Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Emma, and, in particular, Mansfield Park, and mentioned several times in her letters.

Jane’s father, himself a clergyman, ‘bought a copy of Cowper’s works in 1798 and Jane described him reading them aloud to the family in the evening; ten years later she bought a copy of a new edition as a present for her niece Fanny’ (David Selwyn, Jane Austen and Leisure, 1999). The Austens moved to Chawton Cottage, in the grounds of Chawton House, in 1809, after her brother Edward, who took the name of Knight, had inherited the estates of Chawton and Godmersham Park. Jane regularly used the libraries at both houses: 'I am now alone in the Library', she wrote to Cassandra from Godmersham, 'Mistress of all I survey'. The present volumes appear in the 1818 Godmersham Park catalogue compiled by Edward Knight (South Case, col 1 shelf 3). It has been carefully read, and numerous passages marked, especially in the poems quoted by Austen (‘Tirocinum’, ‘The Truth’ etc.), though almost certainly not by Austen herself. They do however express the canonicity of Cowper in the Austen family and it is hard to imagine she would not have turned through the pages of this set in the library at Godmersham. The Godmersham and Chawton libraries were later merged, hence the Chawton bookplate of Austen's great-nephew Montagu George Knight.

Poems, published at the age of 50, was Cowper’s first and most important collection. The suppressed Preface by the reformed slave trader John Newton is notoriously rare. As curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire, Newton for seven years was a neighbour of Cowper and became a close friend. They collaborated on Olney Hymns in 1779, Newton’s contributions including ‘Amazing Grace’. His Preface was ‘not designed to commend the Poems to which it is prefixed’, but to provide testimony to Cowper’s (and his own) religious experience. In the poems, he writes, Cowper’s ‘satire, if it may be called so, is benevolent … dictated by a just regard for the honour of God, an indignant grief excited by the profligacy of the age, and a tender compassion for the souls of men … He aims to communicate his own perceptions of the truth, beauty, and influence of the religion of the Bible. – A religion, which … alone can relieve the mind of man from painful and unavoidable anxieties’. The publisher, no doubt rightly, was alarmed that such an evangelical Preface might prejudice the sale of the book, and, with Cowper’s reluctant consent, withdrew it a week before publication.

The Task was written at the suggestion of Cowper’s friend and neighbour Lady Austen (no relation). She had encouraged him to attempt blank verse, and he agreed provided that she would supply the subject. ‘O’, she replied, ‘you can never be in want of a subject: –you can write upon any. Write upon this sofa!’ And so he did, hence the wry title, The Task (‘I sing the Sofa. I who lately sang / Truth, Hope and Charity, and touch’d with awe / The solemn chords, and with a trembling hand, / Escap’d with pain from that advent’rous flight, / Now seek repose upon a humbler theme’). Fearing that a poem about a sofa might not sell, Cowper added a revised text of his popular History of John Gilpin, which had previously appeared only in newspapers and anthologies.

Of 40 copies of Poems listed by Russell in 1963 only eight had the preface: BL (2, including Newton’s own copy); Keynes, Huntington, Harvard, NYPL Berg, Texas, and a presentation copy sold at auction in 1960. Another copy was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1975.

Russell 68 and 69; Hayward 191 (the Geoffrey Keynes copy, with Preface); Rothschild 681 (without Preface).

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