Mock-Heroic and Grace: The Case of Cowper
William Cowper's poetry has traditionally been seen in two opposite ways: either as a late relic of English Augustanism or as a harbinger of a newer Romantic aesthetic.1 Nowhere is this ambivalence more evident than in his handling of the genre of mock-heroic. While Cowper's adoption of the form affiliates him superficially to the earlier poetic eras of Dryden and Pope, his use of it reflects a set of moral and religious concerns largely absent from Augustan poems of the same kind. Indeed, the idiosyncrasy of Cowperian mock-heroic, when set against his most obvious forebears, accounts for the short shrift given to it by Claude Rawson, the most acute and distinguished recent commentator on the genre. Rawson has criticized 'the ceaseless twitchings of [Cowper's] mock-heroic impulse', arguing witheringly that 'It has no clear function and no meaningful relation to a primary heroic idiom, none of Pope's assured loyalty to the grandeurs he subverts, and none of Swift's assurance in the debunking of grandeurs'.2 Instead, so Rawson suggests, Cowper's mock-heroic answers to nothing so much as the poet's history of psychological breakdown, as a ruse for sublimating distress, a strained attempt at good cheer.