Arts of the Air: an Evening at The Exchange

‘The Exchange’ is the University of Birmingham’s new building in the city centre, offering a public cultural programme alongside business courses and centres for research collaboration. Exhibitions and events are programmed around a new theme each season, starting with ‘The Air we Breathe’.

We are sorry that, due to unforeseen circumstances, ‘Arts of the Air’ has been postponed. We look forward to working with The Exchange in 2022.

Arts of the Air

The Old English ‘Storm Riddle’ takes us riding on the turbulent air of a thousand years ago. Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ expresses the revolutionary inspiration that Romantic thinkers found in the weather. Virginia Woolf considered the changing air of each century and how it might influence life on the ground. The history of English literature is a history of air and human responses to it. Visual artists, too, have been gripped by this most elusive and omnipresent subject – from the earliest landscape painters to Peter Lanyon depicting the thermals under his glider, they have shaped our ways of seeing and feeling the air around us.

With help from friends and colleagues who will share their specialist insights, Alexandra Harris will explore some of the very different ways in which air has been perceived and represented in Britain. This atmospheric winter evening will carry us through gales to frosty sunsets – and perhaps a balmy breeze.

Constable, John; Rainstorm over the Sea; https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/O1841 Credit line: (c)  (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: John Hammond /
Image: John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea, ca. 1824-1828.
Oil on paper laid on canvas. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond.

Fire and Ochre: Films by Julie Brook

Artist Julie Brook pictured near her home on Skye (Jane Barlow/TSPL).

Over this past summer, Alexandra Harris talked with our Artist-in-Residence Julie Brook about her motivation, her materials, and her methods. Brook is a British artist who creates large scale sculpture. She uses a variety of natural materials and incorporates photography and film to combine wild terrains with classical formalism. Drawing from, with, and in the landscape, Brook has lived and worked in the Orkney Islands, on Jura and Mingulay, and in the Libyan desert. She currently lives on the Isle of Skye. She often travels wide and far for her work, using what she finds in particular landscapes to create new forms and works within those spaces.

In this post we showcase two sections of the conversation, focusing on Brook’s ‘Firestacks’ and ‘Japan’. These, and a further section of the conversation, ‘Labour’, will be screened in-person at the University of Birmingham on 22 November at 5pm. Please do join us if you can. Register here. Come and see Julie’s spectacular images on the big screen! We’ll be making the swish new Teaching and Learning building as much like a cinema as possible…

Firestacks

Firestack, Julie Brook. Jura, West coast of Scotland.

In the early nineties, Brook moved to the remote island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland to paint and draw. Living beneath a natural stone arch, the solitude became part of her art which she then translated into her ‘Firestacks’ series, a body of work which uses rocks to build cairns on the shore, and wood to set fires in them. Eventually, as the tide comes in, the stacks topple and Brook captures the whole transient process on film.

In this video, Brook and Harris explore the rock cairns that Brook now builds every season in the same place; they discuss the process of documenting how each day and each season affects the firestacks differently. 

Firestacks: Julie Brook in conversation

“I first conceived of this work really as the beginning of my sculptural work as well. I was living in a natural arch, I was collecting my water, I was making a fire everyday to cook on. After doing functional building in the arch to make it habitable, I wanted to use those skills and that sensibility to make work.”

Julie Brook

Japan

Ascending, Julie Brook. Kanagaso, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

The second video concerns Brook’s project in Japan, entitled ‘Ascending’. ‘Ascending’ is a 2019 sculptural response to the ancient working quarry of Kanagaso in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Working on a huge scale in the space of the quarry itself, Brook used the material nature of the stone to give ‘Ascending’ its weight, mass, colour and sound. 

In the video, Brook and Harris discuss how Brook’s artistic work within spaces reaches out to the surrounding landscapes, highlighting their own sculptural likeness and giving new life to the space.

Japan: Julie Brook in conversation

“I couldn’t compete with the cliff but I wanted the work to be about the cliff… I wanted the steps to feel like they’d always been there, that they’d simply grown up overnight. It was almost like I was revealing them rather than making them… It’s the whole experience of the environment and the way in which you can ascend the piece to experience that natural amphitheatre that quarries often create, whereby, you change your sense of scale by being able to walk on it.”

Julie Brook

Tobacco and Feathers… The Art of Looking


Arts of Place is supporting an exciting evening’s conversation at Trinity College Oxford (Monday 8 November 6pm) and an online version with live discussion (Monday 15 November). BBC New Generation Thinkers Lauren Working and Lucy Powell discuss art, literature, and colonialism with art historian Stephanie Pratt. This event is part of the 2021 Being Human Festival.

The event at Trinity College is now fully booked, but please do register for the online version on Monday 15 November 6 – 7.15pm. A film of the panel talks and conversation will be screened, followed by live discussion with the online audience. Book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/being-human-festival-transatlantic-tales-stories-of-feathers-and-smoke-tickets-179205748217?aff=erelpanelorg

Please note that unfortunately Alexandra Harris is unable to chair this event, but Lauren and Lucy will take her place in hosting the conversation.


How do you read a feather? How did tobacco, a plant cultivated by Indigenous peoples in the Americas, end up in the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London? How were transatlantic objects altered or incorporated into ‘new’ worlds?


From parrots to sunflowers to chilis, plants and animals from the Americas have reconfigured cultures across the world for over four centuries. This event will examine objects that crossed the Atlantic in the early modern period, illuminating their place in everything from still life paintings to botanic gardens to the writings of the seventeenth-century playwright Aphra Behn. Drawing on literature, art history, and Indigenous perspectives, Lauren Working, Lucy Powell and Stephanie Pratt will follow the journeys of feathers and tobacco to discuss the ongoing impact of colonialism and empire on society and culture in England.

Edward Thomas: Out of Place

Monday Conversation, 19 April 2021, with Andrew Hodgson and Ralph Pite

“He handles the name Adelstrop as if he’s jiggling a key in a lock, expecting it to open up a feeling of connectedness”

Dr Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham) argued that, though Thomas is firmly associated with certain kinds of English landscape, his relationship to places is often deeply unsettled. Andrew read poems including Adelstrop and The Ash Grove as the work of a poet ‘out of place’, restlessly seeking forms for disconnection and doubt.

Professor Ralph Pite (Bristol) explored Thomas’s ‘terrestrial’ and ‘extra-terrestrial’ qualities – and the unpredictable relationship between them. Thomas emerged as a radical thinker, interested in non-proprietorial ways of belonging to the land.

“Thomas leads the conversation from a fanciful dream of escape, to disillusionment and world weariness, and after that pleasure in the everyday and he becomes therefore as perplexing a figure as the woman he meets…”


A Month in the Country

Hermione Lee reflects on the particular qualities and settings of J.L. Carr’s classic novel

 

“No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank”

 

Joseph Lloyd Carr (1912-1994), better known as Jim, was a writer of laconic English humour, quiet precision, deep moral feeling, close knowledge of landscapes, buildings and history, and an interest in the heroism of obscure, unsuccessful, unprivileged people. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote eight short novels. He was also a teacher and headmaster, a writer for children, an antiquarian, and an idiosyncratic publisher of pocket books, under the sign of the Quince Tree Press. His friend and admirer Penelope Fitzgerald said of him: “Carr is by no means a lavish writer, but he has the magic touch to re-enter the imagined past”.

His masterpiece, A Month in the Country, won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980, was short-listed for the Booker and was made into a film. Carr, an obstinate man, didn’t care that it was already Turgenev’s title – besides, the novella has a Turgenevian mood to it. It’s a story full of sadness and nostalgia, told by a shell-shocked war-veteran, Tom Birkin. In the “marvellous summer” of 1920, he has come, a wrecked survivor, with no money and a failed marriage, to a remote Yorkshire village, in order to uncover a huge medieval Day of Judgement painting on the wall of the village church, the work of an unknown medieval artist who increasingly infiltrates his mind. Down below, another war-veteran with a secret history, Mr Moon, is excavating a 14th century grave outside the church. They are “two of a kind”, both quietly dedicated to their specialised work, and both beneficiaries of the late old lady of the decaying manor-house, whose shrewd eye still seems to be overlooking their work. An obstructive, stiff-necked vicar, his fragile, beautiful wife, and the friendly, level-headed Yorkshire villagers (source of Carr’s typical humane, low-key comedy), become Birkin’s whole world that summer. 

It is a war-novel set in peace-time, full of the horror and unspeakable fear of war-memories, which can’t be spoken about. It’s a love story of great poignancy about a missed chance, and it’s a memory of an irrecoverable past, of “blue remembered hills” that can’t be found again. “If I’d stayed there”, the sad narrator asks himself, “would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies”.

Above all, the novel is filled to the brim with a particular English place and time. Carr said he drew the village and its setting from his childhood in the North Riding, the church from Northamptonshire (where he spent most of his adult life), the churchyard from Norfolk and the vicarage from London: “All’s grist that comes to the mill”. Oxgodby, the name of the village, certainly echoes “Osgodby”, a village near where he went to school. And the novel brings us a vanished English country life in deep sunshine – haymaking, sleeping outdoors, Sunday School, rabbit pies, scythes, “ditches and roadside deep in grass, poppies, cuckoo pint, trees heavy with leaf, orchards bulging over hedge briars”. No book evokes so well as this the long vistas of that high ridge of North Yorkshire between Thirsk and Sutton Bank. “Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted away from the Plain. It was a sort of stage-magic – “Now you don’t see; indeed, there is nothing to see. Now look!” Day after day it was like that….”  “As it lightened, a vast and magnificent landscape unfolded. I turned away; it was immensely satisfying.”  

 

Hermione Lee was president of Wolfson College, Oxford from 2008 to 2017 and founding director of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Her books include Edith Wharton (2006), Penelope Fitzgerald (2013), and Tom Stoppard (2020). 

 

A World on the Table: Still Life Paintings and their Global Stories

Monday Conversation, 30 November 2020, with Lauren Working and Lucy Powell.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Parrot, c. 1655, Creative Commons.

Still life paintings from the seventeenth century present sumptuous arrangements of fruit, flowers, vegetables, silverware, and often animals or birds as well. They may be ‘still’, displayed for our visual enjoyment, but the subjects have been gathered from around the world. These pictures tell stories of travel, colonialism, displacement, power, and desire.

Our two speakers took us on an imaginative transcultural journey, bringing questions of locality, placelessness, and globalism to bear on scenes of feasting and beauty.

 

 

“We get tulips with pumpkins, maize with English strawberries, peonies with chillies…”

Lauren Working (Postdoctoral Fellow on the TIDE project, University of Oxford) gave a dazzling visual tour of the genre’s excesses and extremes, pausing in the queasy hinterlands between plenty and too much. Bringing an historian’s expertise to paintings by Dutch and English artists, she explored the tastes, networks, and trade routes, the invisible maps and webs of connection, that lie behind the shining objects assembled before us.

Lucy Powell (Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) looked closely at paintings of exotic birds by Jakob Bogdani, showing how closely they relate to still life and how much they have to tell us about cultures of collecting and displaying species brought to Britain from across the globe.

Our short clips will give you a taste, and a recording of the whole session is available below.

Difficult Paradises

For our ‘Monday Conversation’ on 26th October 2020, we welcomed Tim Dee, Michael Malay, and Liam Olds.

Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed: 
This land, cut off, will not communicate …

(W.H. Auden, The Watershed)

In our newsletter, Michael Malay (English, University of Bristol) wrote about natural renewal on the sites of coal spoils and wondered about the role of writers in responding to such ‘difficult paradises’. To pursue these questions, Michael was joined online by entomologist Liam Olds (founder of the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative) and by Tim Dee, widely considered one of our greatest living nature writers. Tim’s book Landfill is (in the words of Helen Macdonald) ‘a deep meditation on difficulty and waste, on the beauty of the disregarded, and on what we make of matter out of place’.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing…
(T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land)

Wordsworth’s art of place

In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, Jessica Fay shows how Wordsworth responded to the craze for picturesque garden ruins and his affirmation of the slower, quieter stories of lives and places that ruins can evoke.

Myles Birket Foster’s frontispiece to William Wordsworth, The Deserted Cottage (1859) engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

Myles Birket Foster’s frontispiece to William Wordsworth, The Deserted Cottage (1859) engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

Imagining William and Dorothy Wordsworth out walking in the Lake District might involve thinking of them closely observing their surroundings, commenting on what they notice, talking about local news or Napoleon’s most recent campaign, or reciting poetry. We might imagine them pausing to refresh themselves with cold beef or leftover gooseberry pie that they carried in their pockets. But we might not think of them pausing to take out a tinted Claude Glass.

The fashionable activity of ‘picturesque tourism’, made popular by William Gilpin’s guidebooks of the 1780s and 90s, involved observing natural scenery through a small glass mirror or an imaginative filter. The mild absurdity of this practice of re-tinting and rearranging what was actually visible in a landscape is emphasized by a quip of Jane Austen’s in Northanger Abbey (composed 1798–99), where Henry and Isabella Tilney view ‘the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing’ and proceed to decide its ‘capability of being formed into pictures’ (with a pun on the nickname of fashionable landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown). The heroine, Catherine Morland, is considered ironically to be without ‘natural taste’ until she’s been instructed in picturesque principles.

Wordsworth intimates his opposition to the picturesque in Book XI of The Prelude (1805), where he describes the habit of looking at nature through the lens of art as ‘a strong infection of the age’. He objected to landscape appreciation in which ‘the eye [is] master of the heart’ and where insufficient attention is paid to ‘the moods | Of nature, and the spirit of place’. Although Gilpin and his followers recognised the importance of felt responses to scenery, picturesque tourism seemed (to the poet) to commodify nature. But the Wordsworths did own a Claude Glass and William’s engagement with the picturesque—as a gardener as well as a poet—was deep and considered.

In his Guide through the District of the Lakes (first published in 1810), Wordsworth sets out a key principle for gardening: ‘The rule is simple; with respect to grounds—work, where you can, in the spirit of nature, with an invisible hand of art’. This might appear to be an endorsement for the style of gardening initiated by William Kent at Stow in the 1730s, which helped catalyse the craze for all things ‘picturesque’. Kent’s invention of the ha-ha (or sunken fence) made it possible to conceal boundaries between a cultivated garden and the landscape beyond. In Kent’s sweeping open prospects, the ‘hand of art’ was far less visible than it had been when parterres and topiary were the order of the day. Yet Wordsworth agreed with gardeners such as Uvedale Price (whose Essay on the Picturesque was first published in 1794) that the conventions established by Kent, Brown, and their followers came to be applied too mechanically. Since features such as serpentine lakes, trees arranged in clumps or belts, temples, hermitages, or follies were so recognisable, the artifice of landscape gardening was in fact obvious. Disregarding the idiosyncrasies of a given place, these “improvers” often overlooked ‘the spirit of nature’.

A 19th century Claude Glass, or Black MirrorIn particular, Wordsworth agreed with Price that ‘improvers’ paid too little attention to timeworn characteristics such as ancient trees and dilapidated stonework. But Wordsworth and Price appreciated these rugged features for different reasons. For Price, any object is picturesque if it bears three specific visual qualities: roughness, sudden variation, and irregularity. Ruins of different kinds—the remains of once-consecrated monasteries, crumbling manor houses, mouldy humble cottages, or even purpose-made follies—are equally admirable when they exhibit these qualities. Wordsworth, by contrast, didn’t primarily value ruins for their surface appearance: he was less interested in form and texture and more concerned with the personal or communal histories attached to these objects. The ruins of medieval monasteries such as Tintern, Furness, and Bolton, were important as loci of regional heritage; the ruins of secular dwelling places similarly offered, for Wordsworth, means of connection with previous inhabitants through an experience of place. Importing faux ruins or follies into gardens as picturesque props—and for the sake of fashion—bypassed any such place-centred human connection.

An entry in Dorothy’s Alfoxden journal from April 1798 provides an example of what the siblings considered a misuse of garden-ruins. Dorothy describes a visit to Crowcombe Court in the Quantocks where she explored a garden laid out by John Bernard (son-in-law of the owner Thomas Carew) in the 1770s:

A fine cloudy morning. Walked about the squire’s grounds. Quaint waterfalls about, where Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed—ruins, hermitages, &c., &c. In spite of all these things, the dell romantic and beautiful, though everywhere planted with unnaturalised trees. Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy.

The ruins at Crowcombe were fifteenth-century fragments of stone arches transplanted from nearby Halsway Manor, perhaps arranged to evoke contemplation or melancholy, or to give the Court (built in 1725) an air of antiquity. When Dorothy complains that Bernard has deformed nature, she recognizes that the ruins don’t belong there and is thankful that nature is visibly pushing back against the interfering ‘hand of art’.

A more complex example of nature counteracting cultivation is worked out in Wordsworth’s The Ruined Cottage. First composed at Alfoxden in 1797, the poem underwent several stages of revision before being published as the first book of The Excursion (1814). If it had appeared under its original title at the end of the 1790s, however, that title would have raised specific expectations. For readers well-acquainted with picturesque aesthetics, The Ruined Cottage promises riches: perhaps the poem will focus on quaint ruins like those commonly found in landscape paintings or used as garden ornaments? The opening lines, which describe the effect of ‘steady beams’ of sunshine on an expansive landscape, might also have encouraged readers to think they’d embarked on a conventional eighteenth-century prospect poem. But Wordsworth quickly subverts, or rather deepens, these expectations. As the cottage and its garden are placed in the context of the suffering of their inhabitants, the poem becomes a critique of purely visual, surface appreciation of ruins.

The Ruined Cottage narrates a meeting between a Poet and a Pedlar beside the dilapidated cottage of a woman named Margaret. As they look at the ruin, the Pedlar explains Margaret’s history. Following failed harvests, illness, and loss of work Margaret’s husband, Robert, was forced to enlist. She was left alone with two children and became increasingly despondent as she failed to discover news of Robert’s whereabouts or welfare. Under the weight of poverty, desolation, and loneliness, during a time of deprivation and war, Margaret neglected to take care of herself, her children, the cottage, and the garden. At length she was deprived of both children and of all hope that Robert would return; after five years of suffering, Margaret died.

At the start of the poem, the Pedlar and the Poet survey the deserted cottage and garden:

It was a plot
Of garden-ground, now wild, its matted weeds
Marked with the steps of those whom as they pass’d,
The goose-berry trees that shot in long lank slips,
Or currants hanging from their leafless stems
In scanty strings, had tempted to o’erleap
The broken wall. Within that cheerless spot,
Where two tall hedgerows of thick willow boughs
Joined in a damp cold nook, I found a well
Half-choked [with willow flowers and weeds.]
I slaked my thirst and to the shady bench
Returned, and while I stood unbonneted
To catch the motion of the cooler air
The old Man said, “I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him or is changed, and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left. (ll. 54–72)

At Crowcombe, Bernard’s ruin was installed and positioned for picturesque effect; through later neglect, nature began to counteract the ‘fancy’ of the gardener, and this pleased Dorothy. In The Ruined Cottage, however, any assessment of nature’s reclamation of Margaret’s garden is more complicated. From the Poet’s perspective, this is a scene of deprivation: the garden wall has fallen down, the well is ‘half-choked’ by weeds, the gooseberry bushes are ‘lank’, strings of currants are ‘scanty’; it’s a ‘cheerless spot’ and there are implications of sinfulness and corruption in images of temptation, trespass, and forbidden fruit. The Poet (keen to find compelling material to write about) is inclined to indulge in the melancholy atmosphere. Yet the Pedlar sees things differently.

One reason why the Poet doesn’t see what the Pedlar sees is that, at this point, he hasn’t heard Margaret’s story. As the poem progresses, the Pedlar peels back layers of time and memory, revealing how the stages of Margaret’s emotional deterioration contributed to the development of the ruin. By the end of the poem, the tumbledown cottage and overgrown garden bespeak Margaret’s decline, and thus the Poet’s perception is changed: he doesn’t now appreciate the ruins for their picturesque form and texture (as Uvedale Price might have done) but rather for their human context. As Dorothy noted at Crowcombe, ruins are not moving in themselves; but the ruined cottage has a profound emotional effect on the Poet when history, imagination, and empathy are added to his visual experience.

The poem concludes, however, with the Pedlar asking the Poet not to indulge in the sadness of the scene but to walk away in calm happiness:

“My Friend, enough to sorrow have you given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more;
Be wise and cheerful, and no longer read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye.
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silver’d o’er,
As once I passed did to my heart convey
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
The passing shews of being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream that could not live
Where meditation was. I turned away
And walked along my road in happiness”. (ll. 513–24)

Wordsworth’s thinking about picturesque aesthetics helps explain these moving, yet difficult, lines. One of the purposes of the poem is to teach the Poet to be serene in the face of suffering and change: the extra unstressed syllable at the end of the first line denotes the cusp of what is ‘enough’. Ruins make visible processes of decay but they also reveal nature’s regenerative powers. As Margaret finds ultimate harmony with—and within—the earth (‘She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here’), the pace of the verse slows. The Pedlar recognizes that the tranquillity of nature endures, whereas grief is alleviated by time. The survival of the spear-grass and the sustained life and beauty of the garden, channelled through memory and expressed within an elongated sentence that entwines visual with interior experience, provide lasting consolation. The Pedlar’s speech affirms that poetry, and the empathy it produces, helps readers to apprehend the significance beneath the surface; reading ‘the forms of things’ more worthily involves attending to art and nature with an eye that is not ‘master of the heart’. Visual apprehension is transformed when it is supplemented with an underlying sense of what a place has meant to—and what it says about—the people connected with it. Picturesque gardening that clears away knotted or uneven features produced by the slow passage of time (in favour of smooth man-made lines) lacks these submerged human resonances.

Looking through a Claude Glass is, in this way, a less worthy (that is to say, less poetic) mode of viewing. But, for Wordsworth, shaping nature into art has its benefits, too. While the Wordsworths’ Claude Glass may have helped them to reimagine the landscape in a moment (perhaps between bites of cold gooseberry pie), practical gardening works with nature to produce visual and emotional effects over time. ‘Laying out grounds’, William once explained, ‘is some sort like Poetry and Painting, and its object … [is] to assist Nature in moving the affections’. But, he continued, ‘If this be so when we merely put together words or colours, how much more ought the feeling to prevail when we are in the midst of the realities of things’. Gardening that balances the ‘spirit of nature’ with the ‘hand of art’ is itself a kind of poetry; or, we might say, an art of place.

Literature for quiet times

Alexandra Harris got together with Professor Kate McLoughlin, who is researching the history of silence, to think about texts that seemed particularly meaningful in the first weeks of lockdown and isolation.

William Cowper's summerhouse in Olney

William Cowper’s summerhouse in Olney

They recorded four short podcasts: on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, DH Lawrence’s ‘Silence’, a moment of pause in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, and William Cowper’s defence of quiet home life in The Task.

Podcast 4, on William Cowper, is especially concerned with place. Cowper rarely travelled far from home, and much of his poetry considers what might be gained by attending seriously to domestic life and local surroundings.

The text discussed by Kate and Alex is from Book 3 of The Task:

How various his employments, whom the world
Calls idle, and who justly in return
Esteems that busy world an idler, too!
Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,
Delightful industry enjoyed at home,
And nature in her cultivated trim
Dressed to his taste, inviting him abroad—
Can he want occupation who has these?
Will he be idle who has much to enjoy?
Me, therefore, studious of laborious ease,
Not slothful; happy to deceive the time,
Not waste it; and aware that human life
Is but a loan to be repaid with use,
When He shall call His debtors to account,
From whom are all our blessings; business finds
Even here: while sedulous I seek to improve,
At least neglect not, or leave unemployed,
The mind He gave me; driving it, though slack
Too oft, and much impeded in its work
By causes not to be divulged in vain,
To its just point—the service of mankind.
He that attends to his interior self,
That has a heart and keeps it; has a mind
That hungers and supplies it; and who seeks
A social, not a dissipated life,
Has business; feels himself engaged to achieve
No unimportant, though a silent task.
A life all turbulence and noise may seem,
To him that leads it, wise and to be praised;
But wisdom is a pearl with most success
Sought in still water, and beneath clear skies.

 

Find the full series at TORCH | Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities