May 2019 meeting: Jane Austen, Crabbe and Cowper

May 22, 2019

As we do with many of our more general topics, our May meeting topic of Crabbe and Cowper was left open for members to follow whatever path we wanted. There were some interesting paths revealing how much homework we’d all done, including our remote Queensland member!

George Crabbe

George Crabbe, By John Murrary, Britten Pears Gallery (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Some of us looked at why Austen may have liked Crabbe, who, with his rhyming couplets, belongs to the Augustan tradition. We (along with various commentators) felt that Austen is likely to have liked him because he wrote short stories in verse, had a satirical bent, and an unsentimental view of life. Early Austen biographer, David Cecil, put it this way: “His shrewd eye for character, his gift for story-telling, the vivid detailed accuracy with which he portrays the less obviously picturesque kind of English landscape, were all things likely to please her … his view of life had much in common with hers: moral, unsentimental, realistic, and rooted in the same strong, sober Anglican faith.” Crabbe, one of our members suggested, believed people should be reasonable and civilised, believed in the virtues of moderation and self-control, and that sense, reason, truth, nature, should prevail. Like Austen.

One member suggested that, like Austen’s, his writing is orderly, specific, deliberate like Jane. She talked about how Crabbe balances ideas in a couplet:

OF a fair town where Doctor Rack was guide,
His only daughter was the boast and pride;
Wise Arabella, yet not wise alone,
She like a bright and polish’d brilliant shone;
Her father own’d her for his prop and stay,
Able to guide, yet willing to obey;
(From “Arabella”, by George Crabbe)

Also, she said, “Arabella” is about a girl choosing a husband, but pride results in her making a bad choice. This made her think of Pride and prejudice. She wondered also whether “Arabella” with its reference to “slaves” may have influenced Mansfield Park. And did his poem, “Procrastination”, influence Persuasion?

Crabbe was, however, also didactic in a way that Austen wasn’t.

Did Austen ever meet Crabbe, our member posited? Austen refers to his visit to London in 1813, but probably not, we agreed.

William Cowper

More of us focused on Cowper in our research, including our remote member who wondered whether Austen was really as enamoured of Cowper as is claimed. Evidence for Austen’s preference includes that her brother Henry Austen claimed he was her “favourite poetical moralist” in his Preface to Northanger Abbey, and commentator Stabler argues that books were expensive so Austen’s decision to buy Cowper and Boswell “was carefully calculated”.

Portrait of Cowper

William Cowper, from the Cyber Hymnal (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Our remote member, however, did note that Cowper’s lines are still used today – “variety is the spice of life”; “god moves in mysterious ways”; and “I am monarch of all I survey”. Cowper was, she said, universally read, admired and quoted as a sober, worthy, ‘safe’ poet who came with no lurid scandals attached, but he wasn’t subtle and as clever as Austen. However, some of us questioned the “no lurid scandals”. Cowper had a pretty hard life, including suicide attempts and being institutionalised for insanity.

Cowper appears in several of Austen’s works, including Sense and sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and the unfinished Sanditon. We talked about why Austen might have liked him. David Cecil suggested she’d like his “delicate sense of the domestic scene, a demure humour, and, above all, a power of depicting the English landscape in its gentler aspects.” Did we think Austen would have liked his demure humour!!

Many of us talked about Austen’s references to Cowper in Mansfield Park. One member shared Savage’s article in Persuasions Online which looked at Cowper’s poem The task “as a focal point for a reading of Fanny’s characterisation and Austen’s emphasis on the importance of interiority for the moral character.” Kelly refers to Cowper’s anti-slavery ideas and suggests they may have influenced Austen’s slavery references in Mansfield Park. Meanwhile, Byrne discusses Fanny’s reference to Cowper’s Tirocinium, which is a poem about fathers keeping their sons home to manage their moral and spiritual education. She suggests this is an appropriate poem to allude to in MP because a major issue in MP is the responsibility of parents to shape their children’s spiritual and moral development, the importance of home, the nature of good education, and the alienation of sons from their father.

One member checked out Seeber’s book on animals, which found a relationship between Cowper’s anti-hunting attitude and many of Austen’s negative or weaker characters, such as Willoughby, Henry Crawford, John Thorpe, and Sir John Middleton, who like hunting.

Cowper was also against the mania for improvement, which Austen also raises in Mansfield Park.

We also discussed Austen’s use of Cowper in Sense and sensibility to illuminate Marianne. Our remote member commented that Marianne doesn’t actually quote Cowper, but merely rhapsodises about him. She saw having Marianne emoting, sighing, weeping and being ‘almost driven wild’ by Cowper as Austen at her comic best. Austen’s contemporary readers would have laughed out loud at this silly teenage posturer. Our member wondered whether Austen was being tongue-in-cheek in painting her character and also sending up a poet that she found tedious? Along similar lines, another member wondered whether, given Cowper’s serious moralising, Austen was being doubly ironic in having Marianne criticise Edmund’s dull reading of him?

Our remote member suggested that Cowper was just the sort of serious moral poet that would have featured in J.A.’s education, so it is not surprising that she allows her intelligent and well-read characters to quote him appropriately. She wondered though whether the examples Austen uses were chosen more for character development than for a personal passion for Cowper.

The funniest member story came from the one who took a different tack altogether. She researched Cowper’s beautiful hymns, which appear in Cowper and Newton’s Olney hymns (1779), Newton being, among other things, the creator of “Amazing Grace”. Austen, as the daughter of a minister, would have heard these she said. At this point, she distributed copies of some of the hymns for us all to imagine Austen enjoying them. However, her bubble was burst by Irene Collins who says in her book that people didn’t sing in churches at that time, only in cathedrals. Austen therefore would not have sung (or heard) Cowper’s hymns! Moreover, there were no hymn books in Austen’s collection.

Singing in church, in fact, developed with the growth of the evangelical movement, which brought our member to research whether Austen had joined the Evangelicals, as her brother Francis Austen and cousin Edward Cooper had. Our member’s research, however, brought her to the conclusion that Austen remained Anglican all her life.

General comments

One member found some articles discussing these poets more broadly, such as in relation to the literary culture of the time. Lynch argues that Austen was writing at “a watershed moment in literary reception”, and that she recognised and referenced the new cult of personality, which focused on the writer as much as if not more than the work. An example is her joke in her letter about being George Crabbe’s second wife, Crabbe being a very un-idol-like character, unlike Byron who was idolised by many young women at the time. Marianne in Sense and sensibility buys into the idea of literary adulation and assesses people by their literary preferences.

Burgess discusses the role of reading and books in relation to “feeling” in Austen. She argues that “to arrive at maturity, for more than one of Austen’s characters, is to engage – or at least think of engaging – in active, thoughtful reading without arriving at any definitive position or conclusion”. Marianne’s maturity requires a year-long “course of serious study”, and Fanny Price’s “explanations and remarks” help her sister Susan’s reading of essays.


  • Miranda Burgess, “Austen, feeling and print culture” in Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite’s A companion to Jane Austen (2009)
  • Paula Byrne, The real Jane Austen: A life in small things (2013)
  • Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the clergy (1994)
  • Helena Kelly, Jane Austen: The secret radical (2016)
  • Deirdre Lynch, “Jane Austen and genius” in Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite’s A companion to Jane Austen (2009)
  • Kerrie Savage, “Attending the interior self: Fanny’s ‘Task’ in Mansfield Park”, in Persuasions On-line, 27 (1), Winter 2006
  • Barbara K. Seeber, Jane Austen and animals (2013)
  • Jane Stabler, “Literary influences”, in Janet Todd’s Jane Austen in context (2005)

Present: 6 members