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'Epitaph On a Hare' 
by William Cowper 
(1731-1800)
 
Here lies, whom hound did ne'er pursue,
Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose footprints ne'er tainted morning dew,
Nor ear heard huntsman's 'Hallo,'
 
Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
Who, nurs'd with tender care,
And to domestic bounds confin'd
Was still a wild jack-hare.
 
Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance ev'ry night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.
 
His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.
 
On twigs of hawthorn he regal'd,
On pippins' russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads fail'd,
Slic'd carrot pleas'd him well.
 
A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he lov'd to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.
 
His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers
Or when a storm drew near.
 
Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out his idle noons,
And every night at play.
 
I kept him for his humor's sake
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.
 
But now, beneath his walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come.
 
He, still more aged, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney's box,
Must soon partake his grave.
 
William Cowper (he choose to pronounce his name 'Cooper') was born with many advantages but also with a constitution disposed towards depression - possibly an inheritance from his father, John, chaplain to George II. His mother (nee Donne) was a descendent of the poet and divine, John Donne, and her death - when William was six - was a shattering experience for him. Bullying at school, and a rather fraught relationship with his cousin and sweetheart, Theadora, afflicted an abnormally sensitive nature which was ill-suited to the legal career for which he'd seemed predestined (there were previous Lord Chancellors from both sides of his family), After studying at the Middle Temple and being called to the bar (1754) he lost - in quick succession - his father, his best friend sir William Russell (in a swimming accident on the Thames) and concluded his courtship of Theadora ('Delia') - though they would both remain unmarried and devoted to each other. In 1763, through family influence, he was offered a choice of three near-sinecures in the offices of the House of Lords but, under the stress of a forthcoming public examination, made several attempts at suicide (involving self-poisoning, stabbing and hanging) and was admitted to Dr Cotton's Collegium Insanoram, St. Albans. During the mid-Seventeen Sixties Cowper's recovery was aided by two new friends of great importance in his later life. The first, Mary Unwin, became - after her husband's death - his house-keeper and a kind of surrogate mother. The second, Rev. John ('Amazing Grace') Newton, vicar at Olney (Bucks), and the reformed ex-captain of a slave-ship, chimed perfectly with Cowper's already well-formed sense of religious zeal. The two would publish their joint-work Olney Hymns in 1779. It was in order to be closer to Newton that Cowper moved to Olney (with the remainder of Mrs Unwin's family in tow), eventually settling at 'Orchard Side' where he would live between February, 1768 and November, 1786.
  Situated close to the town's market place, 'Orchard Side' consisted of two semi-detached houses dating from around 1700. Surrounded by Public Houses and labourer's cottages, the residence could become enveloped by mist off the nearby river Ouse. The quarter's occupied by Cowper's long-serving manservant, Sam Roberts, were damp and rat-infested; however, the dwellings came with a large-ish garden and a summer-house (where the poet could sit, entertain friends or write). Cowper enjoyed assisting his new friend, Newton, with his parochial duties but local gossip, revolving around his -almost certainly platonic- relationship with Mrs Unwin, seems to have precipitated another period of nervous and spiritual crisis during which he experienced delusions both that God was abandoning him and that he was being poisoned.
   'Epitaph on a Hare' dates from circa 1782. The poet, who'd always loved animals, was recuperating from this second breakdown when he was offered (in the spring of 1774) the gift of a leveret by some local children, who had been unsure how to look after it. Word soon spread of his affinity with wild animals and he was soon inundated with enough young hares (as he later wrote) 'to stock a paddock'. Three hares became particular favourites, 'Puss', 'Tiney' and 'Bess' (all male despite their names). They had their hutches in orchard side's hall and a small doorway was made in the wall, allowing them access to his parlour of an evening. Cowper described the arrangements he'd made for his new pets in a letter: 'Immediately commencing carpentry, I built them houses to sleep in; each had a separate apartment so contrived that their ordure would pass through the bottom of it; an earthenware pan placed under each received whatsoever fell, which duly emptied and washed, thus kept sweet and clean. In the daytime they had the range of the hall, and at night retired into his own bed, never intruding into that of another'. There was to be a great commotion in August 1780 when Puss escaped by gnawing through 'the springs of a lattice work'. The hare almost drowned but was rescued by a workman lifting him by his ears and returning him, with only minor injuries, for a reward of four shillings.
  The tamest hare, Bess, died after only a year but the other two lived on. Tiney, the wildest, died at the age of eight and was buried under a walnut tree - with a carrot for company. Puss, despite the writer's gloomy prognostications, died (aged almost twelve) four years after Tiney, on March 9th, 1786, 'between twelve and one, at noon, of old age, and apparently without pain'. The latter had been Cowper's special favourite.
  An early opponent of fox-hunting and other blood-sports, Cowper kept at various times - and additionally to his hares - an assorted menagerie of rabbits, guinea pigs, two dogs, a squirrel, a number of cats, pigeons, a jay, two goldfinches, two canaries, a starling, several robins, several linnets and a magpie plus - more conventionally - hens, geese and ducks. He established a reputation for being so adept with hares that The Gentleman's Magazine published an essay by him on their upkeep. The diet he describes in the poem would have been very sustaining. Cowper's diligent animal husbandry undoubtedly had a therapeutic effect -helping, perhaps, to counterbalance his continuing habit of laudanum misuse.
  This same year, 1782, Cowper published his debut collection of verse, Poems, and wrote what was to become one of his best-known narratives, The Diverting History of John Gilpin. He would go on to translate Homer and to receive a royal pension of £300, a tribute to his status as probably the best-known English poet of the late Eighteenth century. He would change houses several more times before settling, finally, in East Dereham, Norfolk, where he expired (according to his doctor) of a 'worn-out constitution'.
 
Further reading:
Cooper, W., William Cowper: Selected Poems, Routledge (2003)
Ella, G., William Cowper - Poet of Paradise, Evangelical press (1993)
Mason, J. & Mason, D., The Hare, Merlin Unwin (2005) (about the animal, rather than the poem).

Kevin Saving © 2009