Sunday Poetry – Austen, Shakespeare & Cowper

Another favourite movie of a favourite book. Sense and Sensibility is my second favourite Jane Austen novel (after Persuasion) & Emma Thompson’s intelligent adaptation of the novel is one of my favourite Austen adaptations. The two poems I’m going to feature today aren’t mentioned in the text but Emma Thompson has cleverly expanded on Austen’s hints to create two scenes which point out the differences between Elinor & Marianne & the men they fall in love with.

At Norland, Marianne asks Edward Ferrars to read to them one evening. Edward’s reading of Cowper, one of Marianne’s favourite poets, is spiritless & tame in her opinion. “To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such difference!” We don’t know which of Cowper’s poems produced such a response but in the film, Hugh Grant, playing Edward, reads from Cowper’s The Castaway, in his best hesitant, stammering manner. This dramatic poem of shipwreck, in Marianne’s opinion, demands a suitably dramatic, impassioned delivery. Elinor, on the other hand, can see no fault in Edward’s reading & Mrs Dashwood just says that Marianne shouldn’t have given him Cowper to read but some nice prose.

Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
     Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
     Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
     Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast,
     With warmer wishes sent.
He lov’d them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
     Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
     Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
     To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
     That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
     And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
     Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
     Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
     Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
     In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow’r,
     His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!

At length, his transient respite past,
     His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry blast,
     Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
     Of narrative sincere,
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
     Is wet with Anson’s tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
     Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
     A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
Its ‘semblance in another’s case.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
     No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
     We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.

In contrast, Marianne can find no fault with John Willoughby’s taste in literature. After their dramatic introduction, he visits the family & Marianne soon finds that their tastes coincide exactly. As Elinor says,

Well, Marianne, for one morning I think you have done pretty well. You have already ascertained Mr Willoughby’s opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper. But how is your acquaintance to be long supported, under such extraordinary dispatch of every subject for discourse? You will soon have exhausted each favourite topic. Another meeting will suffice to explain his sentiments on picturesque beauty and second marriages, and then you can have nothing further to ask.”

In the movie, Willoughby recites one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful sonnets, no 116,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

He even has a pocket edition of the sonnets which he carries with him everywhere – not that he needs it as he knows them by heart. Marianne is halfway in love before she knows it.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Poetry – Austen, Shakespeare & Cowper

  1. I have that same edition of Sense and Sensibility.

    I find that the older I get the more I like the character of Elinor. I did enjoy the film too.

    The love of reading (or not) always tells us something interesting about the characters in Jane Austen's books as your post demonstrates.



  2. I think I've always preferred Elinor but I'm more an Elinor than a Marianne myself so that's not surprising. Austen always used literature to give us a hint about a character, didn't she? Captain Benwick & his poetry or Isabella Thorpe & the Gothic novels.


  3. Hugh Grant only recites the last stanza but if he'd recited the whole poem in the same halting style, no wonder Marianne was exasperated! The movie is very good, I've seen it many times.


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