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February 5, 2010


Age of Wonder gems: 3. William Cowper and the Armchair Traveller

by quaesitor

William Cowper is a hero of mine (and one on whom I’ve posted briefly before) – a Christian believer who persevered despite being plagued by the most appalling depression and mental afflictions. Through it all, he was able to compose some of the most piercing, faith-inspired poetry ever written.

So it was nice to see him make an appearance in this Holmes’ book, though.

Cook’s sober book (A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World in 1777) caught the public’s imagination. The poet William Cowper, tucked away in his Buckinghamshire vicarage at Olney, and permanently trembling on the bring of disabling depression, found extraordinary relief and delight in imagining the great voyage southwards. To explain his sensations, Cowper invented the idea of the ‘armchair traveller’: ‘My imagination is so captivated upon these occasions, that I seem to partake with the navigators, in all the dangers they encountered. I lose my anchor; my main-sail is rent into shreds; I kill a shark, and by signs converse with a Patagonian, and all this without moving from my fireside.’

In his long, reflective poem The Task, Cowper accompanied Cook and Banks in his imagination. He transformed Banks, rather suitably, into an adventurous bee, busily foraging for pollen.

He travels and expatiates, as the bee
From flower to flower, so he from land to land;
The manners, customs, policy of all
Pay contribution to the store he gleans;
He sucks intelligence in every clime,
And spreads the honey of his deep research
At his return — a rich repast for me.

He travels, and I too. I tread his deck,
Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes
Discover countries, with a kindred heart
Suffer his woes, and share in his escapes;
While fancy, like the finger of a clock,
Runs the great circuit, and is still at home.

from Age of Wonder (p51)

I simply love Cowper’s coining of the ‘armchair traveller’ (long before the concept was modified (and debased!) for sports broadcasting); it’s made all the more poignant by the realisation that he was so debilitated by his mental afflictions that he could never have travelled even if he’d wanted to.

Doesn’t the phrase just capture the joy of reading perfectly, though…?


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