|Autobiography of a Suicide
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
15 October 2005
When the poet William Cowper was about twenty
(so, some time around the year 1751), his father gave him a
copy of Montesquieu's defence of suicide and asked him read
and comment upon it. A daring work, no more than two pages long
(Letter LXXVI of the Persian Letters), it is scornful
of the notion that by killing ourselves we interfere with the
order of Providence.
Such ideas, it says, come from nothing more
than our pride. We do not understand how small we are. We want
to count for something in the universe, to figure in it, to
be an important object in it. We imagine that the annihilation
of a being as perfect as we are would degrade the whole of nature.
We do not realise that we are nothing more than a fraction of
an atom, so small that God does not even perceive us.
Cowper read this assertion of our nothingness,
and he argued the opposite case. But as he did so his father
"heard my reasons and was silent, neither approving nor
disapproving, from whence I inferred that he sided with the
author against me
" And this experience obsessed him;
it "weighed mightily" with him. For, although Cowper
himself had not yet become devout, he would have realised that
the views expressed by Montesquieu's fictional Persian were
They were not unprintable -- David Hume's essay
"On Suicide" (recently reissued in the Penguin Great
Ideas series) argues at length along lines similar to Montesquieu's
-- but they were deeply anti-Christian. God does not see us,
says Montesquieu, because of the immensity of his knowing. But
this is like a brilliant debating trick to permit the unbearable
thought: that the scope of God's knowledge is so great it is
too large for him to perceive the human race itself.
Cowper in due course went mad and attempted
suicide, and when he had recovered himself he was persuade by
pious friends to write a narrative of his breakdown. This he
did around 1767, and the resulting narrative was so striking
that it was passed from hand to hand, and copied into numerous
commonplace books, long before it was published in 1816. A certain
editing-out of unsympathetic details gives proof that the original
readers and copiers of this text were deeply troubled by it,
even though the story ends with a sense of God's blessing, followed
by two hymns.
When we read these proto-autobiographies, short
as they are, we need to read them in the best texts and to see
them whole. We want to learn what they are and why they were
written, what form, manner of thing it is that we are reading.
I have an early printed version of Cowper's "Memorial",
as it is sometimes known, and it is no use to me in comparison
with the version printed by James King and Charles Ryskamp in
the first volume of their edition of Cowper's Letters and
Prose Writings (Oxford 1979). For instance, it does not
tell me what the text was that Cowper's father handed to him
to have him read. Montesquieu's name is piously concealed.
Cowper's despair, his recurring sense of his
own damnation, his belief that he has somehow committed the
unpardonable sin -- all this he expressed in a poem which stands
as one of the greatest and most singular English lyrical pieces
of the whole eighteenth-century. This is the untitled poem beginning
"Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion," which
tells of what it is to be "Damn'd below Judas, more abhorr'd
than he was" and to feel oneself "buried above ground."
The prose account describes how a sense of
dread grows in the young Cowper at the approach of a public
interview for a job at the House of Lords. Such is his terror
he begins to look on madness as the only chance remaining: "I
wished for it and looked forward to it with impatient expectation.
My chief fear was that my senses would not fail me time enough
to excuse my appearance at the House..." He thinks back
on his father's handing him the Montesquieu, and he decides
But he is an unwilling suicide. Every attempt
he makes -- by taking laudanum, by drowning, by stabbing -- is
unsuccessful. He scuppers his own chances of a release through
death. Finally he hangs himself with a garter, and comes reasonably
close to success, and having done this is able to go out and
It is an absurd story, but Cowper has no sense
at all of its absurdity. It invites diagnosis (manic depression,
paranoia) but not in terms that its author would have recognised.
His mind is poised between uncertain salvation and certain damnation.
But even hell keeps "herself" bolted against him.
He speaks for depressives everywhere.