Lesson #199: Observing changes in English words over time, through Cowper’s ‘The Rose’

🥀 ‘Does it not make you think of Cowper? “Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.”‘

– Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Austen fans will be interested to know that William Cowper (1731-1800) was her favourite poet, as well as her contemporary.

Cowper (pronounced COO-per) was known not only for his pastoral (countryside, charmingly rural) poetry but also for writing many hymns and poems on social justice issues of his day. You may like to read ‘The Negro’s Complaint‘ sometime, or his famous hymn, ‘Light Shining Out of Darkness‘.

Today we will read through The Rose” (1783) – one of his thoughtful and moral poems (of which he had many), which describes the short life of a rose. 

On the surface, it may seem to be a poem just about a flower, but when we think through his lines more deeply, we can see that it is a description of how susceptible and sensitive our hearts are as human beings. 🌹

✍️ As we read along, I will point out several differences in how we use and spell words nowadays compared with Cowper (and Austen) in their time.

‘The Rose’ (1783)

📝 STANZA 1

The rose had been wash’d, just wash’d in a shower,
    Which Mary to Anna convey’d,
The plentiful moisture incumber’d the flower,
    And weigh’d down its beautiful head.

✏️ KEY VOCABULARY

shower: Besides the place where a person can wash themselves every day, a shower can simply mean the falling of rain, as it does here.

convey’d: transfered, brought across to someone

incumber’d: encumbered, burdened, were holding on heavily to [the flower]

💡 KEY OBSERVATIONS

Notice how many words Cowper has shortened by excluding the final ‘e’ in a word: ‘wash’d’ = ‘washed’, ‘convey’d’ = ‘conveyed’, ‘incumber’d’ = ‘incumbered’, etc. This is a common step taken by poets who would like you to read the word quickly, without pronouncing the final syllable.

Nowadays we write ‘incumbered’ with an ‘e’ at the beginning: ‘encumbered’. This is just one example of a change in how we now spell words from how Cowper and his contemporaries (including Jane Austen) spelled them in their day.

Mary and Anna here are just the general names of some girls – they do not appear again in the poem.

..

📝 STANZA 2

The cup was all fill’d, and the leaves were all wet,
    And it seem’d to a fanciful view,
To weep for the buds it had left with regret,
    On the flourishing bush where it grew.

✏️ KEY VOCABULARY

fanciful: imaginative

weep: cry, mourn

buds: tiny young flowers before they have opened up fully

regret: a feeling of sadness, remorse, or disappointment over something that is past (and perhaps cannot be changed)

💡 KEY OBSERVATIONS

When Cowper speaks of the ‘cup’ here, he is referring to the centre of the flower being filled with raindrops (from the ‘shower’ mentioned in the first stanza).

‘And it seem’d to a fanciful view’: And it would seem to an imaginative mind …

..

📝 STANZA 3

I hastily seiz’d it, unfit as it was,
    For a nosegay, so dripping and drown’d,
And swinging it rudely, too rudely, alas!
    I snapp’d it, it fell to the ground.

✏️ KEY VOCABULARY

hastily: quickly, with haste

seiz’d (seized): grab quickly

unfit: not ready, delicate, sickly

nosegay: a small bouquet of flowers, to be held in the hands or pinned inside a front coat pocket

drown’d (drowned): dying in water

snapp’d (snapped): broke it in two with a ‘snap’ sound

💡 KEY OBSERVATIONS

There are some words here that we do not use as often nowadays, yet which are useful to know. 

For example, most people don’t speak of having or giving a ‘nosegay‘ now but rather a ‘bouquet‘ (which literally speaking is a bigger bunch of flowers than a nosegay would have been). 

We don’t often use the verb ‘to seize‘ to describe our grabbing actions; however, we do use it when we describe political situations, such as ‘the rebels seized power’. 

Another word that we use less nowadays is ‘hastily‘ or ‘with haste’. Instead we use ‘quickly‘ more often than not. That said, ‘hastily’ (adverb), ‘hasty’ (adjective), and ‘with haste’ (adverbial phrase) are all good words to add to your vocabulary if you want to improve it and sound more advanced as you speak or write.

..

📝 STANZA 4

And such, I exclaim’d, is the pitiless part
    Some act by the delicate mind,
Regardless of wringing and breaking a heart
    Already to sorrow resign’d.

✏️ KEY VOCABULARY

pitiless: without pity, harsh and cruel

delicate: sensitive

regardless: careless, without thought of the consequences of some action or other

wringing: twisting hard and tight

resign’d (resigned): submitted, given up to [sorrow], accepting something [difficult] without complaint or protest

💡 KEY OBSERVATIONS

This stanza may be a bit challenging to interpret literally, so I will paraphrase it in my own words here: And this is the harsh kind of act that cruel people commit, careless of the sensitive mind or broken heart of a person who maybe is already low and sorrowful.

We would generally use ‘sensitive‘ over ‘delicate‘ nowadays to describe a person’s mind or personality. Similarly we would use a word like ‘cruel‘ instead of ‘pitiless‘, even though, like ‘delicate’, ‘pitiless’ is perfectly understandable to modern English speakers.

..

📝 STANZA 5

This elegant rose, had I shaken it less,
    Might have bloom’d with its owner awhile,
And the tear that is wip’d with a little address,
    May be follow’d perhaps by a smile.

✏️ KEY VOCABULARY

awhile: for a while (longer)

a little address: a little attention. ‘Address’ (with the stress on the second syllable) meant the formal little speeches made to a new person or audience, especially when being introduced. 

💡 KEY OBSERVATIONS

‘had I shaken it less’: had I been more careful and not shaken it or handled it so roughly

Cowper is reasoning to himself that if he had been more careful, the rose bud might have bloomed a bit longer. He follows this with a remark – in the last two lines of the poem – that effectively says ‘if we are careful and considerate of another person’s tears (or sadness), if we act gently and pay proper attention, we might be rewarded with a smile, a continuation of good and kind relations between us’. These are of course my own interpretation, based on what I have understood these lines to mean; so feel free to think the stanza over and come to a new and alternative interpretation of your own!

We tend to use ‘awhile‘ in the phrase ‘for a while‘ nowadays, rather than as a single-word adverb as Cowper did. However, every English speaker will understand how it is used in contexts like this poem.

Address‘ (not to be mixed up with ‘address’ – emphasis on the first vowel – which refers to your home or an organisation’s location details) – this is a word that we do not use much nowadays, or at least only when we are describing how a speaker introduces himself to a large audience. We no longer use it much in the sense that Cowper does here: to mean a kind, attentive chat with someone you are being introduced to.

🕰️ And that brings us to the end of today’s Lesson where we covered many English words, and some changes in spelling, that have changed over the years. 

I am hopeful that it helps you to notice new words, popular words, and some uncommon words in English in all kinds of contexts, wherever you go!

And of course, that it has given you a little appreciation for Cowper’s wonderful poetry (he is one of my own favourite poets)! 🌹 I will leave you here some words from Marianne Dashwood herself:

📙 “He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper.”

“Nay, mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper! … it would have broke my heart, had I loved him, to hear him read [Cowper] with so little sensibility …”


– Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)