Poetic Vocation in the Age of Sensibility
Extending Walter Benjamin’s reflections on advocacy as translation—on the linguistic and ethicopolitical implications of witnessing, representing, and speaking-for—this chapter asks what it meant for two English poets, Christopher Smart and William Cowper, to write on behalf of animals. The advocate must find a form, at once inside and outside customary meaning, in which to translate an originary appeal into a normative language that otherwise fails to recognize it. Writing in the context of political reform and Evangelical revival, Smart, in Jubilate Agno, and Cowper, in The Task, claim authority, the public significance of their verse, by foregrounding the poetic labor of advocacy, their representation of the voices of those fellow creatures who are without authority. Mental pathology, Smart’s mania and Cowper’s melancholy, brought these poets closer to other animals while underlying their performance of vocational legitimacy, as self-possessed and entitled to authorship.
Keywords: Walter Benjamin, William Cowper, Christopher Smart, vocation, humanitarianism, advocacy, translation, melancholy, mania, poetry