It has been said that “Cowper’s life was tormented by a set of symptoms, habits, and fears which his poetry in many places reflects…we consider that Cowper turned to poetry for reasons intimately connected with the torment of his life at times became for him. ” (Feingold Para. ) William Cowper utilizes setting in his poem “The Poplar Field” to represent his reflections on the passage of time; we go on a journey with Cowper to visit the past, present, and future of the speaker and the journey is warped around different landmarks in speaker’s life and represented by the effects of aging, not only of the speaker, but on the poplar field as well. In lines 5-6, we walk with the speaker as he reminisces twelve years in the past, where he first had the opportunity to gather a glimpse of the poplar field.
We are able to see the setting come to life, where the trees and the young speaker grew together on the bank. The past represents a time for the speaker that was precious to him- his youth, a time of little responsibility where he lacked accountability for his actions. Cowper utilizes a dance between the past and present to show a reflection of the passage of time as one of the first significant underlying themes for the speaker. From this experience with his past, we are able to see his childhood and what the speaker is missing from the past to the present.
The poplar field brings many memories of shade and comfort for the speaker but it is short-lived as we begin to see Cowper bring the speaker back to reality in lines 7-12, and the speaker begins to see the remains from the poplar trees that once shaded him from the blazing sun, now lying leafless and lifeless on the ground (line 7). We are now able to see as Cowper ties us to the reality of what the speaker is seeing in his present moment and the brutal setting that is laid before him.
The speaker is brought back to a harsh reality where the blackbirds have fled to a new retreat (line 9) and because the trees are no longer there to shade them, the only part of the tree that remains is a stump for the speaker to sit on (line 12) as he stares into the dismay of the trees having been chopped down and lying in the grass (line 7). This setting represents maturing, going through mid-life, and the beginning of the aging process for the speaker.
The trees having been cut down represents a cruel reality for the speaker, his childhood is now over and instead of having others to care for him, he now has to become the one taking care of others. The present day is barren of splendor, and just as the speaker is sitting at the top of the devastation of his once favorite field of trees, he sits on top of all of the devastation of what is known as his life: the poor decisions, the what-ifs, and all of the neglected opportunities in the past, present, and future that he will miss because of the immoral judgments he made in the past.
This juxtaposition shows the speaker is now in the dominant position, he can no longer enjoy the dominancy of the tree’s protection and shade (line 8), but he is now responsible for all of the mistakes he made in life, and this is where Cowper begins to fast forward us to the future in lines 13-20, where the speaker will soon face not only old age but also his own inevitable death. Cowper begins to show us that the speaker is aging and his life will soon be over, he will die, and just like the trees, his last and final setting will be in the ground.
The speaker says, “My fugitive years are all hasting away” (line 13)… he is no longer a young sprout, he is getting old, and his younger days of living freely are quickly disappearing. “Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead. ”(Line 16) We can see the new trees will be planted to replace the old trees that he once loved, in a similar sense, new people will rise up and replace the speaker, and he is trying to figure out how he will leave his mark on the world after he is long gone.
The speaker soon begins to realize that once he is dying and after his death, he will no longer be in control of his surroundings and he will be at mercy of the generation after him. Just as his last breath is taken out of the world, somewhere there will be someone else’s first breath being taken in, and the circle of life and death will continue. William Cowper exploited three major settings to represent the speaker’s reflections on the passage of time. We embarked on a voyage through the recollections of the speaker’s past, in to experiencing his present day pain and skipped on to his worries of the future.
We see as Cowper takes us on each journey; the past with beautiful bold trees full of leaves and shade for a young juvenile who was full of life, to the present day where the trees are felled, cut down to a stump upon which an aging man rest upon and reminisces of the golden days, and finally we are able to fast forward to the future and see a impending field full of new poplar trees, and a new generation rising up to replace the old which have died out. We walk with Cowper step to step and explore what comes to be known as the circle of existence and extinction.
Works Cited Cowper, William. “The Poplar Field. ” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Robert Zweig. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2012. 722. Print. Feingold, Richard. “William Cowper: State, Society, and Countryside. ” Nature and Society: Later Eighteenth-Century Uses of the Pastoral and Georgic. Rutgers University Press, 1978. 121-153. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 40. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.