The Snail Formerly Known as Slug

A West End Snail ~ Galveston Island

Willam Cowper, born on November 26, 1731, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, nearly is forgotten today.  A close friend of Evangelical clergyman John Newton, he co-authored the Olney Hymns: a collection first published in 1779 which included Newton’s famous hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Cowper led a complicated, melancholy, and occasionally amusing life. At one point, an intense, though platonic, relationship with Lady Anne Austen, the widow of a baronet, led to his major work. Lady Austen complained to Cowper that his writing was unfocused, and encouraged him to write about the sofa in his parlor. Cowper took up the challenge, and his work entitled The Task — which begins as a mock-heroic account of a wooden stool developing into a sofa — expanded to fill six books.

A translator as well as a writer, Cowper applied himself to Vincent Bourne’s poem “Limax” in 1799. For reasons known only to himself, Bourne, a neo-Latin poet, had chosen to celebrate the Limax —  a genus of air-breathing land slugs — in Latin verse. By the time Cowper finished his translation, Bourne’s slug had become a snail, and his poem had been transformed into a lovely and realistic celebration of a snail’s life.

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all
Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.
Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much
Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.
Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.
Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find
                                                Its master.


Comments always are welcome.

68 thoughts on “The Snail Formerly Known as Slug

    1. It was especially fun to find that Olney’s in the area of Milton Keynes, where a friend lives. When I brought up a map to trace some of Cowper’s travels, I found a lot of familiar names. It surprised me, too, that I’d never known of Cowper’s friendship with Newton, despite having read a good bit of history about “Amazing Grace.” There’s always something to learn.

  1. If LadyAusten was of a bent to complain to Cowper about his writing, perhaps it’s good that their relationship remained platonic – who knows what else she might have found lacking?

    1. On the other hand, she also was the one who encouraged him to expand his writing horizons. Had she not, The Task — the work many consider his masterpiece — might not have been written. Editor Henry Morley, in his introduction to The Task, expands on the encounter a bit:

      “In the summer of 1783, when one of the three friends had been reading blank verse aloud to the other two, Lady Austen, from her seat upon the sofa, urged upon Cowper, as she had urged before, that blank verse was to be preferred to the rhymed couplets in which his first book had been written, and that he should write a poem in blank verse. “I will,” he said, “if you will give me a subject.” “Oh,” she answered, “you can write upon anything. Write on this sofa.” He playfully accepted that as “the task” set him, and began his poem called “The Task,” which was finished in the summer of the next year, 1784.”

      Some sources say the Lady complained; others have said she merely “suggested.” No matter. Complaint, criticism, or urging, especially from a friend, often are more useful than bland approbation.

        1. Well, I was the one who choose that word. ‘Complaint’ doesn’t always carry a negative connotation. My cat used to complain all the time, but it was a way to say, “I’m here, and I’m paying attention, and you’re not.” None of us was there in the 1700s, so there’s no way to know what the Lady’s actual tone was.

  2. I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of him at all until I read this post. Yet again I have learned something new from a blogging friend. The wonderful world of blogging!

    1. The article about him published by The Poetry Foundation begins:

      “William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth. For several decades, he had probably the largest readership of any English poet. From 1782, when his first major volume appeared, to 1837, the year in which Robert Southey completed the monumental Life and Works of Cowper, more than 100 editions of his poems were published in Britain and almost 50 in America.”

      I’m not surprised you’ve not heard of him. Of course, I know high school students who’ve never read Frost, Sandburg, or Whitman, let alone 18th century English poets. Too many schools have reshaped their curricula in some unhappy ways.

      1. Yes, yes. Confession time. I’m more of a prose woman than a poetry woman. I’m far more likely to have heard of prose writers, American and British, than poetry writers. I might even have read a few of them.

        1. I’ll bet you’ve read a few! To be honest, I thought the Greek playwrights much more fun than some of the early English poets, but our teachers were determined we were going to learn them all, even if we didn’t like it. Far more ‘took’ in our little minds than we realized at the time, of course, and it’s great fun now to have one of those poets — like Cowper — rise into consciousness again.

          1. Yup, a book buddy and I once undertook a reading program of reading 19th-century British novelists. It was a great time for novel writing, and we read some really good ones.

        1. I suspect that ‘coo’ for cow came from the German Kuh. People heard the pronunciation, and spelled it phonetically. That’s my hunch, anyway.

            1. Omg, sorry Linda; just disregard that last comment! I’ve got a second WordPress conversation going on with a fellow in Britain about different types of cattle (thus cows/coos) LOL. Later Gator!

  3. While I’d heard of Cowper, almost the only thing I knew about him was that the spelling of his name is a variant of the more familiar Cooper and is pronounced that way. From the good summary of his life in the Encyclopedia Britannica I just learned that he suffered from mental problems for much of his life.

    As for snails, where I found a slew of them at this time last year, just one has come my way in 2021. Have you noticed a similar decline where you are?

    1. Somewhere in the various articles I read, I found mentioned that his ‘melancholia’ was eased by the gift of some rabbits to care for. Apparently those who think ‘animal therapy’ is a new thing have missed a bit of history.

      I’ve not noticed a snail shortage. Around my place, I’ve seen some of the small, white ones, but at the Broadway cemeteries after our recent rains they were climbing the gravestones again. In fact, a few incidental ones will show up in a next post about the cemeteries.

  4. First of all, this photo is exquisite. The Snail looks like a beautiful piece of jewelry, a pendant or a pin. It’s perfect.

    What a fascinating writing exercise and I’m thinking Lady Anne was before her time! I’m guessing you may have read “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” which is a truly fascinating and lovely book. The poem is lovely as well. Thanks!

    1. I often see things in nature that would make wonderful jewelry: brooches, but earrings, too. This snail certainly would be a fine model. I’ve read the book you mentioned, and really enjoyed it. Her reflections on the snail’s decision-making process came to mind the other day. I’ve been working on a boat that required tearing down a small spider web every day. Every morning, it was rebuilt in the same spot — until it wasn’t. One morning I discovered the spider had moved a few feet down the boat, to a spot where I never worked. Clever creatures, indeed!

  5. The snail shell is beautiful and the poem is wonderful too. I’m just glad I don’t have so many slugs and snails in the garden these days – think that may be due to lower rainfall and hotter weather.

    1. I usually become aware of snails in two ways: after a prairie burn (who knew there were so many snails on a prairie?) and during very wet conditions, when they begin crawling up everything from house foundations to gravestones. I suppose if I had a garden I’d be even more aware of them — and probably a little irritated, too. I’m glad you’re not battling them at present.

      1. It used to amaze me to see how high they’d manage to climb on the walls of our house in Scotland. (And the walls had a textured finish of tiny stone chips that must have been a bit sharp for them!)

          1. Possibly – but they climbed about 3/4 of the way up a two-storey house, so had a long way to go to get back down. I did wonder if they sometimes lost their sense of direction and kept going up instead of coming down!

            1. The ones I don’t understand are the ones I find on boats. It seems as though a long haul down a 300′ dock, over a dock line, and onto the boat is improbable, and yet there they are. Dropped by a bird is the only possibility that makes sense to me, unless snails are capable of a kind of perseverance we hardly can imagine.

            2. You’d think they’d get very hungry on a trek like that! I imagine being dropped by a bird must happen occasionally, but I don’t suppose it happens often. Intriguing! :)

  6. It is a long time since I read any of Cowper’s poems, but I enjoyed this. I think I have a (slim) book somewhere, but I’ll stay away from the six books about the sofa.

    1. In truth, the sofa was only the starting point; he roamed fairly far afield after that. There are some who say his translations are more appealing than his original work, despite his fame in earlier times. I don’t know about that, but I certainly admire — and like — this poem.

  7. 100% more than I had ever heard of William Cowper. And sadly lacking would I remain had I never read his wonderful translation. And your little beastie, a snail or slug by any other name, would still look as sweet.
    There is a Barkhamsted in Connecticut. Which is thought to have been a spelling error after the town of Cowper’s birth. It is made up of several small villages, one being Riverton which is the home of Hitchcock Furniture and the famous Hitchcock chair.

    1. I’d not heard of the Hitchcock chair by name, but when I saw some photos of the originals, I recognized them. The decoration was lovely: simple, but pleasing to the eye. I found this nicely-written history of the company. It really is interesting, and I’m glad that it’s back in a new incarnation.

      Looking at the snail again, it occurs to me that it wouldn’t seem out of place as a decoration for a Hitchcock chair.

      1. When I had my refinishing shop I would often receive a Hitchcock chair for repair. I had no skill for stenciling so it was a challenge to maintain the front decoration and trademark lettering on the outer back. Our store has always carried this maker and we were very happy when a former employee bought and reopened the business after several prior owners did not make a go of it. I get to visit the factory periodically to pick up orders as it is only about a 45 minute ride and lovely countryside on the way.
        An interesting feature of the chair decoration and a way to tell a mimic from the real thing is the gold paint on some of the leg turnings. In typical Yankee fashion of not wasting anything, only the fronts received the gold paint as you don’t see the backs. :-)

  8. “Give but his horns the slightest touch,
    His self-collecting power is such,
    He shrinks into his house, with much
    I’ve amused myself on occasion by doing this, just to watch the action, Linda. Otherwise, you don’t get much from a snail. –Curt

    1. On the other hand, snails don’t demand much, either. Something to munch on, and something to climb, and they’re satisfied: or seem to be, anyway. I will say that the expression ‘snail mail’ might need revision. I’m still awaiting two Christmas cards from last year; at this point, I think a snail might have reached me more quickly.

    1. I’m glad, Dina! I’m sure you’re not kindly disposed toward snails; I’m sure they could do a number on your herbs and such. Still, they’re interesting creatures, and to my taste far more beautiful than slugs!

    1. In nature, everyone counts — even the ones that aren’t quite so appealing to us humans. I do enjoy the snails. They’re certainly determined little creatures, and the silvery tracks I find in the morning suggest there are far more of them than we realize.

      1. I find snails quite fascinating, Linda, even if I know very little about them. But most of us can likely relate to the part of the poem that talks about ” Give but his horns the slightest touch…”

        1. And isn’t it interesting that it’s a ‘self-collecting power’ that leads him to withdraw. That sounds so much more positive than other words would have; there’s no sense of fear, for example.

    1. Clever, Gerard. The love/hate relationship we have with snails and slugs is understandable, but when seen in a context like this, their beauty shines. Of course, curves always are appealing, and this species (whatever it is) has decorated itself with curves that are especially nice. I’d be willing to save my salt for a margarita, and let the snail slide off in peace.

        1. And now I’m remembering an old, old joke.

          “Once there was a snail who was tired of being slow. He bought the fastest car he could afford, and had the dealer monogram each side with a big ‘S.’

          Every time he zoomed down the street in his new car, someone would say, “Hey, look at that S-car go!”

  9. Delightful poem. I remember the name Cowper from college lit classes and that’s all. To think that he lead to a poem as lovely as this one! Adore the stanza:

    Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
    Except himself has chattels none,
    Well satisfied to be his own
    Whole treasure.

    1. What amazes me most about this poem is how tightly structured it is, without feeling at all contrived. It took me a while to appreciate the internal rhymes, and those short lines at the end of each stanza that are like a nice, poetic “thwack!” to the attention.

      I spent a minute or few contemplating what it would be like to be ‘one’s own chattel,’ too.

    1. They are! I knew they weren’t insects, but I still had to look them up. Gastropods is the name.
      There are more than 62,000 living species. The snails and slugs are amazingly diverse, and occupy the widest range of ecological niches of all molluscs. It’s interesting that they’re the only group to make landfall, so to speak.

  10. It takes a special talent, don’t you think, to turn what most would think of as an ordinary subject into something so beautiful? Rather like the lowly slug itself, huh, Linda?

    1. From slug to snail,
      art did not fail;
      the poet’s lines
      redeemed the slime!

      These days, Cowper’s an acquired taste, I suppose: one that most people don’t acquire. But it’s fun to go back and resurrect some of the gems from nearly forgotten poets. Who knows? Maybe one day our etherees will be pulled out and mulled over!

    1. I liked the contrast between that fuzziness and the smooth shell, too. The color contrast would have been enough, but the snail doubled our visual fun when it chose that perch.

    1. A friend passed on this gem, which sort of says it all:

      Consider the humble, brown snail –
      He’s only a head and a tail.
      Without fingers or toes
      He still picks up and goes;
      Just follow his shiny, bright trail.

    1. The only slug I’m familiar with is the banana slug; it’s a different genus, but just as sluggish. A friend lived in the Santa Cruz area for some years, and still wears a tee shirt with the creature on the front; it’s the mascot of UC Santa Cruz. There’s so little good humor in the world these days, that slug should be cherished.

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