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.


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