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The Winner of Sorrow

The Winner of Sorrow
The Winner of Sorrow

Brian Lynch
Published October 2005
New Island Books
PRICE: €11.99

ISBN: 9781905494255
Dalkey Archive, $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-56478-521-3

The Winner of Sorrow can be ordered from New Island Books.

The Winner of Sorrow, a novel about the poet William Cowper (1731-1800), was published in 2005 by New Island Books, Dublin and by the Dalkey Archive Press, Illinois, in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Novel of the Year Award,.

Publishers Weekly
The Winner of Sorrow Brian Lynch. Dalkey Archive, $14.95 paper (364p) ISBN

Irish poet and filmmaker Lynch’s first novel is an engaging fictional
account of the life of the little-remembered 18th-century English poet
William Cowper. Told primarily in flashback, Lynch introduces Cowper as an old man, plagued by self-loathing, sickness and hallucinations. His
formative years are marked by the death of his mother and early inclinations
toward poetry, ‘contemplating the taste of words.’ Along with the major
figures in Cowper’s life‹the charismatic Rev. John Newton, real-life author
of ‘Amazing Grace’; John Johnson, Cowper’s young cousin; and Mary Unwin, the love of his life, Lynch also lends Dickensian detail to minor characters, using them skillfully to provide an orbiting view. Lynch takes a serial approach, managing to take readers by surprise in every short chapter, whether terrifying (as in the height of Cowper’s hallucinations) or hilarious (‘[p]oetry and puking were hardly ideal companions’). This curious novel captures the sad poet from all angles, reimagining his life in a
gracefully sprawling epic.

Library Journal, December 2008

Published in Ireland in 2005, this justly praised novel imagines the
troubled life of 18th-century English poet William Cowper. Along with
Christopher Smart and John Clare, Cowper is often read as one of the
great eccentrics in English literature. Lynch brilliantly reconsiders
Cowper’s life in terms that raise questions about the sympathies binding sanity and creativity, devotion and damnation, as well as the emotional and spiritual austerities and excesses that alternately inspire and inhibit creativity and purpose. Lynch’s portrayal of the poet, however, is neither academic nor sentimental. Rather, he evokes Cowper’s complex interior and exterior realities with a cool affection and humor that ultimately preserve his essential humanity. Lynch is a practiced and celebrated author in many genres – poetry, drama, and film, among them- and this work is a remarkable testament to his gifts as a storyteller as well as his mastery of language. This novel about a largely forgotten English poet by an Irish writer in his prime is highly recommended.
J.G.Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman

‘The Winner of Sorrow
By Susan Salter Reynolds
February 8, 2009 LA Times
And Newsday March 3

William Cowper, born in England in 1731, wrote hymns and poems inspired by his
love of nature and his devotion to evangelical Christianity. Cowper suffered
from depression all his life; he tried several times to commit suicide. Brian
Lynch’s novel cleaves closely to the life of the forgotten poet, unlucky in love
and convinced that eternal damnation awaited him. Lynch’s dark humor saves
Cowper from another form of the endless afterlife: the heavy legacy of the
little-read, suicidal poet. Cowper, Lynch writes by way of an introduction, “was
sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living
creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild
hares and a linnet.” Lynch gives us the lovable Cowper, no easy feat. He
resurrects the poet’s immortality, makes him modern in his abject vulnerability.

Powells.com Books online

A fictional imagining of the gentle but troubled zealot William
Cowper–best known as a precursor to Romantics such as Wordsworth and
Burns–Brian Lynch’s The Winner of Sorrow brings to life the mind and
times of an eighteenth-century poet. Intense and exhilerating, this is
literary fiction at its finest–the reader will be hard-pressed not to
rush ahead to see what happens next. Yet you’ll want to savor every word
as Lynch traces Cowper’s tragic descent into madness, which is presented
matter-of-factly so that the novel is not sentimental but austere, not
precious but serious, and yet, remarkably, lively, sensuous, and blackly

Quarterly Conversation
Review by Rebecca Hussey

William Cowper, an 18th-century British poet not widely read today outside of
classrooms, lingers in our cultural memory as the author of some still-popular
hymns and a collection of poems that include “The Castaway” and “The Task.” We
may remember such lines as “Oh for a closer walk with God” and “God moves in a
mysterious way,” even if we probably don’t remember Cowper as their author. But,
he was beloved during and shortly after his time, known as a poet who cared
deeply for animals and the natural world, and one who was sensitive to the
plight of the poor.
In The Winner of Sorrow, originally published in Ireland in 2005 and
recently released Stateside by Dalkey Archive Press, poet Brian Lynch offers a
fictional retelling of Cowper’s life. The novel is, obviously, historical
fiction, and yet it doesn’t feel like it, at least when compared to the kind of
historical novel that packs in period detail. Rather, Winner’s terrain is more
interior: Cowper is a fascinating subject for a psychological study, and, rather
than in describing Cowper’s material circumstances, Lynch’s interest lies in
portraying the depths of Cowper’s consciousness through recurring images and
dreams. Though he focuses tightly on Cowper, Lynch nonetheless captures the
feeling of the man’s era (Cowper lived from 1731 to 1800); he does it through
the characters themselves, utilizing thoughts, conversations, and letters that
evoke an 18th-century sensibility.
Lynch opens the novel with Cowper as an old man, moving in and out of insanity
and living with a young relative and a female caretaker (one of many
mother-substitutes Lynch will discover in Cowper’s life). From here, flashbacks
take us to scenes from his childhood, and we move back and forth between young
and old Cowper in a series of abrupt shifts.
The novel’s early chapters weave a tapestry of Cowper’s troubled consciousness
that then sets up and explains the middle section of the novel—Cowper’s adult
life—where we see how his childhood wounds manifest themselves in maturity. This
middle section is told in a more straightforward, chronological manner, but it
still evidences some of the first section’s formal difficulty: the short
chapters often introduce new material abruptly, jarring readers and forcing them
to situate the narrative again and again. Eventually, a final section returns
the story to the beginning: Cowper as an old man taking stock of his life.
Lynch’s frequent jumps in time and scene require careful attention, but the
attention is well-paid, as the juxtapositions reveal the recurring images and
deep-seated patterns of Cowper’s life and offer the satisfaction of piecing
together an identity and understanding the poet’s mind.
And what a mind it is: Cowper is a psychoanalyst’s dream. His mother dies in
childbirth when he is six, and he never recovers from the loss, spending the
rest of his life searching for replacement figures (which he is able to find in
abundance). In addition to the wound left by his lost mother, Cowper is
impotent: in a schoolyard bullying scene, two boys yank down his pants,
revealing a penis “no bigger than a snail’s foot.” Afterward, a “secret voice”
in his head chants, “I am a different boy, I am a different boy.”
It is a scarring experience, one that leaves him feeling isolated and
inadequate. Snails begin to haunt Cowper, appearing in life and in dreams as
images of sexuality and of death. When the young Cowper finds a snail in the eye
socket of a skull, he picks it up and “he saw what the skull saw, and he
thought, This is death, and this will happen to everyone else, but of all the
people in the world, I, William Cowper, I alone am fated not to die.” This hope
for immortality is soon replaced by an obsession with death and fear of sex,
both of which Cowper continually approaches, only to shy away from.
At the age of 32 he has his first brush with his own death: Cowper suffers a
mental breakdown, attempts suicide several times, and retreats to an asylum. In
his convalescence he converts to Evangelicalism and inaugurates a pattern that
continues for the rest of his life: hope in God mixing with despair,
self-loathing and guilt mixing with compassion and love, the conviction that he
is damned to hell mixing with the desire for life. As the very first paragraph
of the novel explains:
William Cowper . . . believed in Christ and his infinite mercy, although he
was also convinced that God hated him personally and was intent on sending him
to hell, soon, for all eternity. That the belief and the conviction
contradicted each other he understood clearly. He understood, too, that he was
completely insane, or rather almost completely, but not quite. In the same
nearly perfect way, he was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be
loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of
four women, three wild hares and a linnet.
That Cowper places the three wild hares and the linnet on the same footing as
the four women is revealing; those women become the mother figures he craves, as
well as sisters and almost-lovers in a bewildering combination of roles and
relationships, but they never achieve the top place in Cowper’s affections.
Cowper’s wounds make him capable only of an abstract, partial kind of love, and
it’s a testament to his attractive powers that he is continually surrounded by
women who are willing to live with what he could offer. What we see, ultimately,
is a deeply wounded man seeking the only kind of happiness he is capable of.
Cowper feels both gratitude and guilt toward the women who care enough about him
to make sacrifices for his sake. It’s a sad story: though Cowper knows he has
much to answer for, he is powerless to do anything about it.
The Winner of Sorrow goes beyond psychology: it also hints at Cowper’s
importance as a poet, making him into a quintessential late 18th-century figure
in the way his poetic interests turn away from public, social matters and look
to the interior world: “He was making an exploration out of, or rather into, the
ordinary—like Captain Cook, but in reverse.” However, Lynch resists the common
interpretation of Cowper as mere antecedent to the Romantics, instead portraying
him as an important poet in his own right. Near the novel’s end, Cowper receives
an illustrated letter from William Blake (an invention on Lynch’s part) in which
he hails Cowper as “the Son of Albion in the Evening of his Decay” and claims
him as “Your Friend in Milton.” Cowper wants nothing to do with this tribute. He
thinks only that Blake “is obviously a revolutionary, or an agent for the
government, or a plain lunatic, or all three” and later gives his servant
permission to use the letter as lining for a bucket. Cowper does not understand,
and does not wish to understand, why this representative of a new generation of
poets reveres him. This episode, and the novel as a whole, implies that Cowper’s
poetic achievement is important not so much for the way he helped usher in a new
poetic era, but for his unique sensibility: his tormented mix of compassion,
suffering, faith, and uncertainty. It is here that Lynch’s interests in Cowper’s
psychology and his poetry combine: we should read him, the novel implies,
because he shows us the difficult and unlikely conditions from which art can
In the end, perhaps the novel’s central insight is, as one character says,
“Misery usually stands in the way of creation, William, but in your case it
opens the road . . . because you know that composing puts off your being
decomposed.” We are all composing and decomposing every moment of our lives, and
the best we can hope for, like Cowper, is to compose something beautiful, if
only to postpone the moment of decomposition a little longer. The Winner of
Sorrow is itself a success on these terms: a beautiful composition that will
challenge readers and reward them with both a glimpse into a struggling artist’s
life and a contemplation of what it means to “win” at sorrow.
Rebecca Hussey is an assistant professor of English at Norwalk Community College
in Connecticut. She blogs as “Dorothy W.” at Of Books and Bicycles.


While the €10,000 Hughes and Hughes Irish Novel of the Year seemed destined for Banville’s The Sea, this category’s shortlist selection drew deserved attention to one of the finest Irish books of recent years, Brian Lynch’s beautiful novel The Winner of Sorrow, which was published by Irish publisher New Island Books. Based on the life of the 18th-century English poet William Cowper, this graceful and witty narrative is a study of an eccentric genius which makes brilliant use of the respective nuances of Regency social history as well as the darker themes of guilt and psychological tragedy. If Banville always looked the winner, he had worthy competition in Lynch.
From the report of the award ceremony by Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, March 2, 2006

At once moving, instructive and slyly funny – that rare thing, a recuperation of a poet by a poet.
–John Banville, The Irish Times Books of the Year 2005

One of the finest Irish books of recent years.
–Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times

The Winner of Sorrow is a novel based on the life of the gentle poet, William Cowper – an evocation of his bizarre households and the wider world of late-eighteenth-century England as loving as it is deeply imagined and wholly original. Brian Lynch’s book is a brilliant tragi-comedy, aswirl with contradictory emotions – piety and passion, pity and fear, despair and hope, madness and practicality. Seen from so insightful a perspective.Cowper’s wildly troubled life is a thriller, and the reader is tempted to rush forward with the plot. Can the women who love William heal the wounds caused by loss? Can peace ever descend on his turbulent spirit? At the same time, one reads as slowly as possible, the better to prolong the encounter with a book that satisfies on many levels – that is profoundly serious, but also warm, witty, and very beautiful. – Nuala O Faolain

If you want the low-down and high-down on the delicate, brutal reality of a poet’s life, you must read The Winner of Sorrow. –Paul Durcan,

Beautifully written, poignant, witty and profound. –Clare Boylan,

The Winner of Sorrow is not just a remarkably vivid excursion into the mind of a remarkable poet cut adrift by genius, but also a brilliant re-imagining of an extraordinary age. –Dermot Bolger

A wonderful book.
–Arminta Wallace, Irish Times. Full Review

It is a tribute to Lynch’s achievement that you close the book with the conviction that reading the work of William Cowper is not simply advisable but necessary. – Eamonn Sweeney, The Irish Book Review. Full Review

A wonderful book. –Rachel Andrews, Sunday Tribune. Full Review

A triumph.–Siobhan Hegarty, Sunday Independent. Full Review

A Cowper for our times. –Tony Seward, Cowper and Newton Bulletin Full Review

As you can see, the narrator of this book is witty, urbane with a sense of the ridiculous and how it touches human sadness. Lynch is also an accomplished poet and there is passage after passage here of startling, verbal beauty, never ostentatious, always integrated into the story. –Thomas Kilroy,The Irish Independent Full ReviewHis fictionalisation of the life of William Cowper, an almost forgotten poet, is so momentous that it would certainly have made a very watchable period drama –Katie Moten, RTE.ie Entertainment Full Review