‘When snatched from all effectual aid, we perish, each alone’, by Siobhan Hegarty

The Winner of Sorrow
The Winner of Sorrow
Brian Lynch
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
ISBN: 9781905494255
PRICE: €11.99

The Sunday Independent
Sunday January 08 2006
‘When snatched from all effectual aid, we perish, each alone’
by Siobhan Hegarty

IN The Winner of Sorrow, an extraordinary excursion into the mind of an 18th-Century English poet, author Brian Lynch sets himself a threefold challenge, each part as great as the next.

First and foremost, Lynch endeavours to breathe life back into the lost legend that is William Cowper, a literary figure who has been all but forgotten. Second, he attempts to recreate the world and social mores of Cowper’s long-dead era. Lynch’s third and final goal is to give an insight into the life, loves, writing and sporadic madness of this eccentric genius. William Cowper (1731- 1800) was the most acclaimed poet of his day. During his lifetime, he counted among his admirers such literary giants as Jane Austen, William Blake and Wordsworth.

Cowper lived the privileged life of a lawyer in the House of Lords before he suffered a breakdown, an event which radically altered the course of his life. After becoming ill, he fled London and, obsessed with suicide, became reclusive, taking refuge in poetry, women, letter-writing, religion and gardening. And this is where we catch up with him. The book opens with him holed up in the little village of Dereham in Norfolk where he “rarely left his lodgings”. Lynch’s portrait of Cowper is his finest achievement as he succeeds in bringing the legend that is Cowper back to life so vividly you could reach out and touch him.

The poet’s battle with mental illness is chronicled in a remarkably matter-of-fact way: “Of all the voices, the one he feared the most was the Grumbler’s . . . the others, the Accuser, the Judge, the Director and the Mocker, spoke with men’s voices.”

And his deterioration is charted without flinching:

“After Mary’s secret burial, not only had the voices returned, many more of them than before, but the ghosts that owned them were visible even in daylight, although, as they were invariably hooded, veiled and cloaked, they were faceless.” The author also rises superbly to his second challenge, to re-imagine Britain during the early 18th Century. The book is also full of social comedy, and it is this humour that brings the age alive, and also adds to the reader’s pleasure.

Lynch often pokes fun at his characters: “There were times when Hayley could talk sense, but since they required the coincidence of his having both a crushing hangover and a clear avenue of escape from trouble, such times were infrequent.” Lynch’s third and final challenge, to give an insight in Cowper’s inner life, is also risen to with finesse. How the poems come from this tortured soul is drawn in bright colours, and it transports us to the secret place from where the poetry is wrought. Touching this hub is Lynch’s goal, and he succeeds masterfully, giving a rare insight into how raw inspiration is translated into poetry.

Because of the richness of detail, it is difficult for the reader to keep in mind that this is not a biography of the poet, but is, in fact, a vividly imagined novel. The author used various devices in his writing, with works of art used throughout the book, usually to set the scene. His characterisation is also a strong point, with all his characters drawn mercilessly, and as a result ringing true.

Lynch rises superbly to all three of the challenges he sets himself, producing a novel that is both original and remarkably beautifully written. The Winner of Sorrow is a triumph.

Now, let the great William Cowper himself – who, thanks to Brian Lynch, now lives on in splendid technicolour – have the last word:

‘No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perish, each, alone;
But I, beneath a rougher Sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.’

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