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Winter Wisdom William Cowper feels he has learnt more on one short walk than in many hours of study.

In two parts

Music: Johann Christian Bach

© Peter French, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

About this picture …

A robin redbreast in Cherry Wood in Suffolk, on a frosty January day. Cowper (who took his winter walks in Olney, Buckinghamshire) found that Nature accelerated his thought processes, helping him to ‘think down hours to moments’. ‘Knowledge’ to Cowper was just so many burdensome lumps of stone, until the skilled mason ‘wisdom’ erects with them a habitable structure.

Winter Wisdom

Part 1 of 2

In Book VI of his groundbreaking poem ‘The Task’, William Cowper (‘cooper’) takes a lunchtime walk on a winter’s day. As he listens to the soft sounds of Nature, he reflects that for the thinking man time spent in the countryside is never wasted.

From ‘The Task’

NO noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
The redbreast warbles still, but is content
With slender notes, and more than half suppressed:
Pleased with his solitude, and flitting light
From spray to spray, where’er he rests he shakes
From many a twig the pendant drops of ice,
That tinkle in the withered leaves below.
Stillness, accompanied with sounds so soft,
Charms more than silence. Meditation here
May think down hours to moments. Here the heart
May give a useful lesson to the head,
And learning wiser grow without his books.
Knowledge and Wisdom, far from being one,
Have oft times no connexion. Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which Wisdom builds,
Till smoothed, and squared, and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber whom it seems t’enrich.
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much;
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.

Jump to Part 2


On a winter walk, poet William Cowper relished the quiet of the countryside, where the sounds were of birdsong. In such surroundings, he said, the distinction between knowledge and wisdom becomes clearer: book-learned knowledge can only be bricks and mortar, whereas wisdom alone is an architect that can turn them into a building with a purpose. (56 / 60 words)

Part Two

© Peter Trimming, Geograph. Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

A red squirrel at the British Wildlife Centre near East Grinstead in Surrey. Cowper emphasises that book-learning needs to be shelled, tasted and digested before it is intellectually nutritious; too many people swallow “without pause or choice, the total grist unsifted, husks and all”. The purpose of learning, he believed, should not be to daunt weaker minds or create a following, but to deepen one’s own humility and self-awareness.

BOOKS are not seldom talismans and spells,
By which the magic art of shrewder wits
Holds an unthinking multitude enthralled.
Some to the fascination of a name
Surrender judgment, hoodwinked. Some the style
Infatuates, and through labyrinths and wilds
Of error leads them, by a tune entranced.
While sloth seduces more, too weak to bear
The insupportable fatigue of thought,
And swallowing therefore without pause or choice,
The total grist unsifted, husks and all.
But trees and rivulets, whose rapid course
Defies the check of winter, haunts of deer,
And sheep-walks populous with bleating lambs,
And lanes in which the primrose ere her time
Peeps through the moss, that clothes the hawthorn root,
Deceive no student. Wisdom there, and truth,
Not shy, as in the world, and to be won
By slow solicitation, seize at once
The roving thought, and fix it on themselves.

Copy Book

William Cowper Next: The Jackdaw


Pursuing his distinction between knowledge and wisdom, Cowper shows how book-learning has gained an undeserved honour, because the public is dazzled by academic reputation or eloquence, and rarely subjects the authors to a proper critique. More can be learned, he concluded, in a moment’s insight on a country walk than in many hours spent in a library. (57 / 60 words)


From ‘The Poems of William Cowper Esq.’ (1835).

Suggested Music

1 2

Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.7

1. Allegretto

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)

Performed by Anthony Halstead, with the Members of The Hannover Band.

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Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.7

2. Minuetto

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782)

Performed by Anthony Halstead, with the Members of The Hannover Band.

Media not showing? Let me know!

How To Use This Passage

You can use this passage to help improve your command of English.

IRead it aloud, twice or more. IISummarise it in one sentence of up to 30 words. IIISummarise it in one paragraph of 40-80 words. IVMake notes on the passage, and reconstruct the original from them later on. VJot down any unfamiliar words, and make your own sentences with them later. VIMake a note of any words that surprise or impress you, and ask yourself what meaning they add to the words you would have expected to see. VIITurn any old-fashioned English into modern English. VIIITurn prose into verse, and verse into prose. IXAsk yourself what the author is trying to get you to feel or think. XHow would an artist or a photographer capture the scene? XIHow would a movie director shoot it, or a composer write incidental music for it?

For these and more ideas, see How to Use The Copy Book.

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