William Cowper’s Shaving Mirror

William Cowper's Shaving Mirror

Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, 3945

William Cowper’s Shaving Mirror

It is morning and the poet
still in white nightshirt
is shaving

at his washstand, a mirror
catches his bedroom

adding a sliver of town
all-night drunks stumbling
out of the Red Lion

the poet’s face is long and bony
wide mouth, soft eyes are sensitive
his faculties are god-given

every day, scrape away
a mirror within

every morning he looks in his shaving mirror
to perceive himself
as cheek and chin

no mark of sin
upon cheek and chin
upon throat his hand trembles slightly

percussive birdsong merely
blackbird hymn
praising the God of Light and upper lip

he dips his blade in cold water
his skin stiffens
his nightshirt is thin

whinny of horses beyond
clatter of pattens below
rustle of leaves, spit-splat of rain

every morning
new promise, good faith
benediction of cheek and chin

every morning this mirror frames his face
his face fills this mirror

his hands are clean
our Redeemer’s blood
all washed away

leaving love
of God
of shaven cheek and chin.

Clare Brant

I find it interesting to watch men shave. You see them look at themselves in a most particular way. We don’t have much of a language for that… is it a version of the male gaze?

I wanted form to catch something of shaving as a process: short raspy lines, nubbly corners, a few longer sweeps. Cowper’s cosmology is touched on, no more, no less. Biography is present but relaxed. I wanted to evoke self-familiarity, even self-portrait: it is an ekphrastic poem using an image invisible to us, Cowper’s face in the mirror.

After I had written the poem I was impelled by scholarly drives to see if Cowper had written anything about shaving. He had! ‘Gratitude. A Poem Addressed to Lady Hesketh’ (in William Hayley, The Life and Letters of William Cowper, vol. 4 p.227) gives his cousin a tour of his bedroom, to which she had contributed various items. Halfway round we meet

This table and mirror within
Secure from collision and dust,
At which I oft shave cheek and chin,
And periwig nicely adjust.

You can imagine how I smiled.