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Final Years

Cogswell wrote to his dying days, refusing to let his “toil-established muscles die” (“Retirement” 99). Two full volumes of English translations of the Acadian poets Léonard Forest and Raymond Guy LeBlanc were half completed when he went into hospital in Vancouver for the final time. The last poems he wrote spoke of the injustices of a bureaucratized world that imposes and institutionalizes its structures, a world where power thwarts the masses as it enriches the few. The unpublished poem “Pelagius and Augustine” is particularly salient in that regard. It puts the two medieval thinkers in radical counterpoise, suggesting that in the battle for spiritual authority, the Celtic monk Pelagius lost to Augustine, a one-time disciple of Mani – and so the freedom to love, serve, and choose that Pelagius represented was lost to the stern Manichaeism of Roman fatalism. From the third century forward, Augustine’s Manichean views of good and evil, righteousness and original sin, sexuality and hell dominate western Christianity. Cogswell writes of their differences as follows:

Pelagius gave human love and all
He felt would pay God’s debt, prayer and thought
From all he was. They never were enough
To suit the morning star of Augustine
In a Roman religion. There was no
Saint Lucifer more powerful than he.

To the end, then, Cogswell’s poems were beacons of light that expressed his profound belief in freedom of the imagination and heart. With Christianity gone off the rails, the creative impulse, he concluded, is the only truth. The translation that he was most proud of was “Art” by Theophile Gauthier. Its last two stanzas might stand as a Cogswell epithet:

The gods themselves are dead.
Great verse, stronger than brass,
            In their stead
Lives on and will not pass.

Write, sculpt, paint, use the knife.
May your floating visions come
            To life
In the hardest medium. (40)

Fred Cogswell died at Vancouver’s Royal Columbian Hospital on 20 June 2004. The day before his death he offered to give up his bed in Palliative Care to a person who couldn’t afford one, concerned that others might have greater need. He died with his poems around him.


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