Portrait of Cowper
by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1792.
|Born||26 November 1731
Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England
|Died||25 April 1800
East Dereham, Norfolk, England
William Cowper (// KOO-pər; 26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet", whilst William Wordsworth particularly admired his poem Yardley-Oak. He was a nephew of the poet Judith Madan.
Although after being institutionalised for insanity in the period 1763–65, Cowper found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and after a dream in 1773 believed that he was doomed to eternal damnation. Later, he would recover and write more religious hymns.
His religious sentiment and association with John Newton (who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace") led to much of the poetry for which he is best remembered. His poem "Light Shining out of Darkness" gave the English language the idiom "God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform."
He was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England where his father John Cowper was rector of the Church of St Peter. His mother was Ann Cowper. Only two of the seven children of John and Ann Cowper lived past infancy – William and John. Ann died giving birth to John on November 7, 1737. His mother’s passing troubled him deeply and was the subject of his poem “On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture,” which was written more than fifty years later. He grew close to her family, however in his early years. He was particularly close with her brother Robert and his wife Harriot. They instilled in young William a love of reading and gave him some of his first books – John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and John Gay’s Fables.
William was first enrolled in the Westminster School in April of 1742 after moving from school to school for a number of years. He had begun to study Latin from a young age and was an avid scholar of Latin for the rest of his life. Older children bullied William through many of his younger years. At the Westminster School he studied under the headmaster John Nicoll. At the time the Westminster School was popular amongst families belonging to England’s whig political party. Many of them sent their sons there. Many intelligent boys from families of a lower social status also attended, however. William made lifelong friends attending Westminster. He read through the Illiad and the Odyssey, which ignited his lifelong scholarship and love for Homer’s epics. He grew skilled at the interpretation and translation of Latin and this was a skill that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He was skilled in the composition of Latin as well and wrote many verses of his own.
After education at Westminster School, he was articled to Mr. Chapman, solicitor, of Ely Place, Holborn, to be trained for a career in law. During this time, he spent his leisure at the home of his uncle Bob Cowper, where he fell in love with his cousin Theodora, whom he wished to marry. But as James Croft, who in 1825 first published the poems Cowper addressed to Theodora, wrote, "her father, from an idea that the union of persons so nearly related was improper, refused to accede to the wishes of his daughter and nephew." This refusal left Cowper distraught.
In 1763 he was offered a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords, but broke under the strain of the approaching examination and experienced a period of insanity. At this time he tried three times to commit suicide and was sent to Nathaniel Cotton's asylum at St. Albans for recovery. His poem beginning "Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portions" (sometimes referred to as "Sapphics") was written in the aftermath of his suicide attempt.
After recovering, he settled at Huntingdon with a retired clergyman named Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. Cowper grew to be on such good terms with the Unwin family that he went to live in their house, and moved with them to Olney, where John Newton, a former slave trader who had repented and devoted his life to the gospel, was curate. Not long afterwards, Morley Unwin was killed in a fall from his horse, but Cowper continued to live in the Unwin home and became greatly attached to Mary Unwin.
At Olney, Newton invited Cowper to contribute to a hymnbook that he was compiling. The resulting volume known as Olney Hymns was not published until 1779 but includes hymns such as "Praise for the Fountain Opened" (beginning "There is a fountain fill'd with blood") and "Light Shining out of Darkness" (beginning "God Moves in a Mysterious Way") which remain some of Cowper's most familiar verses. Several of Cowper's hymns, as well as others originally published in the "Olney Hymns," are today preserved in the Sacred Harp.
In 1773, Cowper experienced an attack of insanity, imagining not only that he was eternally condemned to hell, but that God was commanding him to make a sacrifice of his own life. Mary Unwin took care of him with great devotion and after a year he began again to recover. In 1779, after Newton had left Olney to go to London, Cowper started to write further poetry. Mary Unwin, wanting to keep Cowper's mind occupied, suggested that he write on the subject of The Progress of Error, and after writing his satire of this name he wrote seven others. All of them were published in 1782 under the title Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq..
The year before this publication, Cowper met a sophisticated and charming widow named Lady Austen who served as a new impetus to his poetry. Cowper himself tells of the genesis of what some have considered his most substantial work, The Task, in his "Advertisement" to the original edition of 1785:
"...a lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed; and, having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and, pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair—a Volume!"
In the same volume Cowper also printed "The Diverting History of John Gilpin", a notable piece of comic verse. John Gilpin was later credited with saving Cowper from turning completely insane.
Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to Weston in 1786 and shortly before this became close with his cousin Harriet (Theodora's sister), now Lady Hesketh. During this period he started his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into blank verse, and his versions (published in 1791) were the most significant English renderings of these epic poems since those of Alexander Pope earlier in the century, although later critics have faulted Cowper's Homer for being too much in the mould of John Milton.
Mary Unwin died in 1796, plunging Cowper into a gloom from which he never fully recovered. He did, however, continue revising his Homer for a second edition of his translation, and, aside from writing the powerful and bleak poem "The Castaway", penned some English translations of Greek verse and turned some of the Fables of John Gay into Latin.
- Olney Hymns, 1779, in collaboration with John Newton
- John Gilpin, 1782
- The Task, 1785
- Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, 1791 (translations from the Greek).
Cowper is represented with fifteen hymns in The Church Hymn book 1872:
- 127 Jesus! where'er thy people meet
- 357 The Spirit breathes upon the word
- 450 There is a fountain, filled with blood
- 790 Hark! my soul! it is the Lord
- 856 To Jesus, the Crown of my hope
- 871 Far from the world, O Lord! I flee
- 885 My Lord! how full of sweet content (1782 translation)
- 932 What various hindrances we meet
- 945 Oh! for a closer walk with God
- 965 When darkness long has veiled my mind
- 1002 'Tis my happiness below
- 1009 O Lord! in sorrow I resign (1782 translation)
- 1029 O Lord! my best desire fulfill
- 1043 There is a safe and secret place
- 1060 God of my life! to thee I call
GOD moves in a mysterious way,
There is a fountain fill'd with blood
Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
God made the country, and man made the town.
There is a pleasure in poetic pains
Variety's the very spice of life,
I am monarch of all I survey,
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
'Tis pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat,
- Harold Child, "William Cowper", in Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21. As given at Bartleby.com. (Some biographical data utilised.)
- H.S. Milford, The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper. London: Oxford University Press, 1913. ("Chronological Table" on pp. xxiv–xxx heavily utilised for biographical data.)
- The Church Hymn book 1872, edited by Edwin F. Hatfield, New York and Chicago, US.
- Works by William Cowper at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML)
- Works by or about William Cowper at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions color illustrated)
- Essays by William Cowper at Quotidiana.org
- Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper at CCEL
- Hymns by William Cowper
- The Task, and Other Poems at Project Gutenberg
- Selected Poems at The Poet's Corner
- Selected Poetry of Cowper at the University of Toronto
- Electronic text of Cowper's "Odyssey" translation at bibliomania.com
- Audio: Robert Pinsky reads "Epitaph On A Hare" by William Cowper (via poemsoutloud.net)
- The Life of William Cowper by Thomas Wright (First Edition. June 2005)
- Detailed account of William Cowper's life in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
- Cowper at Project Gutenberg
- The Town of Cowper by Thomas Wright (First Edition. May 1886)
- The Stricken Deer, biography by David Cecil, 1929 and later editions.
- A Portrait of William Cowper: His Own Interpreter in Letters and Poems by Louise B. Risk, 2004.
- The Castaway. A one-man play by David Gooderson based entirely on Cowper's poems and letters.
- The Winner of Sorrow: a novel by Brian Lynch, Dalkey Archive Press, USA, 2008, and New Island Books, Ireland, 2005. 363 p. ISBN 1-905494-25-4 [Biographical novel]. See http://www.brianlynch.org.
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