BORN: 1731, Great Berkhamsted,
DIED: 1800, Norfolk, England
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Olney Hymns (with John Newton, 1779)
The Task (1785)
The History of John Gilpin (1785)
The Life, and Posthumous Writings, of William Cowper, Esqr. (edited by William Hayley, 1803-1804)
William Cowper. Cowper, William, engraving. The Library of Congress.
William Cowper was one of the most popular English poets of the eighteenth century and is considered one of the forerunners of Romanticism. His comic ballad ‘‘The Journey of John Gilpin’’ established his literary reputation; his Olney Hymns were incorporated into Evangelical liturgy; and his satires enjoyed widespread popularity. Contemporary critics especially value his correspondence, ranking him among the English language’s finest letter writers. A frail personality hounded by severe depression, he expressed complex psychological currents in his verse.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Lifelong Melancholia Cowper was born on November 15, 1731, in Berkhamsted, England, where his father, John Cowper, was the rector of St. Peter’s Church. His background was aristocratic. His father’s ancestors held prominent public positions in government and law. His mother, Ann Donne Cowper, was a descendant of the Elizabethan poet John Donne. Her death from childbirth complications in 1737 was the first source of William Cowper’s lifelong melancholia, or bouts of depression. The second source came the following year, at Dr. Pitman’s School in Markyate, where Cowper was mercilessly bullied by older boys. At age eight, he developed an eye ailment and was sent to live for two years in the home of an oculist.
‘‘Delia”. Cowper recuperated and became a successful student at the Westminster School, following which he was sent to learn the legal profession with a London solicitor named Chapman. While working at Chapman’s office, Cowper frequented the home of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, and three female cousins. By the summer of 1752, he was infatuated with his cousin Theadora. They courted for several years, but her father forbade them to marry. Heartbroken, he penned a sequence of love poems to ‘‘Delia’’; they were released in 1825 as part of Cowper’s second posthumous poetry collection.
Although the law did not enthrall him, he was called to the bar in 1754 and served later as Commissioner of Bankruptcy Courts. The young barrister enjoyed the fashionable London life, dining every Thursday with several school friends who called themselves the Nonsense Club. Two of these chums edited a publication called the Connoisseur, to which Cowper began contributing satirical pieces.
This life disintegrated in 1763. Ashley Cowper secured for his nephew a lucrative parliamentary clerkship and even promised Theadora’s hand once he obtained the post. However, Cowper had to face a public examination before the House of Lords, and this prospect unnerved him completely. Before the fateful day, he attempted suicide. He ended up at the Collegium Insanorum in St. Albans, where he gradually recovered and experienced a religious epiphany that led him to Evangelicalism.
Retreat to the Countryside. When he left the hospital in 1765, he lived in Huntingdon as a boarder at the family home of an Evangelical minister, the Reverend Morley Unwin. He was drawn to the maternal figure of Mary Unwin, the minister’s wife. After the sudden death of Rev. Unwin in 1767, Cowper and the rest of the household moved to Olney. Cowper enjoyed the peace of this rural town and began to concentrate on writing, starting with an autobiography (that would be published after his death). He came at once under the influence of the Reverend John Newton, an Evangelical and former slave trader. The two men collaborated on the Olney Hymns (1779), of which the most famous is ‘‘Amazing Grace,’’ written by Newton. Cowper’s lyrics place him in the first rank of English hymnodists; several remain in regular congregational use.
In late 1772, partially in response to local gossip about two unmarried people living together, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin became engaged. Biographers speculate that this betrothal caused him tremendous anxiety, for that winter he succumbed again to mental illness; he was haunted by a dream that God had damned him. The engagement was broken, though the pair continued to live together. Cowper never again attended public worship. He lived for years as an invalid; his animals, his garden, and his poetry were his mainstays against depression.
In 1780 a relative of Cowper’s, the Reverend Martin Madan, published a curious treatise named Thelyphthora, an argument for polygamy as a social alternative to prostitution. At John Newton’s urging, Cowper responded with Anti-Thelyphthora (1781), a long poem deftly combining satire with religious fervor. The same combination infused Cowper’s Poems (1782), which became known as the ‘‘Moral Satires.’’ These didactic verses were praised for their vigor, spontaneity, and hard-hitting enunciation of Evangelical doctrine.
The Task Cowper’s next volume, The Task (1785), won him universal critical esteem. This five-thousand-line poem, written in a relaxed blank verse, is considered his masterpiece. A broad investigation of man, nature, and society, it is also the first extended autobiographical poem in English. The scope of its satiric and patriotic interests, alongside its explorations of rural and domestic life, make The Task a truly national poem. The public aspects of the poem, however, are interwoven with distinctly personal ones. Cowper extols the skill of the gardener, who represents harmony with nature, and the imagination of the poet, who provides access to beauty and wisdom. Finding joy and peace in the presence of nature, Cowper proclaims, is the touchstone of spiritual wholeness.
The Task made Cowper’s a household name for the next few decades. Augmenting his fame, in the same volume, was ‘‘The Journey of John Gilpin,’’ a narrative ballad ostensibly about the adventures of a tailor, but in reality a raucous parody of poetic conventions. The poem was spectacularly successful, and its appeal as an artifact of popular culture lasted for generations. Beneath the farce, though, lie bleak undertones consistent with Cowper’s previous work.
The success of The Task largely vanquished Cowper’s need to write confessional poetry, but it unleashed his ambition. From 1785 to 1790, he sought literary immortality by working on a blank-verse translation of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. He hoped to surpass Alexander Pope, whose famous versions of Homer had made him the most commercially successful poet in English history. Published in 1791, his translation was a mixed success. He followed up by working on translations of Italian and Latin poems by John Milton.
Cowper’s Letters. William Cowper’s letters are widely admired, especially those he wrote to William Unwin, Mary’s son, and his cousin Harriot Hesketh, Theadora’s sister. The private audience of these cultivated friends released the sparkling wit, disarming candor, and astute observations that make his correspondence a unique literary phenomenon.
Cowper suffered several more breakdowns in his later years. The lengthy illness and death of his longtime companion Mary Unwin in 1795 sent him into despondency. He was unable to blot out the voice of God’s condemnation. He died in 1800.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Cowper's famous contemporaries include:
Adam Smith (1723-1790): Scottish philosopher and economist; author of The Wealth of Nations.
John Newton (1725-1807): Anglican clergyman; coauthor of Olney Hymns and author of ''Amazing Grace.''
Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774): Anglo-Irish poet, novelist, and playwright.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802): English scientist, philosopher, and poet; grandfather of Charles Darwin.
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804): British philosopher, theologian, scientist, and author; credited as the discoverer of oxygen.
George III (1738-1820): King of Great Britain (and subsequently the United Kingdom) from 1760 until his death.
Works in Literary Context
William Cowper’s prose and poetry both display an elegant, convivial style. He absorbed a range of literary influences, perhaps beginning with two books he acquired as a child: the light verse of John Gay’s Fables, and the Calvinist Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Cowper’s satirical writings are in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele. His religious verse follows after George Herbert and his ancestor John Donne. He admired John Milton above all poets, and The Task shares some characteristics with Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.
Fear and Fervor. Cowper’s mental illness, and constant fear of God’s wrath, influenced the thematic content of his writing, from his Memoir to his religious poetry. His Olney Hymns describe inward states of conflict, insecurity, and agony in a hostile universe occasionally relieved by a glimmer of hope for salvation. Even light, satirical pieces such as ‘‘The Journey of John Gilpin’’ are touched with melancholy and a sense of man’s inexorable loneliness. Lord David Cecil named his biography of Cowper after a telling image from The Task: ‘‘The Stricken Deer.’’ It is a suitable summation of Cowper’s poetic stance.
Contemplating Nature. Cowper’s poetry is distinguished in its fresh appreciation and precise observation of wilderness and the countryside. In The Task, his interest in nature unites with his religious concerns. The poem argues that the depth of one’s response to nature represents, more or less directly, a person’s spiritual worth. For Cowper, the natural world is to be contemplated from an aesthetic point of view, as one would peruse a work of art, albeit one created by an ‘‘artificer divine.’’ Cowper delights in the position of observer, rather than participant, in the world; his poetry reflects his preference for life viewed from a window.
Bequests to the Romantics This spiritual and philosophical reverence for nature became a central tenet of the Romantic movement in British poetry, starting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. It was not the only legacy Cowper left to the Romantics. Coleridge praised The Task for its originality in uniting ‘‘natural thoughts with natural diction’’ and ‘‘the heart with the head.’’ He was probably referring to Cowper’s unprecedented use of blank verse as a vehicle for the flow of consciousness, of Cowper as the progenitor of an ‘‘interior’’ mode in which the poetry is a continual outgrowth of the mind and the emotions. This inwardness, and the poet’s emphasis on autobiography and confession, also are what make Cowper an important precursor of Romanticism in England.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
William Cowper wrote several lyrics for the Olney Hymns that are still sung regularly in Evangelical congregations. The Christian hymn is among the most enduring of musical forms, as the following titles demonstrate:
''A Mighty Fortress Is Our God'' (c. 1527), a hymn by Martin Luther. The best-known hymn by the foremost Protestant leader; sometimes called ''The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.''
''Amazing Grace'' (1779), a hymn by John Newton. The most famous song of the Olney Hymns and one of the most popular of all Christian hymns.
''Silent Night'' (c. 1818), a hymn by Josef Mohr; music by Franz Xaver Gruber. One of the most popular Christmas carols; in the original German, ''Stille Nacht.''
''Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'' (c. 1860), a hymn by Wallace (often spelled ''Wallis'') Willis. An African American spiritual, often sung at English rugby matches.
''In the Upper Room'' (1947), a hymn by Lucie Campbell. Written by the first woman among the great gospel composers, this song is indelibly associated with the powerful voice of the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Works in Critical Context
William Cowper was the foremost English poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth. For several decades, he had probably the largest readership of any English poet. From 1782, when his first major volume appeared, to 1837, the year in which Robert Southey completed the monumental Life and Works of Cowper, more than a hundred editions of his poems were published in Britain and almost fifty in America. The Task received especially favorable notices for its depth of feeling, fluency, and descriptive realism.
Cowper’s position as a transitional figure between the neoclassical and Romantic periods in English literature has inspired critical interest in his life and works. Many scholars, including the nineteenth-century critics Walter Bagehot and George Saintsbury, argue that Cowper’s satiric and didactic tendencies place him closer to the eighteenth-century moralists than to the Romantics. Others surmise that his use of blank verse, his interest in nature and everyday life, and the emotional core of his poetry link him to Romantics like Wordsworth and Robert Burns.
Of Cowper’s poetry, The Task has inspired the most critical commentary; however, the majority of recent critical interest in Cowper has centered on his Memoir and his correspondence. Discussions of the Memoir have largely explored the construction of Cowper’s narrative persona. Some scholars have questioned the connections between Cowper’s mental illness and certain characteristics of his work. Cowper’s letters have won admiration and serious study from numerous scholars. Robert Southey, poet laureate and editor of Cowper’s complete works, declared Cowper the best letter writer in the English language.
Responses to Literature
1. Write about the balance between personal and political concerns in The Task.
2. Many have praised Cowper’s mastery of the art of letter writing. Identify some of the most effective techniques Cowper applies in his correspondence. How does he develop his voice in the letters? Does his voice change depending on the recipient of the letter?
3. Is it fair to say that Cowper’s worldview was anchored in fear? How do you perceive the relationship between fear and Christian faith in Cowper’s writing?
4. Is it appropriate to link Cowper with the Romantic poets? What is, or is not, Romantic in his outlook and style?
5. What do you think accounts for Cowper’s considerable popularity during his lifetime?
Cecil, Lord David. The Stricken Deer; or, The Life of Cowper. London: Constable, 1929.
Golden, Morris. In Search of Stability: The Poetry of William Cowper. New York: Bookman, 1960.
Greatheed, Samuel. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Cowper. London: Printed for T. Williams, 1803.
Hartley, Lodwick. William Cowper: The Continuing Revaluation. An Essay and a Bibliography of Cowperian Studies from 1895 to 1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960.
Hutchings, Bill. The Poetry of William Cowper. London and Canberra: Croom Helm, 1983.
King, James. William Cowper: A Biography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986.
Newey, Vincent. Cowper’s Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1982.
Priestman, Martin. Cowper’s ‘‘Task’’: Structure and Influence. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Quinlan, Maurice J. William Cowper: A Critical Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1953. Taylor, Thomas. The Life of William Cowper. London: Smith, Elder, 1833.
Thomas, Gilbert. William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1935.