If we knew nothing of William Cowper except his poetry, we should be likely to picture him as a cheerful, witty, affable, and broadly humane man whose worst troubles faded before the pleasures he so abundantly found in life. Many of these qualities also appear in the man who emerges from a reading of the LETTERS; but beside the affability, the wit, the humanity, stands a person four times pushed beyond reason into insanity, more or less constantly in unmitigated despair, convinced that a vengeful God hated him and had ordained for him the eternal torments of hell.
Externally, Cowper’s life was placid and secluded, partly because his temperament could not support the competitiveness and agitation of an urban society whose pressures caused three of his derangements, partly because he found peace and consolation in the rural surroundings and quiet neighbors of Olney, the village in which he spent nearly thirty years of his adult life, and from which he wrote the largest proportion of letters which have been preserved.
Born in 1731, Cowper was apprenticed to the study of law at the age of seventeen at his father’s wish. Early letters and later reminiscences indicate that the young man put more energy into hunting, dancing, and writing literary essays for a group called The Nonsense Club than in any serious study of law. His awareness of the impracticability of a law career for himself probably caused his first mental upset in 1752. Convalescing in Southampton at the home of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, William fell in love with his cousin Theodora. Her father forbade the marriage, and although her sister Harriet was one of Cowper’s dearest friends all his life, he never saw nor spoke of Theodora again, and neither ever married.
The second period of insanity, in 1764, was caused by the pressures and worries about an impending examination for the office of Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. Three attempts at suicide and a complete breakdown sent Cowper away from London forever. A year and a half in an asylum cured him, after which he became a boarder with the family of the Reverend Morley Unwin, who became his closest friends. When the minister died in 1767, Cowper and Mrs. Unwin whom he regarded, he said, almost as a mother moved to Olney and began the life so vividly represented in his letters written from there.
Cowper’s letters are familiar, sprightly, and cheerful, for he seldom indulged in communication of his despair. He considered his correspondence nothing but written conversation, certainly no more worthy of being called literature than the casual chat of acquaintances. The charm of the letters lies in this casualness. He frequently points out to his correspondents that he has really nothing to say; but after all, if the two of them were together in a parlor they would hardly sit in silence; therefore he will talk about whatever comes into his head. This habit of descanting on whatever rose to the surface of his mind provides us with informal descriptions of the life and occurrences about Olney: the furnishings of his “boudoir” (the little summerhouse in which he habitually did his writing), the perils of his pet hares, the cleverness of his spaniel Beau, the current condition of his garden, the discovery and killing of a viper in the barn, his favorite walks, the conversations of his neighbors. Some of these incidents he turned into poems, and it is hard to say whether the prose or verse versions are more charming.
The most important of his correspondents for the period 1769-1785 were the Reverend William Unwin, son of Morley Unwin, and the Reverend John Newton, an evangelical minister very influential in Cowper’s life, who collaborated with him in writing the well-known OLNEY HYMNS. During this time, Cowper suffered his third derangement, brought about by the pressure of friends to get him to marry Mrs. Unwin. In his letters to Newton, Cowper’s deepening despair can be seen; he lost his evangelical hopes and took on the sternest Calvinistic determination that he was...
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