William Cowper Essay - Cowper, William (Poetry Criticism)

Cowper, William (Poetry Criticism)


William Cowper 1731-1800

English poet, hymn writer, satirist, letter writer, essayist, and translator. See also William Cowper Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.

Considered a transitional figure in English poetry whose works embody both eighteenth and nineteenth-century styles and concerns, Cowper was a forerunner of Romanticism in England and one of the most popular poets of his age. Known for his early comic ballad, “The Journey of John Gilpin,” which established his literary reputation, the Olney Hymns (1779), now a part of Evangelical liturgy, and his mock-heroic verse satires, Cowper is principally remembered for his discursive and conversational blank verse masterpiece, The Task (1785). A poem composed in response to Lady Austen's flippant remark that he write on the subject of her sofa, the six highly descriptive books of The Task demonstrate Cowper's contention that repose in the country lends itself to the cultivation of “piety and virtue,” while life in the city degrades humankind by its corruptive influence. The work is viewed as Cowper's lasting poetic expression on nature, society, God, and man, as it regards subjects ranging from the topical and trivial to the national and spiritual. Additionally, Cowper continues to be regarded for the spontaneity and simplicity of his nature lyrics, the earnest, personal tone of his religious poetry, and the wit embodied in his satires and correspondence.

Biographical Information

Cowper was born in Great Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, into a distinguished aristocratic family. The death of his mother, a descendant of the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne, in childbirth in 1737 remained one of the poet's most traumatic experiences and many biographers attribute Cowper's mental instability and habitual melancholy to his early loss. In 1738, Cowper entered Dr. Pitman's school at Markyate. There, he was mercilessly bullied by older boys, an ordeal that appeared to haunt Cowper throughout his life. He attended the Westminster school from 1741 to 1748, and then lived in London's Middle Temple, a law court, until 1763, first as a law student and later as Commissioner of Bankrupts. While at the Middle Temple, Cowper befriended other young intellectuals, experimented with writing, and avidly studied classical literature. In 1756, Cowper fell deeply in love with his cousin Theodora, but the romance ended when their parents refused to permit them to marry. This experience contributed to the onset of Cowper's emotional decline. Having transferred to the Inner Temple in 1757, Cowper suffered a nervous breakdown six years later, shortly before he was to sit for a formal examination to become clerk of journals at the House of Lords. His failed suicide attempt led to hospitalization at St. Albans for the next two years. Cowper's recuperation was thought to stem partly from his conversion to Evangelicalism: when he left the hospital, he lived in Huntington with the Unwins, an Evangelical minister and his family. After the death of the Reverend Unwin in 1767, Cowper and the rest of the household moved to Olney, where Cowper pursued a literary career. Here he completed his best work and enjoyed a period of unprecedented happiness. However, in 1773 he suffered a new bout of mental illness, likely derived from anxiety over his announced engagement to Mary Unwin, the widow of the Evangelical minister, and from the religious gloom brought on by his association with the pastor, John Newton. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin never married, but moved together to Weston where the poet experienced two more breakdowns in 1786 and 1794. In 1795, he witnessed the long illness and death of his devoted companion. Despite such personal difficulties, Cowper enjoyed a reputation as one of his generation's greatest poets. Shortly before his death at East Dereham in 1800, he was rewarded with the tribute of a royal pension arranged by his friend, the noted author William Hayley.

Major Works

The Olney Hymns, Cowper's first major publication, was a collaborative effort with his spiritual mentor, John Newton, who contributed the greatest number of pieces. Among the most popular of Cowper's hymns in the collection, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and “Oh for a Closer Walk with God” have since passed into Evangelical tradition. Highly personal in tone and displaying vivid Biblical imagery, the Olney Hymns treat the recurrent theme of humanity's need for salvation. The volume Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. first appeared in 1782, and includes the long poem “Table Talk,” four satires on philosophical subjects, reflective verses on issues of moral and theological import, such as “The Progress of Error” and “Truth,” as well as the shorter lyrics “Boadicea” and “Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk.” Characterized by Cowper's spontaneous, natural diction and emotional response to nature, many of these poems also demonstrate a didactic tendency as the poet repeatedly explores the proper moral relationship of human beings with nature, society, and God. A discursive poem in six books of blank verse, The Task presents a number of Cowper's usual themes, but in a witty and satirical manner that generally departs from the meditative and didactic tone of his earlier poetry. Distinguished by its abundant descriptive detail and conversational mode, The Task is credited with introducing new motifs into English poetry, including such subjects as the love of animals and domestic life. Cowper included “The Journey of John Gilpin” in the same volume, which is a ballad ostensibly about the adventures of a tailor, but in reality a raucous parody of poetic conventions. A departure from his otherwise well-received original poetry, Cowper's blank verse translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1791) was generally considered inferior to that of his contemporary Alexander Pope, a work he had hoped it would supersede. A subsequent collection of Poems appeared in 1798, containing “On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture,” “Yardley Oak,” a sonnet “To Mrs Unwin,” and the mock-elegy “On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton's Bulfinch”—a number of Cowper's most enduring poems. Among these are found brilliant satirical verses, alongside his most elegiac and ecstatic poems, as well as his darkest and most grief-stricken. The collection was subsequently expanded to include works Cowper composed in his final years, notably “The Castaway,” written in 1799, which eloquently documents his anguished feelings of despair and spiritual torment. The poet's Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq., published posthumously in 1816, recounts his first attack of mental illness, his subsequent treatment, and his religious rebirth with both candor and an almost analytical detachment. Cowper's letters, first published in The Life and Works of William Cowper (1835-37), are unanimously admired for their humor, precise observation, and capacity to express mundane subjects in a lively and engaging manner as they depict Cowper's love of nature and genuine humanitarianism.

Critical Reception

Cowper's historical position as a transitional figure between the Neoclassical and Romantic periods in English literature has inspired a combined critical interest in his life and works. Many critics contend that Cowper's use of blank verse, his interest in nature, his focus on everyday life, and his emotional response to the world around him link him to Romantic poets like George Crabbe, Robert Burns, and William Wordsworth. Nevertheless, early reviewers considered his verse unpoetical; among them the renowned nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt decried Cowper's weakness in depicting nature. Yet others have praised his shrewd social commentary and self-analysis, and they find that Cowper's poetry, like his life, encompasses both the emotionalism of the Romantic era and elements of Neoclassical order and rationalism. Additionally, many critics contend that Cowper's later Poems, especially “Yardley Oak,” clearly foreshadow the descriptive and meditative poetic style of high Romanticism. Overall, The Task has inspired the most critical commentary among Cowper's poetic works. While early critics tended to disparage the apparent lack of unity and plan in The Task, more contemporary scholars have disputed this charge. Citing Cowper's interweaving of themes and counterthemes in the poem, Morris Golden described The Task as “a unified recording and communication of an intense emotional perception of reality.” At the close of the twentieth century, several critics were attracted to Cowper's status as a public poet, discussing his verse commentary on contemporary English society and British imperialism, as well as his importance as a deeply religious writer concerned with Evangelicalism and Christian Providentialism.

Principal Works

Olney Hymns [with John Newton] (songs) 1779

Anti-Thelyphthora: A Tale, in Verse 1781

Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. 1782

The Task 1785

Poems 1798

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey [translator] 1791

Adelphi: A Sketch of the Character, and an Account of the Last Illness, of the Late Rev. John Cowper (memoirs and biography) 1814

Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. (memoir) 1816

The Life and Works of William Cowper 15 vols. (letters, poetry, songs, and essays) 1835-37

The Correspondence of William Cowper 4 vols. (letters) 1904


William Hazlitt (essay date 1841)

SOURCE: Hazlitt, William. “On Thomson and Cowper.” In Lectures on the English Poets, pp. 164-200. 1841. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1841, Hazlitt disparages the excessive effeminacy and polish of Cowper's poetry, while praising the merits of elegance, satire, and pathos in his verse.]

Cowper … lived at a considerable distance of time after [James] Thomson; and had some advantages over him, particularly in simplicity of style, in a certain precision and minuteness of graphical description, and in a more careful and leisurely choice of such topics only as his genius and peculiar habits of mind...

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Kenneth MacLean (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: MacLean, Kenneth. “William Cowper.” In The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, edited by Wilmarth S. Lewis, pp. 257-67. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.

[In the following essay, MacLean presents an overview of Cowper's life and writings, suggesting that “neurotic terror” principally informs his poetry and other works.]

Everyone knows Cowper's poems and letters, but how many have seen that small volume, the Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. Written by Himself? Beginning ominously, this little piece of psychic Hogarth achieves the ultimate in terror. We see a young man, thirty-two years old, unnerved...

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Morris Golden (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Golden, Morris. “Solitude and Society.” In In Search of Stability: The Poetry of William Cowper, pp. 28-54. New York: Bookman Associates, 1960.

[In the following essay, Golden surveys the myriad ways in which Cowper's mental attitudes and instabilities—including feelings of isolation, delusion, victimization, abandonment, despair, and divine rapture—are reflected in his poetry.]

Cowper has been pictured variously as a friendly little man eager to proclaim his brotherhood with men, beasts, and insects; as a morose recluse, hating men and the world; as a psychotic hovering on the edge of terror at all times; as a frigidly aloof specimen of the breed that...

(The entire section is 8407 words.)

Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “William Cowper: The Heightened Perception.” In The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets, pp. 165-206. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Spacks assesses Cowper as a writer of hymns, considers his poetic technique, and offers a stylistic and thematic survey of The Task.]

As a writer of hymns, William Cowper is more renowned than [Christopher] Smart; his contributions to the Olney Hymns have been admired and sung for almost two centuries. If Smart's hymns gain much of their power from a vision turned freshly outward, Cowper's (to which Smart was a subscriber) depend as heavily on...

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John D. Baird (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Baird, John D. “Cowper's Conception of Truth.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 7 (1978): 367-73.

[In the following essay, Baird clarifies Cowper's representation of divine truth in the poems “The Progress of Error” and “Truth.”]

William Cowper's poetical activity extended over half a century, from “Verses written at Bath on finding the heel of a shoe,” composed in 1748 when he was sixteen, to a scrap of translation from Homer written a few months before his death on April 25, 1800. His contemporary fame, and his present reputation, rest upon the two volumes he published in his early fifties: Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple,...

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Richard Feingold (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Feingold, Richard. “William Cowper: State, Society, and Countryside.” In Nature and Society: Later Eighteenth-Century Uses of the Pastoral and Georgic, pp. 121-53. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Feingold evaluates The Task as a public poem, examining the work's principal themes and the dynamics of its social critique.]

The idiosyncrasies of William Cowper's poetic career create an obvious difficulty for a study dealing with his work in a context wider than that provided by the man's life and work themselves. Cowper's life was tormented by a set of symptoms, habits, and fears which his poetry in many places...

(The entire section is 11192 words.)

W. Gerald Marshall (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Marshall, W. Gerald. “The Presence of ‘the Word’ in Cowper's The Task.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 27, no. 3 (summer 1987): 475-87.

[In the following essay, Marshall argues that the loss of contact with the Word of God in the modern city is the central and unifying theme of The Task.]

Throughout his poetic career, William Cowper maintained a strong Christian faith, one rooted in the Evangelicalism of eighteenth-century England.1 A major aspect of that faith involves Cowper's understanding of the Logos, a concept which influences a number of his works. In his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, a fragmentary...

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W. B. Hutchings (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hutchings, W. B. “William Cowper and 1789.” Yearbook of English Studies 19 (1989): 71-93.

[In the following essay, Hutchings evaluates Cowper as a political poet, especially in his responses to the French Revolution.]

If a reader hopes that William Cowper's poem, ‘Annus Mirabilis, 1789’, will provide welcome evidence that the English literary world responded with alacrity to the events in Paris, he or she will be rapidly disabused:

The spring of eighty-nine shall be
An aera cherish'd long by me,
Which joyful I will oft record,
And thankful at my frugal board;
For then the clouds of eighty-eight,
That threaten'd England's trembling state...

(The entire section is 10551 words.)

Dustin Griffin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Griffin, Dustin. “Redefining Georgic: Cowper's Task.ELH 57, no. 4 (winter 1990): 865-79.

[In the following essay, Griffin views The Task as an eighteenth-century modification of the classical Georgic poetic form, while arguing that it depicts a more privatized and spiritualized conception of labor and its relation to the divine order than its predecessors.]

Cowper's Task strikes most readers as a long and meandering discursive poem, divided rather arbitrarily into six books, and unified by little more than its concern with rural pleasures. Does the poem in fact have any clearer focus, any generic principle of order? My suggestion is...

(The entire section is 6102 words.)

Peter Faulkner (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Faulkner, Peter. “William Cowper and the Poetry of Empire.” Durham University Journal (July 1991): 165-73.

[In the following essay, Faulkner focuses on Cowper's expressions of British Imperialist ideology—and its inherent ambivalence—in his poetic works.]

Cowper's ‘Boadicea. An Ode’ must be one of the most forceful and effective Imperialist poems of the late eighteenth century. The regular rhythm of its trochaic quatrains gives weight to the prophecy it announces through the movement back and forth in history. The “British warrior Queen” is presented in heroic terms in her resistance to the invading Romans; Boadicea was already a potent symbol...

(The entire section is 5513 words.)

Richard Terry (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Terry, Richard. “‘Meaner Themes’: Mock-Heroic and Providentialism in Cowper's Poetry.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 34, no. 3 (summer 1994): 617-34.

[In the following essay, Terry analyzes the sources, technique, subject matter, and style of Cowper's mock-heroic poetry, linking these with the poet's belief in Evangelical providentialism.]


William Cowper's poetry has traditionally been seen in two opposite ways: either as a late relic of English Augustanism or as a harbinger of a newer romantic aesthetic.1 This ambivalence is nowhere more evident than in his handling of one particular form: mock-heroic....

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Deborah Heller (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Heller, Deborah. “Cowper's Task and the Writing of a Poet's Salvation.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, no. 3 (summer 1995): 575-98.

[In the following essay, Heller interprets The Task as Cowper's effort to sublimate his personal belief that he was spiritually condemned into a poetic manifestation of God's approval.]


In the summer of 1764, while a patient at St. Albans Asylum for the Insane, William Cowper underwent a conversion to Calvinist Evangelicalism. During an intense bout of paranoia and self-contempt, he found a faith to save him from despair, a revivalist brand of Calvinism which stressed the...

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Karen O'Brien (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: O'Brien, Karen. “‘Still at Home’: Cowper's Domestic Empires.” In Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth, edited by Thomas Woodman, pp. 134-47. London: Macmillan, 1998.

[In the following essay, O'Brien probes Cowper's juxtaposition of private and public concerns, and his moral focus on the still, small, quiet and humble in The Task.]

Questions of William Cowper's sense of empire are like those of his ‘pre-romanticism’: more interesting in the details. The British Empire raises difficulties of style and poetic mode of address in Cowper's poetry which force him to a final reckoning with the traditions of...

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Further Reading


Cecil, David. Prologue to The Stricken Deer, or the Life of Cowper, pp. 13-29. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1930.

Comments on the poet's relation to eighteenth-century literature and the duality of madness and the mundane in his life.

Ellison, Julie. “News, Blues, and Cowper's Busy World.” Modern Language Quarterly 62, no. 3 (2001): 219-37.

Evaluates Cowper as “the earliest and most influential adapter of the newspaper to reflective poetry” in Britain, focusing on his long poem The Task.

Kroitor, Harry P. “The Influence of Popular Science on William Cowper.”...

(The entire section is 381 words.)