The poetry of William Cowper is notable for its heralding and fostering the transition to a more natural and simple style than that of Alexander Pope and other neoclassical poets. Cowper uses material which is autobiographical, personal, and subjective, and he demonstrates an interest in rural and domestic settings. Although his primary mood is lyrical, he is also a poet of satire which is characterized by good humor and is, consequently, deficient in verve and incisiveness. His sense of man’s limitations leads him, unlike the neoclassical poets, to urge a reliance on the plan and mercy of God.
Cowper’s poetic contribution to the sentimental movement emphasizes serenity and quietness rather than the emotional turbulence of his personal life. As a young man he suffered fits of depression which developed into suicidal mania, causing him to withdraw for convalescence to a secluded life in the country. He then lived for about two years in Huntingdon in the home of the Reverend Morley Unwin. After Unwin’s death in 1767, he moved with Mrs. Unwin and her two children to the village of Olney, where he wrote his best work. At Olney he also came under the influence of John Newton, the evangelical curate there. Cowper became engaged to Mrs. Unwin, but another outbreak of mania in 1773 prevented their marriage. In the years just preceding this illness he had written most of the sixty-eight hymns which he contributed to Newton’s OLNEY HYMNS.
At the end of 1779, Newton moved to a London rectory, and for Cowper the most placid years of his adult life ensued. Mrs. Unwin encouraged him to a more serious literary effort than the composition of light, playful verses which had occupied much of his time since his recovery, and during one winter, 1780-1781, he wrote “Progress of Error,” “Truth,” “Table Talk,” and “Expostulation.” In February, 1782, these and four other long poems, besides various shorter pieces, appeared in the volume POEMS BY WILLIAM COWPER, OF THE INNER TEMPLE, ESQ. The book was variously evaluated by the literary journals but was warmly praised in a letter from Benjamin Franklin, who was then in France. For the most part, the poems in the volume satirize a society known to a religious recluse mainly by way of report or memory. With a definite theological bias about the corruption of human nature, he makes moral and didactic pronouncements about the “luxury” of his time. Frequently, however, the poems show forceful writing, quiet humor, and fine critical touches, and in “Table Talk” the volume contains the first unmistakable pronouncement of what later became Wordsworth’s revolution against elegant form.
The satire in Cowper’s “The Progress of Error” is directed against the most noticeable vices and foibles of the day. Lord Chesterfield (Petronius), for instance, appears as a corrupter of youth. The “quavering and semi-quavering” Occiduus apparently is not Charles Wesley, as has been supposed, but a clergyman of a...
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