The first popular poetic success of William Cowper was The Task, which was also his first major venture in blank verse. For the fifty-four-year-old recluse, the reception of his poem must have had a salutary effect, for he went on to become, according to his greatest champion, Robert Southey, “The most popular poet of his generation.”
Cowper’s place in literary history is often in dispute. He was born exactly one hundred years after John Dryden and completed his best work in the year of Samuel Johnson’s death. He neither aspired to become poet laureate nor wished to be the critical arbiter of his day. In many ways, however, he was the successor of both Dryden and Johnson. Cowper’s blank verse is perhaps the best between that of seventeenth century poet John Milton and William Wordsworth’s work in the early nineteenth century; his criticism expresses dissatisfaction with the extreme formalism of his age and anticipates, in some measure, the nineteenth century revolt against neoclassicism. He is usually said to be a writer of this transition toward Romanticism and realism.
His first work of any magnitude, Olney Hymns (1779), he undertook with his evangelical friend, the Reverend John Newton, while living at Olney with the Unwin family. “Oh! for a closer walk with God” is the most beautiful of his hymns.
Although Cowper’s writing of the then-fashionable couplet was not successful, his early verse was at least simple. He objected strenuously to Alexander Pope’s influence, which resulted in the highly ornamented versification of that age. Several long poems in this genre, published in 1782, serve as a kind of prelude to The Task. “Table Talk,” written in rather abstract couplets, is a dialogue concerning the political, social, moral, and literary topics of the day. Here Cowper’s dislike for the artifice of the eighteenth century is quite clear, and he damns most of the literary cults with faint praise, at the same time urging a return to God and nature for inspiration. “The Progress of Error” outlines the follies of high life and living as these affect the social structure: In this work he suggests a return to Christianity for the solutions to vexing problems. “Truth” extends Cowper’s religious beliefs almost as if his distant relation, the cleric John Donne, were making himself felt. Cowper’s thesis in the poem is that pride is truth’s greatest foe, while humility will uplift humankind. In “Expostulation,” he particularly decries anti-Semitism and urges England to remove this mote from the public eye. “Hope” and “Charity” celebrate God’s nature (not the human nature of the Age of Reason) as the proper study, or at least reflection, of humanity. Satirically, he contrasts humanity’s ways with God’s. Another poem of this early group is “Retirement,” an apology for his life as a recluse, his justification for giving up a life of action for the contemplative life of the poet.
In 1783, one of Cowper’s intimate friends, Lady Austen, urged him to abandon...
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