Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910
William Cowper was born on November 26, 1731, in Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, England. He was the fourth child of the Reverend Dr. John Cowper, rector of Great Berkhampstead, and Ann Donne. Both parents represented distinguished families. The Cowpers had distinguished themselves by loyalty to the Crown, and John Cowper’s uncle, Sir William, had been created baron in 1706 and earl in 1718. The Donnes were of even nobler lineage and traced descent from Henry III. The famous seventeenth century poet, John Donne, was of the same illustrious family. John and Ann had seven children, but only William and their last child, also named John, survived infancy. Very shortly after the birth of John, Ann died; William was only six at the time.
Cowper’s father appears to have been neither a cruel nor especially loving parent. Shortly after Ann’s death, young William was sent away to school. This early separation from his parent—not unusual in upper-class households—seems to have affected the poet greatly, because several years later, Cowper attacked the practice and the school system in general in a poem, Tirocinium (1785). While a student at Westminster, Cowper met his first love, his cousin Theodora. The affair was terminated in 1756, but it is commemorated in nineteen sentimental love poems addressed to Delia. Cowper suffered his first severe attack of depression in 1752. He was studying law at the time and was called to the bar in 1754. Although he had no great fondness for the profession, his family had thought it best that he have some livelihood.
In 1759, Cowper was appointed commissioner of bankrupts, a minor governmental post that paid very little. Out of the need for financial security, he applied for an appointment to the post of clerk of the journals of the House of Lords. When the incumbent clerk died, Cowper’s appointment was put forward only to be challenged by supporters of another candidate. In 1763, Cowper learned that he would have to face an examination to determine the best applicant. This prospect greatly aggravated his already depressed state, and he experienced a severe mental breakdown during which he unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Clearly, he could not occupy a government post. The sense of rejection as a consequence of this realization joined with the recollection of his mother’s death, and the broken affair with Theodora led Cowper to imagine that his exile from normal human relationships was God’s sign to him that he was also excluded from the company of the blessed for all eternity.
Following an eighteen-month residence in an asylum, Cowper moved to the country, where he soon made the acquaintance of the Unwin family. He resided with that cheerful and cordial family in Huntingdon and then accompanied Mrs. Unwin in her move to the town of Olney following the sudden death of her husband. Here, Cowper met the revivalist minister John Newton, and for a time, he enjoyed a useful and productive existence. He became interested in the problems of the poor and various charitable activities and joined with Newton in writing a collection of hymns that was later published as the Olney Hymns. In January, 1773, however, shortly before his planned marriage to the widowed Mrs. Unwin, Cowper again suffered a period of instability. Convinced by a terrifying dream that it was God’s will, he once again attempted suicide. His failure only added to his distress, for now, sure that he had failed to obey God’s command, he became utterly convinced of his damnation. Although he recovered from the 1773 breakdown, despair never left him.
Largely as a distraction, Cowper turned his attention...
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to writing poetry, and in February, 1782, he published his first significant collection. The early 1780’s were made happier for Cowper by his friendship with Lady Austin, who had taken up residence near Olney. It was at the suggestion of this good-humored lady that in July, 1783, he began his masterpiece,The Task. That poem provided the title for his next collection that appeared in 1785. However, whatever joy Cowper may have derived from the favorable public response to his new volume was soon erased by the death of Mrs. Unwin’s son, William. This shock, plus the anxiety caused by moving from his beloved Olney to Weston, was more than Cowper could endure, and in 1787, he again lost his grip on reality.
Following his recovery, Cowper again turned to writing. He began a translation of Homer and addressed himself to social issues, especially the fight against slavery. For a few years at least, he was able to reproduce the routine and uneventful living he had enjoyed at Olney. In December, 1791, however, Mrs. Unwin suffered a stroke; in May, 1792, she suffered another that rendered her immobile and speechless. She recovered somewhat, but the guilt Cowper felt at recalling how her life had been spent in his care, plunged him again into deep melancholy. His feelings are well expressed in “To Mary,” written in the fall of 1793. Not even the satisfaction of his great poetic fame and an annual pension of three hundred pounds from George III could lift him from despair or silence the voices of eternal doom that came to him at night. On December 17, 1796, Mrs. Unwin died. “The Castaway,” composed in 1799, is one of the bleakest poems in English and itself sufficient comment on the last three years of Cowper’s life. On April 25, 1800, after a one-month struggle with edema, he died. A witness described his last facial expression as one of “holy surprise.”