William Cowper 1731–-1800
English poet, satirist, letter writer, essayist, and translator. For further information on Cowper's career, see NCLC, Vol. 80.
Considered one of the forerunners of Romanticism in England, Cowper was one of the most popular poets of the eighteenth century. His comic ballad “The Journey of John Gilpin (1782) established his literary reputation, his Olney Hymns (co-written with John Newton in 1779) were incorporated into Evangelical liturgy, and his satires enjoyed widespread popularity. He is remembered today for the spontaneity and simplicity of his nature lyrics, the earnest, personal tone of his religious poetry, and the sensibility and wit embodied in his satires and letters.
Cowper was born in Great Berkhamsted, in Hertfordshire, England, into a distinguished aristocratic family. His father was a rector, and served as chaplain to George II, while his ancestors on his father's side were prominent public servants as well in government and law. Meanwhile, his mother was a descendent of the seventeenth-century poet John Donne. Mrs. Cowper's death 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. The next year, Cowper attended Dr. Pitman's school at Markyate. There, he was mercilessly bullied by older boys, an ordeal that appeared to haunt Cowper throughout his life. As a result, he developed what is believed to be a psychosomatic eye ailment. Following his recuperation, 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 tragically when their parents refused to permit them to marry. This experience marked the onset of Cowper's emotional decline. He attempted suicide in 1763, and was hospitalized in St. Albans for two years as a result of his nervous breakdown. His 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 Reverend Unwin in 1767, Cowper and the rest of the household moved to Olney, where Cowper decided to follow a literary career. Here he enjoyed unprecedented happiness, which can be seen in his poetry. He wrote some of his best works at Olney, apparently experiencing a great sense of well-being from his Evangelical beliefs and the orderly rural life of Olney. However, in 1773 he again succumbed to mental illness. Biographers speculate that his illness derived from anxiety over his announced engagement to Mary Unwin, the widow of the Evangelical minister, and the religious gloom brought on by association with his fanatical pastor, John Newton. He and Mrs. Unwin never married, but moved together to Weston where Cowper witnessed the long illness and death, in 1796, of his devoted companion. Despite his personal difficulties, Cowper was considered one of his generation's greatest poets, and shortly before his death he was rewarded with the tribute of a royal pension arranged by his friend, the noted author William Hayley.
Cowper's first major publication came in 1779, when he collaborated with John Newton on the Olney Hymns. Several of these evangelical hymns, including “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and “Oh, for a Closer Walk with God,” have become popular enough to pass into the Evangelical tradition. Critics often ignore the hymns, or criticize them for doctrinal inaccuracy and fanatical narrative voice, although some praise their personal tone and vivid Biblical imagery. His next important work was Poems (1782), which includes the long poem “Table Talk,” four satires on philosophical subjects, and shorter lyrics such as “Boadicea” and “Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk.” These works often carry a didactic message, as Cowper explores the proper moral relationship of human beings with nature, with society, and with God. The general style of these poems is natural and spontaneous, often exalting nature. Cowper's next work, The Task(1785), became his most popular, winning him critical and popular attention. A poem in six books, The Task extends the subjects Cowper had already been exploring, but it treats them in a wittier, more satirical manner. The Tasks's elegant use of blank verse, along with its descriptive detail and deft use of satire won it immediate success. Critics also credit Cowper with introducing new themes into English poetry, including such subjects as the love of animals and domestic life. Included in this volume is “The Journey of John Gilpin,” a ballad ostensibly about the adventures of a tailor, but in reality a parody of poetic conventions. Cowper's next endeavor, a translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1791), proved to be much more difficult and time-consuming than he had originally guessed. Although some of his friends and fellow writers tried to dissuade him at various times from continuing the project, he finally completed the translations to mixed reviews in 1791. The Poems of 1798 includes “On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture,” “The Castaway,” and “Yardley Oak.” Among these poems are some of Cowper's most ecstatic and whimsical, but also his darkest and most despairing. Many critics view these poems as immediate precursors to the meditative style of Romanticism. Cowper's Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. (1816), published posthumously, recounts his first attack of mental illness, his subsequent treatment, and his religious rebirth. While critics praise the candor and analytical detachment of this work, it is his letters, published in The Life and Works of William Cowper (1835-37) that have garnered the most popularity. His letters provide precise observation, humor, and ability to make everyday subjects interesting. His correspondence reveals much of his love of nature and his deep attachment to his close friends.
Much critical interest in Cowper stems from his placement between the Neo-Classic and Romantic periods of English literature. Some place him firmly with the eighteenth century poets, citing his use of satire and moral didacticism, while others clearly see him as one of the first Romantic poets, based on his interest in nature and his focus on everyday, personal events. Most acknowledge that he belongs solely to neither movement, but exhibits the characteristics of each to varying extents.
Much criticism revolves around Cowper's personal life and ideas. Morris Golden and Richard Terry look at Cowper's poetry as a way to uncover the mental state of the poet. James King and Vincent Newey examine some political events that may have impacted Cowper's style. While few critics acknowledge Cowper's interest in politics, Newey and Karen O’Brien point out evidence of his political views in his poems. For this poet, personal life and poetry seem inextricable. In the tradition of Rousseau and John Wesley, Cowper was a critic of educational practices. Lodwick C. Hartley examines Cowper's poetry and letters to find that his views of education, while based on religious ideas, are expandable to any form of education.
Of Cowper's poetry, The Task has inspired the most critical commentary. Many critics see this work as his crowning achievement, and much has been written about it. While some contemporary critics cite this work's lack of unity and coherence, many see it as a complex, tightly knit poem, which not only conveys intensely emotional passages, but also extends astute social and philosophical commentary. Recent critics have focused on Cowper's correspondence, examining its stylistic elegance and sincerely emotional form. The letters also offer insights into Cowper's personality and political views. No less than Robert Southey has declared Cowper the best letter writer in the English language. Cowper's shorter poems, however, have received much less attention. William Free offers a close analysis of many of these poems, demonstrating their importance alongside longer works, such as The Task.
Because of his relation to and influence on poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, Cowper holds much interest for critics of the Romantic tradition in poetry. In addition, his moral didacticism makes him important to Neo-Classical or Augustan critics, and scholars of English letter-writing must give Cowper credit for greatly influencing the field with his correspondence with friends and enemies.