William Cowper Cowper, William (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Olney Hymns [with John Newton] (hymns) 1779

Poems Of William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. (poetry) 1782

The Task (poetry) 1785

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey [translator] (poetry) 1791

Poems (poetry) 1798

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

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

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

Hugh I’Anson Fausset (essay date 1928)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: William Cowper, Jonathan Cape, 1928, pp. 135-171.

[In the following excerpt, Fausset explores the nuances of Cowper's letters.]

Letter-writing, as an art, is subject to the same conditions as any other art. Ideally a letter must in every phrase and sentence express a personality: it must convey an illusion of spontaneity, but it must not reflect an unorganized impulse. Its language must be conversational (as Cowper wrote to Lady Hesketh—‘When I read your letters I hear you talk, and I love talking letters dearly’), but its conversation must be so choice as to be keyed up above the level of the accidental. It must speak directly and even casually to its...

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Lodwick C. Hartley (essay date 1938)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Short View of Education,” in William Cowper: Humanitarian, Chapel Hill, 1938, pp. 162-205.

[In the following essay, Hartley describes Cowper's view of education, arguing that although Cowper's ideas are based mainly on religion, they can still serve as general suggestions on the topic.]


Although in the eighteenth century continental Europe was the scene of much activity in the field of educational reform, England was notoriously backward in the development of her educational system.1 One does not doubt that a great amount of the ignorance and depravity found in all levels of English society during the century is...

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Morris Golden (essay date 1960)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Golden explores the symbolism in Cowper's poetry in an attempt to uncover the poet's attitudes about himself.]

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 produced Chesterfield and Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century gentleman. He is in part all of these, and I should like to examine...

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William N. Free (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Short Poems, Lyric and Comic,” in William Cowper, Twayne Publishers, 1970, pp. 152-173.

[In the following essay, Free offers a comprehensive analysis of Cowper's shorter poems, demonstrating that a sense of control, and reference to external objects as markers of internal states are important to Cowper's verse.]

At the end of the fourth book of The Task, Cowper, after referring to the placidness of his life at Olney, hails rural life, the “patroness of health and ease / And contemplation,” and resolves never to add himself “to the pursuit / Of honors, or emolument, or fame.” “Great offices,” he continues,


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Vincent Newey (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Moral Satires and Retirement,” in Cowper's Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment, Liverpool University Press, 1982, pp. 50-90.

[In the following excerpt, Newey examines the moral content of Cowper's satires and compares them to the poet's freer style in Retirement.]

Table Talk, which comes first in the volume of 1782, is in a way the odd poem out among the Moral Satires, being the only one to move to any real extent in the realm of public affairs. Indeed, no poem in English concerns itself more directly with pressing political issues: the catastrophic course of the war against the American colonies; the efforts of George III to...

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J. R. Watson (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Cowper's Olney Hymns,” in Essays and Studies, Vol. 38, 1985, pp. 45-65.

[In the following essay, Watson offers a close reading of Cowper's hymns.]

Cowper's share in the Olney Hymns of 1779 has received less attention than the remainder of his poetry. This is partly because of a prejudice against hymns, those ‘quatrains shovelled out four-square’ as Robert Lowell described them,1 which led early critics such as Goldwin Smith into a brusque and sweeping dismissal (‘Cowper's Olney Hymns have not any serious value as poetry. Hymns rarely have.’2); and even if we reject this as unconsidered and intemperate,...

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James King (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Homer: The Heroic Task,” in William Cowper, a Biography, Duke University Press, 1986, pp. 189-218.

[In the following essay, King details Cowper's experience of translating Homer's Illiad and Odyssey.]


Cowper's translation into English blank verse of the Iliad and Odyssey was the most complex literary project in which he ever became involved. Up to the publication of The Task in 1785, Cowper had been a gentleman who wrote verses for publication, but with Homer he frequently saw himself as a professional writer dedicated to fame and royalties. Although he referred occasionally in his extant...

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James King (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “William Cowper's New Aesthetic in The Task,” in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 264, 1989, pp. 1080-84.

[In the following essay, King outlines some factors contributing to the final structure of The Task. He cites various social movements of the time and compares Cowper to Laurence Sterne.]

At the time of its publication in 1785, William Cowper's The Task was a critical and popular success. However, even its earliest reviewers complained about the poem's lack of unity. Even while he was in the midst of writing the poem, Cowper was aware of this problem, as he told his friend, William Unwin, on 10 October 1784:...

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Andrew Elfenbein (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Cowper's Task and the Anxieties of Femininity,” in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 13, No. 3, Nov. 1989, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Elfenbein analyzes Cowper's treatment of femininity in The Task.]

The poetry of William Cowper, especially his most famous poem, The Task, both encapsulates the developments of eighteenth-century poetry from Popean satire to the doctrine of sensibility and anticipates the achievements of the early romantics. The Task, more than any other poem of the later eighteenth century, functions as a turning point in literary history because of its radical redefinition of possibilities for the poetic subject....

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George Melvyn Ella (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Walking into Public Notice” in William Cowper: Poet of Paradise, Evangelical Press, 1993, pp. 243-285.

[In the following excerpt, Ella describes Cowper's public life. He details correspondence both with friends, such as Unwin and Newton, and enemies, such as Martin Madan.]

After the publication of the Olney Hymns in 1779 Cowper's health improved greatly and the poet began to look around for new themes for his pen. Most of these he gathered from the news he obtained through his correspondence with friends such as William Unwin, Joseph Hill and John Newton and from the events recorded in the newspapers. Unwin, for instance, wrote complaining of those...

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Richard Terry (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Meaner Themes’: Mock-Heroic and Providentialism in Cowper's Poetry,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 617-34.

[In the following essay, Terry examines Cowper's mock-heroic poems, arguing that they are often allegories for providentialism. He also situates Cowper between the Augustans and the Romantics.]


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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Karen O’Brien (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Still at Home’: Cowper's Domestic Empires,” in Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth, St. Martin's Press, 1998, pp. 134-47.

[In the following essay, O’Brien explores Cowper's interest in politics, particularly in British Imperialism.]

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 eighteenth-century poetry, if not, ultimately, to the invention of anything we would conventionally describe...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Baird, John D., and Charles Ryskamp, eds. The Poems of William Cowper, Volume III, 1785-1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, 413 p.

A collection of Cowper's poems, with commentary and an explanation of sources.

King, James, and Charles Ryskamp, eds. William Cowper: Selected Letters. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989, 236 p.

A compilation of Cowper's letters, with a chronology and a list of letters.


Cecil, David. The Stricken Deer, or The Life of Cowper. London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1929, 303 p.

Biography treating...

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