William Cowper 1731-1800
English poet, hymn writer, satirist, letter writer, essayist, and translator. See also William Cowper Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.
Considered a transitional figure in English poetry whose works embody both eighteenth and nineteenth-century styles and concerns, Cowper was a forerunner of Romanticism in England and one of the most popular poets of his age. Known for his early comic ballad, “The Journey of John Gilpin,” which established his literary reputation, the Olney Hymns (1779), now a part of Evangelical liturgy, and his mock-heroic verse satires, Cowper is principally remembered for his discursive and conversational blank verse masterpiece, The Task (1785). A poem composed in response to Lady Austen's flippant remark that he write on the subject of her sofa, the six highly descriptive books of The Task demonstrate Cowper's contention that repose in the country lends itself to the cultivation of “piety and virtue,” while life in the city degrades humankind by its corruptive influence. The work is viewed as Cowper's lasting poetic expression on nature, society, God, and man, as it regards subjects ranging from the topical and trivial to the national and spiritual. Additionally, Cowper continues to be regarded for the spontaneity and simplicity of his nature lyrics, the earnest, personal tone of his religious poetry, and the wit embodied in his satires and correspondence.
Cowper was born in Great Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, into a distinguished aristocratic family. The death of his mother, a descendant of the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne, 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. In 1738, Cowper entered Dr. Pitman's school at Markyate. There, he was mercilessly bullied by older boys, an ordeal that appeared to haunt Cowper throughout his life. 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 when their parents refused to permit them to marry. This experience contributed to the onset of Cowper's emotional decline. Having transferred to the Inner Temple in 1757, Cowper suffered a nervous breakdown six years later, shortly before he was to sit for a formal examination to become clerk of journals at the House of Lords. His failed suicide attempt led to hospitalization at St. Albans for the next two years. Cowper's 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 the Reverend Unwin in 1767, Cowper and the rest of the household moved to Olney, where Cowper pursued a literary career. Here he completed his best work and enjoyed a period of unprecedented happiness. However, in 1773 he suffered a new bout of mental illness, likely derived from anxiety over his announced engagement to Mary Unwin, the widow of the Evangelical minister, and from the religious gloom brought on by his association with the pastor, John Newton. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin never married, but moved together to Weston where the poet experienced two more breakdowns in 1786 and 1794. In 1795, he witnessed the long illness and death of his devoted companion. Despite such personal difficulties, Cowper enjoyed a reputation as one of his generation's greatest poets. Shortly before his death at East Dereham in 1800, he was rewarded with the tribute of a royal pension arranged by his friend, the noted author William Hayley.
The Olney Hymns, Cowper's first major publication, was a collaborative effort with his spiritual mentor, John Newton, who contributed the greatest number of pieces. Among the most popular of Cowper's hymns in the collection, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and “Oh for a Closer Walk with God” have since passed into Evangelical tradition. Highly personal in tone and displaying vivid Biblical imagery, the Olney Hymns treat the recurrent theme of humanity's need for salvation. The volume Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. first appeared in 1782, and includes the long poem “Table Talk,” four satires on philosophical subjects, reflective verses on issues of moral and theological import, such as “The Progress of Error” and “Truth,” as well as the shorter lyrics “Boadicea” and “Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk.” Characterized by Cowper's spontaneous, natural diction and emotional response to nature, many of these poems also demonstrate a didactic tendency as the poet repeatedly explores the proper moral relationship of human beings with nature, society, and God. A discursive poem in six books of blank verse, The Task presents a number of Cowper's usual themes, but in a witty and satirical manner that generally departs from the meditative and didactic tone of his earlier poetry. Distinguished by its abundant descriptive detail and conversational mode, The Task is credited with introducing new motifs into English poetry, including such subjects as the love of animals and domestic life. Cowper included “The Journey of John Gilpin” in the same volume, which is a ballad ostensibly about the adventures of a tailor, but in reality a raucous parody of poetic conventions. A departure from his otherwise well-received original poetry, Cowper's blank verse translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (1791) was generally considered inferior to that of his contemporary Alexander Pope, a work he had hoped it would supersede. A subsequent collection of Poems appeared in 1798, containing “On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture,” “Yardley Oak,” a sonnet “To Mrs Unwin,” and the mock-elegy “On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton's Bulfinch”—a number of Cowper's most enduring poems. Among these are found brilliant satirical verses, alongside his most elegiac and ecstatic poems, as well as his darkest and most grief-stricken. The collection was subsequently expanded to include works Cowper composed in his final years, notably “The Castaway,” written in 1799, which eloquently documents his anguished feelings of despair and spiritual torment. The poet's Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq., published posthumously in 1816, recounts his first attack of mental illness, his subsequent treatment, and his religious rebirth with both candor and an almost analytical detachment. Cowper's letters, first published in The Life and Works of William Cowper (1835-37), are unanimously admired for their humor, precise observation, and capacity to express mundane subjects in a lively and engaging manner as they depict Cowper's love of nature and genuine humanitarianism.
Cowper's historical position as a transitional figure between the Neoclassical and Romantic periods in English literature has inspired a combined critical interest in his life and works. Many critics contend that Cowper's use of blank verse, his interest in nature, his focus on everyday life, and his emotional response to the world around him link him to Romantic poets like George Crabbe, Robert Burns, and William Wordsworth. Nevertheless, early reviewers considered his verse unpoetical; among them the renowned nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt decried Cowper's weakness in depicting nature. Yet others have praised his shrewd social commentary and self-analysis, and they find that Cowper's poetry, like his life, encompasses both the emotionalism of the Romantic era and elements of Neoclassical order and rationalism. Additionally, many critics contend that Cowper's later Poems, especially “Yardley Oak,” clearly foreshadow the descriptive and meditative poetic style of high Romanticism. Overall, The Task has inspired the most critical commentary among Cowper's poetic works. While early critics tended to disparage the apparent lack of unity and plan in The Task, more contemporary scholars have disputed this charge. Citing Cowper's interweaving of themes and counterthemes in the poem, Morris Golden described The Task as “a unified recording and communication of an intense emotional perception of reality.” At the close of the twentieth century, several critics were attracted to Cowper's status as a public poet, discussing his verse commentary on contemporary English society and British imperialism, as well as his importance as a deeply religious writer concerned with Evangelicalism and Christian Providentialism.