William Cowper Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The Olney Hymns are now commonly studied as poems. Of the sixty-four hymns contributed to the volume by William Cowper (KEW-pur), only a very few still appear in church hymnals. The hymn, however, while certainly kin to the poem, presents unique demands on the author and cannot be judged fairly by the same critical standards. The hymn must try to reflect universal Christian feelings on a level immediately recognizable to all the human souls and intellects that make up a congregation. It must be orthodox and express only the expected. It must be simple, and above all it must not reveal what is individual about the author. To the extent that Cowper’s unique genius could not always be restrained by convention, he is not consistently as good a hymnist as Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley.

In the eighteenth century, the familiar letter became so artistically refined that modern literary scholars now regard it as a minor literary form. Cowper’s collected correspondence fills four volumes (Wright edition, 1904) and treats an incredible range of subjects and themes with great insight, humor, and style. Literary historians regard him as one of the finest letter writers in English.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Modern literary historians commonly assign William Cowper to the ranks of the so-called pre-Romantics, and to be sure, his subjective voice, preference for the rural to the urban, and social concern are qualities more easily discernible in the poetry of the early nineteenth century than of the late eighteenth century. Cowper, however, was not attempting to create a literary movement. The poetry characteristic of his later years is clearly a perfection of themes and forms that occupied his attention from the first, and those early efforts are not radical departures from what is considered mainstream neoclassicism. Satire, mock-heroic, general nature description, all are present, but Cowper grew in his art and was not concerned that his growth made him into something a bit different.

Cowper’s satires, for example, are notable for a measure of charity toward their subjects, charity that he saw was lacking in the satires of Alexander Pope and his contemporaries. Moreover, Cowper was greatly interested in poetic structure but also felt that the poetry of his age put too much emphasis on structure at the expense of real human personality. The canon of Cowper’s work is of a very uneven quality, but his finest efforts, such as The Task, display an unobtrusive structure and identifiable human presence uncommon in the neoclassical age, and they are fine by the standards of any age. Perhaps his outstanding structural achievement is the conversational blank verse used in The Task. There is no more interesting development in that form between John Milton and William Wordsworth. However, while Cowper’s critical reputation is quite good, he is not regarded as one of the major figures in English letters. The conventions of neoclassical poetry had been manipulated with greater skill by Pope, and the new directions suggested by Cowper would be shortly perfected by Wordsworth. Thus, the achievement of Cowper, by no means insignificant, is somewhat obscured by the giants who surround him.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Brunström, Conrad. William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2004. A critical study of the poet’s significance. Aimed at serious scholars.

Cowper, William. The Centenary Letters. Edited by Simon Malpas. Manchester, England: Fyfield Books, 2000. A collection of Cowper’s correspondence with a biographical introduction by Malpas.

Ella, George Melvyn. William Cowper: Poet of Paradise. Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1993. Criticism and interpretation of Cowper’s work with an extensive bibliography.

Free, William Norris. William Cowper. New York: Twayne, 1970. This 215-page work takes a biographical approach to interpretations of The Task, Olney Hymns, and Cowper’s short poems. Norris suggests that Cowper’s experiences had influence on poetic elements such as theme, structure, tone, and metaphor. Includes a lengthy bibliography, notes, and an index.

Hopps, Gavin, and Jane Stabler, eds. Romanticism and Religion from William Cowper to Wallace Stevens. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006. Contains an essay on Cowper’s poetry that presents his religious views and places him among the Romanticists.

King, James. William Cowper: A Biography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. The standard biography that corrected many of the oversights and inaccuracies of early biographies. The poetical works are discussed as markers in the chronology of Cowper’s life. The 340-page work includes an extensive index and notes.

Newey, Vincent. Cowper’s Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1982. Newey’s intelligent approach closely examines Cowper’s work psychodramatically and sees the poet as a genius craftsperson of complex, contemporary, relevant poetry. The 358-page volume looks at The Task, moral satires, hymns, and comic verse. Includes a chronology and index of persons and works.

Nicholson, Norman. William Cowper. 1951. Reprint. London: Longman, 1970. A comprehensive critical work that primarily discusses the influence of the evangelical revival on Cowper. Nicholson sees Evangelicalism as a vigorous and emotional movement that paralleled Romanticism. Although Cowper’s poetic sensibility first developed under Evangelicalism, his early poetry reflects contemporary religious and social thought and later becomes partially independent of the movement to share aspects with Romanticism.

Ryskamp, Charles. William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959. This 270-page book studies Cowper’s life and works before 1786, focusing on his life and literary activities as a Templar and gentleman. Appendixes include previously uncollected letters, essays, poems, and contributions to magazines. Supplemented by illustrations, notes on Cowper’s friends and relatives, and an index.