Other literary forms
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.