William Lisle Bowles Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Lisle Bowles was born on September 24, 1762, at Kings Sutton, Northamptonshire (his father’s vicarage), the son and grandson of clergymen and the eldest of seven children. At the age of seven he moved with his parents to Uphill, Somerset; on the journey southward, young Bowles saw the Severn Valley and derived from it a lifelong association of poetry with picturesque scenery.

From 1775 to 1781, Bowles was educated at Winchester School under Joseph Warton, who had written an essay critical of Alexander Pope and was a pre-Romantic advocate of descriptive poetry. Warton’s feeling for nature, dislike of neoclassical rules, and knowledge of Vergil impressed Bowles (see his “Monody on the Death of Dr. Warton,” 1819), who thereafter followed and enlarged on Warton’s precepts. In 1781, Bowles went on to Trinity College, Oxford, where his master, Thomas Warton, Joseph’s brother, further reinforced Bowles’s dislike of neoclassicism and preference for lyric poetry, the ode and sonnet in particular. Bowles wrote “On Leaving Winchester School,” his first important poem, retrospectively in 1782.

His record at Oxford was that of an unusually able student. In 1782, for example, Bowles won a scholarship that sustained him for the next five years. In 1783, his “Calpe Obsessa” (on the Siege of Gibraltar) was the Latin prize poem. Three years later, however, in 1786, Bowles’s father died, leaving the family in difficult financial straits. Though Bowles received his B.A. degree the next year, his engagement to a niece of Sir Samuel Romilly appeared imprudent to her parents and was summarily broken off. In his disappointment, Bowles elected to travel through northern England, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. While thus relieved, he composed a series of sonnets; published in 1789 at Bath as Fourteen Sonnets, they quickly made him famous.

Wordsworth, on vacation from Cambridge, read Bowles’s sonnets that Christmas in London, as he was walking the streets with his brother John, and (as Mary Moorman has it in her biography of Wordsworth), “their graceful melancholy, dwelling on the memories of beloved places, at once made a strong appeal.” Bowles’s influence on Wordsworth is traceable in the latter’s work from Descriptive Sketches (1793) to “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798). The first edition of Bowles’s sonnets that Wordsworth read, however, was a rarity, for only one hundred copies were published. There soon followed a second edition (also 1789) containing twenty-one sonnets, which Coleridge read—he was then a seventeen-year-old schoolboy at Christ’s Hospital—and transcribed endlessly for his literary friends. As J. Shawcross has remarked, “in Bowles’s sonnets Coleridge found the first genuinely unconventional treatment of Nature, the first genuine stimulus to an understanding of her ’perpetual revelation’” (Biographia Literaria, 1817). One of those to whom Coleridge sent Bowles’s sonnets was Robert Southey, who soon shared his enthusiasm for them. “Buy Bowles poems, and study them well,” he advised a friend in 1794. “They will teach you to write better, and give you infinite pleasure.” Bowles was a major influence on Coleridge and his circle from 1789 to 1797, and these years were also the Wiltshire parson’s most prolific.

The Fourteen Sonnets proved to be a remarkable success. Following the first and second editions of 1789, there was a third in 1794 containing twenty-seven sonnets and thirteen other poems. The fourth edition of 1796 was little changed, but the fifth (1796; two new poems) and sixth (1798; thirty sonnets and sixteen other poems, including Hope) both contained additions and plates. Less significant, except as evidence of Bowles’s continuing popularity, were editions seven (1800), eight (1801), nine (1805), and ten (1809). Coleridge followed the earlier editions as they appeared and even wrote Bowles (whom he visited in September, 1797) to comment on his various omissions and emendations.

Coleridge acknowledged his own profound indebtedness to Bowles in a sonnet of December, 1794, “To the Rev. W. L. Bowles,” which was printed in the Morning Chronicle, a London newspaper, on the day after Christmas, together with a note from Coleridge praising Bowles’s sonnets XIII (“At a Convent”), XIX, and XXV as “compositions of, perhaps, unrivalled merit.” In Poems on Various Subjects (1796), Coleridge reprinted his Bowles sonnet in a revised form. That same year he also published A Sheet of Sonnets, twenty-eight in all, designed to be bound up with...

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