William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

William Cowper (1731-1800). Portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott (1760-1802), 1792. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

William Cowper
Born November 11 (Template:Four digit-09)
Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England
Died April Template:Dda
East Dereham, Norfolk, England
Occupation poet
Education Westminster School
Genres hymns

William Cowper (pronounced "Cooper") (26 November 1731 - 25 April 1800)[1] was an English poet and hymnist. He has been called "the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth."[2]



Cowper was the son of Rev. John Cowper, chaplain to George II. He was a shy and timid child; the death of his mother when he was 6 years old, and the sufferings inflicted upon him by a bullying schoolfellow at his earliest school, wounded his tender and shrinking spirit irrecoverably. He was sent to Westminster School, where he had for schoolfellows Churchill, the poet, and Warren Hastings. The powerful legal influence of his family naturally suggested his being destined for the law, and at 18 he entered the chambers of a solicitor, where he had for a companion Thurlow, the future Chancellor. He then entered the Middle Temple, and in 1754 was called to the Bar. This was perhaps the happiest period of his life, being enlivened by the society of 2 cousins, Theodora and Harriet Cowper. With the former he fell in love; but his proposal of marriage was opposed by her father, who had observed symptoms of morbidity in him, and he never met her again. The latter, as Lady Hesketh, was in later days among his most intimate friends. In 1759 he received a small sinecure appointment as Commissioner of Bankrupts, which he held for 5 years, and in 1763, through the influence of a relative, he received the offer of the desirable office of Clerk of the Journals to the House of Lords. He accepted the appointment, but the dread of having to make a formal appearance before the House so preyed upon his mind as to induce a temporary loss of reason, and he was sent to an asylum at St. Albans, where he remained for about a year. He had now no income beyond a small sum inherited from his father, and no aims in life; but friends supplemented his means sufficiently to enable him to lead with a quiet mind the life of retirement which he had resolved to follow. He went to Huntingdon, and there made the acquaintance of the Unwins, with whom he went to live as a boarder. The acquaintance soon ripened into a close friendship, and on the death, from an accident (1767), of Mr. Unwin, Cowper accompanied his widow (the "Mary" of his poems) to Olney, where Rev. John Newton was curate. Newton and Cowper became friends, and collaborated in producing the well-known Olney Hymns, of which 67 were composed by Cowper. Cowper became engaged to Mary Unwin, but a fresh attack of his mental malady in 1773 prevented their marriage. On his recovery he took to gardening, and amused himself by keeping pets, including the hares "Tiny" and "Puss," and the spaniel "Beau," immortalized in his works. The chief means, however, which he adopted for keeping his mind occupied and free from distressing ideas was the cultivation of his poetic gift. At the suggestion of Mrs. Unwin, he wrote The Progress of Error; Truth, Table Talk, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, Conversation, and Retirement were added, and the whole were pub. in one vol. in 1782. Though not received with acclamation, its signal merits of freshness, simplicity, graceful humor, and the pure idiomatic English in which it was written gradually obtained recognition, and the fame of the poet-recluse began to spread. His health had now become considerably re-established, and he enjoyed an unwonted measure of cheerfulness, which was fostered by the friendship of Lady Austin, who had become his neighbor. From her he received the story of John Gilpin, which he forthwith turned into his immortal ballad. Hers also was the suggestion that he should write a poem in blank verse, which gave its origin to his most famous poem, The Task. Before it was published, however, their intimacy had been broken off, apparently owing to some feminine jealousies. The Task was published in 1785, and met with immediate and distinguished success. Although not formally or professedly, it was, in fact, the beginning of an uprising against the classical school of poetry, and the founding of a new school in which nature was the teacher. As Dr. Stopford Brooke points out, "Cowper is the first of the poets who loves Nature entirely for her own sake," and in him "the idea of Mankind as a whole is fully formed." About this time he resumed his friendship with his cousin, Lady Hesketh, and, encouraged by her, he began his translation of Homer, which appeared in 1791. Before this he had moved with Mrs. Unwin to the village of Weston Underwood. His health had again given way; and in 1791 Mrs. Unwin became paralytic, and the object of his assiduous and affectionate care. A settled gloom with occasional brighter intervals was now falling upon him. He strove to fight it by engaging in various translations, and in revising his Homer, and undertaking a new edition of Milton, which last was, however, left unfinished. In 1794 a pension of £300 was conferred upon him, and in 1795 he moved with Mrs. Uunwin, now a helpless invalid, to East Dereham. Mrs. Unwin died in the following year, and 3 years later his own death released him from his heavy burden of trouble and sorrow. His last poem was The Castaway, which, with its darkness almost of despair, shows no loss of intellectual or poetic power. In addition to his reputation as a poet Cowper has that of being among the very best of English letter-writers, and in this he shows, in an even easier and more unstudied manner, the same command of pure idiomatic English, the same acute observation, and the same mingling of gentle humour and melancholy. In literature Cowper is the connecting link between the classical school of Pope and the natural school of Burns, Crabbe, and Wordsworth, having, however, much more in common with the latter.[3]

Cowper changed the direction of 18th-century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. In many ways, he was a forerunner of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet", while William Wordsworth particularly admired his poem Yardley-Oak.

While Cowper found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and feared that he was doomed to eternal damnation. His religious sentiment and association with John Newton (who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace") led to much of the poetry for which he is best remembered. His poem "Light Shining out of Darkness" gave the English language the idiom "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform."


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Cowper was born in the rectory (now rebuilt) of Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, on 26 November (O.S. 15) 1731, his father Rev. John Cowper being rector of the parish as well as a chaplain to George II. On both the father’s and the mother’s side he was of ancient lineage. The father could trace his family back to the time of Edward IV. when the Cowpers were Sussex landowners, while his mother, Ann, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk, was of the same family as the poet Donne, and the family claimed to have Plantagenet blood in its veins. Of more human interest were Cowper’s immediate predecessors. His grandfather was that Spencer Cowper who, after being tried for his life on a charge of murder, lived to be a judge of the court of common pleas, while his elder brother became lord chancellor and Earl Cowper, a title which became extinct in 1905.[4] He was a nephew of poet Judith Madan.

Rev. John Cowper was twice married. Cowper’s mother, to whom the memorable lines were written beginning “Oh that these lips had language,” died in 1737 at age 34, when the poet was 6, and she is buried in Berkhampstead church. Cowper’s stepmother, his father's 2nd wife, is buried in Bath, and a tablet on the walls of the cathedral commemorates her memory. The father, who appears to have been a conscientious clergyman with no special interest in his sons, died in 1756 and was buried in the Cowper tomb at Panshanger. Only 2 of his 7 children grew to manhood, William and John (born in 1737).[4]

Youth and educationEdit

William Cowper appears to have attended a dame’s school in earliest infancy, but on his mother’s death when he was 6 years old, he was sent to boarding-school,[4] to a Dr. Pitman at Markyate, a village 6 miles from Berkhampstead. At the Markyate school he suffered the tyranny that he commemorated in Tirocinium. From 1738 to 1741 he was placed in the care of an oculist, as he suffered from inflammation of the eyes.[5]

In 1741 he was sent to Westminster school, where he had Warren Hastings, Impey, Robert Lloyd, Churchill, and Colman for schoolfellows. His days at Westminster, Southey thinks, were “probably the happiest in his life,” but a boy of nervous temperament is always unhappy at school.[5]

At the age of 18 Cowper entered a solicitor’s office in Ely Place, Holborn. Here he had Thurlow, the future lord chancellor, as a fellow-clerk, and it is stated that Thurlow promised to help his less assertive comrade in the days of realized ambition. 3 years in Ely Place were rendered happy by frequent visits to his uncle Ashley’s house in Southampton Row, where he fell deeply in love with his cousin Theodora Cowper. At 21 he took chambers in the Middle Temple, where we first hear of the dejection of spirits that accompanied him periodically through manhood. He was called to the bar in 1754.[5]

Early careerEdit

In 1759 he moved to the Inner Temple and was made a commissioner of bankrupts. His devotion to his cousin, however, was a source of unhappiness. Her father interposed, and the lovers were separated — as it turned out for ever.[5]

During 3 years he was a member of the Nonsense Club with his 2 schoolfellows from Westminster, Churchill and Lloyd, and he wrote sundry verses in magazines and translated 2 books of Voltaire’s Henriade.[5]

A crisis occurred in Cowper’s life when his cousin Major Cowper nominated him to a clerkship in the House of Lords. It involved a preliminary appearance at the bar of the house. The prospect drove him insane, and he attempted suicide; he purchased poison, he placed a penknife at his heart, but hesitated to apply either measure of self-destruction. He has told, in dramatic manner, of his more desperate endeavour to hang himself with a garter. Here he all but succeeded. His friends were informed, and he was sent to a private lunatic asylum at St Albans, where he remained for 18 months under the charge of Dr Nathaniel Cotton, the author of Visions.[5]

Upon his recovery he moved to Huntingdon to be near his brother John, who was a fellow of St. Benet’s College, Cambridge. John had visited his brother at St. Albans and arranged this. An attempt to secure suitable lodgings nearer to Cambridge had been ineffectual. In June 1765 William reached Huntingdon, and his life there was essentially happy.[5]

His illness had broken him off from all his old friends save only his cousin, Lady Hesketh, Theodora’s sister, but new acquaintances were made, the Unwins being the most valued. This family consisted of Morley Unwin (a clergyman), his wife Mary, and his son (William) and daughter (Susannah). The son struck up a warm friendship which his family shared. Cowper entered the circle as a boarder in November (1765).[5]

All went serenely until in July 1767 Morley Unwin was thrown from his horse and killed. A very short time before this event the Unwins had received a visit from Rev. John Newton, the curate of Olney in Buckinghamshire, with whom they became friends. Newton suggested that the widow and her children with Cowper should come to Olney. This was achieved in the closing months of 1767.

Here Cowper was to reside for 19 years, and he was to render the town and its neighbouhood memorable by his presence and by his poetry. Here his life went on its placid course, interrupted only by the death of his brother in 1770, until 1773, when he became again deranged.[5]

It can scarcely be doubted that this 2nd attack interrupted the contemplated marriage of Cowper with Mary Unwin, although Southey could find no evidence of the circumstance and Newton was not informed of it. J.C. Bailey brings final evidence of this (Poems of Cowper, page 15). The fact was kept secret in later years in order to spare the feelings of Theodora Cowper, who thought that her cousin had remained as faithful as she had done to their early love.[5]

Poetic careerEdit

It was not until 1776 that the poet’s mind cleared again. In 1779 he made his initial appearance as an author by the Olney Hymns, written in conjunction with Newton (Cowper’s verses being indicated by a “C").[5]

Mrs. Unwin suggested secular verse, and Cowper wrote much, and in 1782 when he was 51 years old there appeared Poems of William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq.: London, Printed for J. Johnson, No. 72 St Paul’s Churchyard. This debut collection was a failure, a critic even declaring that “Mr Cowper was certainly a good, pious man, but without one spark of poetic fire.” The volume contained “Table Talk,” “The Progress of Error,” “Truth,” “Expostulation” and much else that survives to be read in our day by virtue of the poet’s finer work.[5]

This finer work was the outcome of his friendship with Lady Austen, a widow who, on a visit to her sister (the wife of the vicar of the neighboring village of Clifton), made the acquaintance of Cowper and Mrs Unwin. The 3 became great friends. Lady Austen determined to give up her house in London and to settle in Olney. She suggested The Task and inspired John Gilpin and The Royal George. But in 1784 the friendship was at an end, doubtless through Mrs Unwin’s jealousy of Lady Austen.[5]

Cowper’s 2nd volume appeared in 1785;— The Task: A poem in six books. By William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq.; To which are added by the same author An Epistle to Joseph Hill, Esq., Tirocininm or a Review of Schools, and the History of John Gilpin: London, Printed for J. Johnson, No. 72 St Paul’s Church Yard; 1785. This 2nd book was an instantaneous success, and indeed marks an epoch in literary history. But before its publication — in 1784 — the poet had commenced the translation of Homer. [5]

In 1786 his life at Olney was cheered by Lady Hesketh taking up a temporary residence there. The cousins met after an interval of 23 years, and Lady Hesketh was to be Cowper’s good angel to the end, even though her letters disclose a considerable impatience with Mrs Unwin. At the end of 1786 a move was made to Weston Underwood, the neighboring village which Cowper had frequently visited as the guest of his Roman Catholic friends the Throckmortons. This was to be his home for yet another 10 years.[5]

At Weston Underwood he completed his translation of Homer, materially assisted by Mr. Throckmorton’s chaplain Dr. Gregson. There are 6 more months of insanity to record in 1787. In 1790, a year before the Homer was published, he commenced his friendship with his cousin John Johnson, known to all biographers of the poet as “Johnny of Norfolk.” Johnson also aspired to be a poet, and visited his cousin armed with a manuscript. Cowper discouraged the poetry, but loved the writer, and the 2 became great friends.[5]

New friends were wanted, for in 1792 Mrs Unwin had a paralytic stroke, and henceforth she was a hopeless invalid. A new and valued friend of this period was Hayley, famous in his own day as a poet and in history for his association with Romney and Cowper. He was drawn to Cowper by the fact that both were contemplating an edition of “Milton,” Cowper having received a commission to edit, writing notes and translating the Latin and Italian poems. The work was never completed.[5]

In 1794 Cowper was again insane and his lifework was over. In the following year a move took place into Norfolk under the loving care of John Johnson. Johnson took Cowper and Mary Unwin to North Tuddenham, thence to Mundesley, then to Dunham Lodge, near Swaffham, and finally in October 1796 they moved to East Dereham. In December of that year Mrs Unwin died. Cowper lingered on, dying on 25 April 1800. The poet is buried near Mrs Unwin in East Dereham church.[5]


Cowper is among the poets who are epoch-makers. He brought a new spirit into English verse, and redeemed it from the artificiality and the rhetoric of many of his predecessors. With him began the “enthusiasm of humanity” that was afterwards to become so marked in the poetry of Burns and Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron. With him began the deep sympathy with nature, and love of animal life, which was to characterize so much of later poetry.[5]

Although Cowper cannot rank among the world’s greatest poets or even among the most distinguished of poets of his own country, his place is a very high one. He had what is a rare quality among English poets, the gift of humor, which was very singularly absent from others who possessed many other of the higher qualities of the intellect. Certain of his poems, moreover,— for example, “To Mary,” “The Receipt of my Mother’s Portrait,” and the ballad “On the Loss of the Royal George,”— will, it may safely be affirmed, continue to be familiar to each successive generation in a way that pertains to few things in literature. Added to this, one may note Cowper’s distinction as a letter-writer. He ranks among the half-dozen greatest letter-writers in the English language, and he was perhaps the only great letter-writer with whom the felicity was due to the power of what he has seen rather than what he has read.[6]

Critical introductionEdit

by Thomas Humphry Ward

The pathos of Cowper’s life and his position in our poetical history will always lend a special interest to his work, even though it is no longer possible to regard a poet limited as he was as a poet of the first order. He was an essentially original writer, owing much of course, as every writer must owe, to the subtle influences of his time, but deriving as little as ever poet derived from literary study. "I have not read more than one English poet for twenty years, and but one for thirteen years," he says in one of his letters of the year 1782; and though that would seem to be an exaggeration, it is akin to a truth—that in mature life at least, he cared little for reading English poetry, and owed little to it. It is true that he formed his blank verse on the model of Milton, and that Churchill, "the great Churchill," gave him a pattern in the use of the heroic couplet which he soon surpassed; but essentially he stands alone, as remote from the stream of eighteenth-century verse as his life at Olney was remote from the public life of his day.

The poet of Retirement and The Task is the beginning of a new order in poetry; he is one of the first symptoms, if not the originator, of the revolution in style which is soon to become a revolution in ideas. The "clear, crisp English" of his verse is not the work of a man who belongs to a school, or who follows some conventional pattern. It is for his amusement, he repeats again and again in his letters, that he is a poet; just as it has been for his amusement that he has worked in the garden and made rabbit-hutches. He writes because it pleases him, without a thought of his fame or of contriving what the world will admire.

The Task, his most characteristic poem, is indeed a work of great labour; but the labour is not directed, as Pope’s labour was directed, towards methodising or arranging the material, towards working up the argument, towards forcing the ideas into the most striking situations. The labour is in the cadences and the language; as for the thoughts, they are allowed to show themselves just as they come, in their natural order, so that the poem reads like the speech of a man talking to himself. To turn from a poem of Cowper’s to a poem of Pope’s, or even of Goldsmith’s, is to turn from a sphere of art to quite another, from unconscious to conscious art. "Formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery," as Southey said; and how much that means! It means that the day of critical and so-called classical poetry is over; that the day of spontaneous, natural, romantic poetry has begun. Burns and Wordsworth are not yet, but they are close at hand.

The time at which Cowper, then 50 years of age, was writing and publishing his first volume, was not a time of mental stagnation in England, nor a time when poetry was not in fashion. On the contrary, it was an epoch of great mental activity; it was the epoch of Adam Smith and Hume, of Gibbon and Robertson, of Brindley and Watt. More than that, it was the epoch at which two great rival Collections of the British poets — the first that had ever been made — were being published with much success. But it was an epoch at which nothing of any value was being produced in poetry; Gray, Goldsmith, Chatterton were dead, and they had left no successors.

Cowper has preserved for us with no small pride the letter in which "one of the first philosophers, one of the most eminent literary characters" of the age, Dr. Franklin, acknowledges the receipt of his volume, sent by a common friend. "The relish for the reading of poetry had long since left me, but there is something so new in the manner, so easy and yet so correct in the language, so clear in the expression, yet concise, and so just in the sentiments, that I have read the whole with great pleasure, and some of the pieces more than once." If we wish to appreciate what Dr. Franklin meant by this "something so new in the manner," we have only to turn to any of the volumes which contain what passed current as poetry at the moment; to the volumes of the Gentleman’s Magazine, for example, or (to go back a few years) to some of the Collections or volumes of Miscellanies that the publishers of the time were fond of issuing.

In what precisely does this "something so new in the manner" of Cowper’s work consist? There is much debate among modern critics as to the answer to this question, which really is the question of Cowper’s place in our literary history: some[7] claiming for him a kinship with Rousseau, a spirit like that of Byron and Shelley — a revolutionary spirit that he certainly would not have claimed for himself; others — and this is the common view — agreeing with Mr. Arnold that he is "the precursor of Wordsworth." It would be truer to say that in his own curious and limited way Cowper contains both these elements, the Byronic and the Wordsworthian element; and that in so doing he embodies all the intellectual influences that were silently working around him towards the evolution of modern England.

An interesting writer[8] has characterised the tendencies of poetry in the latter half of the 18th century as "love of natural description and attempts at a more vivid and wider delineation of human character and incident"; 2 tendencies which, we may add, are but different forms of 1 — of the revolt against convention both in art and society. The joy in natural objects, of which we have found traces in many writers since Thomson, begins to be linked with a sense of the brotherhood of mankind; to the religious mind (and the wide reach of the religious revival must be remembered) this sense of brotherhood and this sense of natural beauty being sharpened and strengthened by the belief in the near presence of the Creator and the Father of all.

Cowper is the artist who has expressed in a new and permanent form this complex sentiment. He is the poet of the return to nature, and he is the poet of the simple human affections; both nature and humanity being of interest to him because of their divine source, and because of that alone. "We are placed in the world," he seems to say, "by an omnipotent and irresponsible Being, on whose will our life and death, our health and sickness, our prosperity and adversity at every moment depend, and who decides at his pleasure the fate of empires and the issues of political events. The world as he made it is good, but the corruption of man has done much to spoil it. “God made the country and man made the town”; and though man cannot live without society, his vices are such that his towns soon become centres of corruption. Hence true beauty is to be found only in unadulterate Nature; true pleasures only in the fields and woods, and in the simple offices of rural and domestic life. To watch Nature at her work; to meditate; to cultivate sympathy with those creatures that are, so to speak, most fresh from Nature’s hand—with animals and the poor and the friends of your home — this is the only rational way to happiness; and to advocate this life is the poet’s work. On the other hand, he may emphasise his teaching by contrast; by denouncing vice, by satire genial or severe; by drawing in outlines that all may recognise the harm of a departure from Nature. The poet is a teacher and an advocate; his business is to wean the world from worldliness to God."

At 50 years of age, then, and under the influence of his friend of 15 years, Mrs. Unwin, Cowper began to realise his own powers as a poet, and systematically to carry into practice this theory of the poet’s duty. Already in 1776 the gloom of his second period of insanity had begun to roll away; he renewed his broken correspondence; he took to busying himself about the garden and the house at Olney. His brightest and most active years are those that follow — the 15 years that begin with the renewal of his correspondence and end with the publication of his Homer. It was about 1780 that he began to find his glazing and his carpentering, and even his landscape-drawing, not enough; to find it unsatisfying

‘To raise the prickly and green-coated gourd,’

and to look for a more solid occupation than

‘Weaving nets for bird-alluring fruit,
Or twining silken threads on ivory reels.’

He asked for some employment more permanently exciting, and he found it in versifying on the themes set by Mrs. Unwin. What pleasure he gained from his new occupation is told in part in the poems themselves, and is reiterated in those volumes of narrative, humour, chat, argument, criticism, which are the daily record of Cowper’s mind, and which so completely justify the title that Southey claimed for him of ‘the best letter-writer in the English language.’ In his poems, indeed, Cowper has revealed himself with a winning naïveté that is almost without example; and when we add to the autobiographical passages in Retirement and The Task the friendly confidences of the letters, we find that there remains nothing for the critic to interpret. Cowper explains himself with a simple frankness that makes half his charm.

For example, the letters abound with passages which show on the one hand the pleasure that he derived from his newly-found gift of writing, and on the other the moral and religious aim that he believed himself to be fulfilling in his poetry. ‘The necessity of amusement makes me sometimes write verses,’ he says to William Unwin; 3 ‘it made me a carpenter, a bird-cage maker, a gardener, and has lately taught me to draw.’ Again, in a latter to Newton:[9]

At this season of the year, and in this gloomy uncomfortable climate, it is no easy matter for the owner of a mind like mine to divest it from sad subjects and to fix it upon such as may administer to its amusement. Poetry, above all things, is useful to me in this respect. While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again.

In a later letter to the same friend,[10] which refers still more painfully to his mental distress, he says:—

‘God knows that my mind having been occupied more than twelve years in the contemplation of the most distressing subjects, the world, and its opinion of what I write, is become as unimportant to me as the whistling of a bird in a bush. Despair made amusement necessary, and I found poetry the most agreeable amusement. Had I not endeavoured to perform my best, it would not have amused me at all. The mere blotting of so much paper would have been but indifferent sport. God give me grace also to wish that I might not write in vain.’

And again, as a reason for publishing,

‘If I did not publish what I write, I could not interest myself sufficiently in my own success to make an amusement of it.’

Of course, however, as the 2nd of these extracts shows, he has a deeper reason for writing than this; the preacher’s and the moralist’s reason, that appears so clearly in every page of his poems. "My sole drift is to be useful," he writes to his cousin Mrs. Cowper;[11] "a point however which I know I should in vain aim at, unless I could be likewise entertaining." To Lady Austen, in his well-known letter in verse, he appears as

‘I, who scribble rhyme
To catch the triflers of the time,
And tell them truths divine and clear
Which, couched in prose, they will not hear.’

To Unwin he speaks of his debut collection as

‘A page
That would reclaim a vicious age.’

"Table Talk", the opening poem, is, it will be remembered, an argument to prove that the true field of poetry is the beauty of religion, till then an unexplored land; and that the poet’s true function is to

‘Spread the rich discovery, and invite
Mankind to share in the divine delight.’

And in the beautiful lines which close "Retirement", he claims the position of a teacher of mankind:—

  ‘Me poetry (or rather notes that aim
Feebly and faintly at poetic fame)
Employs, shut out from more important views,
Fast by the banks of the slow-winding Ouse;
Content if thus sequestered I may raise
A monitor’s, though not a poet’s, praise,
And while I teach an art too little known,
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.’

From the Letters too we can learn much of Cowper’s method of composition; enough at least to correct the first impression which we might derive from his poetry, that it was the work of a rapid and even careless writer. "If there lives a man who stands clear of the charge of careless writing, I am that man," he says to Lady Hesketh, in answer to some criticisms of his Homer made by General Cowper. His facility is unquestionable; but it is a fact that he composed slowly. He took Nulla dies sine linea for a motto, and when once he had taken up the profession of a poet he persevered in it, contenting himself, when Minerva was unwilling, with three lines of "The Task" as a day’s production, and thinking three lines better than nothing. When the translation of Homer was in hand the work went on with the utmost regularity. "I have, as you well know," he tells Unwin, "a daily occupation — forty lines to translate, a task which I never excuse myself when it is possible to perform it. Equally sedulous am I in the matter of transcribing, so that between both my morning and evening are for the most part completely engaged." Transcribing however he thought "slavish work, and of all occupations that which I dislike the most"; and accordingly he was glad when friends relieved him by copying some of the Homer.

He deferred to the criticism of those about him, and was glad when his publisher, Johnson, suggested an alteration in a phrase. When Newton, of whom to the last he seems to have stood somewhat in awe, condemned a passage, Cowper consented with the best grace to remove it:— "I am glad you have condemned it; and though I do not feel as if I could presently supply its place, shall be willing to attempt the task, whatever labour it may cost me."[12] In effect we may say that during the five years which ended with the publication of The Task, and to a certain extent during the years when Cowper was employed on this Homer, the writing and recasting of his poetry filled all his mind. The "pleasure in poetic pains which only poets know" was known to him conspicuously among poets; the critical spirit within him, that independent and fastidious taste for which he is so remarkable, found full exercise; and in the excitement of doing his true work in the most perfect way he seems to have almost forgotten the cloud which had overshadowed him and was soon to return.

The Letters, again, tell us much of Cowper’s opinions of other poets. We have already quoted the passage in which he speaks of his scanty reading of them — "not more than one English poet for twenty years." As Southey remarks, this probably means that he had not read more than one with minute care; with such care as he afterwards spent on Glover’s Athenaid, when by way of preparing to review it he "made an analysis of the first twelve books." In his youth he had evidently been a reader of poetry, and he had an excellent memory. When Johnson’s collection was sent to him in 1779 he found that the best poets were "so fresh in his memory" that the collection taught him nothing. He is fond of mentioning Churchill, the admiration of his early manhood, with something more than respect; here and there he has an acute remark about Pope, as when he says "never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united."[13] He often falls foul of Johnson, "a great bear, in spite of all his learning and penetration." He dissents from his view of Prior, and argues with great skill for a proper recognition of Prior’s real poetical merits,[14] while he is so enraged by the Doctor’s attack on Milton that he breaks into the cry, "O, I could thrash his old jacket till his pension jingled in his pocket!"

All this shows that Cowper had a clear taste of his own in poetry, a goût vif et franc, as Sainte-Beuve calls it in his excellent criticism of him, but it does not show that he was a student of English poetry, any more than his quotations from Swift and Rabelais show that he read much and often in their books, or than the Horatian turn of his didactic pieces shows that he was always reading Horace. The truth is, as we have all along implied, that Cowper is original if the word means anything. "My descriptions," he writes of The Task, "are all from nature;— not one of them second-handed. My delineations of the heart are from my own experience;— not one of them borrowed from books, or in the least degree conjectural. In my numbers, which I varied as much as I could (for blank verse without variety of numbers is no better than bladder and string), I have imitated nobody, though sometimes perhaps there may be an apparent resemblance; because at the same time that I would not imitate, I have not affectedly differed."

It is this originality, this veracity, this exact correspondence of the phrase with the feeling, and of both with the object, that marks out Cowper. We sometimes hear it said that he owed much, especially in versification, to Churchill; if he owed anything, it was so much ‘bettered in the borrowing’ that it is hard to discover the debt. The very foundation of his poetry is his close observation of men and things: the same close observation that fills his letters with happily touched incidents of village life, with characters sketched in a sentence, furnishes the groundwork of The Task and the satires. The snow-covered fields, the waggon toiling through the drifts, "the distant plough slow moving," the garden, the fireside; the gipsies, the village thief, the clerical coxcomb Dubius, Sir Smug—of all these he gives us not only finished pictures, but pictures finished in the presence of the object and not in the studio. "The Flemish masters have met their match!" says Sainte-Beuve, as he quotes with delight one of these descriptions of Cowper’s; might we not say with even greater truth, "The English landscape painters have found their pattern"?

Yet it is undoubtedly true that Cowper is little read by the very class which is most given to the reading of poetry, and most competent to judge it. He is a favourite with the middle classes; he is not a favourite with the cultivated classes. What are the limitations of his genius which prevent his acceptance with them? Mr. Arnold, who long ago called Cowper "that most interesting man and excellent poet," perhaps sums them up when he speaks of Cowper’s "morbid religion and lumbering movement." If we are to look to poetry for the successful ‘application of ideas to life,’ we shall look in vain to The Task; for the ideas are those of an inelastic puritanism, that would maim and mutilate life in the name of religion. "Were I to write as many poems as Lope de Vega or Voltaire," says Cowper, "not one of them would be without this tincture,’— this puritanic tincture.

He began with the resolve to make religion poetical, and he succeeded in making poetry religious, but religious after a manner which his excellent editor, Mr. Benham, himself a clergyman, calls ‘hard and revolting.’ And the same temper which led him to measure the Unseen with the foot-rule of Calvinistic orthodoxy, led him to visit the science, the politics, even the characters which he did not understand, with a censure like that of the Syllabus. ‘It would be hard,’ says Mr. Benham, ‘to find a more foolish and mischievous piece of rant than that contained in The Garden’—in the lines where Cowper reviles the geologist and the historian; and we might extend the same sentence to his promiscuous denunciations of London life, of the amusements of ordinary people, even of the game of chess.

When the Commemoration of Handel takes place, he joins with Newton in crying Idolatry! When he writes his Review of Schools, it never occurs to him that boys may get good as well as harm from each other’s society, and that there may be desirable elements of character that cannot be acquired in ‘some pious pastor’s humble cot.’ When he turns, as he often does, to politics, his amiable Whiggism is sorely tried by current events, by the lack of great men, and by the miscarriage of the American war. He believes that "the loss of America will be the ruin of England," but consoles himself with the thought that the surrender of Cornwallis was "fore-ordained," and that the end of the world is approaching. "My feelings are all of the intense kind," he says in one of his letters; and the Nemesis of intensity is narrowness.

Again, in curious contrast to the neatness and ease of his rhymed couplets, there is unquestionably a "lumbering movement" in Cowper’s blank verse; heaviness, difficulty, coming sometimes from the necessity that he was under of adorning trivialities, sometimes from a want of mastery over the language.

‘Warmed, while it lasts, by labour, all day long
They brave the season, and yet find at eve,
Ill clad and fed but sparely, time to cool.’

— There are too many commas, the reader cannot help crying. Sometimes, again, we find a worse than Wordsworthian nudity of phrase—

‘The violet, the pink, the jessamine,
I pricked them into paper with a pin’;

sometimes an intolerable instance of the quasi-heroic—

‘The stable yields a stercoraceous heap’;

or a positive barbarism, as here, in Tirocinium—

‘Have ye, ye sage intendants of the whole,
A ubiquarian presence and control?’

We find frequent descents into prose, and rarely indeed a compensating ascent into the higher music of the great poets. How should we find such ascents, indeed, in Cowper? They demand some moving force of passion, or some inspiring activity of ideas, and for neither of these can we look to him. The only passion that really moved him was the morbid passion of despair, when the cloud that obscured his brain pressed heavy upon him; and it was only when he wrote under this influence that he produced masterpieces, such as that noble and terrible poem, "The Castaway", and the lines of self-description in The Task.

His ideas, too, have not the inspiring activity necessary to produce great poetry; they are not vital ideas; they are seen to be less and less in harmony with the facts of the world as the years go on. We read Cowper, indeed, not for his passion or for his ideas, but for his love of nature and his faithful rendering of her beauty; for his truth of portraiture, for his humour, for his pathos; for the refined honesty of his style, for the melancholy interest of his life, and for the simplicity and the loveliness of his character.[15]


God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Olney Hymns (1779)--'Light Shining out of Darkness'

There is a fountain fill'd with blood
Drawn from EMMANUEL's veins;
And sinners, plung'd beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

Olney Hymns (1779)--'Praise for the Fountain Opened'

Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
A calm and heav'nly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Olney Hymns (1779)--'Walking with God'

God made the country, and man made the town.

The Task (1785)--'The Sofa' (Book I, line 749)

There is a pleasure in poetic pains
Which only poets know.

The Task (1785)--'The Timepiece' (Book II, lines 285-6)

Variety's the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.

The Task (1785)--'The Timepiece' (Book II, lines 606-7)

I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.

'Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk' (1782), lines 1-4

No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.

"The Castaway" (1799), lines 61-66

'Tis pleasant, through the loopholes of retreat,
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel, and not feel the crowd;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the uninjur'd ear.

The Task (1785)--'The Winter Evening' (Book IV, lines 88-93)
While I am held in pursuit of pretty images, or a pretty way of expressing them, I forget everything that is irksome, and, like a boy that plays truant, determine to avail myself of the present opportunity to be amused, and to put by the disagreeable recollection that I must, after all, go home and be whipt again. - letter to John Newton (1780)


His residence in the Market Place, Olney, was converted into a Cowper Museum 100 years after his death, in 1900.[5]

2 of his poems, "To Mary Unwin" and "My Mary", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[16] [17]

A memorial window commemorating Cowper and George Herbert is in St. George's Chapel, Westminster Abbey.[18]


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  • Proposals for Printing, by Subscription, a New Translation of the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer into Blank Verse. London: J. Johnson, J. Walter, & J. Debrett, 1791.
  • Adelphi: A sketch of the character, and an account of the last illness, of the late Rev. John Cowper ... Written by His Brother. London: C. Whittingham for T. Williams, 1802; Andover, MA: Flagg for the New England Tract Society, 1814.
  • Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper, Esq. Written by Himself. London: R. Edwards, 1816; Philadelphia: T.H. Palmer for Edward Earle, 1816)
    • also published as Memoirs of the Most Remarkable and Interesting Parts of the Life of William Cowper, Esq. of the Inner Temple. London: E. Cox & Son, 1816.

Collected editionsEdit


  • The Works of Horace in English Verse (edited by William Duncombe), volume 2 (includes translations by Cowper of "Satire V" and "Satire IX" of Book I. London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley, 1759.
  • Tobias Smollett, Thomas Francklin and others, The Works of M. de Voltaire: Translated from the French. With Notes, Historical and Critical, volume 24 (includes translation by Cowper of Books V-VIII of the Henriade). London: Printed for J. Newbury and others, 1762.
  • The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. (2 volumes), London: J. Johnson, 1791
    • revised edition (with new preface). London: Bunney & Gold for J. Johnson, 1802.
  • Helperus Ritzema van Lier, The Power of Grace Illustrated, in Six Letters, from a Minister of the Reformed Church to John Newton. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1792; Philadelphia: Printed by Neale and Kammerer, Jun., 1796.
  • Jeanne Marie Guyon (Bouvier de La Motte), Poems Translated from the French of Madame de la Mothe Guion (translated by Cowper). Newport Pagnell: Printed and sold by J. Wakefield, 1801; Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, 1804.
  • Poemata: Latin and Italian Poems of Milton Translated into English Verse, and a fragment of a commentary on "Paradise Lost" (translated by Cowper, edited by William Hayley). London: J. Seagrave for J. Johnson & R.H. Evans, 1808.[23]
  • Cowper's Milton (4 volumes, edited by William Hayley). Chichester, UK: W. Mason for J. Johnson and Co., London, 1810


  • Frances Maria Cowper (attributed), Original Poems by a Lady (revised by Cowper). London: J. Deighton, J. Mathews, & R. Faulder, 1792; Philadelphia: William Young, 1793.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[2]

Hymns by CowperEdit

Cowper is represented with 15 hymns in The Church Hymn Book, 1872:

  • 127 Jesus! where'er thy people meet
  • 357 The Spirit breathes upon the word
  • 450 There is a fountain, filled with blood
  • 790 Hark! my soul! it is the Lord
  • 856 To Jesus, the Crown of my hope
  • 871 Far from the world, O Lord! I flee
  • 885 My Lord! how full of sweet content (1782 translation)
  • 932 What various hindranes we meet
  • 945 Oh! for a closer walk with God
  • 965 When darkness long has veiled my mind
  • 1002 T is my happiness below
  • 1009 O Lord! in sorrow I resign (1782 translation)
  • 1029 O Lord! my best desire fulfill
  • 1043 There is a safe and secret place
  • 1060 God of my life! to thee I call

See also Edit

William Cowper The Castaway

William Cowper The Castaway


  • PD-icon.svg Shorter, Clement King (1911). "Cowper, William". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 349-353.  Wikisource, Web, Dec. 30, 2017.


  1. Date of birth is given in New Style (Gregorian calendar). Old Style date is 15 November 1731. (1911 Encyclopedia Britannica)
  2. 2.0 2.1 William Cowper 1731-1800, Poetry Foundation, Web, Aug. 25, 2012.
  3. John William Cousin, "Cowper, William," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 97-99. Web, Dec. 29, 2017.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Shorter, 349.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 Shorter, 350.
  6. Shorter, 351.
  7. Taine, Stopford, Brooke, Pattison.
  8. Quarterly Review, July 1862.
  9. Dec. 21, 1780.
  10. Aug. 6, 1785.
  11. Oct. 19, 1781.
  12. Nov. 27, 1781
  13. Jan. 5, 1782.
  14. Jan. 17, 1782.
  15. from Thomas Humphry Ward, "Critical Introduction: William Cowper (1731–1800)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, May 23, 2016.
  16. "To Mary Unwin", Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 13, 2012.
  17. "My Mary", Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 13, 2012.
  18. William Cowper, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  19. Poems: A new edition; to which are now first added 'Olney Hymns' and 'Translations from Madame Guion (1806), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  20. The Poems of William Cowper Esq. (1935), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  21. The Poetical Works of William Cowper (1872?, Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  22. The Unpublished and Uncollected Poems Ed. by Thomas Wright (1890), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  23. John Milton 1608-1674, Poetry Foundation, Web, Nov. 11, 2012.
  24. Private Correspondence of William Cooper Esq., with several of his most intimate friends (1824), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  25. Letters of William Cowper (1884), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  26. The Best Letters of William Cowper (1893), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  27. Selections from Cowper's Letters (1895), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  28. The Correspondence of William Cowper: Arranged in chronological order (1969), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.
  29. Letters of William Cowper (1912),, Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 22, 2013.

External linksEdit

  • The Castaway. A 1-man play by David Gooderson based entirely on Cowper's poems and letters.

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Original article is at Cowper, William

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