1902 Encyclopedia > William Cowper

William Cowper
English letter writer and poet

WILLIAM COWPER, (1731-1800), the best of English letter-writers and the most distinguished poet of his day, was born on the 26th of November 1731, at Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire. His father, who held the living of the parish, was chaplain to George II. He married Ann, daughter of Roger Donne, of Ludham Hall in Norfolk. This lady, after giving birth to several children who died in infancy, expired in childbed in 1737, leaving two sons—William (the poet) and John. Cowper, who retained the most affectionate remembrance of his mother, embalmed her memory in one of the most affecting tributes that ever came from the heart of a son.

At the age of six years Cowper was placed at Dr Pitman's school, in Market Street, Bedfordshire. His health was delicate, and he was in consequence exposed to the laughter and ridicule of his rude companions. One boy seems especially to have been the object of his terror. " His savage treatment of me," he says, " impressed such a dread of his figure on my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift my eyes upon him higher than his knees, and that I knew him better by his shoe-buckle than by any other part of his dress." The cruelty of this bey's conduct was such that on its being discovered he was expelled the school, and Cowper was removed. The mental anguish he endured at this time aggravated, no doubt, the constitutional tendency to despondency which throws such a peculiar interest over much of his after-life. At the period of his removal from Dr Pitman's school he was afflicted with inflammation in the eyes; specks appeared in both of them, and it was feared that blindness would ensue. He was in consequence placed at the house of an eminent oculist, where he remained two years, deriving little benefit from his residence there, his cure being slow and imperfect.

At ten years of age Cowper was placed at Westminster School. In after-life he lamented that his learning at this time consisted entirely of Latin and Greek, to the exclusion of the more important matter of religion. Surrounded by strangers, and unable from his unconquerable shyness to mingle with them on easy terms, his fits of depression grew darker and more frequent; and those unhappy views of his spiritual condition, which afterwards produced such deplorable results, began to oppress his mind. In his memoir he relates some of his religious experiences. Crossing St Margaret's churchyard late in the evening, his curiosity was excited by a glimmering light, and he went to see whence it proceeded. A gravedigger was at work with a lantern ; and just as Cowper came to the spot a skull was thrown up which struck him on the leg. This circumstance gave an alarm to his conscience, and he after-wards considered it one of the most valuable religious impressions he received at Westminster. His mental excitement was followed by the notion that he was exempted from the penalty of death, which in its turn was displaced by lowness of spirits and intimations of a con-sumptive tendency. At thirteen he was seized with small-pox, which completely restored his eyesight. Although threatened by consumption he seems to have excelled at cricket and football, and to have distinguished himself in his studies. It is curious to know that Warren Hastings, Churchill, Lloyd, and Colman were his fellow-students in Westminster.

Cowper was taken from Westminster at eighteen years of age; and, after spending a few months at home, was articled to Mr Chapman, an attorney in London. He seems to have most poetically disliked his new position and duties. Thurlow, afterwards lord chancellor, was engaged in the same office; and Cowper describes their leisure as being spent in "giggling and making giggle, instead of studying the law." The following is related of his intimacy with Thurlow a few years later. One evening, in the presence of ladies, Cowper playfully said, " Thurlow, I am nobody, and shall always be nobody, and you will be chan-cellor. You shall provide for me when you are." Thurlow replied with a smile, " I surely will." " These ladies,"' re-joined Cowper, " are our witnesses." " Let them be so," answered the future chancellor, still smiling, " for I will certainly do it." After completing his three years' articles with Mr Chapman, he removed to the Middle Temple in 1752. The solitariness of his life at this time was productive of the most pernicious results. In his melan-choly memoir he describes the dejection and unrest, the horror and despair, he underwent during these miserable months. At length relief came. Sitting with a few friends by the sea near Southampton, the cloud of misery which had overshadowed his spirit so long rolled away, and so happy did he feel that he could have wept for transport had he been alone. Returning to London, and actuated by what he afterwards considered the instigation of Satan, he burned his prayers, and plunged into pleasure and gaiety. Tn 1754 he was called to the bar, but, instead of following his profession, he seems to have yielded himself up to the charms of literature and social intercourse. About this time his father died, leaving him a small patri-mony. In 1759 he removed to the Inner Temple, where law was still deserted for literature. He devoted much of his time to the study of Homer, and, in conjunction with his brother, translated some of the books of the Henriade. This appears to have been the gayest part of Cowper's life. He had formed literary acquaintances amongst whom were many of his old schoolfellows; he became a member of the Nonsense Club, and occasionally contributed prose and verse to the periodicals of the day.

While in Mr Chapman's office, Cowper was a frequent visitor at the house of his uncle, Mr Ashley Cowper, in Southampton Row,—the attraction being his fair cousin. Miss Theodora Jane Cowper was the younger of two daughters (the elder of whom, afterwards Lady Hesketh, is well known as the poet's constant correspondent for many years), and by her brilliant beauty and fascinating manners won the heart of her shy relative. Excited by her presence and sparkling spirits, Cowper became cheerful and even gay, his bashfulness began to wear off; he mixed in company, and occasionally attempted to shine in conver-sation. He became fastidious in his attire, a critic in ruffles, a haunter of looking-glasses. Seeing how matters were tending, Mr Cowper opposed their contemplated union on prudential considerations. His daughter pooh-poohed his fears. He asked what she would do if she married her cousin 1 " Do, sir," answered the high-spirited girl, " Wash all day, and ride out on the great dog at night." Mr Cowper afterwards changed his position, and objected to their marriage on the score of nearness of connection. The lovers pled, but he was inexorable. Miss Cowper thought it her duty to obey her father. They parted and never met again.

During this courtship, Cowper addressed several poems to his cousin, which exhibit all the gentleness and tender-ness of his nature. They are unlike the love-poems of every other poet. They have no fervour, no emotion, no fire. Perhaps Cowper's nature was incapable of strong and devouring passion. The memory of his love and his disappointment seems to have been soon and painlessly effaced. With the lady it was different ; she could not so easily forget. The little poems which, in his brief dream of passion, he had addressed to her, she carefully treasured up. Unknown to him, her hand was unwearied in its kind and delicate attentions. She never forgot him, and although surviving his death many years, died unmarried.

Cowper's pecuniary resources being at this time slender, he became naturally anxious to obtain suitable employ-ment. An influential kinsman presented him with the lucrative office of clerk to the committees of the House of Lords. Some difficulty, however, being raised as to his relative's right of appointment, an examination at the bar of the House was demanded to test Cowper's fitness for'the performance of his duties. Although the prospect of such a public appearance must have been exceedingly painful to him, he resolved to prepare for the ordeal. He attended regularly at the office, and thus describes the result:— " The journal books were thrown open to me—a thing which could not be refused, and from which, perhaps, a man in health and with a head turned to business might have gained all the information he wanted; but it was not so with me; I read without perception, and was so distressed that had every clerk in the office been my friend it could have availed me little, for I was not in a condition to receive instruction, much less to elicit it out of manuscripts without direction." The dreadful trial that awaited him filled his days, and re-appeared in dreams. He found no rest. At a tavern he met some miserable men, and suicide became the subject of conversation. The idea was new to him, and held him with a horrid fascination from which he could not escape. He was pursued and goaded by imaginary voices, until at last in a paroxysm of madness he attempted self-destruction. The garter by which he was suspended broke, and he fell heavily to the ground. His laundress hearing the fall, and thinking him in a fit, ran to his assistance; but by the time she reached him he had crept into bed. His mind now became a prey to the keenest remorse. The wrath of God seemed hanging over him on account of his sin. In these circumstances, every thought of his official employment was, of course, abandoned ; measures were adopted for his security, and in 1763 he was placed under the care of Dr Cotton of St Albans. . 1

After remaining two years at St Albans he removed to Huntingdon. Here he first met the Unwins, and so charmed was he with their society, that in a short time he became the inmate of their home. On the death of Mr Unwin in 1767 the family removed to Olney; and on the recommendation of Mr Newton, the curate of the parish, Cowper accompanied them. About this time his brother died; and in the winter of 1773 his malady returned. Through his long illness he was attended by Mrs Unwin with the most affectionate care. To beguile the tedium of recovery, he occupied himself with carpentry and gardening, and in domesticating his famous hares. Up till this time he had only written a few hymns; he now, at Mrs Unwin's suggestion, commenced a poem on the Progress of Error. Composition, once begun, was so ardently pro-secuted that in a few months his first volume, consisting, with the poem already mentioned, of Table Talk, Conversa-tion, Truth, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, and Retirement, was ready for the press. It attracted little attention. One critic declared that " Mr Cowper was certainly a good pious man, but without one spark of poetic fire." In 1781 he met Lady Austen, and the casual acquaintance soon ripened into the warmest intimacy. Her lively spirits chased from his mind the demon of melancholy. He wrote songs which she set to music and sang to the harpsichord. It is said that observing him one evening in a fit of depression, she related the story of John Gilpin, with which he was so delighted that after retiring to rest he turned it into verse, and repeated it with great glee when they met next morning at the breakfast-table. The Task, undertaken at the suggestion of his new friend, was begun in the winter of 1783 and published in 1785. Its success was complete, and his reputation was at once established. Never, perhaps, in England had poetry been at so low an ebb as at this time. The brilliant point and antithesis of Pope had degenerated into the inflated diction of Darwin and the feeble sentimentalities of Hayley. Cowper's hearty and natural verse extinguished these weaklings for ever. Although Cowper cannot be placed in the first rank of English poets, yet few are attended with such retinues of love and blessing. His verse is a transparent medium through which you look into a gentle and most lovable human spirit, and you come to know him as thoroughly as if you had lived in the same house with him for years. His muse does not sit apart in sublime seclusion—she comes down into the ways of men, mingles in their every-day concerns, and is interested in crops and rural affairs. You see by the slight tan on her cheek that she has been much in the harvest-fields. Cowper rather talks than sings. His blank verse makes no pretensions to majesty ; it is colloquial sometimes in its bareness, yet in its artless flow is ever delightful as the conversation of a beloved and gifted companion.

Cowper brought back nature to poetry, and his influence has been extensive and lasting. He is, to a certain extent, the prototype of Wordsworth. Indeed, many passages in the Excursion read like extracts from the Task. It is curious also to observe in Cowper's verse that subjectivity which is supposed to be the characteristic of more recent times. His ailings, his walks, his musings, his tamed hares, his friends, his indignation at slavery, his peculiar views of religion, are the things he delights to portray—the Task is a poem entirely about himself.

On Lady Austen leaving Olney, her place was filled by the Throgmortons, whose acquaintance Cowper had made on the occasion of a fete which they gave to the surround- ing gentry, He was delighted with his new friends and spent much time in their society. During this period he was not idle; he had commenced his translation of Homer, and in the winter of 1785 had advanced as far as the 20th book of the Iliad. Owing to the rigorous care he bestowed upon his work it did not advance so rapidly as he at first anticipated, and was not published till 1791. Cowper was now in the zenith of his reputation, Rumours of his fame were wafted to the quiet residence of Olney from that world which he had so long forsaken, he was hailed the first poet of the day, and his old friend Thurlow (whose greatness he had foreseen) opened a correspondence with him and thanked him for his translation, To the mild spirit of Cowper the last circumstance must have been peculiarly grateful. While engaged upon Homer, his dreaded malady returned, but was happily driven away by the charms of society and constant literary occupation. He well knew that if he remained inactive the dark spirit would regain his throne ; and no sooner was Homer given to the world than we find him engaged on an edition of Milton. But the labour was too much ; his brain sunk beneath the incessant demands made on its energies, and so great was his distress that he was obliged to relinquish the undertaking. The clouds were now closing dark and heavy over the evening of Cowper's life. Mrs Unwin was an invalid; he was ever by her bedside, and nursed her with a tenderness, if possible, deeper than her own. Beneath the tension of sorrow the cord snapped. His malady returned, which was never destined in this life to be rolled away. Mrs Unwin died on the 17th of December 1796. Cowper, with wandering brain and feeble as a child, was led into the room ; the presence of the dead drew from him one wild passionate exclamation, he then relapsed into silence, and it is said never more uttered her name. The deepest dejection, alternating with fits of spiritual despair, hung over him to the end. Dropsy appeared in his limbs ; and after being reduced to the last stage of feebleness, he died peacefully on the 25th of April 1800. (A. S.)

The posthumous writing of Cowper, with a life by his friend Hayley, appeared in 1803-4. The best life, that by Southey, with an excellent edition of his works, was published in 1833-37, and with additional letters, in Bohn's Standard Library (1853-54). Other editions of his works, with memoirs, are those of Grimshawe (1835), Dr Memes (1852), and George Gilfillan. Lives have also been written by H. F. Cary, M'Diarmid, and Thomas Taylor. See, besides a study by Sainte-Beuve in the Moniteur (Nov. 13, 20, 27, and Dec. 4, 1854), Stopford Brooke's Theology in the English Poets, .and Leon Boucher, William Cowper, sa correspondence et ses poesies.

The above article (except for the final paragraph) was written by Alexander Smith, Secretary to Edinburgh University, from 1854; author of Life Drama and Other Poems, City Poems, and Last Leaves.

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