William Cowper

The most characteristic work of the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800) is gentle and pious in mood and deals with retired rural life. He often anticipated the attitudes and subjects of romantic and Victorian authors.

William Cowper was born on Nov. 26, 1731; his mother was a descendant of the poet John Donne. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1754. A love affair with his cousin ended unhappily in 1756, largely because the girl's father was concerned over Cowper's mental stability. In 1763 Cowper suffered a complete nervous breakdown as a consequence of worry about an examination he was to take for a clerkship in the House of Lords. After several attempts at suicide he was committed to a sanatorium.

After recuperating, Cowper spent his life under the care of several friends and patrons, notably Mrs. Mary Unwin (a clergyman's widow), the evangelical clergyman John Newton (whose religious zeal probably did not aid Cowper's troubled mind), and Cowper's cousin Lady Hesketh. In collaboration with Newton, Cowper wrote numerous hymns. His life after 1765 was one of rustic retirement, punctuated by severe breakdowns in 1773, 1787, and 1794. His intermittent mental breakdowns were generally characterized by severe religious gloom and often by a sense that he was irrevocably damned.

Cowper's most significant literary work was done in the last 2 decades of his life. In 1780-1781 he wrote a series of reflective essays in couplets; in 1782 he composed the immensely popular "John Gilpin's Ride," in which he burlesques the heroic ballad. In 1783 Cowper began his curious long poem The Task (published 1785), which begins with a mock-elevated disquisition on the historical evolution of the sofa from the humble three-legged stool (a lady had suggested the topic in response to Cowper's complaint that he lacked a subject for blank verse). It then treats a multitude of descriptive and reflective subjects and is probably Cowper's most typical poem. In it quiet meditation is mingled with atmospheric description of simple rural life and placid natural scenes.

Cowper's translation of Homer (1784-1791) demonstrated his opposition to what he considered the artificial elevatedness of Alexander Pope's version. In 1799 Cowper wrote the somber poem "The Castaway;" like the earlier "Lines Supposed to Be Written by Alexander Selkirk" (published 1782), it is a study of human isolation and has poignant religious overtones.

Cowper was one of the best and most prolific English letter writers. He also composed the texts of many well-known hymns, including "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood," "God Moves in a Mysterious Way," and "Oh for a Closer Walk with God." He died on April 25, 1800.

Further Reading on William Cowper

For Cowper's life see Maurice J. Quinlan, William Cowper (1953), and William N. Free, William Cowper (1970), which also contains a fine discussion of Cowper's poetry. Charles Ryskamp, William Cowper of the Inner Temple (1959), deals with the poet's early years. For critical comment see Morris Golden, In Search of Stability: The Poetry of William Cowper (1960), and Patricia A. Spacks, The Insistence of Horror: Aspects of the Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Cowper, William, The letters and prose writings of William Cowper, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979-1986.

Cowper, William, William Cowper, selected letters, Oxford: Clarenden Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Roy, James Alexander, Cowper & his poetry, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.

Roy, James Alexander, Cowper & his poetry, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.