Lonsdale, Roger. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
COWPER, WILLIAM (1731-1800) William
Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was born in Herford-shire, where his father was a rector. He attended private school as a child, his sensitive nature suffering from bullying, and later continued his education at Westminster School and the Middle Temple in London. Although called to the bar in 1754, he chose not to practice, because of the onset of depression, which eventually led him into periods of madness. He would have married his cousin, Theodora Cowper, except for his father's interference. His father feared the results of a union of two so closely related people.
By age 32, Cowper suffered from grave mental illness, apparently arising from his belief that he was eternally damned. An uncle hoped to help him by nominating him as clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords, but he so feared the process that he attempted suicide. The depression seemed relieved by writing poetry, which never hinted at Cowper's madness. After Cowper's first bout of depression, his doctor managed to convince him that his preoccupation with sin was a product of delusion. Cured temporarily of his dementia, he settled at Huntingdon, enjoying a small income and the constant support of friends.
Cowper turned to religion for comfort and lived for a time with an Evangelical clergyman, Morley unwin, and his family. Mrs. Unwin allowed Cowper to remain after her husband's death, and he stayed with her until 1796. In 1765, the two relocated from Huntington to Olney and became followers of John Newton, another Evangelical preacher. Under Newton's influence, Cowper contributed entries, such as "God Moves in a Mysterious Way," to Newton's Olney Hymns, which would still be sung by Methodist congregations centuries later. Cowper planned to marry Mary Unwin but suffered another attack of delusions, in part due to the intellectual challenge he felt from Newton. He again believed himself a sinner, forever condemned by God.
With Mary Unwin's care Cowper recovered enough by 1776 to interact with friends. He responded to a book written by a cousin, Martin Madan, supporting polygamy with Anti-Thelypthora: a Tale in Verse (1781) and began a series of satires titled Poems (1782) at Mary's urging. Cowper wrote in a fury, attempting to counteract his despair, producing six books of blank verse titled The Task (1785), which would make him famous. As the story goes, he had complained over the lack of a subject for his poetry. Supposedly one Lady Austen challenged him to write about his own sofa. He began that task and gained a title for his book, constructing a humorous mock-heroic about the sofa's early life as a stool. The verse metamorphosed into more than 5,000 lines of meditative verse, filled with details about his surroundings and his political era. Although in a delicate and modulated tone, Cowper indicted so-called civilized man for his involvement in slavery and war, and for the corruption that grew from a desire for every luxury. For distraction he also tended a garden, enjoyed animals, and carried on a voluminous correspondence, his letters later admired for their clear, straightforward style. Not artful as the mode of the day required, the correspondence reflected Cowper's life in the country, captured in vivid detail.
Cowper wrote the comic The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782) and individual poems including "The Poplar Field," "On the Loss of the Royal George," and a well-received sonnet, "To Mrs. Unwin." Additional work included "Light Shining out of Darkness" and "The Negro's Complaint," the latter expressing his conviction regarding the evils of slavery. It had a first printing as a broadside and was set to music as a ballad. He began a translation of Homer and gained solid subscriptions to the project, which would be published in 1791. Additional translations would include works from Latin, Italian, and French. After Mary's death in 1794 he sank into complete dejection and became an invalid, although he managed to write the powerful but depressing "The Castaway," published posthumously. He lived on a pension after 1794, dying six years later at East Dereham, Norfolk.
Brown Study." Some early critics judged Cowper's works lacking in intellect, but later critics and readers found much to appreciate in his quiet verse, which never claimed to do more than examine and expose the quotidian. His work proved important in the evolution of poetic style and theme from the 18th century's focus on neoclassicism to the new concerns of the next century.
Was this article helpful?