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Cowper, Williamfree

(1731–1800)
  • John D. Baird

William Cowper (1731–1800)

by George Romney, 1792

Cowper, William (1731–1800), poet and letter-writer, was born on 15 November 1731 at the rectory, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the fourth child of the Revd John Cowper (pronounced Cooper; 1694–1756), and his first wife, Ann (1703–1737), daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. His father, who held the rectory of Berkhamsted from 1722 until his death, was the son of Spencer Cowper (1670–1728), a lawyer and whig politician who rose to be a justice of the common pleas, and nephew of William, first Earl Cowper (1665–1723), twice lord chancellor. The Donnes, long established in Norfolk, claimed a remote ancestor in Henry III and a more immediate one in John Donne, the poet and dean of St Paul's (the latter, though cherished by William Cowper, was probably collateral).

Early life and education, 1731–1748

Of the seven children of John and Ann Cowper, only two survived infancy, William and John, whose birth on 7 November 1737 proved fatal to Ann. His mother's death put an abrupt end to the idyllic childhood recalled by William more than half a century later in his poem 'On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture'. He celebrates her ability to console, and the 'constant flow of love that knew no fall' (l. 65). He remembers the tolling of her funeral bell and the hearse leaving the rectory, and the promises of the maids that his mother would return, attributing his lifelong servitude to false hopes to this early experience. The closest substitute for the loving care of his mother he found in holidays spent with her relatives in Norfolk, especially with her brother Roger, the rector of Catfield, whose wife Harriot gave William his first books, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and John Gay's Fables. William earned praise for his recitation of Gay's 'The Hare and many Friends', a story of delusive hopes and implacable hunters appropriate to the poet who would later figure himself as a stricken deer (Cowper, The Task, Poems, 3.108–13).

William's education began at a dame-school in Berkhamsted to which the gardener drew him in a miniature carriage. While his mother still lived, he was sent to school a few miles away, in the home of the Revd William Davis, rector of Aldbury. Some months later, his father sent him to a more formally organized school conducted by another clergyman friend, the Revd William Pittman, at Markyate Street in Bedfordshire. Here Cowper began the study of Latin. Here he was bullied by a boy of fifteen, who treated him so brutally that he was afraid to raise his eyes above his persecutor's knees: 'I knew him by his shoe buckles better than by any other part of his dress' (Letters, 1.5). Specks on his eyes raised concerns for his eyesight, and his father sent him at the age of eight to live with Mrs Disney, an oculist, where he stayed without much improvement until he entered Westminster School in April 1742. He credited an attack of smallpox three years later with removing the specks, but his eyes were susceptible to inflammation for the rest of his life.

Westminster School was then at the height of its eighteenth-century influence, its location in the shadow of Westminster Abbey adjacent to the old parliament buildings aptly symbolizing its pre-eminence. Under a great headmaster, John Nicoll, it drew the sons of the great whig families which dominated English political life; it drew also many able boys from lesser families. Curriculum and methods of instruction had changed little since the sixteenth century. The fourth form was instructed by Pierson Lloyd, father of Cowper's friend and contemporary the poet Robert Lloyd, remembered for his gentleness and kindness. The fifth form was entrusted to the Latin poet Vincent Bourne, another gentle soul, who was the victim of practical jokes and even physical abuse: Cowper remembered seeing the future duke of Richmond 'set fire to his greasy Locks, & box his Ears to put it out again' (Letters, 1.481, 482). Yet harsh living conditions and aristocratic horseplay did not prevent Cowper and others from reading and learning. With his friend Richard Sutton (1733–1802), Cowper read through the Iliad and the Odyssey, thus beginning a lifetime's study of the Homeric epics. He practised the composition of Latin verse sufficiently to be able to translate his own verses or those of others into Latin, a skill that never deserted him. His youthful enthusiasm for the metaphysical verse of Abraham Cowley, a predecessor at Westminster, was gradually supplanted by a more judicious admiration of Matthew Prior (another old Westminster), and above all of Milton and Paradise Lost. He seems to have been a lively and active boy. A number of the friendships he formed at Westminster, though broken off after 1763, were revived with warmth in his later years.

Law, literature, and love, 1749–1763

The Cowpers were a professional rather than a landed family, looking to the law, the church, and the army for their livelihood. John Cowper decided to make a barrister of his elder son, and a clergyman of the younger. This disposition, natural as it doubtless appeared to the family, placed William in the unhappy and ultimately disastrous position of being obliged to practise a profession he quickly came to dislike, and for which, by reason of his morbid fear of public performance, he was quite unsuited. Unwilling to oppose his respected father, he followed the line of least resistance, to be increasingly caught in a conflict between family expectations he could not retreat from and professional requirements he could not meet—a pattern to be repeated in later years. As the first step in his legal career, Cowper was admitted to the Middle Temple (29 April 1748). A visit to Bath in 1748 provided the occasion for his earliest surviving poem: 'Verses … on Finding the Heel of a Shoe', a venture in the mock heroic manner of a perennial favourite, John Philips's The Splendid Shilling. His friends were for the most part proceeding to Oxford or Cambridge, so a lonely future impended.

Certainly Cowper was in no hurry to embrace the profession which had been chosen for him, for he remained at home for nine months after leaving Westminster. Early in 1750 he returned to London, to gain a general introduction to the law by staying in the home and articling in the office of a solicitor, Mr Chapman, in Greville Street. The three years he spent here effectively undermined his father's plan, since he contracted an acute dislike of the law and its practitioners, perhaps not surprising in one who had hitherto received the liberal education of a gentleman. To escape from this uncongenial office, he spent much time at 30 Southampton Row, the home of his uncle Ashley Cowper, who held the lucrative office of clerk of the parliaments. Southampton Row, just minutes' walk from Greville Street, then marked the limit of urban development. Here, looking across fields to the village of Hampstead, he enjoyed the company of his cousins, Ashley's three daughters: Harriot (1733–1807), Theadora Jane (1734?–1824), and Elizabeth Charlotte (d. 1805).

Two important friendships date from this period. In 1751 Cowper was joined at Chapman's by another articling clerk, Edward Thurlow (1731–1806), whose less fastidious and more forceful personality qualified him to serve as lord chancellor from 1778 to 1792. Joseph Hill (1733–1811) was the son of an attorney, and something of a protégé of Ashley Cowper's. He qualified as both attorney and solicitor, and developed a highly successful practice among the wealthy and powerful, recommended by a well-deserved reputation for discretion.

In 1753 Cowper left Chapman's and took up residence in the Middle Temple, and began to keep the terms required to qualify for the bar. Although he might dislike the law, there is evidence in the form of marginal annotations that he studied the subject, and he may have spent more time on it than he later wished to admit. He satisfied the bar requirements minimally, paying fines in lieu of keeping five terms of the eight specified, and further fines for failing to appear for various exercises. He was called to the utter bar in June 1754, and at that time purchased chambers in his own name. Three years of further keeping of terms, dining in hall on certain days, and attendance at exercises were required. He satisfied these requirements, but as soon as they were complete he transferred his membership to the more fashionable Inner Temple, where he purchased pleasant chambers overlooking Hare Court (June 1757).

Meanwhile, Cowper had fallen in love with his cousin Theadora, and she with him, probably on a summer holiday with his mother's relatives in Norfolk in 1752. For three years the relationship ran a sometimes stormy course, faintly traceable in the surviving poems of this period. Cowper suffered a period of depression in 1753, possibly caused by personal and professional stress. Poems of 1755 suggest that the cousins were once again intensely involved with each other. Then Ashley Cowper intervened, refusing his consent to his daughter's marriage because William could not support her. Ashley doubtless intended to stimulate his nephew to professional exertion. William did make some attempt to practise; for in 1791 he adjured the young barrister Samuel Rose 'you will not lose him as I lost a legion of Attorneys myself—by never doing the business they brought me' (Letters, 3.497). His real interest, however, was not law but literature. He wrote learned marginal comments in his uncle's copy of Richard Bentley's edition of Paradise Lost, and read through Homer once again, this time with a fellow Templar, William Alston (1728–1799). He contributed essays to various periodicals, including five in The Connoisseur, edited by George Colman and Bonnell Thornton, and joined with Colman, Thornton, Lloyd, James Bensley, Charles Churchill, and Chase Price, in an informal literary society of old Westminsters styled the Nonsense Club. The death of his father in 1756 severed his links with Berkhamsted, and left him with an inheritance which enabled his removal to the Inner Temple and deferred the necessity of earning a living. The surviving letters of the late 1750s show him as a lively young man about town. He fell in love at least once (ibid., 1.82). His literary work included renderings of two satires for an English edition of Horace (1759) compiled by John Duncombe, a friend of his family, and four books of the Henriade translated for Tobias Smollett's edition of Voltaire (1762).

Collapse, conversion, and recovery, 1763–1764

Throughout this period Cowper had continued to visit Ashley's house and to spend summer holidays with his uncle and cousins. He and Theadora never met or saw each other, and neither was spoken of in the presence of the other. Theadora's devotion remained constant, however, and her health suffered from the separation. When an opportunity to make his daughter happy presented itself, Ashley took action. In April 1763 Francis Macklay, clerk of the journals of the House of Lords, died. The position was at the disposal of Ashley Cowper, as clerk of the parliaments; William, incapable of public performance, believed it was particularly suited to him, since its business was transacted in private. Two other offices, however, became vacant at the same time, those of reading clerk and clerk of the committees. Since these, regularly held as a pair, were more valuable, Ashley Cowper offered them first to William, who accepted them. Immediately he had second thoughts, knowing that that he would be unequal to the public appearances necessary to the business of these positions, and begged his uncle to nominate him to the clerkship of the journals. Ashley, foreseeing trouble, reluctantly complied. Macklay's son, who had a fair claim to succeed his father, fomented opposition, and Cowper was informed that he would have to be examined at the bar of the House of Lords to establish his credentials. Such an inquisition in public was terrifying to him, yet he could not withdraw without injuring his uncle. Miserable months ensued, in which Cowper tried hopelessly to master the business of the clerkship, little aided by the clerks, who took Macklay's part.

Seeking temporary relief, Cowper spent a late summer holiday with Ashley Cowper and his family at Margate, only to suffer a disastrous failure of nerve. Convinced that his dearest hopes were allowed him only to be dashed, he could not bring himself to propose marriage to Theadora when the opportunity was given him. When he returned to London the sense of doom returned, and he began to think of escape. At first he hoped to go mad, but as the dreaded date early in December drew nearer the more certainly effective release of suicide recommended itself. About a week before the examination he bought a half-ounce of laudanum. Unable to swallow the fatal dose, he prepared for flight to France, then decided to drown himself, then attempted to stab himself with his penknife (the blade broke), and finally hanged himself with a garter which snapped just as he lost consciousness. He collapsed in his bed, where Thurlow found him in a state which thirty years later that coarse spirit could not recall without emotion. The clerkship and Theadora were lost forever. A terrible period followed, of acute misery, fear of death and of damnation. Everywhere there seemed to be fingers pointing at him, holding him up to contempt. His brother John, recently elected fellow of Corpus Christi College, came from Cambridge, but his attempts at consolation were useless. At last Cowper thought of his cousin the Revd Martin Madan, whom he had hitherto looked down upon as a Methodistical enthusiast. Madan's exposition of original sin and salvation by grace calmed him at once, and he removed as quickly as possible to Knightsbridge, in order to take lodgings next door to Madan. When alone at night, however, he found his terrors returned, and the next morning finally achieved the alienation of mind that he had earlier hoped for in vain. After family consultations, it was decided to send him to St Albans, to be under the care of Dr Nathaniel Cotton, physician and poet, with whom Cowper was already slightly acquainted. Cotton kept a residence for patients known as his ‘Collegium Insanorum’ and here Cowper spent the next eighteen months.

For weeks Cowper lay in despair, attempting suicide on at least one occasion. A calmer mood ensued, but no fundamental improvement, until chance readings in the Bible and a visit from his brother began to loosen his conviction that he was 'devoted to destruction' by an angry God (Letters, 1.39). On 26 July 1764 he picked up a Bible from a window-seat and opened it at random, lighting on Romans 3: 25. At once he felt strength to believe in Jesus as the propitiation for his sins, and in a moment was lost in paroxysms of joy.

Cowper remained at Dr Cotton's establishment for nearly a year after this sudden conversion. Cotton was himself evangelically inclined, and they spoke often of the sweetness of the scriptures and salvation. Cowper was determined never to return to London, and resigned the only official position he held, a commissionership of bankrupts worth £60 a year. As a result, his means were reduced to a point where he could barely support himself, and several of his relatives agreed to contribute money annually to provide him with an annual income close to the gentry threshold of £100. Joseph Hill assumed responsibility for Cowper's affairs, frequently supplementing the sometimes reluctant contributions from relatives and rent from the chambers in the Inner Temple (nominally £20 a year) to enable his friend to live as a gentleman. John Cowper located lodgings in Huntingdon, 16 miles from Cambridge, which would suit. On 17 June 1765 Cowper set out from St Albans, accompanied by Samuel Roberts, a young servant who had arrived at Dr Cotton's about the same time as Cowper.

The Unwins and the Newtons, 1765–1773

They brought with them a boy named Richard Coleman, about seven years of age, the son of a drunken cobbler of St Albans. Cowper's plan was to rescue the lad from a brutal father and bring him up to succeed Sam Roberts as his personal servant (he then expected Roberts to leave him after a year or two). The summer passed pleasantly, though housekeeping expenses quickly got out of hand. In September an increasingly lonely existence was transformed by acquaintance with the Unwin family. The Revd Morley Unwin, rector of Grimston in Norfolk, resided in Huntingdon, serving a local chaplaincy and preparing young men for admission to Cambridge University. He had married in 1742 Mary Cawthorne [see Unwin, Mary (bap. 1723, d. 1796)], the daughter of an Ely draper, a lady of intelligence and culture. Their son William Cawthorne Unwin had graduated BA of Cambridge in 1764, and was preparing to take holy orders. A friendship with the family quickly developed, and in November, worried by the costs of independent housekeeping, Cowper decided to lodge and board with the Unwins. Morley Unwin was a rationalist clergyman, influenced by the theology of Samuel Clarke, but Mrs Unwin and her children were of the evangelical persuasion, and Cowper spent much time in conversation on serious subjects.

Cowper's financial position remained precarious, and his affairs came to a crisis late in the summer of 1766. His uncle Ashley questioned his need to keep a manservant and a dependent boy, and hinted that his relatives might be unwilling to subsidize this manner of living. Mrs Unwin offered to halve the charge for board and lodging; his cousin Harriot, now married to Sir Thomas Hesketh, privately supported his conduct, and her husband made up the contribution which a cousin had withdrawn. The crisis passed, and Cowper continued his comfortable life of religious retirement until 29 June 1767, when Morley Unwin was thrown from his horse, fracturing his skull. He died four days later. Mrs Unwin promptly decided to move to some place where she could find 'an Abode under the Sound of the Gospel' (Letters, 1.170), and on 14 September she moved with her daughter Susanna to Olney in north Buckinghamshire. There the Revd John Newton served as curate (under the patronage of Cowper's schoolfellow the earl of Dartmouth). Olney, a small market town perpetually distressed by the failure of the domestic lace making industry, appeared to Cowper to be 'abounding with Palm Trees and Wells of Living Water' (ibid., 1.179). After five months in temporary quarters, he moved with the Unwins into their new home, a house called Orchard Side on the south side of the market square, with a pleasant garden abutting on the garden of the vicarage, allowing the two households to exchange visits without going out into the streets. Late in the year Mrs Unwin fell ill with a 'Nervous Atrophy' which even Dr Cotton could not cure. Cowper's state of mind is represented in the lines 'Oh for a closer walk with God', composed early one morning (ibid., 1.187–8). Prayer effected what medicine could not, and three months later Mrs Unwin was quite recovered. Meanwhile, doubtless under the influence of Newton, Cowper wrote an account of his own conversion. Newton drew Cowper into his campaign to evangelize the people of Olney, to which Cowper contributed most of the sixty-six devotional poems collected in Newton's Olney Hymns (1779).

Cowper had a candidate for conversion even closer to home, his own brother, John, now a coming man at Cambridge, a respected scholar and officer of his college, and minister of nearby Foxton. But John was a worldly clergyman, whose heart an evening prayer meeting at Olney vicarage could not touch; of his conversation Cowper remarked: 'So much said about nothing, and so little about Jesus, is very painfull to us' (Letters, 1.199). Then in the autumn of 1769 John suffered a haemorrhage; whatever the cause, it presaged a long period of 'inward Decay' (ibid., 1.211). William went to Cambridge to be with him as he weakened physically. Periods of delirium became more frequent. Then on 10 March John woke from a sleep with words of salvation on his lips, and the last ten days of his life were spent in joyous spiritual communication with his brother. He died on 20 March 1770. William returned sad but triumphant to Olney, where he composed a short memoir of his brother's illness and conversion, adding it to the longer one of his own life to form Adelphi ('The Brothers'). The augmented work circulated in manuscript among the converted.

Second collapse, 1773–1774

The unregenerate townspeople of Olney gossiped about the Orchard Side household, suspecting scandal in the relationship of Cowper to Mrs Unwin. This was a sensitive topic: Cowper's first assertions that Mrs Unwin was to him as a mother to a son come in letters written soon after Morley Unwin's death had created a potentially awkward situation. So long as Susanna Unwin lived with her mother, respectability was officially maintained, but when she became engaged to the Revd Matthew Powley in 1772 something had to be done. Newton naturally recommended that Cowper should marry Mrs Unwin, and they became engaged. Cowper now found himself in an impossible situation. He and Theadora had promised never to marry if they did not marry each other, and likewise to keep this promise an inviolable secret. Cowper could not marry Mrs Unwin, and could not explain why. His desperate claim to be an androgyne incapable of marriage carried no conviction and brought no relief from Newton's urgings. In January 1773, once again trapped between conflicting obligations, Cowper broke down under the strain. The symptoms, more violent than those of 1763, included repeated attempts at suicide. The climax came late in February, when he dreamed that a voice cried to him (Actum est de te, periistiLetters, 1.510), that is, 'Your case has been decided; you have perished'. These words he interpreted as God's judgment on him, importing the obliteration of his soul at the moment of his death, and God's command that he should put an end to himself at the earliest opportunity. It was a dream 'before the recollection of which, all consolation vanishes, and, as it seems to me, must always vanish' (ibid., 2.385). In a cruel parody of his former confidence in God's love and mercy, Cowper for the remainder of his life believed firmly that he was the unique object of God's utter and unqualified reprobation. He never prayed nor entered a church again; when grace was being said at table he sat down and picked up his knife and fork to demonstrate his conviction of absolute exclusion from the Christian community.

All thoughts of a marriage between Cowper and Mrs Unwin were now dropped. Whatever the world might suppose, the reality was that she was his keeper. In April 1773 Cowper was moved from Orchard Side to the vicarage to escape the noise of the annual spring fair in the market place, and stayed for thirteen months. Back at Orchard Side, he tried to find release in carpentry and drawing. His neighbours gave him three young hares, later celebrated in verse and prose as Puss, Tiney, and Bess, whose undemanding companionship supplied welcome diversion. The handful of poems written in 1774, especially 'Hatred and Vengeance, my Eternal Portion', reveal his misery and despair; in 'Heu quam remotus', written 'die ultimo 1774', he shrouds in Latin verse his enduring devotion to the Theadora whom he had betrayed and lost: 'Te vinculo nostram jugali' ('you who are mine in the nuptial bond').

Partial recovery and first volume of poems, 1774–1781

Cowper had dabbled in gardening at Huntingdon, and he now took it up again. When the series of his surviving letters resumes in 1776, there are several references to his melons, and his hotbed was producing cucumbers by the end of March in 1777. He was in touch with the professional gardeners of the great estates within a 30 mile radius of Olney, obtaining from them both advice and seeds. He recovered his interest in reading, borrowing the accounts of Cook's voyages and other books from Lord Dartmouth's library. Newspapers too engaged his attention, as France and Spain came to the support of the American revolutionaries. His patriotism produced a series of poems, culminating in a venomous epigram in Latin and English in which he accounts for the Gordon riots of June 1780 as a vile French plot. Verses addressed to the Newtons (now removed to London) and William Unwin, however, echo the gentle humour of his letters.

In the early months of 1780 the evangelical party was dismayed by the publication of a work called Thelyphthora, by the Revd Martin Madan, the cousin who had so crucially aided Cowper in the crisis of 1763. Madan's pastoral experience had persuaded him that only a return to the concept of marriage which he found in the Pentateuch, whereby a man who had once lain with a woman was her husband and responsible for her thereafter, could alleviate the evils of prostitution. His fellow evangelicals were dismayed to find themselves associated with a plea for polygamy. Cowper, a distant observer, penned several short poems on the subject (he had not read the book), which were circulated anonymously in manuscript by Newton. In the autumn a review by the dissenting minister Samuel Badcock was generally agreed to have prevailed against Madan's arguments. Cowper, encouraged by Mrs Unwin, composed a narrative poem in heroic couplets describing allegorically the defeat of a false knight, by Sir Marmadan, under the title Antithelyphthora. Newton hastened this 200-line tale to his publisher, the radical Joseph Johnson, who issued it in an anonymous and quickly forgotten quarto edition on 1 January 1781.

The clash between Cowper's horror at his cousin's theories and his sense of family and personal obligations to Madan unleashed a great burst of creative energy. In the four months from December 1780 to March 1781 Cowper composed 2700 lines of verse. First of these 'moral satires' in pentameter couplets (more reminiscent of Edward Young's satires than of Pope's) was 'The Progress of Error', a renewed attack on Madan, broadened to scourge other corrupters of the public mind. 'Truth' sets up by contrast the evangelically inspired standards to which society should aspire. In 'Table Talk', two interlocutors debate politics and poetry by way of providing an introduction to what Cowper was beginning to think of as a second, more deliberate publication. 'Expostulation' presents Cowper as a prophet upbraiding the English for their national apostasy. In April 1781, when spring renewed opportunities for walking and gardening, Cowper thought these four poems, with a selection of shorter ones which he had by him, would make a satisfactory volume. Joseph Johnson, however, delayed his decision, allowing Cowper to complete four more long poems between May and October 1781. The book appeared in the first week of March 1782, its title asserting the gentility and professional affiliation of its retired yet engaged author in his first acknowledged publication: Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq.

Lady Austen and The Task, 1781–1784

In the summer of 1781 Cowper became acquainted with one of the most powerful influences on his poetic career: Lady Austen, the widow of Sir Robert Austen, bt. In 1781 Lady Austen made an extended visit to her sister Mrs Jones, wife of the curate of the neighbouring village of Clifton Reynes. Soon Lady Austen was thinking of taking up permanent residence at Olney, in the eastern portion of the Orchard Side house (not used by Cowper and Mrs Unwin). At the end of the year, she returned to London, followed by a 'Poetic Epistle' celebrating her friendship with Cowper and Mrs Unwin in the words '“A three-fold cord is not soon broken”'. A few weeks later, however, Lady Austen objected to some expressions in Cowper's prose letters to her (written at her request as from brother to sister), and the friendship came to an end.

Reviews of Poems were generally unfavourable, finding the moral satires dull and the humour of the shorter pieces merely passable. The wealthy merchant John Thornton sent a copy to Benjamin Franklin at Passy and received a complimentary acknowledgement, which he passed on to Cowper. A copy sent to Cowper's old friend Thurlow, now lord chancellor, produced no response whatever. Cowper began a poem in couplets on education, wrote 200 lines, then desisted. His career as a publishing poet, begun by accident, might have petered out in disappointment once the original motive for writing had faded. Late in the spring, however, messages from Lady Austen indicated a desire for reconciliation, which duly took place in June when she returned to Clifton Reynes for another extended visit. Cowper devoted much of summer 1782 to translating some of the Poésies et cantiques spirituelles of Madame J.-M. Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon (1648–1717), at the request of his friend the Revd William Bull, Independent minister of Newport Pagnell. He later gave the booklet containing his translations (some more were added in 1783) to Bull, to publish if he wished. Cowper's occasional poems of the summer of 1782 show Lady Austen's growing influence: they are addressed to her, or relate incidents in which she was involved, or provide lyrics to be sung to her favourite melodies. One autumn afternoon, Lady Austen, noticing that Cowper was sinking into a depressed state, told him a story which had delighted her as a child, the misadventures of a linen draper on his wedding anniversary. The tale caught Cowper's fancy; he composed a ballad version, and through William Unwin's agency The Diverting History of John Gilpin was published anonymously in the Public Advertiser on 14 November 1782. In March 1785 it was included in an evening of Lenten readings by the popular actor John Henderson, with instant and enormous success. Thanks to Lady Austen, Cowper had written the most popular poem of the decade.

Lady Austen had taken up residence in the capacious Olney vicarage, and the winter months were spent in a constant interchange of visits. Then in the summer of 1783 Lady Austen, trying once again to alleviate his melancholy, challenged Cowper to write a poem on the sofa. He embarked on a history of the sofa in blank verse, and these lines led to others, until he found that he was writing a long poem about his life of retirement, about Olney and its scenery, about contemporary England, about the primacy of spiritual religion; found, in fact, that he was preparing another volume. As he completed the first draft of his poem in the spring of 1784, his association with Lady Austen came to an end. Details are lacking, but there seems to have been no quarrel; rather, a mutual recognition that the threefold cord had frayed beyond repair. Lady Austen later returned to Clifton Reynes and lived there from 1785 to 1790, but never saw Cowper again.

During the summer of 1784 Cowper revised his 6000-line poem, named The Task from its origin. He sent the fair copy to William Unwin, who had persuaded Joseph Johnson to publish it sight unseen, on 10 October. Immediately he took up his 200-line fragment on education, and, appalled by a report that Westminster School now kept a surgeon on retainer to treat boys for venereal disease, turned it into Tirocinium, a 900-line assault on the immorality and irreligion of great public schools dedicated to Unwin, who had decided to educate his sons at home. Early in November he sent to Unwin the fair copy of this poem, a complimentary epistle to Joseph Hill, and John Gilpin. The Task, accompanied by these three poems, was published early in August 1785. It was an immediate critical and popular success, and its popularity continued to grow. Its condemnation of slavery and advocacy of the humane treatment of animals were slightly in advance of changes in public opinion, so that the poem became more representative of its readers' views as time went by. Its attacks on aristocratic immorality and conspicuous consumption chimed in with William Wilberforce's campaign, initiated by the royal proclamation of 1787, to recall the upper classes to their social and religious responsibilities. Like its evangelical Christianity, its patriotic zeal against everything French gained fresh significance in the 1790s, when Britain went to war with the godless republicans of revolutionary France. Its evocations of landscape and the domestic life have proved permanently appealing. Above all, Cowper demonstrated in The Task that blank verse could render every topic from the most mundane aspects of gardening to the day of judgement—a lesson not lost on the next generation of poets.

From Homer to Milton, 1784–1792

On 21 November 1784, the day after he dispatched the final copy of The Task volume to Unwin, Cowper began to translate Homer's Iliad. More than a year later, when he could no longer conceal from Newton the fact that he was devoting himself to a pagan author, he claimed that he started to translate the Iliad merely to divert himself in a period of misery. The misery was real enough, but there was purpose in the enterprise. As a young man in the Temple, Cowper had found Pope's Homer false to the original. Thirty years later he had read Pope's version to Lady Austen and Mrs Unwin, complaining of its inadequacy, whereupon Lady Austen urged him to make a better translation himself. Her challenge moved him to undertake the most prolonged literary endeavour of his life. Working steadily at forty lines a day, he completed a draft of the Iliad on 13 January 1786.

Meanwhile The Task had moved his cousin Lady Hesketh, now widowed, to write to him, renewing a connection that had lapsed nearly eighteen years earlier. A new friendship further enlivened what had been a limited and lonely existence for Cowper and Mrs Unwin. Weston Hall, a mile west of Olney in the village of Weston Underwood, belonged to the Throckmorton family, and served as the home of the heir to the baronetcy. In May 1784, at the height of the ballooning frenzy set off by the success of the Montgolfiers, the current occupant of the hall, John Courtenay Throckmorton invited Cowper and Mrs Unwin to observe a balloon launch in his grounds. The balloon failed to fly, but Throckmorton and his young wife Maria showed much attention to Cowper and Mrs Unwin, and despite confessional differences (the Throckmortons were Roman Catholics) what had been barely formal acquaintance began to develop into warm friendship.

Lady Hesketh came to stay with her cousin in June 1786. Happily she accepted his unconventional relationship with Mrs Unwin, whose devoted knitting of his stockings she duly reported back to Theadora in London. Orchard Side she did object to, as cramped, dilapidated, and poorly located. The Throckmortons could offer a much better house in the village of Weston Underwood, and Lady Hesketh would pay the costs of removal and supply new furnishings, some purchased on behalf of 'Anonymous' (Theadora, who added £50 a year to Cowper's income). Reports that Cowper and Mrs Unwin were associating with papists and driving about in Lady Hesketh's carriage drew a stern letter of rebuke from John Newton. He was respectfully told to mind his own business. Lady Hesketh departed on 14 November, and the next day Cowper and Mrs Unwin moved to Weston Underwood.

Improvement was swiftly overshadowed by bereavement. On 29 November 1786 William Unwin died of typhus, aged forty-four. The loss was a heavy blow, and almost certainly provoked the 'nervous fever' of which Cowper complains in his letters to Lady Hesketh early in January 1787. On the 15th of that month he received a visit from a young man, Samuel Rose, who had been a student at the University of Glasgow, and who called to convey his professors' appreciation of Cowper's two volumes of poetry. Two or three days later Cowper lapsed into a severe depression lasting several months. By September, enlivened by the prospect of another visit by Lady Hesketh, he had resumed his daily stint of translation and his engagement with a now widening circle of correspondents. The publication of Proposals for the publication of the Homer translation by subscription (spring 1786) had given an opening to old friends, many from Westminster School days, to resume contact, while through Lady Hesketh, Cowper became reconnected with members of his father's family. The repeated visits of Samuel Rose linked Cowper to a younger generation of readers. In January 1790 a visit from a cousin, John Johnson, restored cordial relations with his mother's family in Norfolk. Soon afterwards, Johnson's aunt Mrs Bodham sent to Cowper the portrait miniature which moved him to write 'On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture' (March 1790).

After the interruption of 1787, work on the Homer translation proceeded steadily, though with many revisions, recopyings, and delays. The completed manuscript was delivered to Joseph Johnson early in September 1790. Correction of the proofs, in some places amounting to a further round of revision, continued into May of 1791. The last pages, comprising the final list of 498 subscribers, was sent to London on 12 June, and the two bulky quarto volumes were published on 1 July. Ten days later, Rose negotiated a financial agreement with Johnson which netted the poet £1000. Cowper declared himself satisfied. As recently as 23 June he and Mrs Unwin had been reduced to their last guinea. Reviews were mixed.

The question now arose of what Cowper should write next. A translation of a portion of the eighth book of Aeneid suggests that he may have contemplated rendering Virgil too into the Miltonic blank verse of his Homer. In May 1791 the Revd John Buchanan, his neighbour in Weston Underwood, presented him with the outline of a poem to be called 'The Four Ages of Man', a moral theme suitable to Cowper's genius. Cowper obligingly set to work, but made little headway. The fragment 'Yardley Oak', also in blank verse, probably represents an attempt to work into Buchanan's topic without the strait-jacket of his outline. Cowper could settle to nothing, however, and in September he reluctantly accepted Joseph Johnson's invitation to edit the works of Milton for a sumptuous new illustrated edition. The only attractive element of this project was the translation of Milton's Latin and Italian poems, and to this Cowper applied himself in the autumn of 1791. On 17 December Mrs Unwin suffered a stroke. She recovered, but his anxiety seems to have led Cowper to rely increasingly on Samuel Teedon, the Olney schoolmaster, for spiritual advice. He had completed work on Milton's Latin poems by February 1792. John Throckmorton's brother George helped him with the poems in Italian, a language of which Cowper knew little.

William Hayley and the visit to Eartham, 1792

In mid-March Cowper received a letter from the popular poet and playwright William Hayley, who had undertaken to write a life of Milton for an edition of Milton's works projected by another London publisher. Having seen a newspaper paragraph which depicted himself and Cowper as rivals, Hayley assured Cowper that they were not hostile competitors. Two months later, on 15 May 1792, he arrived at Weston, fortunately being present to take charge when Mrs Unwin suffered a second stroke on 22 May. By the time Hayley left on 1 June, she was receiving regular treatment with an electrical machine, and showed signs of improvement. Cowper's gratitude was unstinting. As Cowper nursed his own 'faithful and affectionate nurse' (Letters, 3.599), Hayley's admiration and generosity sustained him. He laid aside his barely begun commentary on Paradise Lost, and advised Joseph Johnson that he might be unable to do further work on the Milton edition.

Hayley meanwhile was urging the therapeutic value of an excursion to his home at Eartham near Chichester, where the fresh air of the Sussex Downs would surely help Mrs Unwin. Astonishingly, considering that he had refused every invitation to leave home for quarter of a century, Cowper agreed, and on 1 August 1792 he and Mrs Unwin, accompanied by Sam Roberts and his wife, set off for Eartham, where John Johnson was to join them. At the end of a long third day they reached Eartham. Mrs Unwin sustained the journey better than could have been expected, and her health and appetite seemed quickly to improve. The two poets collaborated on a revision of Cowper's translations of Milton's Latin and Italian poems, and on a translation of G. B. Andreini's Adamo. Also visiting Hayley at this time were the novelist Charlotte Smith and the painter George Romney, whose famous sketch of Cowper was done about the middle of August. On 17 September Cowper and Mrs Unwin set out for home; on the 20th they were safely back in Weston Underwood.

Weston Underwood and Norfolk, 1792–1800

Mrs Unwin's condition had improved during the visit to Sussex, but she was still unable to stand or walk without assistance, and as winter advanced it became increasingly clear that further recovery was unlikely. Cowper was incapable of proceeding with the Milton edition; Hayley's enthusiastic offers of help and schemes to improve the proposed edition exacerbated rather than relieved Cowper's sense of failure. Once again, he was trapped between obligations (to Joseph Johnson and Buchanan) and an inability to fulfil them; once again he was drifting, waiting for the situation to resolve itself. This time, fate was kind. In December 1793 Joseph Johnson decided the Milton project was impracticable under wartime conditions, and cancelled it.

As the French Revolution intensified political differences in England, Cowper found himself under pressure from Lady Hesketh to renounce his lifelong whiggism and become, as she had, a Pittite. This he refused to do, while at the same time assuring her that he, and Rose and Hayley and his other new friends were as opposed to revolutionary excesses as she could be. Cowper's young cousin John Johnson was ordained, and took up the curacy of East Dereham in Norfolk. Lady Hesketh, unable to visit Weston Underwood in the summer of 1793, suggested that Cowper should consider moving to Norfolk, where a network of relatives on his mother's side could provide support. Cowper preferred to stay in familiar surroundings with his friends the Throckmortons. He almost completed a revision of his translation of Homer. Mrs Unwin's health was slowly deteriorating, as the lines 'To Mary' poignantly register. The spectacle of her decline took a heavy toll, and in the middle of January 1794 Cowper lapsed into a deep melancholia from which he never recovered.

For many months Lady Hesketh stayed at Weston, caring for her hosts. Mrs Unwin, querulous and irrational, continued to rule an increasingly dysfunctional household. Hayley visited in April 1794, but neither his presence nor his success in securing for Cowper a royal pension of £300 a year could alleviate the poet's profound depression. Finally, Lady Hesketh began to fear for her own health. In 1795 it was agreed among Cowper's relatives that he and Mrs Unwin should be moved to Norfolk in the care of John Johnson. This was represented to Cowper as a summer expedition, but he divined that if he left Weston, it would be never to return. As the planned date in July approached, he attempted to take his own life. The move was delayed, but on 28 July 1795 inexorably took place.

Johnson conveyed the invalids first to the seaside town of Mundesley, then, in October, to his home at Dunham Lodge. Sam Roberts, parting after thirty years, returned to Weston Underwood. Cowper was overwhelmed with despair, and could think only that 'He who made me, regrets that he ever did' (Letters, 4.458). In September 1796 John Johnson moved his household to East Dereham, and there Mrs Unwin died on 17 December. Cowper was now so despondent that he appeared indifferent even to this loss, never mentioning her name again. Encouraged by John Johnson, however, he did return to writing. He could not bear to resume work on the revision of his Homer that he had abandoned in 1793, but he began a new and more radical revision of the translation in 1797, completing it in March 1799. That month he wrote a Latin poem on icebergs, immediately translating it into English; this was followed in April by 'The Cast-Away', translated into Latin five months later. He went on to make English versions of Latin poems by his former schoolmaster Vincent Bourne, Greek epigrams, and other Latin poems. In December, he translated into Latin Gay's 'The Hare and many Friends', the poem he had recited as a child. A revision of a passage in the Iliad was his last composition (23 January 1800). His health failed, and he died of 'a worn-out constitution' (Hayley, Memoirs, 2.106) on 25 April 1800, aged sixty-eight. He was buried in St Edmund's Chapel in the church of St Nicholas, East Dereham, on 3 May, with a memorial inscription by William Hayley.

Reputation

Cowper's hymns, published at the time when hymn singing was beginning to become more widely acceptable in Anglican services, contributed a number of popular favourites to many collections throughout the English-speaking world; 'Oh for a closer walk with God' and 'God moves in a mysterious way' were perhaps the most often reprinted. Their emphasis on personal devotion and uncompromising doctrinal statements make a poor fit with protestantism as it has evolved since 1960, however, and they appear less frequently in recent hymnals.

The volume of 1785 contained the works which made Cowper a widely read poet. The religious tone of The Task, its domesticity, and its treatment of such topics as slavery and consideration for animals, all anticipated themes associated with the evangelical revival which began in the late 1780s and peaked in the 1820s. Hayley's biography (1803) revealed the charm of Cowper's letters, and stimulated interest in his personal life. As reprints multiplied on both sides of the Atlantic, a division grew between evangelical readers who saw Cowper as tragically separated by mental illness from his saving faith, and those who thought him a sensitive soul driven mad by the grim theology of Calvin. The publication in the mid-1830s of two rival editions of his works illustrates the split: the eight-volume Life and Works edited by the Revd T. S. Grimshawe, with an inferior life and without the translation of the heathen Homer, was intended for a popular evangelical audience; whereas Robert Southey's more expensively produced fifteen-volume set, including the Homer, with an excellent biography and some judicious notes, was addressed to more sophisticated readers.

Numerous Victorian editions of the English poems attest Cowper's continuing popularity, as do many illustrated editions of 'John Gilpin', Randolph Caldecott's the most familiar. In the later nineteenth century portions of The Task were often chosen as set books for school examinations. The four-volume edition of the letters issued in 1904 by Thomas Wright, the schoolmaster who had established Cowper and Newton Museum in his native Olney in 1900, and the editions of the poems by John Bailey and Humphrey Milford published almost simultaneously in 1905, mark the zenith of Cowper's reputation.

The emergence of English as a university subject about this time, and the subsequent development of a historically representative canon of works suitable for teaching, coincided with the revival of interest in Donne and the metaphysical poets. The bounds of a teaching canon are fairly rigid, and the need to make room for poets of the early seventeenth century caused Cowper, already overshadowed in literary history by his successors Wordsworth and Coleridge, to be dropped from the list of major authors. Like his contemporary Burns, however, Cowper has never lacked an audience among those who read poetry for pleasure, and recently there have been signs, especially in England, of renewed critical interest in his writings.

Sources

  • The letters and prose writings of William Cowper, ed. J. King and C. Ryskamp, 5 vols. (1979–86)
  • The poems of William Cowper, ed. J. D. Baird and C. Ryskamp, 3 vols. (1980–95)
  • J. King, William Cowper: a biography (1986)
  • C. Ryskamp, William Cowper of the Inner Temple, esq.: a study of his life and works to the year 1768 (1959)
  • N. Russell, A bibliography of William Cowper to 1837 (1963)
  • W. Hayley, The life, and posthumous writings, of William Cowper, esq., 3 vols. (1803–4)
  • W. Hayley, Memoirs of William Hayley, ed. J. Johnson, 2 vols. (1823)
  • K. Povey, ‘Cowper and Lady Austen’, Review of English Studies, 10 (1934), 417–27
  • K. Povey, ‘The banishment of Lady Austen’, Review of English Studies, 15 (1939), 392–400
  • T. Wright, The life of William Cowper (1892)
  • H. P. Stokes, Cowper memorials: records of the Rev. John Cowper, M.A. (1904)
  • G. Keynes, ‘The library of William Cowper’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 3 (1959–63), 47–69, 167
  • N. H. Russell, addenda to ‘The library of William Cowper’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 3 (1959–63), 225–31

Archives

  • Library of Birmingham, MS copy of memoirs entitled ‘A narrative of Cowper's experience written by himself’
  • BL, autograph drafts of final poems, Dep 9987
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters
  • Bodl. Oxf., papers relating to his conversations and effects
  • CBS, corresp. and papers
  • Cowper Memorial Library, Olney, corresp. and verses
  • Herts. ALS, corresp. and papers; letters
  • Hunt. L., corresp. and verses
  • LPL, letters and verses
  • McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. and verses
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters
  • Princeton University library, corresp. and poems
  • Trinity Cam., literary papers, incl. MSS and annotated drafts of verse translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
  • Beds. & Luton ARS, letters to Lady Hesketh
  • BL, corresp. with William Hayley, Add. MS 39673
  • BL, letters to William Unwin and John Unwin, Add. MSS 24154–24155
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters of John Johnson relating to Cowper
  • LPL, letters to William Bull
  • Morgan L., corresp. with Walter Bagot
  • V&A NAL, Forster collection, letters and a MS volume belonging to him
  • Warks. CRO, letters to Mrs Throckmorton with verses

Likenesses

  • L. F. Abbott, oils, 1792, NPG
  • G. Romney, pastel drawing, 1792, NPG [see illus.]
  • T. Lawrence, pencil drawing, 1793, Cowper Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
  • T. Lawrence, pencil drawing, 1793, Yale U.
  • F. Bartolozzi, engraving, 1799–1805 (after T. Lawrence)
  • W. Blake, oils, 1800, Man. City Gall.
  • W. Harvey, pencil drawing (after L. F. Abbott), NPG
  • J. Jackson, oils, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
  • portraits, repro. in Russell, Bibliography

Wealth at Death

not great; chief asset was library; £300 to Mrs Unwin; returned to donors funds given by relatives for his support: TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1347, fol. 139