William Cowper

Portret van William Cowper.

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over William Cowper.


Letter William Cowper (1731-1800), „the most popular poet of his generation, and the best of English letter writers,” as Southey has designated him, belonged emphatically to the aristocracy of England.

His father, the Rev. Dr. Cowper, chaplain to George II, was the son of Spencer Cowper, one of the judges of the court of Common Pleas, and a younger brother of the first Earl Cowper, lord chancellor. His mother was allied to some of the noblest families in England, descended by four different lines from King Henry III. This lofty lineage cannot add the lustre of the poet’s fame, but it sheds additional grace on his piety and humility. Dr.Cowper, besides his royal chaplaincy, held the rectory of Great Berkhamstead, in the county of Hertford, and there the poet was born, November 15, 1731.

In his sixth year he lost his mother – whom he tenderly and affectionately remembered through all his life – and was placed at a boardingschool, were he continued two years. The tyranny of one of his school-fellows, who held in complete subjection and abject fear the timid and home-sick boy, led to his removal from this seminary, and undoubtedly prejudiced him against the whole system of public education.

He was next placed at Westminster School, where he had Churchill and Warren Hastings as schoolfellows, and where, as he says, he served a seven years apprenticeship to the classics. At the age of eighteen he was removed, in order to be articled to the attorney. Having passed through this training – with the future lord Chancellor Thurlow for his fellow-clerk – Cowper, in 1754 was called to the bar. He never made the law a study: in the solicitor’s office he and Thurlow were „constantly employed from morning to night in giggling and making giggle”, and in the chambers in the Temple he wrote gay verses, and associated with Bonnel Thornton, Colman, Lloyd, and other wits. He contributed a few papers to the Connoisseur and to the St James’s Chronicle, both conducted by his friends.

Darker days were at hand. Cowper’s father was now dead, his patrimony was small, and he was in his thirty-second year, almost „unprovided with an aim,” for the law was with him a mere nominal profession. In this crisis of his fortunes his kinsman, Major Cowper, presented him to the office of clerk of the journals to the House of Lords – a desirable and lucrative appointment. Cowper accepted it; but the labour of studying the forms of procedure, and the dread of qualifying himself by appearing at the bar of the House of Lords, plunged him in the deepest misery and distress. The seeds of insanity were then in his frame; and after brooding over his fancied ills till reason hed fled, he attempted to commit suicide.

Happily this desperate effort failed; the appointment was given up, and Cowper was removed to a private madhouse at St Albans, kept by Dr Cotton. The cloud of horror gradually passed away, and on his recovery, he resolved to withdraw entirely from the society and business of the world. He had still a small portion of his funds left, and his friends subscribed a further sum, to enable him to live frugally in retirement.

The bright hopes of Cowper’s youth seemed thus to have all vanished: his prospects of advancement in the world were gone; and in the new-born zeal of his religious fervour, his friends might well doubt whether his reason had been completely restored. He retired to the town of Huntingdon, near Cambridge, where his brother resided, and there formed an intimacy with the family of the Rev. Morley Unwin, a clergyman resident in the place. He was adopted as one of the family; and when Mr Unwin himself was suddenly removed, the same connection was contnued with his widow. Death only could sever a tie so strongly knit – cemented by mutual faith and friendship, and by sorrows of which the world knew nothing. To the latest generation the name of Mary Unwin will be united with that of Cowper, partaker of his fame as of his sad decline:


By seraphs writ with beams of heavenly light.


After the death of Mr. Unwin in 1767, the family were advised by the Rev. John Newton – a remarkable man in many respects – to fix their abode at Olney, in the northern division of Buckinghamshire, where Mr.Newton himself officiated as curate. This was accordingly done, and Cowper removed with them to a spot which he has consecrated by his genius. He had still the river Ouse with him, as at Huntingdon, but the scenery is more varied and attractive, and abounds in fine retired walks. His life was that of a religious recluse; he ceased corresponding with his friends, and associated only with Mrs.Unwin and Newton. The latter engaged his assistance in writing a volume of hymns, but his morbid melancholy gained ground, and in 1773 it became a case of decided insanity.

About two years were passed in this unhappy state. The poet, as appears from a diary kept by Newton, would have been married to Mrs.Unwin but for this calamity. On his recovery, Cowper took to gardening, rearing hares, drawing landscapes, and composing poetry. The latter was fortunately the most permanent enjoyment; and its fruits appeared in a volume of poems published in 1782. The sale of the work was slow; but his friends were eager in its praise, and it received the approbation of Johnson and Franklin.

His correspondence was resumed, and cheerfulness again became an inmate of his retreat at Olney. This happy change was augmented by the presence of a third party, Lady Austen, a widow, who came to reside in the immediate neighbourhood of Olney, and whose conversation for a time charmed away the melancholy spirit of Cowper. She told him the story of John Gilpin, and „the famous horseman and his feats were an inexhaustible source of merriment.” Lady Austen also prevailed upon the poet to try his powers in blank verse, and from her suggestion sprung the noble poem of The Task. This memorable friendship was at length dissolved. The lady exacted too much of the time and attention of the poet – perhaps a shade of jealousy on the part of Mrs.Unwin, with respect to the superior charms and attractions of her rival, intervened to increase the alienation – and before The task was finished, its fair inspirer had left Olney without any intention of returning to it.

In 1785 the new volume was published. Its success was instant and decided. The public were glad to hear the true voice of poetry and of nature, and in the rural descriptions and fireside scenes of The Task, they saw the features of English scenery and domestic life faithfully delineated. „The Task,” says Southey, „was at once descriptive, moral and satirical. The descriptive parts everywhere bore evidence of a thoughtful mind and a gentle spirit, as well as of an observant eye; and the moral sentiment which pervaded them gave a charm in which descriptive poetry is often found wanting. The best didactic poems, when compared with The Task, are like formal gardens in comparison with woodland scenery.”