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William Cowper. Biography

William Cowper

COWPER, WILLIAM (1731–1800), poet, was born at his father's rectory of Great Berkhampstead 15 Nov. 1731. His father, John Cowper, D.D., was second son of Spencer Cowper, the judge [q. v.] His mother was Anne, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. She left two surviving children, William and John, dying in childbed on John's birth in 1737. On her death Cowper was sent to the school of a Dr. Pitman at Market Street, Hertfordshire. He was cruelly treated by a fellow-pupil till a discovery led to the expulsion of the tormentor and his own removal from the school, after a stay of two years. A weakness of sight led to his being now placed for two years with an oculist. Specks which had appeared upon his eyes were finally removed, he says, by a severe attack of small-pox at the age of fourteen. Some weakness of sight remained through life. When ten years old he was sent to Westminster School, where he was ‘contemporary of Churchill, Colman, and Lloyd, and lodged in the same house with Cumberland.’ Sir William Russell (drowned when still young) was his closest friend, and he says that he had a ‘particular value’ for Warren Hastings (to Lady Hesketh, 16 Feb. 1788), to whom he addressed some lines on the impeachment. Cowper's ‘Tirocinium’ (1784) proves that he formed a low opinion of English public schools. The severity of his judgment upon institutions where religious instruction was scanty and temptations to vice abounded is explicable without supposing that he was himself unhappy. He says that he became ‘an adept in the infernal art of lying,’ that is, of inventing excuses to his masters. He shows, however, some pleasure in recalling his schooldays. He imagines himself receiving a ‘silver groat’ for a good exercise, and seeing it passed round the school (Southey, v. 356). Another letter states that he ‘excelled at cricket and football’ (ib. iv. 102). Here he wrote his first published poem; he became a good writer of Latin verses; he acquired an interest in literature, and a youthful veneration for literary distinction (ib. iv. 44–51, 73).

Cowper left Westminster at eighteen, and after nine months at home was articled for three years to a solicitor named Chapman, with whom he lodged. He spent much time at the house of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, in Southampton Row [for Cowper's relations see under Cowper, Spencer, 1669–1727]. He introduced a fellow-clerk, Thurlow, afterwards the chancellor, to his uncle's family, and Thurlow and Cowper spent their time in ‘giggling and making giggle’ with the three daughters, instead of ‘studying the law’ (Southey, v. 301). Thurlow, however, found time for serious work. Some years later (in 1762) (ib. i. 411) he made a playful promise that when he became lord chancellor he would provide for his idle fellow-pupil. Cowper had been entered at the Middle Temple, 29 April 1748; he took chambers in the inn upon leaving Chapman's office in 1752, and was called to the bar on 14 June 1754. He was seized with an ominous depression of spirits during the early part of his residence in chambers. He found some consolation in reading George Herbert's poems, but laid them aside on the advice of a relation, who thought that they stimulated his morbid feelings. After a year's misery he sought relief in religious exercises. He was advised to make a visit of some months to Southampton, where he made yachting excursions with Sir Thomas Hesketh. One day he felt a sudden relief. Hereupon he burnt the prayers which he had composed, and long afterwards reproached himself with having misinterpreted a providential acceptance of his petitions into a mere effect of the change of air and scene. Cowper's father died in 1756. Three years afterwards Cowper bought a set of chambers in the Inner Temple and was made a commissioner of bankrupts. An unfortunate love affair with his cousin Theodora had occupied him about 1755 and 1756. She returned his affection, but her father forbade the match on the ground of their relationship, and possibly from some observation of Cowper's morbid state of mind. Lady Hesketh told Hayley (14 Oct. 1801) that the objection was the want of income on both sides; but at the time Cowper's prospects were apparently good enough. The pair never met after two or three years' intercourse. Theodora never married; she continued to love Cowper, and carefully preserved the poems which he addressed to her. She fell into a morbid state of mind, but lived to give some information through Lady Hesketh to Hayley for his ‘Life of Cowper.’ Theodora died 22 Oct. 1824, and the poems which she had preserved were published in 1825.

Cowper apparently was less affected. He continued the life of a young Templar who preferred literature to law. He belonged to the Nonsense Club, composed of seven Westminster men, who dined together weekly. It included Bonnell Thornton, Colman, Lloyd, and Joseph Hill, the last of whom was a lifelong friend and correspondent. Thornton and Colman started the ‘Connoisseur’ in 1754, and to this Cowper contributed a few papers in 1756. He contributed to Duncombe's ‘Translations from Horace,’ 1756–1757; he also contributed to the ‘St. James's Chronicle’ (1761), of which Colman and Thornton were part proprietors. Cowper does not appear to have been intimate with Churchill, whose first success was made in 1761; but he always admired his old schoolfellow. At the Temple, Cowper and a Mr. Rowley read Homer, comparing Pope's translation with the original, much to Pope's disadvantage (Letter to Clotworthy Rowley, 21 Feb. 1788). He helped his brother in a translation of the ‘Henriade,’ supplying two books himself. Meanwhile his fortune was slipping away. He had reason to expect patronage from his relations. His cousin, Major Cowper, claimed the right of appointment to the joint offices of ‘reading clerk and clerk of the committees,’ and to the less valuable office of ‘clerk of the journals of the House of Lords.’ Both appointments became vacant in 1763, the latter by the death of the incumbent, which Cowper reproached himself for having desired. Major Cowper offered the most valuable to Cowper, intending the other for a Mr. Arnold. Cowper accepted, but was so overcome by subsequent reflections upon his own incapacity that he persuaded his cousin to give the more valuable place to Arnold and the less valuable to himself. Meanwhile the right of appointment was disputed. Cowper was told that the ground would have ‘to be fought by inches,’ and that he would have to stand an examination into his own fitness at the bar of the House of Lords. He made some attempts to secure the necessary experience of his duties by attending the office; but the anxiety threw him into a nervous fever. A visit to Margate in the summer did something for his spirits. On returning to town in October he resumed attendance at the office. The anticipated examination unnerved him. An accidental talk directed his thoughts to suicide. He bought a bottle of laudanum; but after several attempts to drink it, frustrated by accident or sudden revulsion of feeling, he threw it out of the window. He went to the river to drown himself, and turned back at sight of a porter waiting on the bank. The day before that fixed for his examination he made a determined attempt to hang himself with a garter. On a third attempt the garter broke just in time to save his life. He now sent for Major Cowper, who saw at once that all thoughts of the appointment must be abandoned. Cowper remained in his chambers, where the symptoms of a violent attack of madness rapidly developed themselves. Cowper's delusions took a religious colouring. He was convinced that he was damned. He consulted Martin Madan, his cousin [see under Cowper, Spencer]. Madan gave him spiritual advice. His brother came to see him, and was present during a crisis, in which he felt as though a violent blow had struck his brain ‘without touching the skull.’ The brother consulted the family, and Cowper was taken in December 1763 to a private madhouse, kept by Dr. Nathaniel Cotton [q. v.] at St. Albans. A copy of sapphics written in the interval gives a terrible description of his state of mind. Cowper's religious terrors were obviously the effect and not the cause of the madness, of which his earlier attack had been symptomatic. Cotton treated him with great tenderness and skill. He was himself a small poet (his works are in Anderson's and Chalmers's collections), and he sympathised with Cowper's religious sentiments. When after five months of terrible agonies Cowper became milder, Cotton's conversation was soothing and sympathetic. Cowper stayed with him a year longer, and then, being deeply in debt to Cotton, asked his brother, now a resident fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to find him lodgings near Cambridge. He resigned his commissionership of bankruptcy (worth about 60l. a year), feeling that his ignorance of the law made it wrong to take the oath, and desiring to sever himself entirely from London. His family subscribed to a small annual allowance; his chambers in the Temple were let, and he had some stock, some of which he was soon reduced to sell. He inherited 300l. or 400l. from his brother in 1770, and his will, made in 1777, shows that he had then about 300l. in the funds. He removed from St. Albans 17 June 1765, and, after visiting Cambridge, went to Huntingdon (22 June) to lodgings secured by his brother. He renewed a correspondence with his cousin, Lady Hesketh, and his friend, Joseph Hill. He rode halfway to Cambridge every week to meet his brother, and cared little for society. All other friendships ‘were wrecked in the storm of sixty-three’ (to Joseph Hill, 25 Sept. 1770). Hill continued to manage Cowper's money matters with unfailing kindness. Thurlow, on becoming chancellor in 1778, appointed Hill his secretary. Cowper became attached to Huntingdon, then a town of under two thousand inhabitants. By September he had made acquaintance with the Unwins. Morley Unwin, the father, held the living of Grimston, Norfolk (in the patronage of Queens' College, Cambridge), but lived at Huntingdon, where he had been master of the free school, and took pupils. His wife, Mary Cawthorne (b. 1724), was daughter of a draper at Ely. They had two children, William Cawthorne and a daughter. William, born in 1744 or 1745, was now at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he graduated as ‘senior optime’ and second chancellor's medallist in 1764. The daughter was a year or two younger. Cowper was spending more than his income, and on 11 Nov. 1765 became a boarder in the Unwin family, from motives both of economy and of friendship. His family, especially Colonel Spencer Cowper, brother of Major Cowper, had made some complaints of his extravagance. He had engaged the services of a boy from Dr. Cotton out of charity, and his relations thought that he should not be liberal on other people's money. An anonymous letter (no doubt from Lady Hesketh or her sister) assured him that if the colonel withdrew his contribution (which he did not) the deduction should be made up (to Lady Hesketh, 2 Jan. 1786). Mrs. Unwin soon afterwards offered to reduce her charges for board (from eighty guineas) by one half. Cowper was often cramped for money, but seems never to have worried himself greatly upon that score. He had apparently cared little for religion before his illness. He now became intensely devout. A great part of his day with the Unwins was spent in attending divine service (which was performed twice a day), singing hymns, family prayers, and religious reading and conversation. He corresponded with Mrs. Cowper, wife of Major Cowper, who, with her brother, Madan, sympathised with his religious sentiments. He gave her the history of his conversion (to Mrs. Cowper, 20 Oct. 1766), and told her that he had had thoughts of taking orders. His correspondence with Lady Hesketh ceased after 30 Jan. 1767, apparently because she was not sufficiently in sympathy upon these points.

On 2 July 1767 the elder Unwin died in consequence of a fall from his horse on 28 June. It was immediately settled that Cowper should continue to reside with Mrs. Unwin, whose behaviour to him had been that ‘of a mother to a son’ (to Mrs. Cowper, 13 July, 1767). Just at this time Dr. Conyers, a friend of the younger Unwin, had mentioned the mother to John Newton, who after commanding a slaveship had taken orders, and become a conspicuous member of that section of the church which was beginning to be called evangelical. He was now curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire. The vicar, Moses Browne, was non-resident, and Newton's income was only about 70l. a year. John Thornton, famous for his liberality, and the father of a better known Henry Thornton, allowed him 200l. a year for charity, and Newton worked energetically. At Olney he found a house called ‘Orchard Side’ for Cowper and Mrs. Unwin. Newton employed Cowper as a kind of lay-curate in his parish work. Cowper took part in prayer meetings, visited the sick and dying, and attended constant services. The strain upon his nerves was great (see Early Productions of Cowper, 68–70, for Lady Hesketh's view); his correspondence declined, and he became absorbed in his voluntary duties. He did his best to help a poor population, and was much respected at Olney, where he was called the ‘Squire,’ or ‘Sir Cowper.’ On 20 March 1770 his brother died at Cambridge. Cowper was with him for a month previously, giving religious advice. He wrote an account of his brother's conversion in a pamphlet called ‘Adelphi,’ published in 1802 by Newton from the original manuscript. Cowper was now composing hymns at Newton's request, both for edification and to commemorate their friendship. William Unwin, the son, had settled as a clergyman at Stock in Essex. His sister in 1774 married Matthew Powley, a friend of Newton's, who had been in trouble at Oxford for methodism, and appointed by Henry Venn to the curacy of Slaithwaite, Huddersfield. Powley became vicar of Dewsbury, and died in 1806. Mrs. Powley died 9 Nov. 1835, aged eighty-nine. She had a devotion to a Mr. Kilvington, resembling her mother's to Cowper (Southey, vii. 276–90). It is now known, although Southey denied the fact, that Cowper was at this time engaged to marry Mrs. Unwin (John Newton, by Josiah Bull, p. 192). The engagement was broken off by a fresh attack of mania, possibly stimulated by the exciting occupations encouraged by Newton. In January 1773 the case was unmistakable. In March Cowper was persuaded with difficulty to stay for a night at Newton's house, and then could not be persuaded to leave for more than a year. When feeling the approach of this attack, Cowper composed his fine hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ (Greathead, Funeral Sermon, p. 19). In the following October suicidal tendencies again showed themselves. He thought himself bound to imitate Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, taking himself as the victim, and that for his failure to do this he was doomed to eternal perdition. This last illusion seems henceforth never to have been quite eradicated from his mind. It was not till May 1774 that he showed improvement, and Mrs. Unwin was then able to induce him to return to his own house. Newton's kindness was unfailing, however injudicious may have been some of his modes of guidance. It was at this time that Cowper sought relief in keeping the hares whom he has immortalised. It was not till 12 Nov. 1776 that he broke silence by answering a letter from Hill.

At the end of 1779 Newton was presented by Mr. Thornton to the rectory of St. Mary Woolnoth. He had failed to attract the people of Olney, and had a name, as he says (Southey, Cowper, i. 270), for ‘preaching people mad.’ He adds some facts which tend to justify the reputation. The influence of Newton upon Cowper has been differently estimated by biographers according to their religious prepossessions. Facts are wanting to enable us to say positively whether Cowper's mind was healthily occupied or overwrought under Newton's direction. The friendship was durable. Newton, if stern, was a man of sense and feeling. It seems probable, however, that he was insufficiently alive to the danger of exciting Cowper's weak nerves. In later years Cowper's letters, though often playful, laid bare to Newton alone the gloomy despair which he concealed from other correspondents. Newton was, in fact, his spiritual director, and Cowper stood in some awe of him, though it does not seem fair to argue that the gloom was caused by Newton, because revealed to him. Before leaving Newton published the Olney hymns. He recommended Cowper to William Bull (1738–1814) [q. v.], an independent minister, an amiable and cultivated man. A cordial affection soon sprang up between them.

After his recovery Cowper had found recreation in gardening, sketching, and composing some playful poems. He built the little summer-house which has been carefully preserved. Mrs. Unwin now encouraged him to a more prolonged literary effort. In the winter of 1780–1 he wrote the ‘Progress of Error,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Table Talk,’ and ‘Expostulation.’ Newton found a publisher, Joseph Johnson of St. Paul's Churchyard, who undertook the risk. Both Newton and Johnson suggested emendations, which the poet accepted with good-natured submission. Newton also prepared a preface at Cowper's request, which was afterwards suppressed at the suggestion of the publisher, as likely to frighten readers of a different school. It was, however, prefixed, at Newton's request, in an edition of Cowper's poems in 1793. Publication was delayed, and Cowper continued to add other poems during 1781. In the same year he published anonymously a poem, called ‘Anti-Thelyphthora,’ an attack, strangely coarse for Cowper, upon ‘Thelyphthora,’ a defence of polygamy published by his cousin Madan in 1780, which had caused a brisk controversy and no little annoyance to Cowper and his friends. Cowper allowed this production to sink into oblivion. Lady Hesketh and Hayley admired it, but thought it right to forbid the republication (Add. MS. 30803 A). It was added to his works by Southey, who accidentally discovered it. The volume of ‘Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq.,’ appeared in February 1782. Besides eight longer poems, there were short pieces, including an address to Thurlow on his promotion. He had declined to apply to Thurlow, but evidently hoped for some fulfilment of the early promise. To Thurlow Cowper now sent a copy, with a respectful and formal letter. Thurlow took no notice of this, nor did Colman, to whom a copy was also sent. Cowper revenged himself by sending to Unwin an indignant ‘Valediction,’ complaining of the infidelity of his friends (for a similar incident in regard to Thurlow, see Crabbe, George). Both Colman and Thurlow had some friendly intercourse with him on occasion of his translation of Homer. The volume was condemned as ‘a dull sermon in very indifferent verse’ by the ‘Critical Review,’ but judiciously praised by the ‘Monthly.’ A warm letter of praise came from Benjamin Franklin, then in France. Cowper was sensitive, but seems to have taken the modest success of his volume philosophically. The ‘Critical Review,’ however unappreciative, had indicated the probable feeling of the general public. The poems are, for the most part, the satire of a religious recluse upon a society chiefly known by report or distant memory. His denunciations of the ‘luxury’ so often lamented by contemporaries is coloured by his theological views of the corruption of human nature. Some verses against popery in ‘Expostulation’ were suppressed as the volume went through the press, not, as Southey thinks, in deference to the catholic Throckmortons, with whom he only became intimate in 1784, but on consultation with Newton. The acuter critics alone perceived the frequent force of his writing, his quiet humour, and his fine touches of criticism. In the attack upon Pope's smoothness and the admiration of Churchill's rough vigour (see ‘Table Talk’) was contained the first clear manifesto of the literary revolution afterwards led by Wordsworth. Cowper had now discovered his powers, but had still to learn the best mode of applying them. In 1781 he made the acquaintance of Lady Austen. Her maiden name was Ann Richardson, and she was now the widow of Sir Robert Austen, a baronet, to whom she had been married early, and who had died in France. She had met Cowper (July 1781) when visiting her sister, Mrs. Jones, wife of a clergyman at Clifton, near Olney. She was a lively, impressionable woman, and ‘fell in love’ at once with Cowper and Mrs. Unwin. Cowper soon called her ‘Sister Ann,’ and sent her a poetical epistle when she returned to town in October. A correspondence followed which led to a temporary breach in the winter of 1781–2, in consequence of an admonition addressed to her by Cowper, with Mrs. Unwin's consent, warning her against an excessive estimate of their own merits. The little tiff blew over. Lady Austen returned to the neighbourhood in the spring of 1782, and at once brought about a reconciliation. She took part of the vicarage, whence a passage between the gardens, opened in Newton's time, was again made available (Southey, ii. 60, 61). The two ladies and Cowper dined alternately with each other. Cowper's spirits were reviving amidst congenial society and renewed literary interest. Lady Austen urged him to try blank verse, and on his complaining of the want of a subject, replied, ‘You can write upon any subject; write upon this sofa.’ The result was the ‘Task’ begun early in the summer of 1783, and ‘ended, but not finished,’ by August. Lady Austen about the same time amused him one day with the story of John Gilpin (for a discussion as to the historical reality of John Gilpin, see Notes and Queries, 2nd series, viii. 110; ix. 33; x. 350; 3rd series, ii. 429; 5th series, ix. 266, 394, 418; 6th series, i. 377, 416; ii. 177; v. 489). Next morning Cowper had produced his famous ballad, sent to Unwin in November 1782, who was made to ‘laugh tears’ by it, and published it in the ‘Public Advertiser.’ At the end of 1783 Lady Austen went to Bristol, and Cowper writing to Unwin (12 July 1784) states that he does not wish to renew the connection (two undated letters which follow this in Southey's Collection, v. 54–62, speaking of the reconciliation, should be dated 1782). The cause of the final quarrel, which he assigns to Lady Hesketh (16 Jan. 1786), is that Lady Austen was too exacting. It is difficult to avoid the inference, though Southey argues against it, that some jealousy between Cowper's two muses was at the bottom of the breach. Some loverlike verses to Lady Austen, who wore a lock of his hair, were printed for the first time by Mr. Benham in the Globe edition of his poems. The relation was obviously a delicate one, only to be maintained by a perfect congeniality of disposition. Lady Austen afterwards married an accomplished Frenchman, M. de Tardiff, and died in Paris 12 Aug. 1802 (Hayley). Cowper was left chiefly dependent upon the friendship of Bull, at whose suggestion he translated Mme. Guyon's poems. Thomas Scott, the biblical commentator, who had succeeded Newton, was respected, but apparently not loved, by Cowper. Meanwhile the ‘Task’ was finished, sent to Unwin, and accepted by Johnson in the autumn of 1784. Cowper's sensitive shyness had made him conceal the existence of his former volume from Unwin, who was hurt by his reticence. He now tried to make matters straight by confiding in Unwin instead of Newton, and gave some offence to Newton. While the ‘Task’ was in the press, Richard, or ‘Conversation’ Sharp met with ‘John Gilpin,’ and gave it to his friend, the actor Henderson (Southey, ii. 82). Henderson introduced it into some recitations which he was giving in 1785, and it had an astonishing success. One bookseller sold six thousand copies. It was inserted in the volume containing the ‘Task,’ which appeared in July 1785, and with the help of Gilpin made an immediate success. The success called attention to the previous poems, which were again published with the second edition of the ‘Task,’ in 1786. Cowper at once obtained a place as the first poet of the day. In the ‘Task,’ his playfulness, his exquisite appreciation of simple natural beauties, and his fine moral perceptions found full expression. Cowper now revealed himself in his natural character. He speaks as the gentle recluse, describes his surroundings playfully and pathetically, and is no longer declaiming from the rostrum or pulpit of the old-fashioned satirist. He gave the copyright of the volumes to his publisher, who would afterwards have allowed him to resume the gift. Cowper did not consent. Besides general applause, the ‘Task’ brought him a renewed intercourse with his relations. Lady Hesketh, a widow since April 1778, now wrote to him. Her long silence had been due to absence abroad, ill health, and domestic troubles, as well as want of religious sympathy. He replied in a charming letter (12 Oct. 1785), the first of a delightful series.

As soon as Cowper had finished the ‘Tirocinium,’ published with the ‘Task,’ he began (12 Nov. 1784) a translation of Homer. By 9 Nov. 1785 he had finished twenty-one books of the ‘Iliad.’ He began the work ‘merely to divert attention’ (Southey, ii. 192), and found the employment delightful. He translated forty lines a day, about the same number as Pope (to Newton, 30 Oct. 1784). He published a letter in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for August 1785, and signed ‘Alethea,’ giving the usual reasons for dissatisfaction with Pope's false ornaments and sophistication of Homer in English rhyme. He now sent out proposals for publishing by subscription, and with some reluctance accompanied them with specimens of his work. Old friends, Walter Bagot, Colman, his cousin, General Cowper, and new acquaintances, especially Fuseli, the painter, corresponded with him upon the undertaking. Newton was a little alarmed at his increasing intercourse with the world. Lady Hesketh persuaded him to see a Dr. Kerr of Northampton for troubles of digestion. In 1786 he received a communication from an anonymous benefactor, who not only sent various presents, but settled upon him an annuity of 50l. a year. Cowper supposed the anonymous benefactor to be a man, and some one known to Lady Hesketh. In all probability it was his old love, Theodora. In June 1786 Lady Hesketh obtained additional subscriptions from his relations; of 20l., and afterwards 40l. a year from Lord Cowper, and 10l. from W. Cowper of Hertingfordbury (probably the son of Major Cowper), besides adding 20l. herself (Add. MS. 24155, f. 123). Lady Hesketh herself came to Olney, having taken part of the curate's house. Her first good office was to induce Cowper and Mrs. Unwin to remove from Olney to the neighbouring village of Weston. Lady Hesketh paid the expenses, and they occupied their new abode in November 1786. The move had the advantage of facilitating the intercourse with the Throckmortons, a Roman catholic family, whose family seat was at Weston. In 1791 Throckmorton, now Sir John, left Weston, and was succeeded by his second brother George, then Mr. Courtenay, and afterwards Sir George Throckmorton. The intimacy, though valuable to Cowper, again alarmed Newton, who addressed a stern warning to Cowper upon the dangers of ‘gadding’ after friends who were scarcely christian in his sense. Cowper was wounded, though not alienated, and defended himself with excellent temper. In November 1786 William Unwin caught a fever from Henry Thornton, with whom he was travelling as tutor, and died at Winchester 29 Nov. 1786. Cowper's letters show a calm which is perhaps forced. He tried to distract himself by Homer, but a nervous fever followed, and in 1787 he had a fresh attack of insanity, lasting six months. He tried to hang himself, and was only saved by Mrs. Unwin accidentally entering the room and cutting him down. His recovery was rapid, but never complete. He was henceforth subject to delusions, hearing voices, and occupied by strange fancies. His fame was fortunately attracting new friends, and the friendships were cemented by his singular sweetness of disposition and charming correspondence. Samuel Rose (1767–1804), son of a Chiswick schoolmaster, brought him messages from the professors of Glasgow just before his last attack, became ardently attached to him, and was afterwards a frequent visitor. About Christmas 1789 John Johnson, grandson of his mother's elder brother, Roger Donne, and nephew of Mrs. Bodham, came to him during the vacation from Cambridge, where he was a student. Upon hearing of Cowper from her nephew, Mrs. Bodham presented the poet with a portrait of his mother, thus suggesting one of his most touching poems. The friendship of Johnson, fondly called ‘Johnny of Norfolk,’ was afterwards invaluable.

Cowper's labours on Homer were interrupted by one or two minor labours—a review of Glover's ‘Athenaid’ for the ‘Analytical Review’ of February 1789, and a translation of the letters of Van Lier, a Dutch clergyman, undertaken for Newton in 1790; but Homer at last appeared in the summer of 1791, and was received with a favour not confirmed by later readers. If Cowper had avoided Pope's obvious faults, he had not the vigour which redeems them. The general effect was cramped and halting. He is so preoccupied with the desire to avoid Pope's excess of ornament that he becomes bald and prosaic (see Cowper's own remarks, Southey, vi. 235, vii. 75–83). He had about five hundred subscribers, including the Scotch universities and the Cambridge colleges. He appears to have received 1,000l. for the first edition, preserving the copyright (ib. iii. 10). The two volumes were sold for three guineas. Pope made nearly 9,000l. with about the same number of subscribers, but on very different terms. Cowper next undertook to edit a splendid edition of Milton, projected by his publisher Johnson, to be illustrated by Fuseli; while Cowper was to translate the Latin and Italian poems, and to furnish a comment. Milton soon engrossed him entirely, and apparently prevented his completion of a promising poem on Yardley Oak, which he kept to himself. In December 1791 Mrs. Unwin had a paralytic stroke, followed by a second in May 1794, which left her permanently enfeebled. On the second occasion William Hayley (1745–1820) was with him. Hayley had been engaged by Boydell & Nicol to write a life of Milton for a new edition. He wrote in generous terms to disown any thought of competition. Cowper responded, and a warm friendship sprang up. Hayley, though a bad poet, was a good friend. He tried to obtain a pension for Cowper from Thurlow. He sent Lemuel Abbott [q. v.] to Weston to paint Cowper's portrait, and he induced Cowper to undertake a journey to Eartham, near Chichester, where he then lived. At Eartham Cowper, with Mrs. Unwin, spent six weeks, meeting Hurdis and Romney, who again painted his portrait. Cowper and Hayley executed a joint translation of Andreini's ‘Adam,’ which they dictated to Johnson. Cowper returned to Weston, apparently not the worse for his journey. He had now formed a strange connection with a poor schoolmaster at Olney named Teedon, a conceited and ignorant man, whom he treats in earlier letters with good-humoured ridicule. A new relation began just before Mrs. Unwin's attack. Both Cowper and Mrs. Unwin consulted Teedon as a spiritual adviser (Mrs. Unwin's first note is dated 1 Sept. 1791), and Teedon continued afterwards to give oracular responses to Cowper's accounts of his dreams and waking impressions. Teedon's vanity was excited, and he even treated Cowper to literary advice, and offered to defend Homer against the critics. The letters, first published in 1834, in the appendix to the sermons of Henry Gauntlett (vicar of Olney 1815–34), are a melancholy illustration of the gradual decline of Cowper's sanity. Mrs. Unwin's decay imposed fresh burdens on his strength. She became exacting and querulous. He worked when he could at a second edition of his Homer and at Milton. The exquisite verses ‘To Mary,’ written about this time, show that his poetic power was not yet weakened. Rose brought Lawrence the painter to visit him and take another portrait in October 1793, and Hayley came soon afterwards. Lady Hesketh followed on Hayley's departure, and found Cowper sinking into a state of stupor. She again sent for Hayley in the spring of 1794, and his arrival enabled her to go and consult Dr. Willis, to whom Thurlow had written in favour of his old friend. A letter arrived from Lord Spencer announcing the grant of a pension of 300l. a year, for which Thurlow, who had ceased to be chancellor in June 1792, can have no credit. Cowper was incapable of attending to business, and the pension was made payable to Rose as his trustee. Lady Hesketh attended him affectionately, with great difficulties from Mrs. Unwin, who had a new attack of paralysis in April 1795. It was thought desirable, apparently on Willis's advice, to try a change of scene and to get rid of Mrs. Unwin's nominal management of the household. Cowper and Mrs. Unwin were accordingly removed, under the guardianship of his devoted cousin, Johnson, in July 1795. They went first to North Tuddenham, near Johnson's residence at East Dereham. In August they visited Mundsley, on the Norfolk coast, where Cowper enjoyed walks by the shore, and began his last melancholy letters to Lady Hesketh. In October they settled at Danham Lodge, where they passed the winter, and after another visit to Mundsley settled at East Dereham. Here Mrs. Unwin died, on 17 Dec. 1796, Cowper receiving the news without emotion. His bodily health improved. Hayley tried to cheer him by the singular plan of obtaining testimonials to the religious effects of his works from Thurlow and Kenyon, whose judgments would have been more valuable in a question of law. Johnson tempted him with occasional success into literary occupation, and he finished a revisal of Homer and a new preface in March 1798. Shortly afterwards he wrote the pathetic ‘Castaway,’ his last original piece. He afterwards listened to his own poems, declining only to hear ‘John Gilpin,’ and translated some of Gay's fables into Latin. The last lines he ever wrote were a correction of a passage in his Homer, on a suggestion from Hayley. He gradually became weaker, and died peacefully on 25 April 1800. He was buried (2 May) in St. Edmund's Chapel, Dereham Church, where tablets, with inscriptions by Hayley, were erected to him and to Mrs. Unwin.

Cowper's portraits by Romney, Abbott, and Lawrence have been frequently engraved. Lady Hesketh thought Lawrence's admirable, but was shocked by a copy of Romney's, which gave, she thought, the impression of insanity instead of poetic inspiration (to Hayley, 5 and 19 March 1801, Add. MS. 30803 A). The portrait by Romney was sent by Mr. H. R. Vaughan Johnson to the Portrait Exhibition of 1858, to which Mr. W. Bodham Donne sent the portrait of Cowper's mother (by D. Heims). An engraving of the last by Blake is in Hayley's ‘Life of Cowper.’

Cowper pronounced his name as Cooper (see Notes and Queries, i. 272).

Perhaps the best criticism of Cowper's poetry is in Ste.-Beuve's ‘Causeries du Lundi,’ 1868 (xi. 139–97). The ‘Task’ may have owed some popularity to its religious tone; but its tenderness, playfulness, and love of nature are admirably appreciated by the French critic, who was certainly not prejudiced by religious sympathy. The pathos of some minor poems is unsurpassable. Cowper is attractive whenever he shows his genuine self. His letters, like his best poetry, owe their charm to absolute sincerity. His letters are written without an erasure—at leisure but without revision; the spontaneous gaiety is the more touching from the melancholy background sometimes indicated; they are the recreation of a man escaping from torture; the admirable style and fertility of ingenious illustration make them perhaps the best letters in the language. A selection, edited by W. Benham, was published in 1884.

Cowper's life was written by Hayley chiefly from materials supplied by Lady Hesketh. She was very reluctant to permit the publication of letters, and positively forbade any reference to Theodora, who was still living, and sent some information, but said that a personal interview with Hayley would kill her on the spot. To spare Theodora's feelings, Cowper's relations to Mrs. Unwin were carefully represented as resembling devotion to a ‘venerable parent,’ and a false colouring given to the narrative. No reference was permitted to ‘Anti-Thelyphora.’ The correspondence with Lady Hesketh is now in the Addit. MS. 30803 A, B. The first edition, called ‘Life and Posthumous Writings,’ 2 vols. quarto, was published at Chichester in 1803; a second in the following year. A third, called ‘Life and Letters,’ appeared in 1809, and a fourth in 1812. The later editions gave much additional correspondence, Lady Hesketh having been gratified by the success of the book. Lady Hesketh's ‘Letters to J. Johnson’ concerning Cowper were published in 1901.

Cowper's works are: 1. ‘Anti-Thelyphthora,’ 1781 (anonymous). 2. ‘Poems by William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq.,’ 1782; preface by Newton is in some copies of first edition. 3. ‘The Task,’ to which are added the ‘Epistle to Joseph Hill,’ ‘Tirocinium,’ and ‘John Gilpin,’ 1785, described on the fly-leaf as second volume of poems by William Cowper (a second edition of both volumes appeared in 1786; other editions in 1787, 1788, 1793, 1794, 1798 (two), and 1800). ‘John Gilpin’ had appeared in various forms as a chapbook in 1783 (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. xi. 207, 373, 395). 4. ‘Homer's Iliad and Odyssey,’ 1791 (2 vols.); a second edition, revised by Cowper, was edited by Johnson in 1802. Southey represents the first edition as preferable. 5. ‘The Power of Grace illustrated; in six letters from a minister of the reformed church (Van Lier) to John Newton, translated by … Cowper,’ 1792. 6. ‘Poems’ (on his mother's picture and on the dog and water-lily), 1798. Posthumous were: 7. ‘Poems … from the French of Mme. de la Motte Guyon, to which are added some original poems,’ &c. (by W. Bull), Newport Pagnel, 1801. 8. ‘Adelphi, a Sketch of .... John Cowper, transcribed .... by J. Newton,’ 1802. 9. ‘Latin and Italian Poems of Milton, translated by W. Cowper,’ 1808 (with illustrations by Flaxman; published by Hayley for the benefit of Cowper's godson, W. C. Rose). 10. ‘Cowper's Milton’ (published by Hayley, with an introductory letter to Johnson, in 4 vols.; it includes the translation of Andreini and Cowper's notes and translations from Milton), 1810. 11. ‘Poems in 3 vols., by J. Johnson’ (some new pieces in vol. 3), 1815. 12. ‘Poems, the early productions of W. Cowper .... by James Croft,’ 1825 (the poems to Theodora). Hayley says these satires are in a copy of Duncombe's ‘Horace,’ printed in 1750. Cowper also contributed sixty-seven hymns to the Olney Collection, 1779; two translations from ‘Horace’ to Duncombe's ‘Horace’ (1757–9); Nos. 111, 115, 134, and 139 to the ‘Connoisseur;’ two papers to the ‘Gent. Mag.’ (on his hares, June 1784, and on translating Homer, August 1785), and a review of Glover's ‘Athenaid’ to ‘Analytical Review’ Feb. 1789.

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900

William Cowper's Poems:
  1. Report of an Adjudged Case
  2. On the Loss of the “Royal George”
  3. The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk
  4. The Nightingale and Glow-worm
  5. The Rose
  6. Boadicea
  7. To Mary
  8. The Poplar Field
  9. A Comparison
  10. A Riddle

All William Cowper's Poems


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