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Regarded as one of the first poets of the romanticism movement, William Cowper’s natural style of writing often reflected the tumultuous feelings he experienced in his personal life. Read on to find out more about Cowper’s accomplished, yet often desolate, life and the works it inspired.

Cowper’s Childhood

William Cowper was born on November 26, 1731 in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England to John and Ann Cowper. His father was the rector of the Church of St.

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Peter. Sadly, the couple lost seven other children in infancy, and Ann died giving birth to William’s one surviving brother, John, in 1737.Ann’s death deeply devastated William throughout his life, and fifty years later inspired him to write the powerful poem ‘On The Receipt of my Mother’s Picture.’ Ann’s brother Robert and his family grew close to young William after her death, and gave him a picture of her that he treasured.

They also introduced him to books that helped spark his love of reading and, eventually, writing.

Cowper’s Education

Young William bounced around from school to school before enrolling at Westminster School in London in April of 1747. The school was popular for children of Whig political party members (definitely what we’d refer to now as a high-end, smarty-pants school). Despite being bullied by some classmates, William excelled there and made lifelong friends. He studied Latin and read Homer’s epics, including The Odyssey and Iliad.

In addition to interpreting and translating, he also wrote several of his own Latin verses and continued to study the language throughout his life.After graduating from Westminster School, Cowper began to train for a career in law. He was offered the position of Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords (British Parliament) in 1763, but the pressure was too much. As he studied for the necessary examination, Cowper became anxious and depressed.

Attack of Insanity

By 1754, Cowper’s depression had become severe, and he attempted suicide. He was admitted to the insane asylum at St.

Alban’s to recover, which he eventually did thanks to counseling from his cousin, an Evangelical clergyman who converted Cowper. However, the bouts of depression would haunt him the rest of his life and ultimately keep him from a career in law. In 1773, he had another severe episode of insanity, when he believed that he was eternally condemned to hell and that God wanted him to sacrifice his life. Altogether, he made three suicide attempts.

Important Relationships

William Cowper never married and had no children. His first romantic interest was his cousin Theodora, and he wrote several poems addressed to her. However, her father (William’s uncle Bob) denounced the relationship as improper and would not allow them to marry.Years after his release from St. Alban’s, Cowper moved in with friends Morley and Mary Unwin. Morley passed away shortly thereafter, and his widow took devoted care of Cowper when he suffered these attacks.

She encouraged him to write in order to keep his mind occupied. In 1785, Cowper published his well-known poem ‘The Task.’ He and Mary Unwin moved to a house in Olney, which is now the Cowper Museum. Though they became engaged, Cowper’s mental state prevented their marriage.In Olney, Cowper met John Newton, author of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Together they wrote Olney Hymns, which contained Cowper’s ‘Light Shining Out of Darkness’ that contains the famous phrase, God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform.

Cowper’s association with Newton and their common religious beliefs led to this poem and others for which Cowper is best remembered.William and Mary Unwin moved again to Norfolk, England, and Mary died in 1796. This led to another period of depression for Cowper that lasted until his death. His poem ‘The Castaway’ was written during this unhappy time. Also during his final years, Cowper revised his translation of Homer for a second edition and translated some of John Gay’s Fables in Latin.

The Death of Poet

William Cowper died in 1800 of sudden dropsy. He is buried in the Chapel of St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Nicholas Church, East Dereham, Norfolk, England. There is a stained glass window above his tomb that shows him reading to his pet rabbits (who were gifts from his Olney neighbors).

The Works of William Cowper

His major works include:–Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey (Greek translations by Cowper)–Olney Hymns (1779) – These hymns (no music was written for them) were expressions of Cowper & Newton’s Evangelical faith and their personal religious experiences, and were used in Newton’s ministry.

–‘The Task’ (1785) – Written in blank verse, this poem (written in six ‘books’) was unconventional for its time in that it is conversational and does not adhere to strict poetic rules. The topics range from the blessings of nature to the evils of slavery.–John Gilpin (1782) – Inspired by a story told to him by Lady Austen, a widow he met and became fond of, this is a comic ballad about a draper and runaway horse. It was so popular across England that John Gilpin toys were created and sold to go along with the book.

Lesson Summary

Though Cowper had some serious challenges throughout his life-from the loss of loved ones to mental illness- these challenges made him the popular poet he was in late 18th century.

His poetry has had many admirers, including fellow poet William Wordsworth, who publically admired ‘Yardley-Oak.’ Samuel Coleridge Taylor was another fellow poet who praised Cowper and called him one of the best modern poets

The window honoring Cowper above his tomb.
The window honoring Cowper above his tomb.

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