William Cowper (1731-1800) was England’s most respected poet in the late l8th and early l9th centuries. Robert Burns, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth and William Blake greatly admired his work. Since then famous writers such as George Eliot and Alfred Tennyson, and in the 20th century Virginia Woolf and John Betjeman, have all loved Cowper.
Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, the son of the Reverend John Cowper and Ann, daughter of Roger Donne of Ludham Hall, Norfolk.
On leaving school, Cowper was articled to a solicitor and at the age of 23 was called to the Bar. As a result of severe depression, he had to abandon his profession. His gradual recovery coincided with the beginning of his conversion to Christian evangelicism.
Cowper found lodging in Huntingdon, with the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife Mary and his family. After the Reverend Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, Cowper continued to board with Mary and her family.
In 1767 Cowper, Mrs Unwin and her daughter Susanna moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire to be under the ministry of Rev. John Newton, who was the evangelical curate there. William and Mary lived together (with separate bedrooms) until her death in 1796. There was a brief engagement between them in 1772, soon to be ended by a serious recurrence of Cowper’s depression. In 1786 they moved to the nearby village of Weston Underwood.
Despite periods of severe depression (melancholia), Cowper’s eighteen years in Olney and eight at Weston Underwood were marked by his great literary achievements as poet, hymn-writer, letter-writer and translator.
Cowper’s works include:
- The famous Olney Hymns, published in 1779, on which Cowper and Newton collaborated.
- John Gilpin written in 1782 was at first published anonymously, but became so popular that after Cowper admitted authorship, he became a household name.
- The Task published in 1785 was very well received by all levels of society, including the Royal Family. It influenced the later Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth.
- Homer: Cowper’s translations were published in 1791. He aspired to improve on Alexander Pope’s version.
- Cowper was one of the greatest English letter-writers. In his correspondence he wrote both of everyday life in Olney and Weston Underwood and of political and literary events. His letters show wit, acute observation and great good humour.
In 1791, Mary Unwin fell ill which led Cowper to a further period of depression from which he never fully recovered. He was able, however, to complete the revision of his Homer translation in 1799 and also wrote the powerful poem The Castaway.
Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to East Dereham in Norfolk in 1795, where Mary died eighteen months later. Cowper died on 25th April, 1800.