William Cowper – A portrait by William Blake

The renowned poet William 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. Cowper’s background was that of a gentleman – his great uncle Earl Cowper had been Lord Chancellor of England – but all his life he suffered from lack of money and was dependent on friends and family and occasional journalism to make ends meet.

William Cowper
A portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott

A sketch of William Cowper as a young men is shown on the left, whilst a portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott is shown on the right.

On leaving Westminster 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 career. His gradual recovery coincided with the beginning of his conversion to Christian evangelicalism.

Mrs Mary Unwin
nee Cawthorne

Cowper found lodging in Huntingdon, with the Reverend Morley Unwin, his wife Mary and his family. After Morley Unwin was killed in a riding accident in 1767, Cowper, Mrs Unwin (pictured left) and her daughter Susanna moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire to be under the ministry of Rev. John Newton. They rented Orchard Side. She and William were to live 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, after the success of Cowper’s second book of poems  they moved to a bigger house in the nearby village of Weston Underwood.

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From 1768 to 1786 William Cowper called this house in Olney his home. The house is still full of mementos of his life here, such as the wash-stand, sofa and chair pictured below.

William Cowper’s personal wash-stand

Challenged by Lady Austen to write a poem about this sofa, the poem ‘The Task’ was born

William Cowper’s chair

In addition to his books you will find (see below) his waistcoats, coffee pot and even his spotted handkerchiefs carefully darned for him by his companion Mary Unwin.

Cowper’s great literary achievements as poet, hymn-writer and translator of Homer are illustrated in the museum. He was one of the greatest English letter-writers, providing a vivid and often comic picture of life in Olney and lively commentary of the political and literary events of the time. His profound thinking about Christianity was never far away.

The museum bears witness to Cowper’s love of female companionship.  There are pictures of his mother who died when he was only six, and of Mrs Mary Unwin, Cowper’s former landlady and steadfast companion.

Lady Anne Austen
nee Richardson

There are personal items which belonged to her rival for Cowper’s affections, Lady Austen, who  told Cowper the story of the runaway horse that became the great comic poem John Gilpin. It was Lady Austen who challenged Cowper to write about a Sofa, in the poem that became The Task, a work praised by George III and so admired by Jane Austen.  One of the most frequently-printed poems of the nineteenth century, The Task became an inspiration to William Wordsworth.

Orchard Side provided Cowper with a retreat from the stresses of city life.  Once he arrived in Olney he never travelled more than a few miles away; in a letter to a friend in 1782 he described his life

‘by a domestic fireside, in a retreat as silent as retirement can make it; where no noise is made but what we make for our own amusement. For instance, here are two Ladies and your humble Servant in company; one of the ladies has been playing on the Harpsichord, while I, with the other have been playing at Battledore and Shuttlecock’.

Cowper loved his garden and spent many hours in his summer-house, pictured left, still a favourite with today’s visitors.

In 1791, Mary Unwin fell ill which led William Cowper to a further period of depression from which he never fully recovered. In 1795 they moved to East Dereham in Norfolk. Mary died there not long after, but Cowper survived five years more.

Despite his illness he still managed in the final year of his life to write one of his most powerful poems, The Castaway.  In the confusion of old age, illness and religious doubt, Cowper compares himself to a drowning sailor. To modern audiences, some of Cowper’s more serious poetry seems remote, but the emotion and grief of this poem, and of his earlier anti-slavery poems such as The Negro’s Complaint, quoted by Rev Martin Luther-King Jr, make his poetry as relevant to today’s audiences as it was to his own.

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You can also read more on William Cowper and his works on the Poetry Foundation website.