Poetic Pain: The Life of William Cowper

Thomson, Cowper, Scott -- she would buy them all over and over again: she would buy up every copy, I believe, to prevent their falling into unworthy hands; and she would have every book that tells her how to admire an old twisted tree. Sense and Sensibility
William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) (November 20, 1731 – April 25, 1800) was an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. He suffered from periods of severe depression, and although he found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the source of his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and fears that he was doomed to eternal damnation. However, his religious motivations and association with John Newton (who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace") led to much of the poetry for which he is best remembered in the popular mind. Cowper was, perhaps, Jane Austen's favourite poetical moralist. From the frequent mention of his works in her letters and novels, it is certain that she was well familiar with all his writings and shared many of his beliefs. William Cowper was born in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, England. After education at Westminster School, he was articled to Mr. Chapman, solicitor, of Ely Place, Holborn, in order to be trained for a career in law. During this time, he spent his leisure at the home of his uncle Ashley Cowper, and there fell in love with his cousin Theodora, whom he wished to marry. But as James Croft, who in 1825 first published the poems Cowper addressed to Theodora, wrote, "her father, from an idea that the union of persons so nearly related was improper, refused to accede to the wishes of his daughter and nephew." This refusal left Cowper distraught. In 1763 he was offered a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords, but broke under the strain of the approaching examination and experienced a period of insanity. At this time he tried three times to commit suicide and was sent to Dr. Cotton's asylum at St. Albans for recovery. His poem beginning "Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portions" (sometimes referred to as "Sapphics") was written in the aftermath of his suicide attempt. After recovering, he settled at Huntingdon with a retired clergyman named Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. Cowper grew to be on such good terms with the Unwin family that he went to live in their house, and moved with them to Olney, where John Newton, a former slave trader who had repented and devoted his life to the gospel, was curate. Not long afterwards, Morley Unwin was killed in a fall from his horse, but Cowper continued to live in the Unwin home and became extremely attached to Mary Unwin. At Olney, Newton invited Cowper to contribute to a hymnbook that Newton was compiling. The resulting volume known as Olney Hymns was not published until 1779 but includes hymns such as "Praise for the Fountain Opened" (beginning "There is a fountain fill'd with blood") and "Light Shining out of Darkness" (beginning "God moves in a mysterious way") which remain some of Cowper's most familiar verses. In 1773, Cowper, now engaged to marry Mrs. Unwin, experienced a new attack of insanity, imagining not only that he was condemned to hell eternally, but that God was commanding him to make a sacrifice of his own life. This attack broke off the engagement, but Mary Unwin took care of him with great devotion, and after a year he began again to recover. In 1779, after Newton had left Olney to go to London, Cowper started to write further poetry. Mary Unwin, wanting to keep Cowper's mind occupied, suggested that he write on the subject of The Progress of Error, and after writing his satire of this name he wrote seven others. All of them were published in 1782 under the title Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. The year before this publication, Cowper met a sophisticated and charming widow named Lady Austen who served as a new impetus to his poetry. Cowper himself tells of the genesis of what some have considered his most substantial work, The Task, in his "Advertisement" to the original edition of 1785:
"...A lady, fond of blank verse, demanded a poem of that kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject. He obeyed; and, having much leisure, connected another subject with it; and, pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him, brought forth at length, instead of the trifle which he at first intended, a serious affair--a Volume!"
In the same volume Cowper also printed "The Diverting History of John Gilpin," a notable piece of comic verse. Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to Weston in 1786 and shortly before this became close with his cousin Harriet (Theodora's sister), now Lady Hesketh. During this period he started his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into blank verse, and his versions (published in 1791) were the most significant English renderings of these epic poems since those of Alexander Pope earlier in the century, although later critics have faulted Cowper's Homer for being too much in the mold of John Milton. Mary Unwin died in 1796, plunging Cowper into a gloom from which he never fully recovered. He did, however, continue revising his Homer for a second edition of his translation, and, aside from writing the powerful and bleak poem "The Castaway," penned some English translations of Greek verse and turned some of the Fables of John Gay into Latin. Cowper was seized with dropsy in the spring of 1800 and died in East Dereham, Norfolk.

Familiar Quotations from Cowper

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. Olney Hymns (1779)--'Light Shining out of Darkness' There is a fountain fill'd with blood Drawn from EMMANUEL's veins; And sinners, plung'd beneath that flood, Lose all their guilty stains. Olney Hymns (1779)--'Praise for the Fountain Opened' Oh! for a closer walk with GOD, A calm and heav'nly frame; A light to shine upon the road That leads me to the Lamb! Olney Hymns (1779)--'Walking with God' God made the country, and man made the town. The Task (1785)--'The Sofa' (Book I, line 749) There is a pleasure in poetic pains Which only poets know. The Task (1785)--'The Timepiece' (Book II, lines 285-6) Variety's the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour. The Task (1785)--'The Timepiece' (Book II, lines 606-7) I am monarch of all I survey, My right there is none to dispute; From the centre all round to the sea, I am lord of the fowl and the brute. 'Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk' (1782), lines 1-4 No voice divine the storm allay'd, No light propitious shone; When, snatch'd from all effectual aid, We perish'd, each alone; But I beneath a rougher sea, And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he. "The Castaway" (1799), lines 61-66
Text taken from Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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