Cowper, William


Cowper, William
(1731-1800)
   Poet, was the s. of the Rev. John C., Rector of Great Berkhampstead, Herts, and Chaplain to George II. His grandfather was a judge, and he was the grand-nephew of the 1st Earl C., the eminent Lord Chancellor. A shy and timid child, the death of his mother when he was 6 years old, and the sufferings inflicted upon him by a bullying schoolfellow at his first school, wounded his tender and shrinking spirit irrecoverably. He was sent to Westminster School, where he had for schoolfellows Churchill, the poet (q.v.), and Warren Hastings. The powerful legal influence of his family naturally suggested his being destined for the law, and at 18 he entered the chambers of a solicitor, where he had for a companion Thurlow, the future Chancellor, a truly incongruous conjunction; the pair, however, seem to have got on well together, and employed their time chiefly in "giggling and making giggle." He then entered the Middle Temple, and in 1754 was called to the Bar. This was perhaps the happiest period of his life, being enlivened by the society of two cousins, Theodora and Harriet C. With the former he fell in love; but his proposal of marriage was opposed by her f., who had observed symptoms of morbidity in him, and he never met her again. The latter, as Lady Hesketh, was in later days one of his most intimate friends. In 1759 he received a small sinecure appointment as Commissioner of Bankrupts, which he held for 5 years, and in 1763, through the influence of a relative, he received the offer of the desirable office of Clerk of the Journals to the House of Lords. He accepted the appointment, but the dread of having to make a formal appearance before the House so preyed upon his mind as to induce a temporary loss of reason, and he was sent to an asylum at St. Albans, where he remained for about a year. He had now no income beyond a small sum inherited from his f., and no aims in life; but friends supplemented his means sufficiently to enable him to lead with a quiet mind the life of retirement which he had resolved to follow. He went to Huntingdon, and there made the acquaintance of the Unwins, with whom he went to live as a boarder. The acquaintance soon ripened into a close friendship, and on the death, from an accident (1767), of Mr. U., C. accompanied his widow (the "Mary" of his poems) to Olney, where the Rev. John Newton (q.v.) was curate. N. and C. became intimate friends, and collaborated in producing the well-known Olney Hymns, of which 67 were composed by C. He became engaged to Mary Unwin, but a fresh attack of his mental malady in 1773 prevented their marriage. On his recovery he took to gardening, and amused himself by keeping pets, including the hares "Tiny" and "Puss," and the spaniel "Beau," immortalised in his works. The chief means, however, which he adopted for keeping his mind occupied and free from distressing ideas was the cultivation of his poetic gift. At the suggestion of Mrs. U., he wrote The Progress of Error; Truth, Table Talk, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, Conversation, and Retirement were added, and the whole were pub. in one vol. in 1782. Though not received with acclamation, its signal merits of freshness, simplicity, graceful humour, and the pure idiomatic English in which it was written gradually obtained recognition, and the fame of the poet-recluse began to spread. His health had now become considerably re-established, and he enjoyed an unwonted measure of cheerfulness, which was fostered by the friendship of Lady Austin, who had become his neighbour. From her he received the story of John Gilpin, which he forthwith turned into his immortal ballad. Hers also was the suggestion that he should write a poem in blank verse, which gave its origin to his most famous poem, The Task. Before it was pub., however, the intimacy had, apparently owing to some little feminine jealousies, been broken off. The Task was pub. in 1785, and met with immediate and distinguished success. Although not formally or professedly, it was, in fact, the beginning of an uprising against the classical school of poetry, and the founding of a new school in which nature was the teacher. As Dr. Stopford Brooke points out, "Cowper is the first of the poets who loves Nature entirely for her own sake," and in him "the idea of Mankind as a whole is fully formed." About this time he resumed his friendship with his cousin, Lady Hesketh, and, encouraged by her, he began his translation of Homer, which appeared in 1791. Before this he had removed with Mrs. U. to the village of Weston Underwood. His health had again given way; and in 1791 Mrs. U. became paralytic, and the object of his assiduous and affectionate care. A settled gloom with occasional brighter intervals was now falling upon him. He strove to fight it by engaging in various translations, and in revising his Homer, and undertaking a new ed. of Milton, which last was, however, left unfinished. In 1794 a pension of £300 was conferred upon him, and in 1795 he removed with Mrs. U., now a helpless invalid, to East Dereham. Mrs. U. d. in the following year, and three years later his own death released him from his heavy burden of trouble and sorrow. His last poem was The Castaway, which, with its darkness almost of despair, shows no loss of intellectual or poetic power. In addition to his reputation as a poet C. has that of being among the very best of English letter-writers, and in this he shows, in an even easier and more unstudied manner, the same command of pure idiomatic English, the same acute observation, and the same mingling of gentle humour and melancholy. In literature C. is the connecting link between the classical school of Pope and the natural school of Burns, Crabbe, and Wordsworth, having, however, much more in common with the latter.
   SUMMARY
   B. 1731, ed. Westminster School, entered Middle Temple and called to the Bar, 1754, appointed Clerk of Journals of House of Lords, but mind gave way 1763, lives with the Unwins, became intimate with J. Newton and with him writes Olney Hymns, pub. Poems (Progress of Error, etc.), 1782, Task 1785, Homer 1791, d. 1731.
   The standard ed. of C.'s works is Southey's, with memoir (15 vols. 1834-37). Others are the Aldine (1865), the Globe (1870). There are Lives by Hayley (2 vols., 1805), Goldwin Smith (Men of Letters Series), and T. Wright.

Short biographical dictionary of English literature . . 2011.

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  • Cowper, William — born Nov. 26, 1731, Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, Eng. died April 25, 1800, East Dereham, Norfolk British poet. Throughout his life he was plagued by recurring mental instability and religious doubt. Olney Hymns (1779; with John Newton), a… …   Universalium

  • Cowper, William — (1731 1800)    William Cowper (pronounced Cooper ) was the son of the rector of Great Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, and chaplain to King George II. Educated at Westminster School, he was called to the bar in 1745, but never practiced. He suffered… …   British and Irish poets

  • Cowper, William — (1731–1800)    Poet.    Cowper was the son of a Church of England clergyman and grew up in Great Berkhamstead. He was trained as a lawyer. Throughout his adult life he was subject to fits of mania, alternating with periods of acute depression… …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Cowper, William — ► (1666 1709) Anatomista inglés. Descubrió las pequeñas glándulas de la uretra humana que llevan su nombre. * * * (26 nov. 1731, Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, Inglaterra–25 abr. 1800, East Dereham, Norfolk). Poeta británico. Durante toda su… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Cowper,William — Cow·per (ko͞oʹpər, kouʹ , ko͝opʹər), William. 1731 1800. British poet considered a precursor of romanticism. His best known work, The Task (1785), praises rural life and leisure. * * * …   Universalium

  • COWPER, WILLIAM —    a popular English poet, born at Great Berkhampstead, Hertford, of noble lineage; lost his mother at six, and cherished the memory of her all his days; of a timid, sensitive nature, suffered acutely from harsh usage at school; read extensively… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Cowper, William —  (1731–1800) English poet; pronounced [cooper] …   Bryson’s dictionary for writers and editors

  • COWPER, William — (1731 1800)    English poet who wrote such famous HYMNS as O For a Closer Walk with God, and God Moves in a Mysterious Way …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Cowper, William Cowper, 1st Earl, Viscount Fordwich — ▪ English lawyer and politician also called  (1706–18) Baron Cowper Of Wingham   born c. 1665 died Oct. 10, 1723, Colne Green, Hertfordshire, Eng.  English lawyer and a leading Whig politician who was the first lord high chancellor of Great… …   Universalium

  • COWPER, William (1778-1858) — early clergyman was born at Whittington, England, on 28 December 1778. His father was a yeoman farmer. At 17 years of age Cowper became a tutor in a clergyman s family, and some time later was a clerk in the Royal engineers department at Hull. He …   Dictionary of Australian Biography


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