Writer #4 – The foremost poet of his generation

Please note that William Cowper suffered with severe mental ill health and that this may be a difficult read for this reason.

A 1792 portrait of Cowper in later life by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

William Cowper was born in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and was the first surviving child of Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper. The Cowpers illustrate the closely connected society formed by the gentry and nobility; on his father’s side his family tree included an Earl who was Lord Chancellor of England, whilst his mother’s family were descended from Henry III and included John Donne amongst their ancestors.

Aged six, William’s mother died and he was sent to a boarding school where he was badly bullied. These two experiences would factor into a life-long battle with mental ill health. He progressed to the Westminster School and hence to the Middle Temple where he begun working and training as a lawyer, he was called to the bar in 1754, but “was never much inclined” to the legal profession.

Instead he spent a good deal of time at his uncle’s house in London, spending time with his cousins, especially Theadora Cowper with whom he begun a relationship in the early 1750’s. His father did not approve of the relationship, and William broke it off in 1755. The whole affair was to be the basis of his first work of Poetry “Delia” which was not published until 1825.

Cowper does not seem to be too downcast about the stymied relationship. In the years following, his surviving correspondence detail a thriving social life moving in literary and social circles with old friends from the Westminster school and new acquaintances including editors of the satirical paper “Connoisseur”. He wrote “several halfpenny ballads” and other topical political articles, none of which survive. His only original poem at this time was “Doom’d as I am in solitude to waste” following the death of Sir William Russell in 1757 – otherwise his published works are translations of Latin and French texts.

In 1763, Cowper had his first serious mental breakdown. Having secured a lucrative position as Commissioner of Bankrupts, a second position (a clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords) was organised for him. His suitability was challenged and another candidate put forward, so to settle this, a formal examination was to be held. The stress drove William to attempt suicide, however having failed he ended up at Nathaniel Cotton’s Collegium Insanorum. He would spend 18 months detained here, troubled by religious fears and convinced of his predestined damnation. By the time he was released in 1765 he was a convinced evangelist.

William came to Huntingdon, and was much taken with the town, describing it as “one of the neatest towns in England”. At first he lived alone in rented rooms, but later in 1765 he moved in with Revd Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. The house he moved into was a contemporary house on Huntingdon high street. We now know it as Cowper House. William seems to have been very happy with the Unwin family, mixing with gentle society and writing letters to friends. In one such letter, he details past times offered in the town including “a card-assembly, a dancing-assembly, and a horse race … and a bowling-green”.

Cowper House in the early 20th Century, the building outwardly is practically unchanged today

Tragedy struck in 1767 when Revd Unwin fell from his horse and died. Grief stricken, William and Mary moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire in early 1768. The move was to meet and work with the village curate John Newton, a slave-trader turned clergyman who later penned the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Cowper collaborated with Newton in the early 1770’s on the “Olney Hymns“; Cowper producing 67 hymns across the two years many of which are still in popular use.

Title Page from the Olney Hymns, this edition from 1779

In 1773, he was a steady man with a fierce faith who was contemplating marriage to Mary Unwin. Unfortunately, he had a second breakdown, following a dream where God seemed to condemn him to eternal damnation. That autumn he attempted suicide for a fourth time, and his relationship with Mary Unwin broke down to the point that she moved out of Olney. Cowpers’ faith was utterly lost – he would not speak a prayer or enter a church for the rest of his life.

Secluded at Olney under Newton’s care he begun to seek diversions in carpentry, gardening, animal husbandry, drawing and eventually poetry again by 1774. In 1780, John Newton moved to London, and Cowper, living alone at Olney, now begun writing more seriously. His first published volume of poetry, “Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple”, was published in 1782 to wide acclaim.

Around this time, Lady Austen moved into the vacant vicarage in Olney. This new acquaintance would prove to be one of the most influential people in Cowper’s literary life. A story she told in 1782 would become the “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”, a comedic ballad which in Cowper’s words; was popular enough to become “hackney’d in ev’ry Magazine, in every News paper and in every street”.

The Diverting History of John Gilpin is a comic ballad about a draper who rides a runaway horse, this illustration is from the 1878 reprint illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

In 1784, she jokingly suggested he write a poem about her sofa. Cowper’s somewhat bizarre poem “The Task” was published in 1785, this Homeric epic stretched to 5,000 lines across six books. Starting as a mock-heroic account of a wooden stool developing into a sofa, it would meander on through a multitude of subjects examining man, nature and the place of an individual in the world. It was a run-away success.

Sketch of Mrs Mary Unwin

Following the publication of “The Task”, he moved away from Lady Austen and from Olney, to the village of Weston where he worked on translating Homer. Again, he suffered increasingly with mental illness, as well as declining physical health, so in 1795, reconciled with Mary Unwin, they moved in together near a cousin in Norfolk. Following her death in 1796, he fell into a depressive episode, plagued by black dreams and hallucinations which would end with his death in 1800.

One of the most beloved poets of his generation, his work is relatively unknown in the modern day, however several everyday phrases are taken from his work including; “God moves in mysterious ways” (from a hymn of his in the Olney Hymns), “Worse for the wear” (from “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”) and finally “Variety is the spice of life” and “the cup that cheers” (both in “The Task”).

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

This is the fourth and final post in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, you can find the other three at the links below:

(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it – https://huntshistoryfest.com/2020/04/04/writer-1-the-most-influential-english-poet-of-his-time/)

(You can find our second post on Samuel Pepys here if you missed it – https://huntshistoryfest.com/2020/04/11/writer-2-the-greatest-diarist-of-all-time/)

(You can find our third post on Lucy Boston here if you missed it –
https://huntshistoryfest.com/2020/04/18/writer-3-author-of-outstanding-fantasies/ )

Academy of American Poets, “William Cowper”, 2020, Via: https://poets.org/poet/william-cowper, Accessed On: 16th April 2020

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, Derby, 2004, 1st Edition

Anon, “William Cowper”, 2020, Via: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-cowper, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

Brunström, C “How Did Cowper Love Women?”, The Cowper and Newton Museum, 2012,Vol 3, Via: https://www.cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Vol03_2_1.pdf, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Flavell, L & Flavell, R. “Dictionary of English Down the Ages”, Kyle Cathie Ltd, London, 2005, 1st Edition

Historic England, “COWPER HOUSE”, 2020, Via: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1128638, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “William Cowper: British Poet”, 2020, Via: https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Cowper#accordion-article-history, Accessed On: 17th April 2020.

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1985, 1st Edition

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