Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Cowper, William (pronounced Cooper), was born at Berkhampstead on November 26, 1731. His father, the rector of that place, was the second son of Spencer Cowper, judge in the Court of Common Pleas, and nephew of William Cowper, who, after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707, was made first Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain. His mother, Ann Donne, belonged to an old family settled in Norfolk. She died when he was six years old, leaving an impression upon his heart to which he gave utterance more than fifty years afterwards in the lines, On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture. After her death, he was sent to a school at Market Street, where he suffered much from the tyranny of the elder boys. His eyesight becoming endangered, he went to live with an oculist, whom he left at the age of ten, in order to enter Westminster school. Here he was happy and studious, gaining the classical knowledge which in later life enabled him to translate Homer. At eighteen he was articled to a solicitor, in whose house he lived for three years. At the end of this period he took chambers in the Temple, where he resided until he was thirty-three. He was called to the bar in 1754, but devoted himself to the study of literature. Always prone to sadness, and obliged, in the first part of his residence at the Temple, to seek a cure for depression in change of scene, he early experienced real sorrow in the death of his friend, Sir W. Russell, and in the separation from his cousin, Theodora Cowper, with whom he was in love. Loss deepened the sense under which he laboured all his life that he was "cast forth a wand'rer in a world unknown." In 1763 he was made Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords, but, was so filled with terror at the prospect of having to appear at the bar of the House, that his melancholy, already deep, increased into positive insanity.

He made three attempts to commit suicide, and was then placed at St. Albans, under Dr. Cotton, a physician who worked his cure, and substituted cheerful views of religion for the terrors from which he suffered. Upon his recovery he settled in Huntingdon in 1765, where he soon became an inmate of the house of Mr. Unwin, an elderly clergyman, who met with a fatal accident two years later. After this event, Cowper removed with Mrs. Unwin to Olney, attracted thither by Mr. John Newton, a man of much power, who was curate of that place. With this friend he wrote the Olney Hymns, which were published in 1779. Their composition had extended over several years, marked by an engagement to Mrs. Unwin, which was prevented from becoming a marriage by a long mental attack which prostrated Cowper in 1773. The plan of marriage was never renewed, but the poet and the widow continued to live together, and to her ministrations he owed many years of tranquil, though broken, happiness. He spent much of his time in his garden or his greenhouse, among his myrtles and his mignonette, amusing himself with his kittens, his hares, and his correspondence. The picture given in his letters is that of the life of a country gentleman of deep piety, with literary tastes, and much quiet humour and common sense. They are filled with genial gossip on local affairs or politics, or with remarks on literature, in which Cowper showed a love for simplicity, and an appreciation for Milton, that marked his originality in a generation whose taste was guided by Dr. Johnson. Much of his time and sympathy was given to the lace-makers of Olney, who knew him as "the Squire," or "Sir Cowper."

In 1781 Cowper anonymously published a poem, Antithelyphthora, in answer to Thelyphthora, a work by his cousin Madan, chaplain of the Lock Hospital, designed to prove that polygamy as permitted in the Old Testament was intended to be a permanent institution. In the following year he brought out a volume containing Table Talk, The Progress of Error, Truth, Expostulation, Hope, Charity, Conversation, Retirement, and some shorter poems. In the same year he wrote John Gilpin in consequence of a story told him by Lady Austen. It was published anonymously and had a great success. At the suggestion of the same lady he wrote The Task, which with An Epistle to John Hill, Tirocinium, and the now acknowledged John Gilpin, was brought out in 1785.

No sooner was Tirocinium finished than Cowper set himself to the most laborious task of his life, the translation of Homer. At that time Pope's translation was generally thought to be unsurpassable, but Cowper's critical taste led him to agree with "the literati," who, he said, had settled that, "although Pope has given us two pretty poems under Homer's titles, there is not to be found in them the least portion of Homer's spirit, nor the least resemblance of his manner." In particular he found fault with the vehicle of rhyme, and adopted blank verse as his own medium of translation. Owing to fresh mental trouble the book was not ready for publication until 1791.

In the same year Mrs. Unwin had an attack of paralysis, and gradually from that time gloom deepened round Cowper, broken only by a visit to the poet Hayley in Sussex in 1792, when Romney painted his portrait. He had by this time already fallen under the influence of a schoolmaster at Olney named Teedon, who undertook to interpret spiritual voices which spoke to the disordered poet. Material prosperity came towards the close of his life. He had hitherto lived on the charity of his relations, but his Homer brought him £1,000, and in 1794 he received a pension of £300 from the king. He was, however, already incapable of managing his own affairs. In the following year his cousin Johnson removed him and Mrs. Unwin from Weston Underwood, a village near Olney in which they had been living for the last nine years, to his home at East Dereham, where Mrs. Unwin died in 1796, Cowper lingered miserably until the 25th of April, 1800, when he passed away. His last original work was The Castaway. After his death were published Translations from the French of Madame de la Motte Guyon, and some translations of the Latin and Italian poems of Milton.

As a writer, Cowper may claim to have taken a permanent place. His deep religious feeling, his veins of irony and humour, his mastery of a style, clear and simple, and flexible enough to pass at will from light badinage to real solemnity, rank him high among the poets of the eighteenth century, and in many respects apart from them. In his love for nature, and his interpretation of its teaching in the light of faith, he has frequently been considered the forerunner of Wordsworth. The real charm of the man, perhaps, is most felt in his letters, which unfold in the most winning way the whole drama of his chequered life. No English man of letters has left, in matter or in style, a more beautiful or more touching autobiography.