The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
– William Cowper (26 November 1731 – 25 April 1800)
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. In many ways, he was one of the forerunners of Romantic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him “the best modern poet”, whilst William Wordsworth particularly admired his poem Yardley-Oak. He was a nephew of the poet Judith Madan.
Although after being institutionalised for insanity in the period 1763–65, Cowper found refuge in a fervent evangelical Christianity, the inspiration behind his much-loved hymns, he often experienced doubt and after a dream in 1773 believed that he was doomed to eternal damnation. Later, he would recover and write more religious hymns.
His religious sentiment and association with John Newton (who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”) led to much of the poetry for which he is best remembered. His poem “Light Shining out of Darkness” gave the English language the idiom “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform.”
He was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England where his father John Cowper was rector of the Church of St Peter. His mother was Ann Cowper. Only two of the seven children of John and Ann Cowper lived past infancy – William and John. Ann died giving birth to John on November 7, 1737. His mother’s passing troubled him deeply and was the subject of his poem “On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture,” which was written more than fifty years later. He grew close to her family, however in his early years. He was particularly close with her brother Robert and his wife Harriot. They instilled in young William a love of reading and gave him some of his first books – John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and John Gay’s Fables.
William was first enrolled in the Westminster School in April of 1742 after moving from school to school for a number of years. He had begun to study Latin from a young age and was an avid scholar of Latin for the rest of his life. After education at Westminster School, he was trained for a career in law. During this time, he spent his leisure at the home of his uncle Bob Cowper, where he 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 Nathaniel 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 greatly attached to Mary Unwin.
At Olney, Newton invited Cowper to contribute to a hymnbook that he was compiling. The resulting volume known as Olney Hymns was not published until 1779 but includes hymns such as “Praise for the Fountain Opened” and “Light Shining out of Darkness” which remain some of Cowper’s most familiar verses.
In 1773, Cowper experienced an attack of insanity, imagining not only that he was eternally condemned to hell, but that God was commanding him to make a sacrifice of his own life. 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
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 mould of John Milton.
In 1795 Cowper moved with Mary to Norfolk. They originally stayed at North Tuddenham, then at Dunham Lodge near Swaffham and then Mundesley before finally settling in East Dereham.
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. He is buried in the chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury, St. Nicholas Church, East Dereham. A window in Westminster Abbey honours him.
More Inspiring Poets