From the Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble.
COWPER, William (1731-1800), elder son of the rector of Great Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, whose mother died when he was 6. He was educated at a private school (where he was bullied) and at Westminster, where he was a contemporary of Charles *Churchill and W. *Hastings. He was called to the bar in 1754. Sensitive and hypochondriac by nature as a child, he began to suffer from severe depression, and when called for examination for a disputed clerkship in the House of Lords he broke down completely and attempted suicide; his illness may have been aggravated by the failure of his hope of marrying his cousin Theodora Cowper. From this time he was subject to periods of acute melancholia which took a religious form; he felt himself cast out of God's mercy, and wrote later in his moving autobiographical Memoir (c. 1767, pub. 1816), 'conviction of sin and expectation of instant judgement never left me.' He spent some months in Dr Cotton's Collegium Insanorum at St Albans, and turned increasingly to evangelical Christianity for consolation. In 1765 he became a boarderr (in his own words, 'a sort of adopted son') in the home of the Revd Morley Unwin at Huntingdon, and on Morley's death moved with Mary, his widow, to Olney.
There he came under the influence of J. *Newton, the evangelical curate, with whom he wrote Olney Hymns (1669); his contributions include 'God moves in a mysterious way' and 'Oh, for a closer walk with God'. He became engaged to Mrs Unwin, but suffered another period of severe depression and made another suicide attempt; he spent a year with the Newtons before returning to Mrs Unwin's home. A calmer period followed, during which at her suggestion he wrote his satires ('Table Talk', 'The Progress of Error', 'Truth', 'Expostulation', 'Hope', 'Charity', 'Conversation', and 'Retirement') which were published in 1782 with several shorter poems 8including 'Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk; see SELKIRK); in the same year he wrote 'John Gilpin' and in 1783-4 his best-known long poem The Task (1785), both subject suggested by his new friend and neighbour Lady Austen. The volume in which these appeared also contained 'Tirocinium', a vigorous attack on public schools. In 1786 he moved with Mrs Unwin to Weston Underwood, where he wrote various poems published after his death, including the unfinished 'Yardley-Oak' (admired by *Wordsworth), the verses 'On the Loss of the Royal George' ('Toll for the brave . . . '), 'To Mary', and 'The Poplar-Field'. His translation of *Homer, published in 1791, was not successful. From 1791 Mrs Unwin suffered a series of paralytic strokes; she died in1796, leaving Cowper in severe depression from which he never fully recovered.
He wrote 'The Castaway' shortly before his death; like many of his poems it deals with man's isolation and helplessness. Storms and shipwrecks recur in his work as images of the mysterious ways of God, and Cowper's search for a retired and quiet life of simple domestic and rural pleasures gave him little sense of permanent security. Yet his poems and his much admired letters (published posthumously) have been highly valued for their intimate portrait of tranquillity and for their playful and delicate wit. His sympathetic feelings for nature (expressed in the lines from The Task admired by Jane *Austen's Fanny Price, 'Ye fallen avenues! Once more I mourn, / Your fate unmerited') presage *Romanticism, and his use of blank verse links that of James *Thomson with that of *Wordsworth. He was also, like his evangelical friends, a champion of the oppressed, and wrote verses on *Wilberforce and the slave trade. Whether religion was cause or cure of his depression has been much disputed; the sense of guilt and paranoia displayed in his Memoir has much in common with that of Bunyan's *Grace Aboundin. A life by his friend W. *Hayley was published 1803-4; see also The Stricken Deer (1929) by David *Cecil and a critical biography by M. Quinlan (1953). Cowper's *Letters and Prose Writings, ed. J. King and C. Ryskamp, appeared in 3 vols, 1979-82.
The Task, a poem in six books by Cowper, published 1785.
When Cowper's frien Lady Austen (whom he met in 1781) suggested to him the sofa in his room as the subject of a poem in blank verse, the poet set about 'the task'. Its six books are entitled 'The Sofa', 'The Time-Piece', 'The Garden', 'The Winter Evening', 'The Winter Morning Walk', and 'The Winter Walk at Noon'. Cowper opens with a mock-heroic account of the evolution of the sofa ('I sing the sofa') and thence digresses to description, reflection, and opinion. The poem stresses the delights of a retired life ('God made the country, and man made the town'), Bk I, 749); describes the poet's own search for peace ('I was a stricken deer, that left the herd', Bk III, 108), and evokes the pleasures of gardening, winter evenings by the fire, etc. The moral passages condemn blood sports, cards, and other diversions; the poet manifests tenderness not only for his pet harebut even for worms and snails.The poem was extremely popular: *Burns found it 'a glorious poem' that expressed 'the Religion of God and Nature', and it helped to create and supply the growing demand for natural description and tender emotion that found a fuller expression in Wordsworth's *Prelude, a poem which contains many echoes of Cowpar.
'The Castaway', a poem by Cowper, written 1799, published 1803. It is based on an incident from *Anson's Voyage Round the World. Cowper depicts with tragic power the suffering of a seaman swept overboard and awaiting death by drowning. Mr Ramsay in V. Woolf's *To the Lighthouse is given to declaiming its last lines: 'We perish'd, each alone: / But I beneath a rougher sea, / And whelm'd in deeper gulphs than he.'