Authors: William Cowper

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Author Works


Olney Hymns, 1779 (with John Newton)

Poems, 1782

The Task, 1785

Complete Poetical Works, 1907 (standard edition)


Correspondence, Arranged in Chronological Order, 1904 (4 volumes)

The Centenary Letters, 2000 (Simon Malpas, editor)


One of the forerunners of English Romanticism, William Cowper (KEW-pur) was criticized by his contemporaries who, bred to the formal metrics and diction of Alexander Pope and John Dryden, and to the strong rhythmic patterns of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, complained that his verse was too like prose. Some of Cowper’s verse justifies this charge, but in The Task he developed a new style of blank verse, a relaxed, easy, almost conversational style that was well suited to the rustic, personal content of the poem. The ability to write blank verse that was not dominated by Miltonic rhythms was no small feat, and Cowper’s ease helped lead to the fluent blank verse of William Wordsworth.{$I[AN]9810000606}{$I[A]Cowper, William}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Cowper, William}{$I[tim]1731;Cowper, William}

Cowper’s life stands in ironic counterpoint to the placid, good-humored subject matter of so much of his poetry. Born at Great Berkhampstead, England, in 1731, he was from an early age afflicted with a profound melancholy that was deepened by his Calvinistic sense of sin. After a good education, he became a law clerk at age eighteen. He fell in love with his cousin, Theodora Cowper, the “Delia” of his poems; her father forbade the match on the basis of consanguinity, but perhaps the young man’s melancholy had as much to do with the refusal. He was then nominated for a clerkship in the House of Lords, but the formality of an examination before the House terrified him. Rather than face it, he attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum for eighteen months.

In 1765 he went to the country and took up residence with the Unwin family. When the Reverend Morley Unwin died a few years later, Cowper and the Unwins moved to Olney. There he came under the influence of the Reverend John Newton, an evangelical preacher of Methodist principles. Newton’s sermons about man’s personal relationship to God intensified Cowper’s latent melancholy and in 1773, when he was on the verge of marrying Mrs. Unwin, he had a terrible dream in which God ordered him to destroy himself and accept his inevitable damnation. Cowper tried to hang himself, and it was three years before he fully recovered from that seizure of madness. He had other attacks of melancholy in 1787 and 1794. He collaborated with the Reverend John Newton in the writing of Olney Hymns, thereby establishing himself with Charles Wesley as one of the great hymnodists of the language.

Cowper’s secular fame rests mainly on his Poems and The Task, the latter a discursive poem ostensibly written about a sofa. His direct expression of personal emotion and his interest in the personal response to natural objects make him a transition figure between the neoclassic and Romantic ages. He died at East Dereham, England, on April 25, 1800.

BibliographyBrunström, Conrad. William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2004. A critical study of the poet’s significance. Aimed at serious scholars.Cowper, William. The Centenary Letters. Edited by Simon Malpas. Manchester, England: Fyfield, 2000. A collection of Cowper’s correspondence with a biographical introduction by Malpas.Ella, George Melvyn. William Cowper: Poet of Paradise. Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1993. Criticism and interpretation of Cowper’s work with an extensive bibliography.Free, William Norris. William Cowper. New York: Twayne, 1970. This 215-page work takes a biographical approach to interpretations of The Task, Olney Hymns, and Cowper’s short poems. Norris suggests that Cowper’s experiences had influence on poetic elements such as theme, structure, tone, and metaphor. Includes a lengthy bibliography, notes, and an index.Hartley, Lodwick. William Cowper, Humanitarian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938. Examines how Cowper’s poetry reflects humanitarian interests of the century such as slavery and treatment of animals. Hartley demonstrates that Cowper was not the total recluse many critics have made him out to be. The 277 pages offer not only Cowper’s opinions of contemporary social problems but also a good overview of the humanitarian movement in England. Includes an index.King, James. William Cowper: A Biography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. The standard biography that corrected many of the oversights and inaccuracies of early biographies. The poetical works are discussed as markers in the chronology of Cowper’s life. The 340-page work includes an extensive index and notes.Newey, Vincent. Cowper’s Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. Newey’s intelligent approach closely examines Cowper’s work psychodramatically and sees the poet as a genius craftsman of complex, contemporary, relevant poetry. The 358-page volume looks at The Task, moral satires, hymns, and comic verse. Includes a chronology and index of persons and works.Nicholson, Norman. William Cowper. London: John Lehman, 1951. A comprehensive critical work that primarily discusses the influence of the evangelical revival on Cowper. Nicholson sees Evangelicalism as a vigorous and emotional movement that paralleled Romanticism. Although Cowper’s poetic sensibility first developed under Evangelicalism, his early poetry reflects contemporary religious and social thought and later becomes partially independent of the movement to share aspects with Romanticism.Ryskamp, Charles. William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1959. This 270-page book studies Cowper’s life and works before 1786, focusing on his life and literary activities as a Templar and gentleman. Appendices include previously uncollected letters, essays, poems, and contributions to magazines. Supplemented by illustrations, notes on Cowper’s friends and relatives, and an index.
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