Olney Hymns, 1779 (with John Newton)
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.
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.