1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Cowper

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 723.



WILLIAM COWPER, a poet of distinguished and original genius, was born in 1731, at Great Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire. His father, the rector of the parish, was John Cowper, D.D., nephew of Lord-Chancellor Cowper. The subject of this memorial was educated at Westminster school, where he acquired the classical knowledge and correctness of taste for which it is celebrated, but without any portion of the confident and undaunted spirit which is supposed to be one of the most valuable acquisitions derived from the great schools to those who are to push their way in the world. On the contrary, it appears from his poem entitled Tirocinium, that the impressions made upon his mind from what he witnessed in this place, were such as gave him a permanent dislike to the system of public education. Soon after his leaving Westminster, he was articled to a solicitor in London for three years; but so far from studying the law, he spent the greatest part of his time with a relation, where he and the future Lord Chancellor (Lord Thurlow) spent their time, according to his own expression, "in giggling, and making giggle." At the expiration of his time with the solicitor, he took chambers in the Temple, but his time was still little employed on the law, and was rather engaged in classical pursuits, in which Coleman, Bonnel Thornton, and Lloyd, seem to have been his principal associates.

Cowper's spirits were naturally weak; and when his friends had procured him a nomination to the offices of reading-clerk and clerk of the Private Committees in the House of Lords, he shrunk with such terrour from the idea of making his appearance before the most august assembly in the nation, that after a violent struggle with himself, he resigned his intended employment, and with it all his prospects in life. In fact, he became completely deranged, and in this situation was placed, in December, 1763, about the 32d year of his age, with Dr. Cotton, an amiable and worthy physician at St. Alban's. This agitation of his mind is placed by some who have mentioned it to the account of a deep consideration of his state in a religious view, in which the terrours of eternal judgment so much overpowered his faculties, that he remained seven months in momentary expectation of being plunged into final misery. Mr. Johnson, however, a near relation, has taken pains to prove to demonstration, that these views of his condition were so far from producing such an effect, that they ought to be regarded as his sole consolation. It appears, however, that his mind had acquired such an indelible tinge of melancholy that his whole successive life was passed with little more than intervals of comfort between long paroxysms of settled despondency.

After a residence of a year and a half with Dr. Cotton, he spent part of his time at the house of his relation, Earl Cowper, and part at Huntingdon, with his intimate friend, the Rev. Mr. Unwin. The death of the latter caused his widow to remove to Olney in Buckinghamshire, which was thenceforth the principal place of Cowper's residence. At Olney he contracted a close friendship with the Rev. Mr. Newton, then minister there, and since rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, whose religious opinions were in unison with his own. To a collection of hymns published by him, Cowper contributed a considerable number of his own composition. He first became known to the public as a poet by a volume printed in 1782, the contents of which, if they did not at once place him high in the scale of poetic excellence, sufficiently established his claim to originality. Its topics are "Table Talk," "Errour," "Truth," "Expostulation," "Hope," "Charity," "Conversation," and "Retirement," all treated upon religious principles, and not without a considerable tinge of that rigour and austerity which belonged to his system. These pieces are written in rhymed heroics, which he commonly manages with little grace, or attention to melody. The style, though often prosaic, is never flat or insipid; and sometimes the true poet breaks through, in a vein of lively description or bold figure.

If this volume excited but little of the public attention, his next volume, published in 1785, introduced his name to all the lovers of poetry, and gave him at least an equality of reputation with any of his contemporaries. It consists of a poem in six books, entitled The Task, alluding to the injunction of a lady, to write a piece in blank verse, for the subject of which she gave him The Sofa. It sets out, indeed, with some sportive discussion of this topic; but soon falls into a serious strain of rural description, intermixed with moral sentiments and portraitures, which is preserved through the six books, freely ranging from thought to thought with no perceptible method. But as the whole poem will here be found, it is unnecessary to enter into particulars. Another piece, entitled Tirocinium, or a Review of Schools, a work replete with striking observation, is added to the preceding; and several other pieces gleaned from his various writings will be found in the collection.

For the purpose of losing in employment the distressing ideas which were ever apt to recur, he next undertook the real task of translating into blank verse the whole of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. This work has much merit of execution, and is certainly a far more exact representation of the ancient poet than Pope's ornamental version; but where simplicity of matter in the original is not relieved by the force of sonorous diction, the poverty of English blank verse has scarcely been able to prevent it from sinking into mere prose. Various other translations denoted his necessity of seeking employment, but nothing was capable of durably relieving his mind from the horrible impressions it had undergone. He passed some of his better years under the affectionate care of a relation at East Dereham in Norfolk, where he died on April 25th, 1800.