William, son of the Reverend Dr. John Cowper, chaplain to George the Second, was born at Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, of which place his father was rector, on the 26th of November, 1731. He received the earliest rudiments of education at a day-school in his native village; and in his seventh year, at which time he lost his mother, he was placed under the care of Dr. Pitman, of Market Street, where he remained about eighteen months, when he was removed, in consequence of some specks appearing in his eyes, from which blindness was apprehended. "My father," he says in one of his letters, "alarmed for the consequences, sent me to a female oculist, of great renown at that time, in whose house I abode two years, but to no good purpose. From her I went to Westminster School, where, at the age of fourteen, the smallpox seized me, and proved the better oculist of the two, for it delivered me from them all." During his stay at this school, he was remarkable alike for his close attention to his studies, and his gentle disposition, which exposed him to insults and cruelties from his schoolfellows, that he never recollected but with anguish. His own forcible expression, says his biographer, Hayley, represented him at Westminster, as not daring to raise his eye above the shoe-buckle of the elder boys.
He left Westminster in 1749; and, about three months afterwards, was placed with Mr. Chapman, a solicitor, in London; but, from the following passage in a letter to his relative, Lady Hesketh, he does not appear to have paid much attention to legal studies. He says, in a playful remonstrance — "I did actually live three years with Mr. Chapman, a solicitor, that is to say, I slept three years in his house; but I lived, that is to say, I spent my days in Southampton Row, as you very well remember. There was I, and the future lord-chancellor (Thurlow), constantly employed from morning till night in giggling and making giggle, instead of studying law." On leaving Mr. Chapman, he took chambers in, and became a student of the Middle Temple; and, forming an intimacy with his school-fellows, the elder Colman, Bonnel Thornton and Lloyd, he assisted the two first in their celebrated periodical, The Connoisseur; and otherwise indulged his taste for the belies lettres, both in prose and poetry.
Success at the bar, with Cowper's frame of mind, his friends had little hopes of, and, therefore, procured for him the situation of reading-clerk, and clerk of the private committees in the house of lords, to which he was appointed in his thirty-first year. Being unable, however, to undergo the torture, as he called it, of reading in public, he resigned these offices after a week's struggle, and accepted that of clerk of the journals, in which it was supposed his personal appearance would not be required in the house of lords. A parliamentary dispute, however, making it necessary for him to appear at the bar of the house, that his fitness for the employment might be publicly acknowledged, his nerves were so wrought upon by the idea of such a public exhibition of himself, which he called a mortal poison, that the strength of his reason gave way, and on the arrival of the period for his appearance, he was no longer in possession of his intellectual powers. In this distressing state, it was found necessary to place him under the care of Dr. Cotton, in an asylum at St. Albans, where he remained from December, 1763, until the July of the following year, in a state of mental aberration, and of a religious despondency to such a degree, that he is said to have been in continual expectation of being instantly plunged into eternal punishment. His mind at length becoming more composed, he began to derive consolation from those truths which had before seemed so terrible to him; and at the invitation of his brother John, a clergyman, and fellow of Cambridge, he removed to Huntingdon, in order to be near him. He had not been long here before his acquaintance commenced with the Unwins, into whose family he was introduced by Mr. Cawthorne Unwin, who, struck with the appearance of Cowper, had accosted him during a walk, which was the beginning of their subsequent intimacy. He continued to reside with them in their house at Huntingdon, until the death of the elder Mr. Unwin, in July, 1767, to which our author thus alludes in a letter to Lady Hesketh. "The effect of it upon my circumstances will only be a change of the place of my abode; for I shall still, by God's leave, continue with Mrs. Unwin, whose behaviour to me has always been that of a mother to a son." With this lady (the Mary of his poems,) and her daughter, he removed, in the following October, to Olney, in Buckinghamshire, on the solicitation of the Rev. Mr. Newton, the rector of that place, and with whom Cowper formed one of the most close and delightful friendships of his life. Religious meditation and the exercise of charity, in which he was encouraged by an annual allowance, for that purpose, of £200 a-year, from John Thornton, Esquire, formed his chief occupation; and, writing to decline the invitation of a friend, in 1769, he says, he "prefers his home to any other spot on earth." Among other employments, he composed sixty-eight hymns, which were inserted in Mr. Newton's collections, and he personally directed the prayers and devotions of the poor. Such a life, however, had a tendency to increase the morbid propensity of his frame, which was increased in March, 1770, by the death of his brother John, whom he had taken great pains to imbue with his own religious views, and, after some difficulty, succeeded. In 1773, he "sunk into such severe paroxysms of religious despondency," says Hayley, "that he required an attendant of the most gentle, vigilant, and inflexible spirit;" and, he adds, "such an attendant he found in his faithful guardian, Mrs. Unwin, who watched over him during this long fit of depressive malady, extended through several years, with that perfect mixture of tenderness and fortitude, which constitutes the inestimable influence of maternal protection."
In the beginning of 1778, his mind began to recover itself; but, before it was sufficiently established to allow of his return to literary pursuits, he amused himself in educating a group of tame hares, an account of which he wrote in prose for The Gentleman's Magazine. In the summer of the same year, having completely regained the use of his faculties, he resumed his correspondence with his friends, and diverted himself by drawing, carpentering, and gardening. "I am pleased," he says, in a letter, dated 1780, to Mr. Newton, who had removed to London, "with a frame of four lights, doubtful whether the few pines it contains will ever be worth a farthing; amuse myself with a green-house, which Lord Bute's gardener could take upon his back, and walk away with; and when I have paid it the accustomed visit, and watered it, and given it air, I say to myself — 'This is not mine; 'tis a plaything lent me for the present: I must leave it soon.'" In the last-mentioned and the following year he wrote several poems, besides a translation of some of the spiritual songs of Madame Guion; and, in 1782, an octavo volume was published, at the expense of Johnson, of St. Paul's Church-yard, who took the whole risk upon himself. The principal subjects are Table Talk, The Progress of Error, Truth, Expostulation, Hope, Retirement, Charity, and Conversation, by which he at once established his reputation as a poet, though they gained him no popularity. His eulogy on Whitfield, who at that time was looked upon as a fanatic; his acrimonious censure of Charles Wesley, for allowing sacred music to form part of his occupation on Sundays, and other occasional touches of austerity, excited prejudices against his first volume, the merit of which deserved a success it did not meet with.
About a year preceding the publication of his first volume of Poems, Cowper had formed an acquaintance with Lady Austen, widow of Sir Robert Austen, who exercised a very happy influence over his genius. To his intimacy with this lady we are indebted for his famous poem of John Gilpin, the story of which she related to him one night, for the purpose of arousing his spirits from their almost habitual gloom. "Its effect on the fancy of Cowper," says Hayley, "had the air of enchantment: he informed her the next morning, that convulsions of laughter, brought on by his recollections of the story, had kept him waking during the greatest part of the night, and that he had turned it into a ballad." It was first printed, it appears, in the Public Advertiser, to which paper it was sent by Mrs. Unwin; where the late Mr. Henderson, the actor, happening to see it, conceiving it eminently qualified to display his rich comic powers, he read it at the Freemason's Hall, in the course of entertainments given there by himself and the late Thomas Sheridan. It then became extremely popular among all classes of readers; but it was not known to be Cowper's till it was added to his second volume. At Lady Austen's suggestion, he also composed The Task; promising, one day, to write if she would furnish the subject. "Oh!" she is said to have replied, "you can never be in want of a subject: you can write upon any: — write upon this sofa!"
In 1784, he began his translation of Homer, and in the same year terminated his intercourse with Lady Austen; whose lively interest in the poet had excited a jealousy in the breast of Mrs. Unwin, who, feeling herself eclipsed, says Mr. Hayley, by the brilliancy of the poet's new friend, began to fear her mental influence over him. Cowper now felt that he must either relinquish his ancient friend, whom he regarded with the love of a child, or his new associate, whom he idolized with the affection of a sister, and whose heart and mind were peculiarly congenial to his own. Gratitude determined him how to act; and, with a resolution and delicacy, adds Mr. Hayley, that did the highest honour to his feelings, he wrote an explanatory farewell letter to Lady Austen, which she lamented, when applied to, by his biographer, for a copy, that in a moment of natural mortification, she had burnt. In 1785, appeared his second volume of poems, including The Task, Tirocinium, The Epistle to Joseph Hill, Esquire, and the diverting History of John Gilpin. The translation of his Homer, amid various interruptions, was continued at intervals, and was published in two volumes, quarto, in 1791. During the composition of this work, it is said, he at first declined, as he had done in the progress of his other works, shewing specimens to his friends; and when Mr. Unwin informed him that a gentleman wanted a sample, he humorously replied, "When I deal in wine, cloth, or cheese, I will give samples; but of verse, never. No consideration," he added, "would have induced me to comply with the gentleman's demand, unless he could have assured me that his wife had longed." Though the first edition was quickly disposed of, the general reception of his Homer was not such as to answer his expectations. He, therefore, began a revision of it; and about the same time meditated an edition of Milton's works, and a new didactic poem, to be called The Four Ages. His mental powers, however, being again impaired by a relapse of his old malady, he became totally incapacitated from pursuing these and all other literary pursuits. In this situation he was visited by Lady Hesketh, who paid him the same attention he had hitherto received from Mrs. Unwin, who was now in a state of second childhood, and as imbecile as the poet himself. In 1794, a pension of £300 per annum was procured for him, from government, through the influence of Earl Spencer; and shortly afterwards he was removed, together with Mrs. Unwin, by his friend and kinsman, the Rev. Dr. Johnson, to Dereham, in Norfolk. Here, in 1796, he lost Mrs. Unwin; and from 1797 to 1799 he completed, by snatches, the revisal of his Homer, and was sensible enough to compose a few original verses, and to resume his correspondence with Lady Hesketh. In the beginning of 1800, he exhibited symptoms of dropsy, which made such rapid progress, that it terminated his existence on the following 25th of April. His remains were deposited in St. Edmund's Chapel, in Dereham Church, where Lady Hesketh caused a marble tablet to be erected to his memory, on which was inscribed some elegant verses from Mr. Hayley's pen.
The whole figure and appearance of Cowper were interesting; it might be seen at first sight that he was what is called well-bred; and even a momentary observer could not fall to perceive that he was a man of no ordinary mind. Like Pope and some others, he was precocious in the display of talent, though it was not till he had attained the age of fifty, that he wrote with a view to publication. His first poetical production is stated to have been a translation of a poem of Tibullus, made at the age of fourteen; but, as little more of his juvenile poetry has been preserved than the above, all the steps of his progress to that perfection which produced The Task cannot now be traced. It is to be regretted that the selfishness of Mrs. Unwin put an end to his intimacy with Lady Austen, as her conversation greatly enlivened his social hours, and embraced that variety of subject, which, more than any thing, tended to keep off his natural gloom. The slowness with which he composed his Homer, and his abandonment of some of his literary designs, may be attributed to other causes than mental imbecility. "So long," he says in one of his letters, as I am pleased with an employment, I am capable of unwearied application, because my feelings are all of the intense kind: I never," he adds, "received a little pleasure from any thing in my life; if I am delighted, it is in the extreme. The unhappy consequence of this temperament is, that my attachment to any occupation seldom outlives the novelty of it." In Cowper, the virtues of the man and the genius of the poet were inseparable; in every thing he did, said, or wrote, his aim was the promotion of the highest interests of mankind, — the advancement of religion and morality. His biographers agree in ascribing to him a vigour of sentiment and a knowledge of human nature, scarcely equalled, and rarely, if ever, surpassed by any of our poets.
Fox, in speaking of The Task, says, that the author has, in a great degree, reconciled him to blank verse, and that there are few things superior to that poem in our language; whilst Gilbert Wakefield as vehemently condemns his Homer, and calls the beginning of the tenth Odyssey the most calamitous specimen of want of ear that ever came under his notice. Without doubt, the general effect of the work is bald and prosaic, but it exceeds Pope's translation in fidelity and exactness. A writer in the Edinburgh Review, in comparing the merits of Pope and Cowper, says, "Scarcely a particle of breath divine inspires the blank and frigid version of the latter; he is more correct than Pope in giving the mere sense of the original, but to its tone and spirit he is, in a different manner, equally unfaithful." The man of genius, however, (adds the same author,) the scholar, and the critic, the man of the world, and the moral and pious man, all found in the works of Cowper something to excite their surprise; something to admire; something congenial with their habits of taste, feeling, and judgment; and succeeding years of familiar intercourse with his writings have led posterity to contemplate him as one of the best of men, and most favoured of poets.