William Cowper

X. Z., "Original Anecdotes of Cowper" Monthly Magazine and American Review [New York] 3 (December 1800) 409-10.


In a former number of your Magazine, you gave us some account of the poet Cowper. There is a lady in this city who resided in the neighbourhood of his birthplace, who mentioned some particulars respecting this pathetic poet, that were, to me, and will probably prove to most of the admirers of that poet, extremely interesting.

The predominant genius of a man may, in most cases, be traced to some early incident of his life. Cowper, it seems, was from his childhood devoted to meditation and seclusion, and endued with antipathy to every noisy concourse or merely lucrative pursuit.

This temper was strengthened by an attachment between him and the daughter of a neighbouring family. The usual objections, on the score of birth and fortune, did not exist in this case, and neither family were averse to this connection. It was necessary, however, in the opinion of Cowper's father, that the union should be postponed till the young man had established himself in some gainful and honourable profession.

For this end the youth was sent to London and placed at the Temple. To this fane of subtlety and science, all his rural dispositions accompanied him. The cultivation of literature and poetry ravished his attention away from the Crokes and Carthews of his library, and his hours were spent in composing tender ditties for his mistress, instead of transcribing into his common-place book, the demurrers and narratios of the law.

His father, whose heart was set upon seeing his son Will one day adorned with the flowing and well-powdered honours of a chancellor, was extremely displeased at this infatuation and supineness. He tried various expedients to awaken in his heart a more profitable ambition. At length he fancied that his discovered the source of all these ungenerous propensities in the affection which William had so assiduously fostered for the country maid. He resolved, therefore, to put an end to his hopes; and, by studied incivilities to the lady's family, excited their resentment so far, that the girl was prohibited from further intercourse.

Disobedience to this mandate produced the usual stretches of parental tyranny. The victim was restricted in her walks and visits; and, finally, imprisoned in her chamber. The gentle spirit was sorely bruised by this rod. Grief and sullenness were succeeded by loss of understanding, and an untimely close was put to her existence in the cells of a private madhouse! — Such was a father's policy! and the effects of it upon the son's happiness and destiny are generally known.

The narrator of these incidents was a lady who, besides a residence in the neighbourhood of both families, was in habits of domestic intercourse with both of them. This tale is repeated upon her authority; and, if it be true, its truth must be known to many.