William Cowper, pronounced “Cooper,” is one of the few English hymn writers who ranks highly among the English poets as well. Cowper wrote about the simple pleasures of life in the country and expressed a deep concern with human cruelty and suffering. The simplicity of his work and his treatment of subjects in nature contrasted directly with society’s emphasis on fashion and material things in his time. He was an important forerunner of the Romantics (though our textbook basically ignores him); his unfinished poem Yardley Oak was particularly admired by William Wordsworth. Cowper is best known for the humorous ballad.
The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1783) and The Task (1785), his poem praising rural life. Other notable poems include The Poplar Trees and The Castaway. Olney Hymn contains his popular hymns God Moves in a Mysterious Way and Oh, For a Closer Walk With God- both of which, I have never heard of. His autobiographical memoirs were published in 1816, and his letters have been widely read and appreciated, providing an intimate picture of Cowper.
Cowper was born on November 15, 1731, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in England. He was the son of Reverend John Cowper and his wife, Ann. William was educated at a local boarding school, and also the Westminster School. He studied law at the Inner Temple in London, but never practiced it as a career, due to constant mental instability, which made him unfit for the profession. He suffered from depression all his life and his mental health was always fragile. When he was still young, he fell in love with his cousin Theodora Cowper, but her father (and his) forbid them to marry. Cowper attempted to commit suicide three times.
In 1763, the prospect of an examination for a job in the House of Lords caused him immensely stressful mental breakdown and he attempted his last suicide. He was confined to the St. Albans sanitarium from 1763 to 1765. After his release from the sanitarium, he found lodging in Huntingdon. There, he was nursed back to health by clergyman Morley Unwin, his wife Mary, and their family. Cowper got along famously with the Unwin ladies. His hostess, Mary encouraged him to write poetry about his feelings of sadness, in hopes that this would lift him from his melancholy.
In 1767, Reverend Morley was killed in a riding accident. He became engaged to Mary soon after Morley’s death (hmm). His worsening mental condition made marriage impossible, but they remained close friends. Cowper continued to reside with the Unwins, and a year later they all moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire to be under the ministry of the Reverend John Newton- the evangelical curate there. After meeting with Newton and becoming friends with him, William’s poetical works began to flourish.
The two men met every day in a lovely garden where they worked on writing hymns. Together, they composed the Olney Hymns (1779) one of the most important books in the history of evangelical hymns. Of the 349 hymns in this collection, 67 were written by Cowper. Although Cowper’s emotional health was never strong, his friendship with John Newton helped to keep him productive, as did his relationship with Mary Unwin. This is, however, disputed by many who say that under the influence of Newton, a “gloomy” Calvinist, Cowper came to believe his soul faced eternal damnation, thus causing much of his madness.
I choose to believe he became much improved by the relationship. In 1786, Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to the nearby village of Weston Underwood. Despite periods of severe depression (melancholy), Cowper’s eighteen years in Olney and eight at Weston Underwood were marked by his great literary achievements as poet, hymn writer, letter writer and translator. Cowper was one of the greatest English letter writers.
In his correspondence, he wrote both of everyday life in Olney and Weston Underwood and of political and literary events. His letters show wit, detailed observation and good humor; though his constant depression would suggest he had nothing to be humorous about. He first began writing poems in the neoclassical tradition. His translations from Greek or Latin into English show his careful and devoted workmanship. “Cowper was the first significant English poet to be positively affected by the Methodist revivals.” He was also a strong supporter of the ideals of humanitarian society at the time: opposition to slavery, the mistreatment of natives in the colonies, and mistreatment of the sick in institutions and asylums.
In 1791, Mary Unwin fell ill; this led Cowper to a further period of depression from which he never fully recovered. Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to East Dereham in Norfolk in 1795, where Mary died eighteen months later. Despite his dejection, Cowper was able to complete the revision of his Homer translation in 1799 and also wrote the powerful poem The Castaway- “an expression of his spiritual torment.” Cowper died on April 25, 1800. Mary Unwin’s home is now a popular museum where tourists gather to admire the work of both Cowper and Newton.