Cowper, William (2)

Cowper, William an eminent English poet, grand-nephew of lord-chancellor Cowper, grandson of a judge in the court of common pleas, and son of John Cowper, rector of Great Berkhamstead, in Hertfordshire, was born there, November 26, 1731. He appears from his infancy to have been delicate in mind and body, and, after having spent two years of misery in a country school, was placed at Westminster School, where he remained till he was eighteen years old. He was then articled to a solicitor in London, called to the bar in 1754, and resided in the Middle Temple for eleven years, neglecting law, contributing a few papers to The Connoisseur, and gradually exhausting his little patrimony. In 1763 one of his powerful kinsmen appointed him to two clerkships in the House of Lords. Doubts of his competency, and the fear of appearing in public assemblies, developed the tendency to insanity which lurked within him. He made several attempts to destroy himself; and was consigned for eighteen months to a lunatic asylum at St. Albans. On his release in 1765, subsisting on the remnant of his property, with assistance from relatives, he took up his residence at Huntingdon, and became a boarder in the house of Mr. Unwin, a clergyman. That gentleman dying two years afterwards, the widow and Cowper removed to Olney in Buckinghamshire. John Newton was curate of the place; and his religious views accorded with those which had been adopted by the poet, although the association rather increased than lessened the morbid tendencies of the latter. In 1776 appeared the Olney Hymns, of which some of the best were furnished by Cowper; but it was only about the time of their publication that the unhappy poet was freed from a second confinement, which had lasted for nearly four years. He had still earlier tried his hand at poetry, having translated an elegy of Tibullus at the age of fourteen, and at eighteen he wrote some beautiful verses On Finding the Heel of a Shoe; but diffidence repressed his talents until he had passed his fortieth year. Mrs. Unwin, anxious to engage his mind safely, now urged him to prosecute verse-making. The Progress of Error was written; Truth, Table-Talk, and Expostulation followed it; and these with other poems made up a volume which was published in 1782, receiving the approbation of Johnson and other critics, but meeting little attention from the public. The poet's fame, however, was decisively established by his next volume, which, appearing in 1785, contained The Task and other poems. The publication of this work, indeed, was an aera in the history of English poetry. It was the point of transition from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth. Natural language was substituted for artificial; themes of universal interest were handled, instead of such as told only on a few cultivated minds; even the seriousness and solemnity of the leading tone had a striking attraction, while it was relieved both by strains oaf pathos and touches of satiric humor. More novel and original than anything else were those minute and faithfil delineations of external scenery, to which no parallel had been seen since Thomson's Seasons. Perhaps, also, the didactic form of Cowper's poems, giving them an equivocal character which hovers continually between poetry and argumentation, was an additional recommendation to readers who had long been unaccustomed to the finer and higher kinds of poetical invention. John Gilpin is a specimen of his humorous genius, the subject of which is said to have been suggested to him by Lady Austen, one of his literary friends. Cowper now spent six years on his translation of Homer, which appeared in 1791. The neglect which it has experienced is certainly uindeserved, at least by his Odyssey. His mental alienation, which had repeatedly threatened him with a return, overcame him completely in 1794; and the last six years of his life produced hardly any literary fruits except the pathetic Castaway. The death of his friend Mrs. Unwin, in 1796, threw him into a gloom which was hardly ever again dispelled, and he died at Dereham, April 25, 1800. Cowper's chief characteristics are simplicity, individuality, transparency of ideas, bold originality, singular purity, and experimental Christian piety. All his poems bear marks of his mature authorship, his accurate rather than extensive scholarship, and his unwearied desire to benefit mankind. His Christian life, though oppressed by disease, was true, useful, and lovely; and even while suffering under the deranged idea that he was an exception to God's general plan of grace, it is delightful to perceive that it had no tendency to lead him aside from the path of rectitude, or to relax in the least his efforts to maintain the life of religion in his soul. His poems remain a treasure of deep Christian pathos and earnest, pensive thought, and many of them have been incorporated into nearly every collection of religious hymns. Cowper's works were first collected by his friend Hayley (1803-4, with a Life); but the best edition is that of Southey (1833-37; also with a Life, the most carefully written, and with additional Letters, in Bohn's Standard Library, 1853). For a copious view of the literature, see Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, s.v.

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