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WILLIAM COWPER, the son the Rev. John Cowper, was born at
Great Berkhamstead Rectory, on the 20th of November, 1731 . His
family was of ancient descent, capable of being traced back without
interruption to the time of Kdward IV. mi his father's side. His
mother, Ana, daughter of Roger Donne, of Ludlmm Hall, Norfolk,
was of the family of the celebrated and excellent Dr. Donne, Dean
of St. Paul's, and was said to be descended from King Henry III.
through four different lines.

When Cowper was only six years old the great misfortune of
his life befell him ; his mother died. What that loss was to the
tender sensitive child we can best judge by his own exquisite lines
addressed to her picture, which he received from his cousin, Ann
Bodliam, more than fifty years afterwards. She left also a newly
born child, his brother John, who survived to manhood ; five
other children had died in their infancy.

In less than a year after his mother's death, Cowper was sent
to school ataD/. Pitman's, Market Street, between St. Albans and
Dunstable. Here he suffered for two years from the most cruel bully-
ing on the part of the elder boys ; his shyness, physical delicacy, and
sensitive nature exposing him in a peculiar manner to their savage
tormenting. Of one of these young tyrants, Cowper writes :-

" I bad such a dread of him, that I did not dare lift my eyes t<,
his face. I knew him best by his shoe- buckle." But the cruelty
exercised by this young savage was at length discovered, the cowaid
was expelled, and Cowper was taken from the school.

The next two years he spent under the care of an oculist, who
attended him for inflammation of the eyes. From this home he
was removed to Westminster School. Here his dull and suffering
young- life brightened. He was an excellent scholar, and became
also a good cricketer and football player. The usher of his form
was Vincent Bourne, celebrated for his Latin poetry, which his



pupil afterwards translated.' His chief school friends were, Robert
Lloyd, tb<^ son of Dr. Piefso-a ,Lloyd, another usher; William
Rus&eli, Warren Hastings, (ieor^e Colman, Charles Churchill and
Cumberland. To these h'e was sincerely and faithfully attached ;
proofs of his friendship for them are scattered through his poems.
While still a Westminster scholar, he wrote his first poem, in im-
itation of Philips' " Splendid Shilling " (see p. 25). In the same year
-1748 he left Westminster and remained under his father's roof
for nine months. He was then articled for three years to a solicitor
a Mr. Chapman, of Ely Place, Holborn. It was settled that
while he was there he should visit every Sunday an uncle of his-
Mr. Ashley Cowper, afterwards clerk of the Parliament, who
resided in Southampton Row. His fellow-clerk at Mr. Chapman's
-Edward Thurlow destined to become hereafter (as Cowper
of ten jestingly prophesied) Lord Chancellor shared this privilege
with him, and not only Sundays but much of the two lads' time
was spent at Mr. Ashley Cowper's, whose house was the more at-
tractive probably from the fact that he had three daughters, two
of whom, Harriet and Theodora, were growing into womanhood.
With the latter Cowper fell deeply in love, and it was to her,
under the name of " Delia," that his early poems are addressed.
Harriet became engaged to and finally married Mr. Hesketh, who
was afterwards created a baronet.

When his three years with the solicitor expired, Cowper en-
tered into residence at the Middle Temple, 1752, and here the first
shadow of that awful melancholy which clouded all his future
life stole over him. He became painfully depressed. "I was
struck," he says, " with such a dejection of spirits, as none but
they who have felt the same can have the least conception of.
Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror and
rising up in despair."

He sought relief in medicine and religion, and found some
comfort in George Herbert's works, " but a very near and dear
relation," he tells us, disapproved of that excellent divine's teach-
ings, and Herbert so well suited to his reader ! was unhappily
laid aside. Mr. Hesketh, Harriet's lover, then took him to South-
ampton for change of air and scene, and this appears to have
done him good. In 1754 he returned to London and was called
to the bar.

It does not appear that he ever had, or desired to have, a brief.
He hoped for an appointment to one of the patent offices in con-
nection with the House of Lords, the nomination to which was
vested in a member of his father's family. Meantime he wooed
and won his cousin, Theodora Jane Cowper, who was willing to
run all risks, and even share poverty with him. "If you marry
William Cowper," said her father, alluding to his nephew's pov-


erty one day, " what will you do ? ' " Do, sir ? ' answered Theo-
dora, " wash all day, and ride out on the great dog at night."

Probably Mr. Ashley Cowper's hesitation as to permitting the
match became a decided objection on account of the sad despond-
ency and restlessness of his nephew. He declared firmly that the
marriage must not take place, assigning as an excuse his dislike to
cousins marrying. No one, looking at the future which followed,
ran avoid allowing that Mr. Cowper acted wisely ; Cowper's
madness, and th:> eccentricity afterwards developed by Theodora
prove that his derision was both wise and kind. Just about this
time Cowper was summoned to Berkhamstead to the death-bed of
his father, who died of apoplexy soon after his son arrived, lie
had married a second time, and Cowper had been very little at
home since that event occurred, but he loved the place full of
boyish memories, and no doubt grief for his father's death, and
the loss of his old home, bitterly aggravated the sorrow of his dis-
appointed affection.

Dr. Cowper did not leave much money to his sons. The
younger, John, was then studying at Cambridge for holy orders ;
and Cowper returned to his lonely chambers, feeling all the more
desolate because his uncle Ashley had removed from Southampton
Row to Palace Yard, and had taken that opportunity of refusing to
permit his nephew to visit at his house. Thus he and Theodora
were forever separated ; she submitted dutifully to her father's
will, but remained faithful to her love, watching over the life of
her cousin with tender interest ; helping him with anonymous gifts,
and refusing ever to give him a successor in her affections. She
carefully preserved the poems he had addressed to her ; and near
the close of her life deposited them in a sealed packet with her
dearest lady friend, directing that the contents should not be in-
spected till after her death. Her friend and herself died the same
year, 1824, and the executors of the former sent the packet to Mr.
James Croft, whose relation, Sir Archer Croft, had married Theo-
dora's youngest sister. He published from this collection a little
volume of " Early Poeins," in 1825.

The afflictions of Cowper " fell in showers.' 1 Next to Theodora
he loved young William Russell, who had since their school days
succeeded to his hereditary baronetage, and held a commission in
the Guards. Suddenly, while bathing in the Thames, that poor
young man was drowned.

Cowper's spirits sank under these repeated trials, and his cousin
Lady Hesketh, who sometimes saw him, tried to cheer him by
playful banter. He answered her in lines of such deep pathos
that she never forgot them, but years afterwards, when they had
been long lost, could remember, and write them out. Our readers
will find them at page 38, under the heading of "Disappointment.



As we have said, Dr. Cowper left but a small provision for his
sons ; it was therefore a boon to Cowper when his family obtained
for him the post of a Commissioner of Bankrupts, which gave him a
yearly income of 60Z. He now bought chambers in the Inner Temple,
and renewed his Westminster associations by joining the " Nonsense
Club," which consisted of old Westminsters. The president of it
was Bonnell Thornton, Hill (who induced him to* join it), Lloyd,
and Colman. The latter and Thornton edited the Connoisseur to
which Cowper soon contributed.

The "Nonsense Club" met and dined together every Thurs-
day, and doubtless the wit and kindly fellowship of his old friends
were of infinite benefit to the melancholy young man. His taste
for literature was awakened a taste to which he owed much relief
and consolation in his future years.

He contributed five articles (which are known) to the Connois-
seur, amongst them is one on Conversation the subject afterwards
of one of his best poems. He produced also at this time several
halfpenny ballads, two or three of which became popular, but they
have been lost, to our great regret. He contributed to the St.
James's Chronicle ; joined his brother in translating two books of
Voltaire's Henriade, said to have been published in a magazine ;
and assisted the Duncombes in a translation of Horace.

But these literary occupations and social pleasures were about
to terminate in an awful affliction. Pecuniary difficulties threat-
ened the briefless barrister, and his near relative, Major Cowper,
desirous of benefiting him, offered him two vacant offices to which
he had the right of presentation those of Reading Clerk and Clerk
of Committees to the House of Lords. The office of Clerk of the
Journals of the House of Lords was also vacant, and in Majoi
Cowper's gift ; but as it was less lucrative than the two former, lie
designed it for a friend, a Mr. Arnold, and offered the best to his

At first Cowper gladly and gratefully accepted the kindness, but
almost the next minute repented. Wild fancies seized on him, that
he had wished for the death of the former holder, and was
therefore at heart a murderer, though he Mr. De Grey had re-
signed and was not dead ; he had also a conviction that he could
never speak or act in public. After a week's hesitation and men-
tal struggles he begged Major Cowper to give the two lucrative
offices to his friend Mr. Arnold, and the less lucrative, but more
private one, of Clerk of the Journals, to himseJf. His cousin, with
some hesitation, yielded to his wishes. But a new difficulty arose,
a strong party in the House of Lords contested the right of Major
Cowper to nominate. Inquiry and discussion followed, and the
Clerk of the Journals-elect was informed that he must prepare for
an examination at the bar of the House to test his qualifications


for the office. "A thunderbolt," he remarks, "would have been
as welcome to me as this intelligence."

He was now obliged to vHt the office of the House of Lords to
learn his future duties, and he tried for more than half a year to
prepare for his examination ; but in vain ! In the autumn of
1703 a visit to Margate revived his sinking spirits fora time, but as
soon as he returned to town his reason failed. Three times he
attempted suicide ; then, sending for Major Cowper, he told him
what he had suffered, arid returned him his deputation. His brother
was sent for and came to him, but could not console or calm him ;
his cousin, Lady Hesketh, visited him, but he would neithei look
at nor speak to her. A visit from his cousin, Martin Madan, a
ntrong Calvinistic preacher, served only to increase the agonies of
his horror and despair. He wrote the terrible lines
" Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion," *

and his distressed friends at length judged it expedient to place him
in a lunatic asylum, to which he was removed December, 1703.
Tlie asylum was at St. Albans, the proprietor was Dr. Nathaniel
('otton. a man of great professional skill, moral worth, and some
literary talent, whose " Visions" were then popular poems.

Under the care of Dr. Cotton, Cowper slowly recovered his
reason ; but it was not possible (he felt) for him to fulfil any longer
(niM-ieiitiuusly his duti a Commissioner of Bankrupts, so the

office was resigned. He thus lost nearly all his income, but his
family subscribed to make him an annual allowance.

His brother was, as we have said, a Fellow of St. Benet's Col-
lege, Cambridge, and to be near him was now Cowper's great de-
si re. No place, nearer than Huntingdon could, however, be found
suited to him. Thither he removed in 1765, attended by a faithful
lad who had waited on and watched over him at St. Albans, and
who having formed a strong attachment to the poor patient, be-
sought Dr. Cotton to let him go with him. Huntingdon suited
Cowper. " 1 do really think," he wrote, " it the most agreeable
neighborhood I ever saw." He attended the daily services at the
church, bathed in the Ouse, walked, and began that correspond-
ence with his friends which has given him a high place in litera-
ture, independent of that which he holds as a poet. For thre
\onthshe lived happily at Huntingdon, then he wearied of solitude,
,iid it was to be feared that he would have suffered from a re-
newal of his malady had he not happily made the acquaintance
of the Unwins, the family of a clergyman who took pupils in Hunt-
ingdon. Mr. Unwin had formerly been master of the Hunt-
ingdon Grammar School, but had in 1742 received the college
living of Grimstone. He then married Mary Cawthorne, a young,
pretty, arid clever woman, daughter of a draper at Ely. She,

"' ' ' - - - __ r> T,-, M

* See page 50.


however, disliked Grimstone ; and to please her Mr. Unwin re-
turned to Huntingdon, where he took a large house in the High
Street, and prepared pupils for Cambridge. The Unwins had two
children, a son, who at the time Cowper met him, had just taken
his A. B. degree at Cambridge, and a daughter of eighteen years
of age. Cowper's constant attendance at the daily services in
Huntingdon Church attracted the notice of young William Unwin,
and one day, after morning prayers, perceiving the stranger
taking a solitary walk under some trees, he approached and
addressed him. Cowper returned the greeting kindly, and was
persuaded by his new acquaintance to visit his family, with whom
the poet was charmed. The acquaintance grew into an intimacy,
and finally Cowper persuaded the Unwins to let him board with
them. This arrangement was every way advantageous to him ;
he was absurdly ignorant of domestic economy and good manage-
ment, and had spent his twelve months' whole income in one
quarter. He was considerably in debt also to Dr. Cotton. The
Cowper family generously came to his assistance, and without
consulting him agreed to subscribe annually for his support, pay-
ing the money for his use into the hands of his kind and thought-
ful friend, Hill. At the same time they remonstrated with him
through his uncle Ashley on his imprudence in retaining the ser-
vant lad he had brought from St. Albans, and also a destitute
child, the offspring of profligate parents, which he had adopted
and put to school ; Cowper refused to abandon his proteges, how-
ever, and was threatened with the withdrawal of part of his in-'
come. At this stage of the correspondence he received an anony-
mous letter, it is believed, from Theodora, telling him that the
writer approved of his conduct, and promised that if any part of
his income were withdrawn the defect should be supplied " by a
person who loved him tenderly."

While the correspondence on this subject was going on, his
new friends also manifested great generosity. Mrs. Unwin as-
sured him that if the threatened reduction were made he should
still share their home, and enjoy the same accommodation for
half the sum previously agreed on between them. Nothing, how-
ever, came of his friends' remonstrances ; they did not withdraw
their assistance, and Cowper spent a happy year and a half with
his new friends. He has given the following details of his daily
life during this period : " We breakfast commonly between eight
and nine ; till eleven, we read either the Scriptures, or the sermons
of some faithful preacher of those holy mysteries ; at eleven, we
attend divine service, which is performed here twice every day ;
and from twelve to three we separate, and amuse ourselves as we
please. During that interval I either read in my own apartment,
or walk or ride, or work in the garden. We seldom sit an hour


after dinner, but, if the weather permits, adjourn to the garden,
where, with Mrs. Unwin and her son, I have generally the pleasure
of religious conversation till tea-time. If it rains, or is too windy
for walking, we either converse within doors, or sing some hymns
of Martin's collection, and by the help of Mrs. Unwin's harpsi-
chord make up a tolerable concert, in which our hearts, I hope,
are the best and most musical performers. After tea, we sally
forth to walk in good earnest. Mrs. Unwin is a good walker, and
we have generally travelled about four miles before we see home
again. When the days are short we make this excursion in the
former part of the day. between church-time and dinner. At
night, we read and converse as before till supper, and commonly
finish the evening either with hymns or a sermon, and last of all
the family are called to prayers. I need not tell you that such a
life as this is consistent with the utmost cheerfulness ; accordingly
we are all happy, and dwell together in unity as brethren."

During this period young Unwin left home to take a curacy, and
his sister married the Rev. Matthew Powley, afterwards Vicar o
Dewsbury. A more serious change was coming. On the 28tl
of June, 1767, Mr. Unwin was thrown from his horse, his skul.
was fractured, and he died four days afterwards.

Mr. Unwin had expressed a wish that if his wife survived him,
Cowper might still dwell with her; therefore the two mourners
resolved not to separate, arid the Uov. John Newton Hiaving just
at that time been introduced to Mrs. Unwin by Dr. Conyers, of
Helmsley) invited them to reside in his own parish, and offered to
find a house for them. In consequence they removed to Olney on
the 14th of September, 1707, but as their own house was not
ready, Newton received them for a time as his guests at the

From this moment Cowper became the friend and assistant of
the energetic curate, who devoted his life to his flock. Olney lies
on the Ouse, in the north of Buckinghamshire. Owing to fre-
quent overflowings of the river, the place was cold, damp, and
aguish. The people were wretchedly poor, subsisting by lace-
making and straw plaiting, and no educated person resided in
the town except Mr. Newton, the curate. No place less favorable
to poor Cowper's health of mind and body could have been found,
but for a time all went well. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the
ardent evangelical clergyman, he visited, read arid prayed wi h
the sick, he attended prayer-meetings, and even himself conducted
the extempore prayer a terrible effort for so shy a man. His
exercise was also lost, for they had " sermon, or lecture, every
evening which lasted till supper-time." A great contrast to the
peace and holy repose of the daily life whose details we gave on
the last page.


This great religious excitement was followed by its inevitable
reaction. Melancholy again seized on Cowper, as his desponding
letters prove, and a real grief came to wound his affectionate
heart in 1770, when he was called to attend the death-bed of his
beloved brother John, who died at Cambridge.

In 1771, Cowper, at Mr. Newton's suggestion, began the Olney
Hymns, but before the composition had advanced far he became
a second time insane.

"I was suddenly reduced," he remarked, writing in 1786,
' ' from my wonted rate of understanding to an almost childish
imbecility. I did not lose my senses, but I lost the power to exer-
cise them. I could return a rational answer even to a difficult
question, but a question was necessary, or I never spoke at all.
This state of mind was accompanied, as I suppose it to be in most
instances of the kind, with misapprehension of things and persons,
that made me a very intractable patient. I believed that every-
body hated me, and that Mrs. Unwin hated me most of all ; was
convinced that all my food was poisoned, together with ten thou-
sand megrims of the same stamp." %

This affliction was the more terrible because he was at that
time about to be married to Mrs. Unwin.* This fact, long
youbted, is now well known. It was naturally to be expected
fchat such a result would follow the closeness of their intimacy,
and the similarity of their tastes and opinions. Cowper's madness
took a most painful turn with regard to religion. The Calvinistic
doctrine of the need of " assurance of salvation," was a peculiarly
painful and dangerous one for his mind. His first illness had been
t>ne full of despair of his own salvation ; the same terrible impres-
I'on now overwhelmed him.

He believed that Grod required him to sacrifice his own life, and
several times attempted suicide. He refused to pray, or to attend
Divine service, nor would he visit the rectory, till one day having
been induced to go there, he refused to leave it, and besought New-
ton with tears of anguish to let him remain. The generous curate
consented, though the expense of the poor lunatic's living fell
heavily on him ; but Newton f was assisted in all his good works
by one of the most liberal and benevolent of men, Mr. Thornton,
who had long allowed him 200Z. a year to spend in Christian hos-
pitality, and on his poor. ..

* Vide Mr. Bull's memorials of Cowper, in " John Newton."

t The Rev. John Newton had been a sailor a wild, dissipated one, and had been

afterwards he commanded a slave-ship ; then he became a tide-surveyor at Liverpool,
where he became acquainted with Whitefield and Wesley, and in 1764 he entered the
Church, being ordained to the curacy of Olney. The same year he became acquainted
with Thornton, who continued his staunch, never-changing friend, perceiving
much good there was in him.


Newton treated hi- nnhapp} ~t with tri-eat affection, and

hailed with delight tin- lirst smile of th" melancholy man.

Then he proposed that ( 'nwper should return to his own home,
and th" patient nl.-d.

During the whole period of his derangement Mrs. Unwin had
manife-te.l th"in)ST a!T"ctionate devotion to him. Her watchful
ran- had preserved him from self-destruction, and day and night
she had waP-hed over him till he went to Newton's. Even then
her tender can- was continued for him. and on his return to her
house she shared her small income with him. and did all that was
po-sih|e to cheer and su-tain him.

< .radually he grew better ; occupied himself with gardening
,1 car] and amused himself with petting animals. He

d. l)'-id - \\\< three t'am.Mi- hare-, live rabbit-, two guinea-pigs,
two d magpie, a jay. and "ther bird-.

In September. Thornton pn- I Newton with the

living of St. Mary Wnolnoth. and the friend- were separated;
before Newton left he introduced Cowper to a Mr. Bull, an Inde-
pend-nt preacher, who resided at Newport P "II. live miles from


And n 1>\ decrees Cowper resumed hlsoorrespondfnce and be-
gan occasionally to write short poems, A bout this time his cousin,
Mr. Mad. in. chaplain of the Lock Hospital, published a treatise
iled ' Tiielyphlli , 1 1 ise < n Marriage," rec m mending

poly^ai; - ert in"; t hat it was sanctioned by (n.d Himself

in the Holy Scriptures. Covperand Newton w -re both greatly
-hocked by tlii- d-\ lopiiHMit of Mr. Madan's views, and the
former wrote, in answer to it. his little known, arid very inferior
poem. Antit/irlj/jiJith'tru, which as his is inserted in this edition,
but is quite unworthy of a place with his generally charming
poems. It was publi-hed anonymously, 1781, and he never in-
cluded it in his w>rk- liim-elf.

To Mr-. I'nwin posterity i- obliged for suggesting to him a
worthier theme, and ursine; him to far superior endeavors. She
suggested the 1'r s of Error," a moral satire, and Cowper at
once began, and continued it enthusiastically. Then he wrote

Online LibraryWilliam CowperThe poetical works of William Cowper → online text (page 1 of 49)