Poet, Hymnologist, Angst

Connected Beginnings

On November 15, 1731 the Reverend John Cowper, Chaplain to King George II of England, and Rector of Great Berkhampstead had extra reason to give thanks unto the Lord, for Ann Donne Cowper (perhaps of John Donne ancestery), his wife gave birth to a boy: who they named William.


The young lad was brought to Doctor Pitman's school when only seven years old. By the time he was nine, though, he had to be removed from school due to insiduous ocular problems, and the next year William was able to attend Westminster School. A lot of his education came not from instructors but the illustrous fellow students he shared the institution: such as R. Cumberland, Warren Hastings, Elijah Impey; but more importantly the schoolmates that became friends: Robert Lloyd, George Coleman, and Charles Churchill. One of his professors, poet Vincent Bourne was not only an intimate acquaintance, but an artistic influence, as well; but confessed he almost took hold of that writer-teacher's tendancy to rest on his laurels -- leaning towards indolence.

From Career Building to Nonsense Clubbing

Finishing school at Westminster, he interned under a London solicitor where he studied law with a future Lord Chancellor, Edward Thurlow. But, Cowper was more interested in frivolity with his Uncle Cowper's daughters than serious legal endeavors. Not surprisingly his uncle resisted infatuated Williams attempt to take cousin Theodora as fiancee. Middle Temple (London college of Law) became Cowper's home in 1752 and two years later he was barred, but instead of practicing, he started writing, and socialized with his buddies in their Nonsense Club.

From Dispute to Despondent

In 1763, another cousin, Major Cowper -- with influence with the office of the House of Lord's Clerk of the Journals -- nominated William to that position, however, the latent inablility for his mind to not plunge into murky depths when stressed met its ultimate challenge. The House of Lords called for William's testimony concerning the nomination's challenge, and the building anti-ephiphanous guilt odyessey came to an awful head when comtemplation his mandatory appearance in front of these noble officials: he became so suicidal that by 1765 his brother had him committed. He remained with his internalized convictions of justified torments for unrighteousness in an asylum for three years, when he was able to manage, but only hid away in quiet rural houses. After living in Huntington, he moved to Olney, and then Weston. And finally, to another cousin John Johnson's East Dereham Norfolk home.

From Penance to Poetry

To keep mind and body occupied (and distracted) he took up gardening, then carpentry, and even fine art. But, he finally was turned on to writing poetry by Mrs. Unwin and inspired and spurred on to further efforts by Lady Austen. He would have lived in total depression, had not been for his friends and correspondants: like Mrs. Unwin, his next almost wife-to-be, (but, an ill-timed fit catalyzed around 1773 by fellow hynm writer, friend and zealot, John Newton miscarried those plans), schooldays' playmate sister of Theodora, Lady Hesketh, and another receptacle of his suitorship, Lady Austen (from 1781). He died April 25, 1800 at East Dereham where he was buried. Though he insisted and humbly proclaimed that his writing was mere theraputic entertainment, he meticulously edited and redited his flowing, easy to digest, uncomplicated compositions of rhyme, reason, ruminations and rune. In short, in his moments of lucidity he enjoyed making it look easy.

Assorted Works:

  • The Diverting History of John Gilpin
  • The Task
  • On the Receipt of My Mother's Picture out of Norfolk
  • To Mary
  • The Castaway
  • Letters
    1. To Joseph Hill    Huntington, 3 July, 1765
    3. To Joseph Hill    Olney, 20 April, 1777
    4. To William Unwin    Olney, 31 October, 1779
    5. To Mrs. Newton    Olney, 5 June, 1780
    6. To Joseph Hill    Olney,9 May, 1781
    7. To William Unwin    Olney, 23 May, 1781
    8. To William Unwin    Olney, 5 January, 1782
    9. To William Unwin    Olney, 18 November, 1782
    10. To William Unwin    Olney, 29 September, 1783
    11. To John Newton    Olney, 17 November, 1783
    12. To Joseph Johnson    Olney, December (c. 1784)
    13. To John Newton    Olney, 24, September, 1785
    14. To Lady Hesketh    Olney, 12 October, 1785
    15. To William Unwin    Olney, (c. 1786)
    16. To Lady Hesketh   Weston Underwood, 26 November, 1786
    17. To Lady Hesketh    Weston Underwood, 27, November, 1787
    18. To Lady Hesketh    Weston Underwood, 19, December, 1787
    19. To Lady Hesketh    Weston Underwood, 3 March, 1788
    20. To Mrs King    Weston Underwood, 11 October, 1788
    21. To Lady Hesketh   Weston Underwood, 26 June 1791
Source: From Beowulf to Thomas Hardy; Robert Shafer: Odyssey Press, NY; 1939

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