poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

The first child of Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper, Willam Cowper was born on November 26, 1731, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England. The poet's mother died when he was six and Cowper was sent to Dr. Pittman's boarding school, where he was routinely bullied. In 1748, he enrolled in the Middle Temple in order to pursue a law degree. Shortly thereafter, he fell in love with Theodora Cowper, a cousin. Her father did not approve, and their relationship ended in 1755. Cowper wrote a sequence of poems, Delia, chronicling this affair but the book was not published until 1825.

In 1763, through family connections, he accepted a clerkship of the journals in the House of Lords. A rival faction, however, challenged his appointment and the ordeal caused Cowper to enter Nathaniel Cotton's Collegium Insanorum at St. Albans. While there he converted to Evangelicalism. In 1765, he moved to Huntingdon and took a room with the Rev. Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. Unwin died of a riding accident in 1767 and Cowper and Mary Unwin moved together to the town of Olney in 1768. They were not separated until her death in 1796. While at Olney, Cowper became close friends with the Evangelical clergyman John Newton; together they co-authored the Olney Hymns, which was first published in 1779 and included Newton's famous hymn "Amazing Grace." Of the 68 hymns Cowper wrote, "Oh for a closer walk with God" and "God moves in a mysterious way" are the most well known.

In 1773, Cowper became engaged to Mary Unwin, but he suffered another attack of madness. He had terrible nightmares, believing that God has rejected him. Cowper would never again enter a church or say a prayer. When he recovered his health, he kept busy by gardening, carpentry, and keeping animals. In spite of periods of acute depression, Cowper's twenty-six years in Olney and later at Weston Underwood were marked by great achievement as poet, hymn-writer, and letter-writer. His first volume of poetry, Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple was published in 1782 to wide acclaim. His work was compared to late Neo-Classical writers like Samuel Johnson as well as to poets such as Thomas Gray.

His major work was undertaken when Lady Austen complained to Cowper that he lacked a subject. She encouraged him to write about the sofa in his parlor. The Task grew into an opus of six books and nearly five thousand lines. Although the poem begins as a mock-heroic account of a wooden stool developing into a sofa, in later sections of the poem Cowper meditates on the immediate world around him (his village, garden, animals, and parlor) as well as larger religious and humanitarian concerns. His work found a wide audience; Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him "the best modern poet." His attention to nature and common life along with the foregrounding of his personal life prefigured the concerns of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth. William Cowper died of dropsy on April 25, 1800. At the time of his death, his Poems had already reached their tenth printing.

Olney Hymns, I, [Walking with God]

William Cowper, 1731 - 1800
Oh! for a closer walk with God,
     A calm and heavenly frame; 
A light to shine upon the road
     That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
     When first I saw the Lord? 
Where is the soul-refreshing view
     Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
     How sweet their memory still! 
But they have left an aching void,
     The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!
     Sweet the messenger of rest! 
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
     And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
     Whate'er that idol be, 
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
     And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
     Calm and serene my frame; 
So purer light shall mark the road
     That leads me to the Lamb.

From Olney Hymns (1779) by William Cowper. This poem is in the public domain.

From Olney Hymns (1779) by William Cowper. This poem is in the public domain.

William Cowper

William Cowper

The first child of Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper, Willam

by this poet

poem
Though duly from my hand he took
     His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
     And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
     And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
     With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
     On pippins
poem
My former hopes are fled,
     My terror now begins; 
I feel, alas! that I am dead
     In trespasses and sins.

Ah, whither shall I fly?
     I hear the thunder roar; 
The Law proclaims Destruction nigh,
     And Vengeance at the door.

When I review my ways,
     I dread impending doom: 
But sure a friendly
poem
Sometimes a light surprises
     The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
     With healing on His wings;
When comforts are declining,
     He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
     To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
     We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God's