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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, XXXII [The Shining Light]

William Cowper, 1731 - 1800
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 whisper says,
     "Flee from the wrath to come."

I see, or think I see,
     A glimm'ring from afar; 
A beam of day, that shines for me,
     To save me from despair.

Fore-runner of the sun,
     It marks the pilgrim's way; 
I'll gaze upon it while I run,
     And watch the rising day.

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
Obscurest night involved the sky,
     The Atlantic billows roared,
When such a destined wretch as I,
     Washed headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home forever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
     Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion's coast
poem
     Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more! My ear is pained,
My soul is sick with every day's report
Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.
There is no flesh in man
poem
     Peace to the artist, whose ingenious thought
Devised the weather-house, that useful toy!
Fearless of humid air and gathering rains
Forth steps the man—an emblem of myself!
More delicate his timorous mate retires.
When Winter soaks the fields, and female feet,
Too weak to struggle with tenacious clay,
Or