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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.

The Task, Book II, A Time-Piece [excerpt]

William Cowper, 1731 - 1800
     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's obdurate heart,
It does not feel for man. The natural bond
Of brotherhood is severed as the flax
That falls asunder at the touch of fire.
He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not coloured like his own, and having power
To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause
Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.
Lands intersected by a narrow frith
Abhor each other. Mountains interposed
Make enemies of nations, who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.
Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;
And worse than all, and most to be deplored,
As human nature's broadest, foulest blot,
Chains him, and tasks him, and exacts his sweat
With stripes, that mercy, with a bleeding heart,
Weeps when she sees inflicted on a beast.
Then what is man? And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush
And hang his head, to think himself a man?
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.
We have no slaves at home—then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o'er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.
That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein
Of all your empire; that where Britain's power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.

From The Task (1785) by William Cowper. This poem is in the public domain.

From The Task (1785) 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
The Lord will happiness divine
     On contrite hearts bestow; 
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
     A contrite heart or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
     Insensible as steel; 
If aught is felt, 'tis only pain,
     To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
     To love Thee if I
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
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