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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By William Cowper (1731–1800)

THE POET Cowper, who stands in the gap that separates Pope from Wordsworth, belongs to the group that includes Thomson, Young, Goldsmith, and Crabbe. If he is unimportant to-day in comparison with his importance to his own time, yet his service to English poetry is great, for he dispersed the artificial atmosphere which Pope had thrown around it. His moods and his keys were alike limited, and he was soon overshadowed by Wordsworth. Cowper saw Nature; Wordsworth saw into Nature, and touched chords undreamed of by the gentle poet of rural scenes and fireside pleasures. Cowper’s simplicity of diction was in his day almost daring; and he broke away from all the sentimental Arcadian figures with which Thomson’s landscapes were peopled. Therefore his value lies in the note of sincerity that he sounded. Singularly enough, he has been admired by French critics. He has been compared to Rousseau, and Sainte-Beuve calls him “the bard of domestic life.” His fame as a serious poet rests chiefly on ‘The Task,’ which Hazlitt calls “a poem which, with its pictures of domestic comfort and social refinement, can hardly be forgotten but with the language itself.”

His life is briefly told. He was born at Berkhampstead, England, November 26th, 1731. Through his mother he was descended from the family of the poet John Donne. She died when he was but six years of age, and he was sent to school in Hertfordshire and to Westminster. For three years he studied law at the Temple, but although called to the bar in 1754, he never practiced. As a young man he had an attack of madness, attempted suicide, and was confined at St. Albans for two years. When released he retired to Huntington, where he formed a friendship with the Unwins. On the death of Rev. William Unwin, he and Mrs. Unwin removed to Olney, where most of Cowper’s poems were written, and afterward to Weston, where Mrs. Unwin died in 1796. Cowper survived her four years, dying on April 25th, 1800.

At Olney, Cowper lived in seclusion, amusing himself with his garden and greenhouse, raising pineapples, mending windows, writing, reading, and playing with his pets. The chief of them were his three hares, Puss, Tiny, and Bess, which formed the topic of an essay in the Gentleman’s Magazine for June, 1784. It is this simple parlor at Olney which Cowper describes in ‘The Task,’ where he says:—

  • “Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
  • Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
  • And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
  • Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
  • That cheer, but not inebriate, wait on each,
  • So let us welcome peaceful evening in.”
  • In this retreat from the haunts of the worldly, whom he deemed so trivial and sinful, the poet found happiness in watching the flickering fire and listening to the wild blasts of winter that swept the panes with swirling snow. Here he sat in his easy-chair, while the dog dozed at his feet, the hares gamboled, and the linnets twittered until silenced by a quaint bit of music on the harpsichord. Cowper would twine “silken thread round ivory reels,” wind crewels, or read aloud to his two devoted companions as they knitted, or

  • “—the well-depicted flower
  • Wrought patiently into the snowy lawn.”
  • The one, Mrs. Unwin, was somewhat prim and puritanical; the other, Lady Austen, a handsome woman of the world, was gay and vivacious, and banished Cowper’s dark moods by her grace and charm. To dispel his morbid fancies she told him the old story of the London citizen riding to Edmonton, which, says Hazlitt, “has perhaps given as much pleasure to as many people as anything of the same length that ever was written.”

    “Lady Austen,” says his biographer Wright, “seeing his face brighten, and delighted with her success, wound up the story with all the skill at her command. Cowper could no longer control himself, but burst out into a loud and hearty peal of laughter. The ladies joined in his mirth, and the merriment had scarcely subsided by supper-time. The story made such an impression on his mind that at night he could not sleep; and his thoughts having taken the form of rhyme, he sprang from his bed and committed them to paper, and in the morning brought down to Mrs. Unwin the crude outline of ‘John Gilpin.’ All that day and for several days he secluded himself in the greenhouse, and went on with the task of polishing and improving what he had written. As he filled his slips of paper, he sent them across the market-place to Mr. Wilson, to the great delight and merriment of that jocular barber, who on several other occasions had been favored with the first sight of some of Cowper’s smaller poems.”

    The portrait of John Gilpin was taken from John Beyer, a linen-draper who lived at No. 3 Cheapside. ‘John Gilpin’ was published anonymously in the Public Advertiser, and was received with enthusiasm. Printed as a ballad, copies of it, with pictures of John Gilpin flying past the “Bell” at Edmonton, were sold by hundreds; but Cowper did not acknowledge the poem until 1785, when he brought out ‘The Task.’

    This was also suggested by Lady Austen, who asked him to write something in blank verse. Cowper replied that he lacked a subject. “Subject—nonsense!” she said: “you can write on anything. Take this sofa for a subject.” Following her command, the poet named the first book of ‘The Task’ ‘The Sofa.’ She suggested also the verses on ‘The Loss of the Royal George.’

    At Weston Cowper appears to have enjoyed the society of the county-side. His companions here were Puss, the last surviving hare, and the Spaniel Beau, “a spotted liver-color and white, or rather a chestnut” dog, the subject of several poems.

    Cowper never married. His attachment to Theodora—the “Delia” of his verses—the daughter of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, lasted through his life, and her sister, Lady Hesketh, was one of his kindest and best friends. It was she who made for him those peculiar muslin caps which he wears in his portraits. Many short poems addressed to her attest his affection and gratitude for her friendship and ministrations, and to Mrs. Unwin belong the verses and the sonnet inscribed ‘To Mary.’

    Lives of Cowper are numerous. His old friend, John Newton, attempted one immediately after his death, but this was not completed; and the first to appear was a life by Hayley (1803–6), extended in the ‘Life and Letters of Cowper,’ by T. S. Grimshawe (1835). There are also Cowper’s own ‘Memoirs’ (a description of his mental derangement and religious experiences), published in 1816; ‘Life and Letters of Cowper’ by Southey in 1835; and two books by T. Wright, ‘The Town of Cowper’ (1886); and ‘Life of Cowper’ (1892). An interesting biography has also been written by Goldwin Smith, in the series of ‘English Men of Letters,’ in which he says:—

  • “In all his social judgments Cowper is at a wrong point of view. He is always deluded by the idol of his cave. He writes perpetually on the two-fold assumption that a life of retirement is more favorable to virtue than a life of action, and that ‘God made the country and man made the town.’… His flight from the world was rendered necessary by his malady and respectable by his literary work; but it was a flight and not a victory. His misconception was fostered and partly produced by a religion which was essentially ascetic, and which, while it gave birth to characters of the highest and most energetic beneficence, represented salvation too little as the reward of effort, too much as the reward of passion, belief, and of spiritual emotion.”
  • Yet despite this gloom, Cowper possessed the humor which finds admirable expression in many small poems, in ‘John Gilpin’ and in his ‘Letters.’ These are the real mirror of his life. Southey considers his letters the most delightful in the language. They contain nothing but the details of his daily life, and such happenings as the flowering of pinks, the singing of birds in the apple-blossoms, the falling of the dew on the grass under his window, the pranks of his pets, the tricks of the Spaniel Beau, the frolics of the tortoise-shell kitten, the flight of his favorite hare, and the excitements of a morning walk when the once nodding grass is “fledged with icy feathers.” Their English is so easy and graceful, and their humor so spontaneous, that the reader feels a sense of friendship with the modest poet of ‘The Task,’ who, despite his platitudes, wins a certain respectful admiration.