Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. Cowper’s Early Years

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IV. William Cowper

§ 1. Cowper’s Early Years

FEW rivers can be traced to a single source. Water from a hundred fields and woods and springs trickles down, to join in a score of streams, which, in their turn, join to make a river. Yet, there is always a point at which it is just to declare any particular stream to be the upper reach of any particular river. So, in the history of English poetry, no single origin can be shown for the poetry of nature and simplicity which, with Wordsworth, became a mighty river, and which is flowing still. To mention but two poets, Gray and Collins poured their tribute of clear water into the stream. But, with Cowper, we come to the upper reaches, and are able to trace thence, with unbroken continuity, the course of the main stream.

Reformers in poetry probably seldom work with a conscious aim, like social and political reformers. A poet writes in a certain manner because that is the only way in which he can write, or wishes to write, and without foreseeing or calculating the effect of his work. This is especially true of Cowper, who owed more, perhaps, than any English poet to what may be called accident, as distinguished from poetic purpose. He did not, like Milton or Tennyson, dedicate himself to poetry. He did not even write poetry primarily for the sake of writing poetry, but to ward off melancholy by keeping his mind occupied. He liked Milton better than Pope, and was careful to show this preference in his versification; but accident—the bent of his mind and the circumstances of his life—made him the forerunner of a great poetic revival. He drew poetry back to the simple truths of ordinary human nature and the English countryside, because, in the limited outlook on the world which his life allowed him, these were the things that touched him and interested him. Being a man of fine taste, tender feelings and a plain sincerity, he opened the road of truth for the nobler poetic pageants that were to pass along it.

Born in the rectory of Great Berkhampstead, Herts, in November, 1731, and becoming poet in earnest nearly fifty years later, he had, meanwhile, fallen under the influence of thought and sentiment which were beginning to break up the old, rigid and, frequently, brutal order. His family, on the father’s side, had given distinguished men to the law and the church; and, in his boyhood and youth, it seemed not wholly unlikely that he would follow in his ancestors’ paths and take an active part in life. That he was affectionate and tender-hearted we know from the lines he wrote many years later, On the receipt of my Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk. How far the bullying which he suffered at his first school may have twisted the development of his nature, it is impossible to say. He was not unhappy at Westminster, where he numbered among his schoolfellows Edward Lloyd, Charles Churchill, George Colman the elder, Warren Hastings and Elijah Impey. True, in after years, he attacked English public schools in Tirocinium; but it is not certain that, in this matter, his boyish feelings tallied with his riper judgment. From Westminster, he went to the office of a solicitor, to be trained for the law. Thurlow was a student in the same office; and the two young men used to spend much of their time at the house of Cowper’s uncle Ashley Cowper, where the chief attraction lay in the daughters, Theodora and Harriet. So far, there is not any trace of the Cowper of later years, though there are already traces of the poet. He fell in love with his cousin Theodora, and wrote verses to her which are far above the average of young men’s love-poems. The poems to Delia show, already, the directness, the sincerity and the simplicity which were to be the keynotes of his later work, together with the tenderness which has won him admirers among hundreds to whom most poetry seems unreal. In one of these poems, On her endeavouring to conceal her Grief at Parting, occurs the famous verse:

  • Oh! then indulge thy grief, nor fear to tell
  • The gentle source from whence thy sorrows flow;
  • Nor think it weakness when we love to feel,
  • Nor think it weakness what we feel to show.
  • The stanza is completely characteristic of Cowper’s mind and manner. The proposed match with Theodora was forbidden by her father, on the ground of consanguinity. To Cowper, the blow, evidently, was severe. In Absence and Bereavement, he bewails his fate. The concluding lines of this poem:
  • Why all that soothes a heart from anguish free,
  • All that delights the happy, palls with me!
  • suggest strongly the sentiment of a later and finer poem, The Shrubbery:
  • This glassy stream, that spreading pine,
  • Those alders quivering to the breeze,
  • Might soothe a soul less hurt than mine,
  • And please, if anything could please.
  • But fixed unalterable care
  • Foregoes not what she feels within,
  • Shows the same sadness everywhere,
  • And slights the season and the scene.
  • The earlier poem thus seems to foreshadow the melancholy that, afterwards, was to claim the poet. Externally, it is true, there did not appear to be any immediate sign of that melancholy. Cowper bought chambers in the Temple and was called to the bar. Without attempting to practise, he lived the life of a cultivated young man about town, reading Homer and marking the differences between Homer and Pope, writing articles and verses (one or two very popular ballads were among the early works of the author of John Gilpin) and helping his brother John with a translation of Voltaire’s Henriade. Yet, meanwhile, the mischief was growing. He suffered from fits of depression, which, in later life, he believed to have been of religious origin. He found what alleviation he could in the poems of George Herbert; but, when, in his thirty-second year, he was nominated by his uncle Major Cowper to a clerkship in the House of Lords, his depression and his shyness broke into mania, and he tried to kill himself. Thereafter, he was out of the race, but, on that very account, was left the more open to the influences, religious and humane, to which his gentle nature, even in active life, must have been sensible. These were the days of Wesley and Whitefield, of widening hope and freedom in religion; they were, also, the days of Rousseau and his creed of love and brotherhood. Slaves, animals and “common wretches” were perceived to have their rights. Cowper was to become the poet of a religious sect, which, though doubtless narrow and unattractive in itself, had its share in breaking up the spiritual ice of the age. He was to sing with power in the cause of slaves, to make his pet hares and his dog famous and to find in rustics some of his best material for poetry. His sympathies were not wide; but they were on the side of kindness. In politics, he remained “an old whig”; but the French revolution was, to him, “a noble cause,” though made “ridiculous” by the excesses of a “madcap” people.