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

IV. William Cowper

§ 8. Letters

Cowper, though not among the great poets of England, holds a unique place, partly by virtue of the personality which shines in every line of his poetry, partly by virtue of the sincerity and simplicity which, “keeping its eye on the object,” saw beauty and consolation in common things, till then neglected, but eagerly seized upon by his successors and transformed into material for their profoundest and noblest art. There is another field in which he holds still a unique position—the field of letter-writing. It seems an error to speak, in connection with Cowper, of the art of letter-writing. If art implies the consideration of their effect upon the public, no letters were ever written with less art. In a letter to William Unwin, Cowper says:

  • It is possible I might have indulged myself in the pleasure of writing to you, without waiting for a letter from you, but for a reason which you will not easily guess. Your mother communicated to me the satisfaction you expressed in my correspondence, that you thought me entertaining and clever, and so forth:—now you must know, I love praise dearly, especially from the judicious, and those who have so much delicacy themselves as not to offend mine in giving it. But then, I found this consequence attending, or likely to attend the eulogium you bestowed;—if my friend thought me witty before, he shall think me ten times more witty hereafter;—where I joked once, I will joke five times and for one sensible remark I will send him a dozen. Now this foolish vanity would have spoiled me quite, and would have made me as disgusting a letter-writer as Pope, who seems to have thought that unless a sentence was well turned, and every period pointed with some conceit, it was not worth the carriage. Accordingly he is to me, except in very few instances, the most disagreeable maker of epistles that ever I met with. I was willing, therefore, to wait till the impression your commendation had made upon the foolish part of me was worn off, that I might scribble away as usual, and write my uppermost thoughts, and those only.
  • With the exception of Charles Lamb, all the other great English letter-writers—Gray, Walpole, Pope, Byron—wrote with an eye to the printed collection. Cowper wrote partly for his correspondent, chiefly for himself. His art, in his own phrase, “talking letters.” He chats about anything that happens to be in his mind. If he is suffering from his mental complaint, he writes a letter unmatched for gloom, a letter that envelopes even a modern reader in a black mist of misery. A few pages later, and he is playful, gay, almost jaunty. His mind was so sweet, and his interest in the little details of life so keen, that the most trivial occurrence—a feat in carpentering, a bed of tulips, the visit of a parliamentary candidate—can interest his reader still. Acute reasoning, sound sense, fine judgment fall into their places with whimsical nonsense, hearty laughter and almost boyish affection. He will break off a criticism on Homer to bid Lady Hesketh “give me a great corking pin that I may stick your faith upon my sleeve. There—it is done.” The whole of his nature, gay and gloomy, narrow in opinion and wide in sympathy, ever fixed on heavenly things and ever keenly alive to mundane things, is preserved for us in these inimitably vivid letters; and the same taste and scholarship which give point and permanence even to his least elaborated poems have won for these naïve examples of transparent self-revelation an undying value. The more they are read, the better will Cowper be understood and loved.