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William Cowper, 1731-1800

by Edwin F. Hatfield

William CowperFor many precious lyrics, the Christian world is indebted to William Cowper, the author of "The Task," and one of the most gifted of the British poets. His father, the Rev. John Cowper, D.D., chaplain to George II, was the son of Spencer Cowper, one of the Judges of the Court of Common Pleas, and the nephew of William, the first Earl Cowper and Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain. The poet's father had, also, a second brother, Ashley, and an only sister, Judith. Ashley Cowper had three daughters, one of whom, Theodora Jane, but for her father's dissent, would have been the poet's wife. Another daughter, Harriet, married Sir Robert Hesketh, and is the "Lady Hesketh" of the poet's correspondence. His father's sister, Judith, married Col. Martin Madan, and was the mother of the Rev. Martin Madan, of London, whose collection of Hymns (1760) was quite popular among the Evangelicals of that period. Her daughter, Miss Madan, an endeared correspondent of the poet, married her cousin, Major William Cowper, the only son of her uncle William.

William Cowper, the poet, was born November 15, 1731, at Great Berkhampstead, of which parish his father was the highly respected Rector. His mother was Anne, daughter of Roger Donne, Esq., of Ludham Hall, Norfolkshire, and was a descendant, by four separate lines, of Henry III. This fact gives force to those memorable lines that were inspired in after years by a sight of his excellent mother's portrait:

"My boast is not that I deduce my birth
From loins enthroned and rulers of the earth;
But higher far my proud pretensions rise,—
The son of parents passed into the skies."

She was born in 1703 and died in 1737, when William was only six years old; a lovely, Christian woman,

..."in early years bereft of life,
The best of mothers, and the kindest wife;
Who neither knew nor practiced any art,
Secure in all she wished—her husband's heart."

At his mother's death, he was sent to Dr. Pitman's school, in the hamlet of Market Street, eight or ten miles northeast from home. Here he remained two years, when, on account of an alarming affection of his eyes, he was placed under the care of an eminent female oculist in London. In his tenth year, he was sent to Westminster school,

"When Nichol swung the birch and twined the hays."

During his pupilage here of eight years, he gained that perfection in Greek, that, in later days, made him so skillful an interpreter of Homer. But his spiritual training was sadly neglected in a school, where he was taught

..."much mythologic stuff,
But sound religion sparingly enough:"—
"No nourishment to feed his growing mind,
But conjugated verbs, and nouns declined."

He was destined for the law, with ample promise, through family connections, of brilliant success. Accordingly, in 1749, he was articled to Mr. Chapman, a solicitor, and became a member of his household. Edward Thurlow, afterwards Lord Chancellor, was his associate in study at Lincoln's Inn. Much of his spare time and the most of his Sundays he spent, with Thurlow, at his uncle Ashley Cowper's, in Southampton Row, in the society of his fair cousins.

Three years later he took chambers in the Middle Temple, and June 14, 1754, was admitted to the bar. In 1756, he was deprived of his father by death. Appointed Commissioner of Bankrupts in 1759, he purchased Chambers in the Inner Temple. Twelve years he spent among the Templars, whom he describes as "citizen courtiers,"—"beaux, wits, poets, critics, and every character in the gay world." He seems to have led all this while an idle sort of life, contributing now and then a brief article to a magazine, occasionally composing for amusement a few verses in the form of a translation or as an ode on some fanciful subject, but giving no great attention to his profession.

The reading clerkship, and the clerkship of the Committees, of the House of Lords, became vacant in 1763. They were at the disposal of his cousin, Major William Cowper, and were offered to the barrister. He accepted them at once; but, on reflection, was so overpowered by extreme and morbid diffidence, as to relinquish the two offices in favor of the less lucrative clerkship of the journals. It was necessary for him to pass an examination, for which he began preparation, but even this overcame him; his reason was overthrown, and several suicidal attempts, happily frustrated, compelled his removal, December 7, 1763, to the Asylum of the accomplished Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, at St. Alban's.

Under the judicious treatment of Dr. Cotton, he emerged, at the end of eight months, from the deep gloom of despair and horror, into the light and liberty of the Gospel. His reason was restored, and he began a new life. His stay at the Asylum was prolonged until June 1765, when he removed to Huntingdon, to be near his brother John, then in the University of Cambridge. Here he casually formed an acquaintance with the family of the Rev. Morley Unwin, teacher of a classical school. They were greatly attracted by his "most intelligent and engaging countenance," his "well-proportioned figure," and his "elegant manners." They received him as a boarder, and made him one of their family. To this period is to be referred the composition of that sweet hymn,

"Far from the world, O Lord! I flee," etc.

Mr. Unwin died suddenly, in July 1767. The Rev. John Newton was, at this time, Curate of Olney. At his suggestion, on the occasion of a visit of sympathy, Mrs. Unwin, with her son and daughter, removed to Olney, and Cowper accompanied them. They took a house, the garden of which was separated from Mr. Newton's only by a wall, through which a gateway gave them easy communication. Here, from September 1767 until November 1786, Cowper found a delightful home.

His only brother, John, died in March 1770, and the affliction brought on a return of Cowper's malady. He lost his wonted cheerfulness, and relapsed gradually into a state of despondency. To divert his mind and to arrest the progress of the threatened insanity, Mr. Newton, with whom Cowper lived on terms of the most delightful intimacy, proposed to him the joint preparation of a book of evangelical hymns. He had already written several, be­sides the one just named. His hymn, beginning with

"Jesus I where'er thy people meet,"

had been written the year before (1769), to be sung at the opening of a new place for public prayer at Olney, the large room of "The Great House." Cowper complied with the invitation, and, at various times within the next two years, he composed (with those he had already written) sixty-six hymns, distinguished by the letter "C" prefixed, in the Olney Hymns. That much admired production,

"God moves in a mysterious way," etc.,

was written, at the close of 1772, "in the twilight of departing reason," just after an abortive attempt, it is said, at self-destruction. He now sunk into an apparently hopeless state of gloom and wretched despondency, that continued, without a ray of sunshine, for five long years. Newton, having waited all this while for the recovery of his friend, put the hymn-book to press in 1779, as the Olney Hymns, a name by which it has become widely known in Great Britain and America.

His malady began to abate in 1778, and, gradually but slowly, he was restored to reason, hope, and peace. Newton, at the close of the next year, removed to London, not, however, before introducing to Cowper the Rev. William Bull, a dissenting minister of the adjacent town of New­port-Pagnell, and a man of congenial spirit. The next year, Cowper had so far recovered the tone of his mind, as to undertake the composition of several poems of considerable length. Within the next two years, he wrote "The Progress of Error," "Truth," "Expostulation," "Hope," "Charity," "Conversation," and "Retirement," moral satires that still retain their popularity. They were published at London (1782) by Johnson, Newton's publisher. At the suggestion of his greatly-endeared friend, the Rev. Mr. Bull, he translated (October 1782) several of the hymns of Madame Guyon. The translations were published in 1801, among them the two hymns,

"My Lord! how full of sweet content," etc.,
"O Lord! in sorrow I resign," etc.

A mile from Olney, at Clifton, resided the Rev. Mr. Jones, whose wife's sister had married Sir Robert Austen, Bart. Sir Robert had died, and his widow, Lady Austen, resided with her sister, Mrs. Jones. In 1781, she became a visitor at the humble abode of Mrs. Unwin. The next year, she took a house at Olney, and became an almost constant visitant at Mrs. Unwin's, adding greatly, by her vivacity and fascination of manner, to the comfort and happiness of the invalid poet. "John Gilpin" was inspired by one of her playful stories; and, at her suggestion, "The Task" was undertaken in 1783, furnishing the poet with pleasant employment for a year or two. Its publication in 1785 was a complete success, and gave him, at once, an undisputed place among the first and best poets of the age. It was followed the next year by his "Tirocinium: or a Review of Schools."

It was also at the suggestion of Lady Austen that, in 1784, he began his translations of Homer, affording him abundant occupation, the remainder of his rational life. Mrs. Unwin removed, November 1786, to a much more comfortable abode, at Weston Underwood, a mile from Olney, where the poet found himself in the midst of beautiful scenery, and congenial society. But the cloud came over him again, in January following, and rested on him for six months. At the close of the year he resumed his work. In 1790, he translated from the Latin, for Mr. Newton, the Rev. Mr. Lier's Letters, published with the title, "The Power of Grace Illustrated." Homer was completed and published (1791) under flattering auspices,— the edition paying him one thousand pounds. Not entirely satisfied with the performance, he commenced (1792) a revision of the entire work, on which he was occupied, much of the time, until his decease. It was published in 1802.

The few remaining years of Cowper were sad enough. Deeper and deeper fell the shadows, with intervals—growing shorter and fewer—of glimmering light. He undertook to prepare an edition of Milton for the press, but did not complete the work. In 1792, he made a journey to Eartham, in Sussex, the residence of his friend, William Hayley. On his return, the malady increased, so that, in January 1794, it took complete possession of his faculties. A literary pension of £300 was granted him (May 1794), by the crown.

At the urgent solicitation of his maternal cousin, the Rev. John Johnson, he removed with Mrs. Unwin, August 1795, to Norfolkshire, where, at North Tuddenham, Mundesley, and East Dereham, he was entertained by his mother's relatives. At Dunham Lodge, Swaffham, he remained about a year, when in October 1796, he removed to Mr. Johnson's home at Dereham. Mrs. Unwin died December 17th following. Cowper so far recovered as to occupy much time, the next two years, with the revision of Homer, and the translation of Gay's Fables. In March 1799, he wrote "The Castaway," his last poetic composition. The next autumn and winter he failed rapidly. Dropsy ensued, and April 25, 1800, he quietly passed away. His remains were laid to rest, May 2d, in St. Edmund's Chapel, St. Nicholas Church, East Dereham. A marble slab now covers the spot, on which is carved the following inscription, written by his friend Hayley:

"In Memory of WILLIAM COWPER, Esq.: Born in Hertfordshire, 1731. Buried in this Church, 1800:

"Ye, who with warmth the public triumph feel,
Of talents dignified by sacred zeal,
Here, to Devotion's bard, devoutly just,
Pay your fond tribute, due to Cowper's dust!
England, exulting in his spotless fame,
Ranks with her dearest sons his favorite name.
Sense, fancy, wit, suffice not all to raise
So clear a title to affection's praise:
His highest honors to the heart belong;
His virtues formed the magic of his song."

So lived and wrote, suffered and died, one of the loveliest and most accomplished Christian gentlemen of his age; "the most popular poet of his generation," as Southey, his biographer, declares, "and the best of English letter-writ­ers." "The popularity of Cowper," says Dibdin, "gains strength as it gains age; and, after all, he is the poet of our study, our cabinet, and our alcove." Precious is his memory to every lover of sacred song.

From The Poets of the Church... by Edwin F. Hatfield. New York: A.D.F. Randolph & Co., c1884.

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