William Cowper, an English poet, born at Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, Nov. 15, O. S. (26, N. S.), 1731, died at East Dereham, Norfolk, April 25, 1800. His father was one of the chaplains to George II. and nephew to the lord chancellor Cowper, and rector of the parish where the poet was born. His mother died when he was but six years of age, and the touching lines in which he recalls her memory show the deep impression she had left on his mind. His health was insecure, and he was for two years under the care of an oculist. At the school in his native town, and afterward at Westminster, his extreme timidity exposed him to the tyranny of older and stronger boys. At 18 he began to study law, and was admitted to the bar in 1754, but his chief attention was given to literature and society. He formed an attachment for his cousin Theodora Cowper, sister of Lady Hesketh; but their union was forbidden by her father, first for prudential reasons, and then because of their consanguinity. In 1763 he was appointed reading clerk to the committees of the house of lords, but his morbid timidity made him shrink from appearing before the lords, and in his excitement he sought to commit suicide.
He soon became actually insane, and was removed to an asylum, and during the remainder of his life was subject to returns of mental alienation. He fancied himself destined to eternal woe, and shunned the society of his kindred to find relief among strangers. His relatives, however, watched over him and provided for his support. His reason returned in 1765, and he went from the asylum to Huntingdon, where he met the Unwin family and became a lodger in their house. In 1767 Mr. Unwin died suddenly, and Cowper removed with the widow to Olney in Buckinghamshire, attracted by the residence there of the Rev. John Newton. Here he passed many years, occupied with religious exercises and charities. Olney is a damp, sickly place, and doubtless aggravated Cowper's morbid peculiarities, and he suffered returns of insanity from 1773 to 1776. Lady Austen turned his attention to poetry, and Mrs. Unwin suggested to him several subjects for poems. He contributed 68 hymns to a collection made by Newton, called the "Olney Hymns;" and in 1782, when he was 50 years of age, he published his first volume. It was tolerably well received; but the ballad of "John Gilpin," which he wrote from a story told him by Lady Austen, gave him a wide renown.
The ballad had been published anonymously, and lay for three years neglected until suddenly it caught the attention of the public. It was read to crowded audiences in London by Henderson the actor, and one publisher alone sold 6,000 copies of a print of John Gilpin on his famous ride. Lady Austen next suggested to him, as a task, that he should write some verses about a sofa, and what might be seen from it; whence the title of his longest original poem, "The Task," which was published in 1785, and gained general popularity. He next translated Homer in blank verse, and published it by subscription in 1791. He undertook a new edition of Milton, with translations of the Latin and Italian poems; but the condition of his mind prevented him from completing this work. His faithful friend Mrs. Unwin having become paralytic, his cousin Lady Hesketh came to take charge of his household; but in 1795 he removed from Olney with Mrs. Unwin to the house of his relative the Rev. Mr. Johnson, at Tuddenham, and finally to East Dereham. A pension of £300 had been settled upon him by the king, chiefly through the active solicitations of the poet Hayley; but Cowper when it was announced to him showed no marks of pleasure.
In 1796 Mrs. Unwin died; the poet, it is said, looked in silent agony upon her corpse, and then turned away and never afterward mentioned her name. A slight recovery of his mental powers enabled him in 1799 to revise his Homer, and to write his last poem, "The Castaway," a picture of his own sad fate; but he died of dropsy in the spring of the following year. - Cowper's writings are original, truthful, and striking. In poetry he was one of the first to break away from the despotism of Pope and invent an original rhythm. He is never melodious, but always natural and at his ease. He loved nature, flowers, animals, and rural life, and paints scenery with great power. His descriptions are sometimes coarse, but always clear and effective. The moral teaching of his poetry is high, and he strove to force upon his material age the noblest conceptions of the spiritual and the divine. With this religious turn of thought he joined humor and forcible satire. He translated Homer with more accuracy than Pope, but with less elegance. His prose is excellent, and his letters are not surpassed by any in the language. Here, in his happier moods, all is playful humor, ease, gayety, simplicity, and wisdom. His mind seems to break from its clouds into moments of perfect sunshine.
In character he was pure, his disposition amiable; he gained the love and respect of gifted men and virtuous accomplished women; he was charitable and active in doing good, tender and confiding to his friends, and capable of unchanging affection. So good a man might well have looked for happiness both here and hereafter; but it was Cowper's singular fate to pass a lifetime in despair. Hope was an impulse he never knew or never ventured to indulge. His appearance was intellectual and well bred, his manner pleasing, and his whole life that of a tasteful recluse. He cultivated flowers, and watched with interest the progress of his garden. He petted tame leverets and immortalized them in verse. He was careful of his dress, and, though shy of strangers, took pleasure in a narrow circle of well bred intelligent associates. His clouded mind, his mental agonies, and his generous kindly nature, endeared him to his friends, who loved, pitied, and admired him. - The life of Cowper was first written by William Hayley, for an edition of his posthumous writings (Chichester, 1803-'6). It has also been written by Thomas Taylor (London, 1833); by the Rev. T. S. Grimshawe for an edition of his works and correspondence (London, 1835); by Robert Southey, for a complete edition of his works (London, 1838); by H. F. Cary, for an edition of his poems, including his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey (London, 1839); and by Sir Harris Nicolas, for an Aldine edition of his poems (London, 1843). Southey's biography and edition are much the best, and have been republished, with additional letters, in Bonn's "Standard Library," in 8 vols.