William Cowper

William Cowper (kōō´pər, kou´–), 1731–1800, English poet. Physically and emotionally unfit for the professional life, he was admitted to the bar but never practiced. After a battle with insanity, Cowper retired to the country, taking refuge with the family of Mrs. Mary Unwin, whose life-long devotion to him he celebrates in "To Mary." Most of his country life was spent at Olney, where he met John Newton, the ardent evangelical preacher. He contributed to Newton's Olney Hymns (1779) several poems, including the two commencing "Oh for a closer walk with God" and "God moves in a mysterious way." His hymns, while expressing the hope of the new humanitarian religious revival, often gave way to religious despair and self-distrust. After Newton left Olney, Cowper, having recovered from another period of insanity, turned to writing about simple homely subjects, producing his famous long poem, The Task (1785). Its descriptions of the sights and sounds of country life foreshadowed 19th-century romanticism. Cowper's sweet-tempered, playful moods found a way into many of his poems, the most notable being "The Diverting History of John Gilpin." He also made a relatively unsuccessful translation of Homer (1791). After the death of Mrs. Unwin in 1796, his old malady returned, and he wrote little except the anguished poem, "The Castaway." His letters are considered among the most brilliant in English literature.

See his verse and letters selected by B. Spiller (1968); letters and prose writings (ed. by J. King and C. Ryskamp, 5 vol., 1979–86); biographies by D. Cecil (1947) and J. King (1986); studies by J. A. Roy (1914, repr. 1972) and V. Newey (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

William Cowper: Selected full-text books and articles

William Cowper, a Critical Life By Maurice J. Quinlan University of Minnesota Press, 1953
Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature By Donald Davie Carcanet, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 16 "The Critical Principles of William Cowper"
A Critical History of English Poetry By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith Oxford University Press, 1946
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Eighteen "Cowper"
The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin By Fiona J. Stafford Clarendon Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: "'Yardley Oak:' William Cowper and the Last of the Race" begins on p. 122
The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England By D. Bruce Hindmarsh Oxford University Press, 2005
Librarian’s tip: "William Cowper: Descent into Hell" begins on p. 270
The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study By J. R. Watson Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Olney Hymns" begins on p. 282
A Literary History of England By Albert C. Baugh Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948
Librarian’s tip: "Cowper and Burns" begins on p. 1095
The Romantic Conflict By Allan Rodway Chatto & Windus, 1963
Librarian’s tip: "Cowper" begins on p. 98
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