William Cowper 1731–1800

  • Ian McGowan
Part of the St. Martin’s Anthologies of English Literature book series (AEL)


The son of a Hertfordshire clergyman, Cowper attended Westminster School alongside the future satirist-cleric, Charles Churchill. Always mentally delicate, he attempted suicide when involved in a dispute over a public appointment: a religious melancholy which led to belief in his own damnation was stayed by a hope of salvation arising from evangelical Christianity. In 1765, he found protection with a clergyman, Mr Unwin, and his wife, Cowper’s spiritual companion until 1796. Further mental attacks and another suicide attempt left him convinced of his own rejection by God. With the evangelical clergyman, John Newton, he had written the Olney Hymns (1779), including ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. Collections of poems in 1782 and 1785 produced satires and the comic tale John Gilpin; he also translated Homer (1791). His long blank verse poem The Task (1785) developed from a work of mental relief into tender description and meditation centred on his quiet rural life. In his writings, charm and humanity contrast sadly with images of destruction or isolation associated with his deeper fears (‘The Castaway’, 1799).


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Nature America Inc. 1989

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  • Ian McGowan

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