A life in light & dark: Berkhamsted poet William Cowper
PUBLISHED: 13:00 21 November 2017
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He may not be so well known today, but Berkhamsted-born poet William Cowper was a literary giant of the 18th century. Stephen Roberts looks at the brilliant and troubled mind of the poet and hymnodist
Being a writer, I’m especially interested in wordsmiths who’ve preceded me, and particularly those who misplaced their marbles - in case there are warning signs to be heeded. Hertfordshire’s William Cowper, pronounced ‘Cooper’, was a case in point. One of the most popular poets of his generation – more than 100 editions of his poems were published in Britain in his lifetime – and described by Coleridge as ‘the best modern poet’, he would, nevertheless, suffer bouts of severe mental ill-health.
William’s father, John, was rector of St Peter’s in Berkhamsted from 1722-1756. William was born in the rectory on November 26, 1731 and baptised in his father’s church. If his start sounds solid, his early life was filled with tragedy. He and his brother John were the only two of seven siblings to live past infancy and his mother Ann died in childbirth when William was just six. Things did not improve at school. Education at Aldbury and a place on the Herts-Beds border saw him badly bullied.
After completing his education at Westminster School, adult life began promisingly however and a career as a lawyer beckoned as Cowper took chambers in London’s Middle Temple in 1752, being called to the bar two years later.
His first mental crisis occurred in 1763, when he was in his early 30s. He was offered a clerkship in the House of Lords, requiring an appearance at the bar of the Lords and a test of his suitability. The pressure affected him badly and he attempted to take his own life with poison. His attempt led to an 18-month stay at Nathaniel Cotton’s private Collegium Insanorum in St Albans. Unlike many asylums of the time, his treatment here was progressive.
‘I was not only treated with kindness by him when I was ill, and attended with utmost diligence, but when my reason was restored to me, and I had so much need of a religious friend to converse with, to whom I could open my mind upon the subject without reserve, I could hardly have found a fitter person.’
After his recovery he was received into the household of retired clergyman Morley Unwin and his wife Mary, who took the young man under their wing in their Huntingdon home. After Morley died in a riding accident in 1767 his widow removed to Olney in Bucks. Mary would be a port in a storm to Cowper throughout her life.
The market town’s curate was to be a major influence on the poet. John Newton – the former slave ship captain turned Anglican cleric who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace about his conversion – was a pious but rather gloomy individual, who while inspiring Cowper, seems to have been just what the doctor didn’t order in terms of maintaining his equilibrium.
In 1773, a decade after his initial malady, Cowper’s melancholia and a conviction that he was damned to hell took hold. One sad consequence was an engagement to Mary Unwin being called off.
The association with Newton was a productive one though. The two men collaborated on the Olney Hymns (1779), Cowper contributing a series of congregational hymns, still popular today. He also created idioms including ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ from his poem Light Shining Out of Darkness:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm
In the same year as the Hymns, Newton went to minister in London, offering Cowper much-needed relief from the negativity (his mood much improved).
Mary Unwin continued to support Cowper and suggested he write a series of moral satires, which were duly published in 1782, along with other pieces, all showing a lighter side to his creativity. This is shown in The Diverting History of John Gilpin, a comic ballad about a draper riding a runaway horse through Hertfordshire. Illustrations by Randolph Caldecott capture the amusement, such as a riotous image featuring Gilpin flying past a Ware signpost.
Cowper was better known however as an evangelical poet. Reflecting the widespread Evangelical sentiment of the time, he was a believer in intense ‘awakenings’ of Christian religious fervour as a solution to life’s often brutal treatment. Influenced by Newton, he also preached the need for social reform and supported the Abolitionist Campaign against slavery. His The Negro’s Complaint of 1788 still had resonance in the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr quoted from it during the American civil rights movement.
A brief (three-year) but important influence on Cowper’s work was the widow Lady Ann Austen, who appeared in his life in 1781, resident in Newton’s vicarage. The result of her encouragement was The Task: A Poem, in six books (1785). Considered by many to be Cowper’s greatest work, it is a wide-ranging piece celebrating nature and the power of religion to ‘enoble man’ (as Burns said of it) with attacks on slavery and blood sports. It begins, somewhat bizarrely, with the origin story of the sofa. To write about an item of furniture was the challenge set by Lady Ann, or the ‘task’ of the poem’s title. The work then takes flight ‘pursuing the train of thought to which his situation and turn of mind led him’, as Cowper said of himself.
Its conversational, non formulaic style was revolutionary. As the poet explained:
My raptures are not conjured up
To serve occasion of poetic pomp,
The work was praised by King George III, admired by another Austen (Jane), and inspired Wordsworth. Here was a powerful evocation of the everyday elevated to things of wonder. It was unlike anything that had gone before it.
It seems Cowper needed a beneficent female to keep him in the right direction and after Austen it was his cousin Lady Harriett Hesketh who took over the reins of literary support from 1786. This was also about the time Cowper expanded his attentions to make what would become renowned translations of great poets’ works. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey received the treatment (1791) as did Milton (his Latin poems), plus French and Italian works.
Cowper was still in the vanguard of poetry and his Yardley Oak (1791) was a powerful precursor of the Romantic Movement, which commenced in the late 18th century, with its focus on individualism, the natural world, idealism, passion and mysticism. Wordsworth is more famous, but Cowper was there first.
Cowper received a Crown pension in 1794, no doubt in gratitude for his celebration of George III’s recovery from madness five years earlier in his work, Annus Memorabilis. There was undoubtedly empathy from the poet with the king’s condition.
In his seventh decade the poet could still shine with originality. After Mary Unwin’s death in 1796, he wrote Castaway, a wonderful yet tragic piece. He must, indeed, have felt marooned – he had lived with his kindly patron (in separate bedrooms) for nearly 30 years. Another powerful poem about loss, On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture of 1798, was a lament for his mother, who had died more than 60 years before. His own death would not be long coming.
Dependant on the patronage and emotional support of friends, family and even royalty, and battling episodes of insanity, Cowper left a legacy of original, beautiful, at times funny, and politically courageous writing that influenced a generation of poets and helped mould the view of what it is to be English. He died in April 1800 in Norfolk at the age of 68.