(pronounced ‘Cooper’), b Great Berkhamsted, Herts 1731, d East Dereham, Norfolk 1800. Permanently affected by the loss of his mother in childhood, at 6 he was sent to boarding sch at nearby Markyate, then to Westminster Sch. Although he was bullied, he enjoyed most kinds of sport and his gift for comic verse appeared early—always gentle rather than savage. Articled to an attorney, he was called to the bar in 1754 but never practised in the legal profession. He was recommended for the post of Clerk to the Journals of the House of Lords, but suffered panic attacks at the thought of being publicly examined, acute shyness merging into despair and leading to his first attempt at suicide. A possible marriage to cousin Theodora was vetoed by her family; she remained single but fond of him, and almost certainly helped him with anonymous financial gifts for many years. Support in other ways came from his brother John, later to be ordained, and the hymnwriter and editor Martin Madan. He found respite in an asylum (‘Collegium Insanorum’) at St Albans run by the evangelical Dr Nathanael Cotton ( 1707–88, the same dates as C Wesley, some of whose own hymns might easily speak for Cowper). During his time there (in 1764) he readily testified to gaining a clear view of God’s grace from Rom 3:25; he then moved to Huntingdon to settle with Morley and Mary Unwin and their teenage children at the vicarage. But in 1767 Morley, the vicar, died from the severe injuries sustained when he was thrown from his horse. The household found a congenial evangelical friend in John Newton (qv) and moved to Olney to become his neighbours and parishioners, coming to value his preaching, his warm friendship and eventually an unlikely writing partnership.
William became affectionately known in the village as ‘Sir Cowper’, a lover of the still rural scenery and of ‘all creatures, great and small’ including the tame hares which had the run of his house. In 1773 he had a further breakdown; Newton planned what became the Olney Hymns as a means of praising God, teaching his growing midweek congregation, and also of lifting his friend from depression by a practical project well within his great abilities and close to his heart. Cowper’s contributions, many of which have featured in major hymn-collections ever since, come mainly in the early sections and are marked ‘C’. These were published in 1779; soon after which (1782, 1785) his two main volumes of poems including satires appeared, which confirmed his position in the literary world. After Newton was appointed to his London living in 1780, Cowper, Mrs Unwin and remaining household moved a mile of so to Weston Underwood, At one point William and Mary seemed set for marriage but again the poet’s nerves failed him, and while she had cared for him, in her own final illness the roles were reversed. His poem ‘To Mary’ is a poignant memorial of that warm but interrupted friendship. But Cowper would soon need further support, which after her death in 1796 he found notably in (the Rev) John Johnson; Cowper’s last 4 years were spent at East Dereham, Norfolk, in whose parish ch are some notable memorials. Sadly, gloom descended on his mind for some time before the end.
But his legacy, sacred and secular, remains; he is one of a small handful of major poets to feature in hymn-books, and of an even smaller group of those who set out to write hymns. Among the less-known are some translations, not published till 1801, from the French of the ‘quietist’ Madame Guyon (1648–1717). Although many of his hymns are deeply personal, several remain as standard hymns in mainstream books: The 1965 Anglican Hymn Book has 9 and Common Worship (2000) 5, while CH 2004 includes 10. He declined the post of Poet Laureate, but his long poem in 6 books The Task (1785), beginning ‘I sing the sofa…’, enjoyed great success; its lines on the evangelical preacher (‘I say the pulpit…Must stand acknowledged, while the world shall stand’) are almost unique in serious literature, in celebrating such a ministry without caricature, ridicule or contempt. He translated from Lat and Gk (but not hymns); among his lighter verse John Gilpin (1782) has remained a favourite and even Bernard Shaw loved it. Cowper also wrote eloquently against the slave trade, in support of Wilberforce, and (from experience) against public schools. His spiritual struggles have been compared with those of the youthful Bunyan (whose The Pilgrim’s Progress sometimes finds an echo in Cowper’s hymns), and his ‘pre-romantic’ verse to that of James Thompson and Wordsworth. He finds a place in virtually all representative collections of English verse; the 1972 ‘New Oxford’ book typically features 6 items including his most quoted hymn (256) and the despairing but still finely-written ‘The castaway’, ‘Obscurest night involved the sky’. These are 2 of the more meagre 3 items in its 1999 successor. Among the many studies of the man and his work, the more reliable ones are by those who share or at least understand his faith, including major work by George M Ella (William Cowper: Poet of Paradise, 1993) and more briefly by Elsie Houghton (1982), Faith Cook (2005), and the Day One ‘Travel Guide’ by Paul Williams (2007). The popular durability of Cowper’s verse has again been demonstrated in the 21st century in public recitals by the ‘poetry performer’ Lance Pierson; see also under G Herbert. The former Olney vicarage now houses the Newton and Cowper Museum. Nos.256, 444, 562, 609, 615, 680, 811, 876.