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William Cowper

1731-1800. English poet. Educated at Westminster School and thereafter articled to a solicitor, he suffered throughout his life from fits of depression which more than once developed into mania. From 1765 he was cared for by Mary Unwin, who until her death in 1796 did much to keep Cowper serene and happy. At her suggestion he wrote his generally mild satiric poems (“Table Talk,” “The Progress of Error,” “Truth,” “Expostulation,” “Hope,” “Charity,” “Conversation,” and “Retirement”), published in 1782. This work was followed by the discursive poem, The Task (1784), and Cowper later translated Homer (1791). His earliest publication, however, was the collection of hymns written in collaboration with John Newton,* under the title Olney Hymns (1779). Cowper's contributions were written mainly around 1771-72 and included “O for a closer walk with God,” “God moves in a mysterious way,” and “Hark, my soul! it is the Lord,” as well as the controversial but at the same time deeply moving “There is a fountain fill'd with blood.”

The 1782 poems are more didactic than satiric and, allowing for a certain narrowness, they provide a good poetical survey of Evangelical doctrines. Lines 258-278 of “Truth,” for instance, give a masterly summary of the experience of conviction. The narrowness expresses itself in a negative asceticism, what Norman Nicholson has called an “instinctive distrust of certain types of pleasure” and an occasional but also virulent anti- intellectualism. The most moving expressions of his faith, however, are those which relate to his intense feeling of his own predetermined damnation, whether it be in the passage in The Task (III. 108ff.), describing himself as “a stricken deer,” or in his last terrible poem “The Castaway.”

See Norman Nicholson, William Cowper (1951).

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