William Cowper : Contribution to Poetry

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      William Cowper (1731-1800) : was born at Great Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, where his father was rector. He was to have been a barrister, and was actually called to the Bar (1754), but a great and morbid timidity of disposition, which increased till it became religious and suicidal mania, hampered him cruelly through life. Family influence obtained for him the offer of a good post on the clerical staff of the House of Lords, but his extreme shyness made him quite unfit for this semi-public appointment. The consequent disappointment disordered his wits, and he attempted suicide, but was fortunately prevented. The latter part of his life was spent chiefly at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, where his good friends the Unwins treated him with great kindness and good sense. His feeling of gratitude for their care, expressed or implicit in many of his poems and letters, is one of the most touching features in the literature of the time. This comparatively happy state of affairs did not last till the end, for the years immediately preceding his death were much clouded with extreme mental and bodily affliction.

Cowper's poems were produced late in life, but in bulk the work is large. It is curiously mixed and attractive in its nature.
William Cowper

      Cowper's poems were produced late in life, but in bulk the work is large. It is curiously mixed and attractive in its nature. His first published work was a number of hymns contributed to the Olney Hymns (1779). They are notable for their direct sincerity, and several of them are still among the best known of English hymns. Among them are: Oh! for a closer walk with God; Hark, my soul! it is the Lord; and God moves in a mysterious way: His Poems (1782) contains little that is noteworthy. The bulk of it is taken up with a collection of satirical set pieces in heroic couplets, quite in the usual manner, on such subjects as The Progress of Error, Truth, Hope, and Charity. At the very end of the volume a few miscellaneous short pieces are more encouraging as novelties.

      One of them is the well-known poem containing the reflections of Alexander Selkirk ("I am monarch of all I survey"). His next work is The Task (1785), a long poem in blank verse, dealing with simple and familiar themes and containing many fine descriptions of country scenes. In places the style is marked by the prevailing artificial tricks, and as a whole the poem is seldom inspired with any deep or passionate feeling; but his observation is acute and humane, it includes the homeliest detail within its kindly scope, and he gives us real nature, like Thomson in The Seasons. At the end of this volume the ballad of John Gilpin finds a place. It is an excellent example of Cowper's prim but sprightly humour, an extraordinary gift for a man of his morbid temperament. Other short poems were added to later editions of his first volume. These include the Epitaph on a Hare, curiously and touchingly pathetic; lines On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture, which reveal only too painfully the suppressed convulsions of grief and longing that were stirred within him by memories of the past; and The Castaway, written in a lucid interval just before the end, and sounding like the wail of a damned spirit. The poem gives a tragic finality to his life. It describes the doom of a poor wretch swept overboard in a storm, and concludes.

      Cowper's letters, private epistles addressed to various personal friends, are among the most delightful of their kind. They show the man at his best-almost jovial in a delicate fashion, keenly observant, and with a genuine gift for narrative. The style is so clear that the disposition of the writer shines through it with unruffled benignity.

      Cowper's work is of considerable significance in the movement from the classical to the romantic tradition. The simple sincerity with which he expressed his love of the details of homely life, his accurate and realistic description of natural landscapes, and the warm, yet gentle, humanity which led him to support and love the underdog, all foreshadow Wordsworth, though he lacks the latter's burning faith and depth of vision. His lyric gift, all too rarely seen among the great quantities of his didactic and satirical verse, was another quality which linked him with the age that was to come, rather than with that which was passing away.

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