COWPER, William, English poet: b. Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, 26 Nov. 1731; d. East Dereham, Norfolk, 25 April 1800. The eldest surviving child of the Rev. John Cowper (pronounced Cooper) and Anne Donne (d_ 1737), he was well connected on both sides, but inherited weakness of mind and body, and was unfortunate in the influences that surrounded his childhood. At 10 he entered Westminster School. Here he formed friendships with bright youths like the future poet, Robert Lloyd, Warren Hastings, Impey, Churchill and Colmar and showed fondness for athletics and literary studies; but he also displayed some morbidity, particularly in religious matters. After eight years at Westminster, and a few months at home, he was articled for three years to a London solicitor. Later he described these and the following 12 years as meaning that he thought little about the state of his soul and enjoyed visiting the three attractive daugh ters of his uncle, Ashley Cowper. In 1752 he took chambers in the Middle Temple. He was called to the bar in 1754, but made few efforts to secure clients, his conduct being partly explained by the fact that in 1753 he was afflicted with a sort of mental dejection that for many months paralyzed his energies. Finally, after he had received consolation from George Herbert's poetry and had had his chard softened by prayer, a visit to the sea shore completed a temporary cure.
In 1756 his father died; the same year his suit for the hand of his cousin, Theodora Cowper, was rejected by his uncle. She re mained true to him, and shortly after her death the love poems he wrote her were published (1825). Cowper does not appear to have been inconsolable. There is evidence of a shadowy love affair in 1758, and he had previously been attending the weekly dinners of the uNonsense Club,* with Lloyd and other old schoolmates, and had done some translating and written a few essays for periodicals. In 1759 he bought a suite of chambers in the Inner Temple and was made a commissioner of bankrupts; but he spent more than his income. In his pecuniary stress he obtained from his cousin, Major Cowper, the gift of the patent office of cleric of the journals of the House of Lords. But his kinsman's right to bestow the post being ques tioned, it was decided that Cowper's fitness must be tested by an examination. He broke down in his preparation for this, and, as the ordeal drew near, he grew more and more despondent. Finally he made four vain attempts to commit suicide (November 1763). The idea of his securing the office had to be abandoned, and a few weeks later he was placed in the private asylum kept at Saint Albans by the poet physician, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton.
After about five months he began to mend, and arguments with his younger brother, the Rev. John Cowper, tended to dispel the belief that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He continued at the asylum, however, until June 1765, when he removed to Huntingdon, resolv ing to break away forever from his former life. He became practically a recluse, but he had already acquired the urbanity which was to be so marked a characteristic of his poetry and his correspondence.
In Himtingdon Cowper began his famous friendship with the family of the Rev. Mr. Unwin, particularly with the latter's pious wife (Mary Cawthorne) and his son, later the Rev. William Cawthorne Unwin. They soon took Cowper as a boarder, and at last his religious aspirations were apparently in a fair way of being satisfied. Every day was spent in attend ing church twice, in singing hymns and pray ing, and in reading and conversing on evangeli cal topics. Withal, the friends seem to have been cheerful, not outwardly morbid.
In the summer of 1767 the elder Unwin fell from his horse and died in consequence. Then John Newton (q.v.), curate of Olney, persuaded Mrs. Unwin and Cowper to remove to that town, which has since been associated with the poet's memory. They took a house called "Orchard Side,* and Cowper found con genial employment in assisting Newton in his work among the poor and in writing hymns. In 1770, on the death of his brother John, Cowper wrote an account of that clergy man's conversion to evangelical tenets (pub lished 1802). Two years later he and Mrs. Unwin became engaged, but all thoughts of marriage were soon dispelled.by Cowper's third derangement, which began in January 1773, and lasted until May 1774. After a terrible dream in February 1773, he seems never to have been able to believe for long that there was any hope of his salvation. Yet, when he had out wardly recovered, he strove manfully not to exert a depressing influence on others, and he took much innocent pleasure in taming hares, keeping a garden, building his summer-house, and describing to correspondents such local events as the Olney fire of 1777. In 1799 New ton published the 'Olney Hymns,' of which 68, including 'Oh for a Closer Walk with God' and 'God Moves in a Mysterious Way,' were by Cowper. Later in the same year Newton accepted a rectory in London. Whether his intense nature had oppressed Cowper's mild genius is a moot point. It is at least certain that the latter's literary career really com menced after his friend Newton left Olney.