Cowper, William

cowper-webpage1-5WILLIAM COWPER (1731–1800) was born in Berkhamp­stead, England. Among his distinguished ancestors, his father was Chaplin to His Majesty George the Second. His mother died when he was six years old. He was then sent to boarding school and then to Westminster School. At 18, he went to study law for three years. He choose a career in law to please his father. At 32, he had an attack of mental illness before the examination for a new position and the thought of an appointment was at an end. He went to Dr. Cotton at St. Albans Asylum for therapy. His healing involved a new spiritual birth to Christianity. He went to live in Huntingdon, and met the Unwin family, and eventually boarded with them. On the death of Mr. Unwin, he moved with Mrs. Unwin to Olney, where John Newton was preaching. A close friendship was formed and they lived as neighbors. Rev. John Newton requested that he give himself to hymn writing. Out of this collaboration, the Olney Hymns were created. Mr. Cowper's sensitive soul was an advantage to his poetry, but he also endured much distress. After John Newton had gone to London, William was still living with Mrs. Unwin and he started to write many poems such as The Task and The Diverting History of John Gilpin. They both moved to Weston Underwood and then to Norfolk.

Visit the Olney city photos page. 

Curiosmith features:

William Cowper's Olney Hymns.

 

Family:

Father – Reverend John Cowper D. D. (Chaplin to King George II).

Mother – Ann Donne Cowper (a descendant of poet John Donne) died at 34 in childbed.

John – William's brother, a poet. Cambridge educated.

  

Extended Family:

William Cowper – Great uncle - became Lord High Chancellor in 1707. (Anne and George I)

Spenser Cowper – Grandfather - became Chief Justice of Chester in 1717, a judge in the court of Common Pleas.

Judith – Spenser's daughter – a poet.

John – Spenser's son – Father of William.

Roger Donne – Father of his mother, Ann.

Rev. Martin Madan – William's first cousin. Chaplin to the Lock Hospital. The oldest son of Colonel Madan, married the daughter of Judge Cowper.

Uncle Ashley – father of Cousin Theodora and Cousin Harriet.

Theodora Cowper – The cousin William fell in love with. She sent money to help him.

Major or Colonel or General Cowper – cousin of William who married the sister of Martin Madan. (Mrs. Cowper)

Mrs. Cowper – (of the letters) sister of Martin Madan.

Rev. Roger Donne – William's mother's brother. Had the children Harriet, Anne, Elizabeth and Castres.

John Donne – A very distinguished and accomplished poet, an ancestor of his mother.

Mrs. Anne Bodham – His cousin. 

 

Friends:

Rev. John Newton – Reverend at Olney and then St. Mary Woolnoth. Very close friend of William.

Lady Hesketh – Cousin Harriet Cowper, who married Sir Thomas Hesketh, and then widowed. Helped William all she could.

Lady Austin – the widow of a Baronet, Sir Robert Austin. Moved to Olney. She became good friends with William and Mrs. Unwin.

Mrs. Jones – sister to Lady Austin.

Rev. Morley Unwin – The father in the Unwin family who died in an accident in 1767.

Mrs. Unwin (Mary) – a very good friend and support for William. The wife of Rev. Morley Unwin.

Rev. William Cawthorne Unwin – The son in the Unwin family whom William first met. He went to Cambridge.

Daughter Unwin – married Mr. Powley.

Mrs. Cowper – Sister of Rev. Martin Madan, wife of Major Cowper.

Rev. William Bull – a preacher of a neighboring town to Olney, called Newport Pagnell. He visited William weekly when Rev. Newton went to London.

William Hayley – Poet, translator and essayist. Wrote Life of William Cowper. A friend and attendant in the last days.

John Johnson – The grandson of his mother's brother, Rev. Roger Donne. He wanted William to have a portrait of his mother. (Also called Johnny of Norfolk.)

Joseph Hill – A schoolfellow at Westminster.

Samuel Rose – an admirer of William's poetry.

Rev. Walter Bagot – interested in William's Homer translations.

 

Time line:

1731 – William Cowper was born.

1737 – Mother dies in childbed with John's birth.

1737–1749 – Early schooling:

  • 1737 – Sent to Dr. Pitman to boarding school in Befordshire.
  • 1739 – 8 years old - Sent to Mr. Disney, an oculist for 2 years.
  • 1741 – Educated by Dr. Nicholls at Westminster School (ages 10-17)
  • Spent nine months at home.

1741 – William's father remarried.

1748 – Moved to the house of Mr. Chapman, an attorney to pursue law for three years. (age 18).

1749 – 1759? He had a relationship with cousin Theodora. She lived with her father, Ashley Cowper, near where he studied law.

1752 – 21st year– took a set of chambers in the Middle Temple.

1754 – William was admitted to the bar.

1756 – William's father died.

1759 – William made Commissioner of Bankrupts. (Age 28)

1762 – (31st year) Nominated to the office of Reading Clerk and Clerk of the Private Committees in the House of Lords. Also Clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords.

1763 – Occupational stress caused suicide attempts late in the year. (32 years old)

1763 – Martin Madan shared the Gospel with William.

1763 – Dr. Nathanial Cotton's Collegium Insanorum (December 1763 to June 1765). Dr. Cotton recommended redemption through Christ for healing. Had a change of heart and read in Romans 3:25 and received the truth of salvation.

1764 – John Newton starts preaching in Olney.

1765 – June – Brother John found lodgings in Huntingdon. The son of Rev. Unwin visited William and they were of like hearts.  A
boarder's room became available at the Unwin's and he moved in with the family, November 11, 1765.

1767 – Mr. Unwin died in an accident.

1767 – William Cowper and Mary Unwin, who was seven years older, move to Olney.

1770 – Brother John died at Cambridge.

1770 –1772 – presumed to be the years of writing the Olney Hymns.

1773 – William had an attack of melancholy.

1780 – William recovers and begins writing his major poetry.

1786 – He and Mary Unwin move to Weston Underwood (Lodge), to a house belonging to Mr. Throckmorton of Weston Hall. William had become friends with Mrs. Throckmorton.

1787 – another attack of melancholy.

1795–1800 Moved around for health reasons:

  • Mundsley on the coast (Norfolk)
  • East Durham

1796 – Mrs. Unwin dies.

1800 – William Cowper dies.

  

Nonsense Club – A group he joined at the Middle Temple – Seven Westminster men who dined together every Thursday and talked of literary subjects.  George Colman the Elder, Robert Lloyd, Joseph Hill, Wilkes, Churchill and Bonnell Thornton.

 

Cowper had five bouts of depression:

  1. 1753 – First melancholy when he moved to the Middle Temple.
  2. 1763 – Occupational review stress with suicide attempts.
  3. 1773 – His attack prevented him from writing any more of the Olney Hymns that he was working on.
  4. 1787 – January, another attack (mostly 1786) which William hanged himself, Mrs. Unwin cut him down in time.
  5. 1794 – Mrs. Unwin dies. He stopped working for awhile.

 

Things prescribed for depression in those days:

  • Phlebotomy or bloodletting.
  • Tincture of valerian roots prepared as a sedative.
  • Seashore living.

 

The title page of Olney Hymns Virgil quote:

Eclogues is one of Virgil's major works.

—Cantabitis, Arcades, inquit, Montibus haec vestris: foli cantare periti Arcades. O mihi tum quam molliter ossa quiescant Vestra meos olim si fistula dicat amores! Virgil, Ecl. x:31.

John Dryden (1631–1700) rendered the quote as:

"But you, Arcadian swains, shall sing my grief,

And on your hills my last complaints renew;

So sad a song is only worthy you.

How light would lie the turf upon my breast,

If you my sufferings in your songs exprest!"

 

William Cowper Booklist:

  • Adam: a sacred drama by G. B. Anreini – translated from the Italian by Cowper.
  • Adlephi – A sketch of the character, and account of the last illness of the late John Cowper – transcribed by John Newton.
  • Autobiography of Cowper: or an Account of the Most Interesting Part of His Life.
  • Battle of the Frogs and Mice – translated by Cowper.
  • Diverting History of John Gilpin (The).
  • Fragment of a Commentary on Paradise Lost by John Milton.
  • Iliad and Odyssey of Homer (The) – translated by Cowper.
  • Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper (The).
  • Moral Satires: Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq.
  • Olney Hymns.
  • Poems by Madame de La Mothe Guion – translated from the French by Cowper.
  • Poetry – many individual poems.
  • Power of Grace (The) by Christodulus – translated from the Latin by Cowper.
  • Tale of Three Pet Hares, Puss, Tiney and Bess.
  • Task (The).
  • Works of Horace (The) – translated by Cowper.