Cowper, William

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Cowper, William (1731-1800): English Poet.

William Cowper was one of the most famous poets of his generation and one of the eighteenth century’s most prolific letter writers. Cowper was classically educated at Westminster School, and upon graduation established himself as a lawyer. He only briefly enjoyed life as a London lawyer, however, before entering the literary profession.

In his voluminous correspondence, Cowper discussed his life work as a poet and the inner turmoil that led to his attempted suicide and mental breakdown in 1763. In Adelphi (1767), Cowper provided an autobiographical account of his mental problems as part of his spiritual journey from sin to salvation. Much of that journey involved Cowper’s Evangelical conversion, and in his collaboration with John Newton on Olney Hymns (1779), Cowper provided Evangelicals with one of their most popular hymnbooks.

Cowper’s major poetry thematically echoed the religious strains in his hymns, the most substantial collection of verse published with his first volume: Poems by William Cowper , of the Inner Temple, Esq. (1782). Cowper’s use of strong, forceful language and his focus on emotional responses and intense religious experiences in The Task (1785) significantly influenced the Romantic movement. His rugged style did not always fare well in an age of polished verse, however, and his translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (1791), in which he counters Pope, Alexander’s more elegant reading of Homer with a plain style, achieved only minimal success. Cowper had set the literary stage, however, for poets who would follow with their simpler expressive style.

Further Reading:

James King, William Cowper: A Biography, 1986.

Jason Horn

Gordon College