William Cowper

(15 November 1731 - 25 April 1800)
William Cowper (1731-1800)

© National Portrait Gallery, London

William Cowper (1731-1800)

Works in ECPA

alphabetical listing / listing in source editions

Source editions

  • Cowper, William, 1731-1800. Poems: by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. London: printed for J. Johnson, 1782. [4],367,[1]p. ; 8⁰. (ESTC T14895; OTA K027775.000)
  • Cowper, William, 1731-1800. The task: a poem, in six books. By William Cowper, ... To which are added, by the same author, An epistle to Joseph Hill, Esq. ... To which are added, ... an epistle ... and the history of John Gilpin. London: printed for J. Johnson, 1785. [8],359,[1]p. ; 8⁰. (ESTC T14896; OTA K027776.000)

Biographical note

William Cowper was born at the rectory, Berkhamstead, Hampshire, the fourth child of the Rev. John Cowper (1694-1756) and his wife Ann, née Donne (1703-37), of Ludham Hall, Norfolk. Cowper's mother died when he was six years old. Cowper was educated at several different schools before entering Westminster School in 1742. Here he met Charles Churchill and Robert Lloyd, studied Latin (under Vincent Bourne) and developed a keen interest in literature (particularly the Homeric epics). Following his father's wishes, Cowper entered the Middle Temple to study law, but he quickly came to dislike the profession which did not suit him temperamentally. He nevertheless qualified and was called to the bar in 1754. Here he also met Edward Thurlow (1731–1806) and Joseph Hill (1733–1811) who became friends. A thwarted relationship with his cousin Theadora Jane (1734?–1824), whom Cowper remained devoted to for the rest of his life, added to Cowper's distress, and as a result he suffered from depression. Cowper started contributing essays to The Connoisseur, a periodical run by George Colman and Bonnell Thornton, and was part of an informal literary group of Westminster alumni known as the Nonsense Club, which included Colman, Thornton, Lloyd, and Churchill. In 1763, while under intense professional pressures, Cowper attempted to commit suicide. He was treated in a private lunatic asylum for 18 months, during which time he experienced both a strong sense of total damnation and an evangelical confidence in redemption, extremes that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In 1765 he began boarding with the Rev. Morley Unwin (1703-67) and his wife Mary (1723-96). After Morley Unwin's death, Mary Unwin went with Cowper to Olney, Buckinghamshire, where both came under the influence of the Rev. John Newton. In 1773, under pressure to marry Mrs. Unwin to avoid scandal but bound by his promise to Theadora, Cowper's mental health collapsed once more, and he became convinced that God had decreed his eternal damnation. On recovery, aided by neighbours and friends, Cowper took up writing again, his Olney Hymns, written with Newton, appeared in 1779. The following couple of years proved enormously productive, and he composed much of what was to become his first collected volume of poetry. In 1782 he published Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq., a mix of eight moral satires and essays (including Table Talk, The Progress of Error, Truth, Expostulation) and shorter poems, including Verses Supposed to be Written by Alexander Selkirk, Boadicea. An Ode, and a poem about the destruction of Lord Mansfield's library during the Gordon Riots of 1780. Lady Austen, an new acquaintance of Cowper's at Olney, set Cowper the mock-heroic "task" to write a poem about the sofa, but the challenge stimulated Cowper to reflect more widely on retired life, such as the comforts of gardening, rural walks, winter scenery, and the domestic fireside. The poem also ranges widely amongst bigger issues such as consideration for animals, religious sensibility, the problem of luxury, the horrors of French rationalism, and the evils of slavery. The Task was published in a volume which also included a complimentary Epistle to Joseph Hill, the comic ballad John Gilpin, and Tiroconium, an attack on the corrosive effects of the British public school system. Later in life, Cowper worked on a blank verse translation of Homer's Iliad, intended to supplant the version in heroic couplets by Alexander Pope, which Cowper considered false to the original. It was published with a subscription list containing about 500 names in 1791. Cowper also translated Milton's Latin and Italian poems for a proposed edition, and collaborated with the poet William Hayley who was working on a biography of Milton, but the project was ultimately abandoned. In 1794, Cowper collapsed once more and it was decided that he and Mrs Unwin should be moved to Norfolk in the care of Cowper's cousin John Johnson. After the death of Mary Unwin in 1796, Cowper took up writing once again, working mainly on translations. He died on 25 April 1800, aged sixty-eight, and was buried in St Edmund's Chapel in the church of St Nicholas, East Dereham, with a memorial inscription by William Hayley. Cowper was admired by a later generation of poets, including Wordsworth, and his popularity was increased by a major edition, with biography, by Robert Southey (1774-1843), in 15 volumes (1835-7).


DMI 1457; ODNB 6513; NCBEL 595-603; DLB 104, 109


  • Smith, Margaret M. Index of English Literary Manuscripts. Vol. III, 1700-1800 . London: Mansell, 1986-1997. Pt. 1 Addison-Fielding. 233-292. Print. 4 volumes.


  • Baird, John D. and Charles Ryskamp, eds. The poems of William Cowper. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980-1995. Print. 3 volumes.
  • King, James et al., eds. The letters and prose writings of William Cowper. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979-86. Print. 5 volumes.
  • Sambrook, James, ed. William Cowper: The Task and Selected Other Poems. London and New York: Longman, 1994. Print.


  • King, James. William Cowper. A Biography. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986. Print.


  • Russell, Norma. A bibliography of William Cowper to 1837. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. Print.

Reference works


  • Arnold, Richard. Trinity of Discord: The Hymnal and Poetic Innovations of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.
  • Carnochan, W. B. The Continuity of Eighteenth-Century Poetry: Gray, Cowper, Crabbe, and the Augustans. Eighteenth-Century Life 12 (1988): 119-27. Print.
  • Fulford, Tim. Wordsworth, Cowper and the Language of Eighteenth-Century Politics. Woodman, Thomas, ed. The Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998. 117-33. Print.
  • Golden, Morris. In Search of Stability: The Poetry of William Cowper. New York: Bookman Associates, 1960. Print.
  • Griffin, Dustin. Cowper, Milton and the Recovery of Paradise. Essays in Criticism 31 (1981): 15-26. Print.
  • Newey, Vincent. Cowper's Poetry: A Critical Study and Reassessment. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1982. Print.
  • Newey, Vincent. William Cowper and the Condition of England. Newey, Vincent, and Ann Thompson, eds. Literature and Nationalism. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991. 120-39. Print.
  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. 165-206. Print.
  • Terry, Richard. 'Meaner themes': Mock-heroic and Providentialism in Cowper's Poetry. Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 617-34. Print.

Studies of individual works

  • Griffin, Dustin. Redefining Georgic: Cowper's Task. ELH 57 (1990): 565-79. Print.
  • Matheson, Ann. The Influence of Cowper's The Task on Coleridge's Conversational Poems. Sultana, Donald, ed. New Approaches to Coleridge. London: Vision, 1981. 137-50. Print.
  • Priestman, Martin. Cowper's Task: Structure and Influence. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Print.