Born in Berkhamsted, he wrote affectionately about the town and its surrounding countryside
26th November 1731
25th April 1800
William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) is a major literary figure from the second half of the 18th century. His poetry was immediately highly popular and remained so right through Victoria’s reign and into the 20th century. Together with John Newton he wrote the famous ‘Olney Hymns’; some critics value his letters even more highly than his verse: they have been rated among the finest ever written in the English language.
Perhaps Cowper had poetry in his blood, because his mother was a descendent of John Donne. Cowper’s father, who had been a chaplain to George II, was rector of Berkhamsted, and William was born in the Rectory there.
Although he moved away from his home and parents at a tender age, Cowper later wrote movingly of his Berkhamsted experiences, of the town and particularly of the Chiltern countryside round about. He expressed his fondness for it in letters and verse:
‘There was neither tree nor gate nor style in all that country to which I did not feel a relation…I sighed a long adieu to fields and woods from which I thought I should never be parted, and was at no time so sensible of their beauties as when I left them behind, to return no more’.
He was a melancholy figure, given to fits of depression and mental instability, but even in these circumstances his writing could be sublime. His long poem The Task is full of rich description, thought and wit. This work particularly was an important influence on the later Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth. John Betjeman made a point of reading The Task every year.
Much of his writing has a memorable quality, and many of us use expressions such as ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, ‘Monarch of all I survey’ and ‘Variety, the very spice of life’ without realising we are quoting Cowper. His best hymns, such as ‘Oh for a closer walk with God’ are regularly sung today in churches all over the world.
Cowper never married, but had many friends and acquaintances from all walks of life, ranging across nobility, political figures, artists and other writers, as well as those who cared for him during his life. He was a patriot and wrote the poem that begins ‘England, with all thy faults I love thee still’, yet he was compassionate and in advance of many of his contemporaries in condemning hunting and slavery.
Cowper’s works may not be much read today, but readers who do dip into them can be agreeably surprised, not just by their literary quality but by their warmth, freshness and readability.
The Stricken Deer or the Life of Cowper by David Cecil. Now out of print but second hand copies are available.
William Cowper: A Biography by James King. Published by Duke University Press 1986.
St Peter’s Church in Berkhamsted High Street - Cowper was baptised here, and there are several references to him and his family in the church, which is open every day. In the floor of the north transept a ledger stone bears the name of his grandmother, mother and several siblings who died young. The easternmost stained glass window (now partly obscured) is a memorial to him, and shows him with one of his pet hares which he wrote about. The hares appear again in a modern engraved and tinted window in the north aisle, made in 2000 to commemorate both the 200th anniversary of Cowper’s death as well as the Millennium.
In Berkhamsted High Street there is a blue plaque on a building where it is thought Cowper went to school, and the names of several streets in the town remind us of him. There is a Cowper Road and a street called Gilpin’s Ride, named after his well-known comic poem.
Cowper and Newton Museum , Olney, Bucks. Housed in Cowper’s old home Orchard Side. www.mkheritage.co.uk/cnm
Listen to Light Shining Out Of Darkness: