Biography and History

William Cowper was born on 15 November 1731 in Berkhamsted, Hertfordskire, England to Reverend John and Anne (Donne) Cowper. During his school years, he first became interested in literature, and he published his first poems and wrote Latin verse. Cowper later apprenticed with a solicitor and was successfully admitted to the Bar, although he continued to engage in writing and other literary pursuits.

Through the nepotism of this cousin Major Cowper, in 1763, he was given a government appointment. But the pressures of the examinations required for the position led him to a near-suicide, and finally the renunciation of his post. His family sought help for him at a private sanatorium, where he would spend a year and a half recovering. For the rest of his life Cowper would suffer bouts of depression and rely on family and friends to nurse him back to health. In addition, Cowper was plagued by money problems, and entirely depended on the generosity of the same family and friends to provide for him.

After leaving the sanatorium, Cowper became devoutly Christian, and moved to Huntington where he befriended Reverend Morley Unwin and his family. In 1765 he began lodging with the Unwins, both because of their close ties and the poor state of Cowper's economic affairs. Even after Reverend Unwin's accidental death, Cowper remained with the family and established a close mother-son relationship with Mrs. Unwin. She would prove very supportive of his writing.

Cowper's most well-know works include Olney Hymns (1779) [a collaborative effort with John Newton], John Gilpin (1782), The Task (1785), and translations of Homer (1791). He died on 25 April 1800 in East Dereham at the age of 68.

Source: From the finding aid for C0134