William Cowper

(1731 - 1800)

William Cowper was born in 1731 in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England. The oldest of his siblings, Cowper lost his mother at six years old and became close with her family, who encouraged his early interest in reading. He trained for a law career and attempted to take on a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords, but the stress of the required examination exacerbated his ongoing depression. He was institutionalized for some time at the Collegium Insanorum at St. Albans, an experience that brought him a zealous new belief in evangelical Christianity.

After his recovery, Cowper took a room with the Unwins, a married couple in Huntingdon, with whom he got along so well that the trio moved to Olney. When the Reverend Unwin died from a fall off a horse, Cowper became romantically attached to his widow, Mary, and continued to live with her for the rest of his life. He worked with John Newton on the Olney Hymns, a hymnbook including Newton’s “Amazing Grace” and Cowper’s famous coinage of the term “God moves in a mysterious way.” During his continued mental health struggles, Mary Unwin helped redirect his energies to poetry, and several years’ worth of output was collected in his celebrated Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq. He also wrote the highly regarded six-volume The Task, inspired by a prompt from a friend, and translated The Iliad and The Odyssey, among other projects. Mary Unwin died in 1796, and Cowper fell into a final depression and followed four years later.

Cowper’s poetry, which incorporated workaday life and English countryside imagery, is considered to be a major precursor to the Romantic movement. He was also an abolitionist, and one of his anti-slavery poems, “The Negro's Complaint,” was frequently quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. Although less well-known now, in his day he may have been read more than any other English poet.