Son of John, rector of Berkhampstead. His mother died when he was six. He attended Westminster School from 1742 to 1749. Cowper was in love with his cousin, Theodora Jane Cowper, sister of Lady Heskith, and wanted to marry her. Her father, Ashley, objected on the grounds of the near relationship and Williams inadequate fortune. Neither William nor Theodora ever married. He was called to the bar as a member of the Middle Temple in 1754 and offered the clerkship of the journals of the House of Lords in 1763. Overwhelmed, he became seriously depressed. His cousin, Martin Madan, tried to give him some spiritual help before he was referred to Dr. Cottons asylum in St. Albans in December. While there, he became a Christian and deliberately stayed on longer than necessary in order to receive spiritual help from Dr. Cotton. When he left he moved to Huntingdon, where he met the Unwins and moved in with them. He considered entering the ministry in 1766. After Rev. Morley Unwins death he and Mary Unwin moved to Olney at the invitation of Newton.
Cowper and Newton were inseparable, Cowper becoming in effect the Curates curate. Newton recognized Cowpers literary talents and had his individual poems published. He wrote the preface to the first edition of his collection, Poems. Cowper acknowledged, The honor of your preface prefixed to my poems will be on my side; for surely to be known as the friend of a much-favored minister of Gods word is a more illustrious distinction, in reality, than to have the friendship of any poet in the world to boast of.
When Cowper showed signs of returning depression Newton suggested they work together on providing hymns for the weekly meetings. This gesture of friendship resulted in many hymns grounded in prayer and scripture which still give much encouragement and incentive to worship today, two hundred years later, all over the world.
Cowper visited the sick and took a special interest in the welfare of the lace-makers. He sometimes led at the church prayer meetings. Samuel Teedon, the village schoolmaster, considered, Of all the men I ever heard pray, no one equaled Mr. Cowper. Newton s testimony to him in his Incomplete Memoirs was, He loved the poor. He often visited them in their cottages, conversed with them in the most condescending [obliging] manner, sympathized with them, counseled and comforted them in their distresses; and those who were seriously disposed were often cheered and animated by his prayers!
Cowper was fiercely defendant of
Newton. His personal copy of An Apology for Protestant Dissenters shows
his spontaneous reaction, in scribbled verse (p.427), to reading this
written criticism of Newton: In reply to Mr. Newtons
fourth argument (in which in the usual cant of these Reformers, he pleads,
that the Lord...).
After Cowpers death, some unjustified blame was put on Newton for his depression. William Jay [who knew them both] comments on this, Some have thought the divine was hurtful to the poet. How mistaken were they! He was the very man, of all others, I should have chosen for him. He was not rigid in his creed. His views of the Gospel were most free and encouraging. He had the tenderest disposition; and always judiciously regarded his friends depression and despondency as a physical effect, for the removal of which he prayed, but never reasoned or argued with him concerning it.
When Cowper and Mary Unwin moved
from Weston, Underwood in their final years to stay with his cousin Johnson,
he wrote these lines in pencil on the window shutter of a bedroom overlooking
the garden of the Lodge,
scenes, for ever closed to me,
The shutter was closed up for twenty years to save paying the window tax. It is now kept at the Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney. Oh! with what a surprise of joy, wrote Newton a few days after Cowpers death, would he find himself immediately before the throne, and in the presence of his Lord! All his sorrows left below, and earth exchanged for heaven."
Williams happiness, however, was to come to a swift and abrupt end. Ann [his mother] had given birth to another child, Theadora Judith, a year after William, but the little girl died at two years of age. In 1734 a son, Thomas, was born, but he died after a short life of only two weeks. Finally, much weakened, Ann Cowper gave birth to another boy, John, on November 7, 1737. The baby survived but Anne was so frail that she was unable to recover from the birth and died six days later. She was only thirty-four. Later on, looking back on this sad day [when he received from his cousin a picture of his mother, William], now the foremost poet in the kingdom, was to write:
Anns foolish but well-intentioned maids tried to keep the news from William and told the poor boy that his mother had gone on a journey and would soon be back. William, however, had understood more than the maids realized. Looking back on those unhappy days Cowper wrote,
The maids, however, persisted in telling William tales of his mothers impending return, so that the child began to believe that he had misunderstood death and to hope against hope that he would see his mother again in this life. When he was finally forced to accept reality and see that the maids had been talking foolish nonsense, his grief was all the greater.
ON THE RECEIPT OF MY MOTHERS PICTURE
Oh that those lips had language! Life
Exodus Chapter 3 verses 2,3:
The Lord has given me many friends but with none have I had so great an intimacy, as with my friend Mr. Cowper. But he is gone. I was glad when I heard it. I know of no text in the whole book of Gods word more suited to the case of my dear friend than that I have read. He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed. And why? Because the Lord was there. I think it probable there is hardly a person in the church who ever saw him yet there is few but know him in his writings. I can think of no motto more suitable than that of the apostle as unknown yet well known particularly in his poems, 2nd volume, called The Task by which he being dead yet speaketh speaks to the glory of God and the good of mankind and which I think will not be forgotten as long as the English language is current.
Mr. Cowper was afflicted with what is called a nervous complaint to such a degree as might justly be called insanity. He had an attack very early in life which did not continue long. He was afterward at the Temple, being designed for the Law. He became acquainted with Mr. Coleman and a Mr. & Lord Thurlow. He assisted them in writing a book [periodical] called the Connoisseur. Those four men were very gay and men of great abilities but the Lord had designs of mercy towards my friend. One night he had a remarkable dream or vision.
He thought a child, a very beautiful little boy, came and looked on him while he was asleep. When he awoke he felt his mind much affected by his dream, but as he was sitting at his breakfast the Lord shone in upon his soul and so enlightened his understanding and gave such a clear view of the gospel and his interest in it without his ever reading it or hearing a gospel sermon that for seven years afterwards I never in all my life saw a man walk I want to say so honorably but so closely with God and always set the Lord before him in all he did. I believe during that time we were not seven hours without being together.
The last sermon he ever heard preached was on New Years Day 1773. He drank tea with me in the afternoon. The next morning a violent storm overtook him which caused a very great shyness. I used to visit him often but no argument could prevail with him to come to see me. He used to point with his finger to the church and say: you know the comfort I have had there and how I have seen the glory of the Lord in his house and until I can go there Ill not go anywhere else. But after some time this shyness wore off. I remember one time we were walking together in a very deep snow. The weather was remarkably severe. He desired me to stop. I observed the sweat drop from his face occasioned by the agony of his mind. He said he knew the Lord was a Sovereign and had a right to do with and lay upon him what he pleased and if he [it?] was that by holding out a finger he could remove what he then felt, he would not do it unless he knew it were the will of God. He has often said he thought the Lord had not a child who loved him with a more simple heart than he did.
The first temptation the enemy assaulted him with was to offer up himself as Abraham his son. He verily thought he ought to do it. We were obliged to watch with him night and day. I, my dear wife and Mrs. Unwin with whom he lived left him not an hour for seven years. He was also tempted to think butchers meat was human flesh, therefore he would not take it. We found it very difficult to provide any sustenance he would take. He had various temptations which would be very improper for me to mention in this place. I was at that time obliged to leave Olney but the Lord did not leave him without friends but provided for him persons of abilities and respect who did that for love which no money could have procured. I dont know a person upon earth I consult upon a text of Scripture or any point of conscience so much to my satisfaction as Mr. Cowper. He could give comfort though he could not receive any himself. He was not only a comfort to me but a blessing to the affectionate poor people among whom I then lived. He used frequently to visit them and pray with them. I had the honor to be rector[?] over a set of poor plain people chiefly lace makers. Their great confinement caused in them great depression of spirits. They used to say, 0 Sir if I was right, sure I should not feel so. But they well knew Mr. Cowper: they knew he was right, and from him they could take comfort.
I have had hopes the Lord would
remove his malady a little time before his death but it continued. The
last twelve hours of his life he did not speak nor seem to take notice
of anything but lay in a state of apparent insensibility. But I seem to
think that while the curtains were taking down in the tabernacle removing,
glory broke in upon his soul. The Lord had set his seal upon him and though
he had not seen him he had grace to love him. He was one of those who
came out of great tribulation. He suffered much here for twenty-seven
years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all. For what is
all he endured in this life, when compared with that rest which remaineth
for the children of God?