William Cowper, one of the Georgian era’s most loved poets, was born on 26 November 1731 (Old Style date was 15 November), in Hertfordshire, the son of a vicar. Although his fame has declined over the decades, his name and works remain familiar for any fan of Jane Austen. Another vicar’s child like Cowper, Austen makes it crystal clear in her novels that she was one of his most ardent admirers; his name pops up several times in her works.
In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood and her mother reference the power of his words:
Marianne: “Oh mama! how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!”
Mrs. Dashwood: “He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper.”
Marianne: “Nay, mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!
In Mansfield Park Austen’s sensitive heroine, Fanny Price, describes her feelings in the words of Cowper’s poems twice:
Her eagerness, her impatience, her longings to be with them, were such as to bring a line or two of Cowper’s Tirocinium for ever before her. “With what intense desire she wants her home,” was continually on her tongue, as the truest description of a yearning which she could not suppose any schoolboy’s bosom to feel more keenly.
“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”
Finally, in the novel Emma the hero, Mr. Knightley, thinks of Cowper’s verses when he observes Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax:
He was dining with the Randalls’ family, and Jane, at the Eltons’; and he had seen a look, more than a single look, at Miss Fairfax, which, from the admirer of Miss Woodhouse, seemed somewhat out of place. When he was again in their company, he could not help remembering what he had seen; nor could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire at twilight, “Myself creating what I saw,” brought him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane.
Austen included Cowper’s verses in her works as a sign of a character’s perspicacity or strong emotions, a profound complement to the deceased poet she could have never known in person. But why Cowper? Yes, his poetry is indeed excellent (although often overlooked now), but there were other excellent poets in the 18th century. What was it about Cowper that excited Austen’s sympathies and taste?
Perhaps some of the allure was because Cowper was well-know for his religious devotion and abolitionist stance. Unlike other famous poets of Austen’s time, Cowper’s career was not marked by scandalous jaunts into atheism, radicalism, or notorious love affairs. Austen may have stretched the patriarchal social bonds that held her, but she did not break them. Her heroines never broke them either; only her antagonists were so gauche or immoral to do that sort of thing.
Cowper was sincerely devout, much as Austen herself seems to be. For him, Christianity was both a matter a faith and a spar to hold on to during episodes of crippling depression. Cowper tried to commit suicide three times in 1763, and had to be sent to to Nathaniel Cotton‘s asylum at St. Albans for his own safety. He would later be taken in by his married friends Morley and Mary Unwin. Mrs Unwin would later nurse Cowper through a psychotic break in 1773.
Mental illness and genius make strange bedfellows but they sleep together often, and Cowper’s works rose even when his sanity fell. By the mid 1780s Cowper was published and praised by the general reading public, both for his poetry and his hymns, the most famous of which is “Light Shining out of Darkness” (beginning “God Moves in a Mysterious Way“). He also turned his talants to supporting the abolitionish movement, writing a poem entitled ‘The Negro’s Complaint‘ (1788), which remained a blockbuster for decades and would eventually be quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 20th century civil rights struggles.
By the time Cowper passed away on 25 April 1800, he was one of Britain’s most cherished poets. Some of his verses remain quoted in the modern lexicon – such as “variety is the spice of life” and “God moves in mysterious ways” — even if people don’t remember the man who authored the lines. It seems a shame he’s not given more credit and more modern recognition, since his verses really can be remarkably moving.