Poems and Sayings of Madman William Cowper

by Larry Cooper

William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), lived from 1731 - 1800.  He was an English poet.  His father was court chaplain.

William Cowper suffered from depression all his life and his mental health was fragile. The strain on his mind was increased by his father's decision to ban him from marrying his first love, his cousin Theodora Cowper.

William was trained for the law.  He received a government clerkship, and lost his mind in 1763 while studying to take examinations for a job in the House of Lords. 

He was nursed back to health by a clergyman, Morley Unwin, and his wife Mary. Cowper stayed with the Unwins and became engaged to Mary after Morley's death. His worsening mental condition made marriage impossible, but they remained close friends.

Cowper's state of mind was not improved by the company of the curate John Newton, a gloomy Calvinist. Under Newton's influence, Cowper came to believe that he was destined for eternal damnation, and in 1773 he suffered another attack of madness.

From this sort of religious mania however, he emerged to write a number of elevated, graceful poems. 

He died in utter madness and despair. 

His more mature poems are: 

- Moral Satires, written in imitation of Pope 

- The Task, in praise of a quiet secluded country life, a poem much admired by Burns

- a Translation of Homer

- The Loss of the Royal George, a warship that went down in the English Channel with terrible loss of life

- To Mary, in praise of a lady friend. 

- Alexander Selkirk, opening with the well known lines:

"I am monarch of all I survey,

My right there is none to dispute"

- John Gilpin's Ride, betraying an unexpected but none the less delightful vein of wit and fun in the poet's makeup. 

His sayings are what tickle my imagination:

"God made the country, man made the town."

"Not much the worse for wear."

"How much a dunce that has been sent to roam, Excels a dunce that has been kept at home. "

"Absence of occupation is not rest, A mind quite vacant is a mind distress'd."

"An idler is a watch that wants both hands, As useless if it goes as if it stands."

"His wit invites you by his looks to come, But when you knock, it never is at home." 

"Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness." 

"Variety's the very spice of life." 

"She that asks Her dear five hundred friends. "

"Knowledge is proud that he has learn'd so much;  Wisdom is humble that he knows no more." 

What was said about Cowper: 

"Cowper was the most popular poet of his generation, and the best of English letter writers" - Southey. 

"Poor charming soul, perishing like a frail flower transplanted from a warm land to the snow:  the world's temperature was too rough for it;  and the moral law, which should have supported it, tore it with its thorns." - Taine. 

"Cowper's style is natural and firm, though sometimes dull.  He helped to rid poetry of its artificiality."  - Emery.