By James A. Tweedie

These days, William Cowper (November 26, 1731 – April 25, 1800) isn’t likely to be found on anyone’s list of “Top Twenty English Poets.” Fifty years after his death, however, three competing collections of his poetical works continued to sell with over 100,000 copies in print. During his lifetime, his status was sufficient to induce the painter George Romney to sketch his portrait (which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and for which Cowper penned a thank-you poem). Today, the poet is remembered primarily for the hymns he wrote for the Olney Hymnal in collaboration with his pastor and friend John Newton. Newton contributed 280 hymns to the collection (including Amazing Grace and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken) while Cowper added 71 of his own (including There is a Fountain Fill’d with Blood; O, for a Closer Walk with Thee, and God Moves in a Mysterious Way).

Along with Newton, Cowper—towards the end of his life—also enjoyed a friendly relationship with the abolitionist crusader William Wilberforce (to whom he wrote a poem of encouragement). Along with Wilberforce, Cowper shared a love of animals (Wilberforce organized the first SPCA) and a deep attachment to rural life along with a profound appreciation for the beauty of nature—all of which feature prominently in his poems. Both men also experienced great suffering throughout their lives. For Wilberforce it was emotional and physical weakness, for Cowper it was severe, episodic, suicidal depression.

Like other so-called protestant Divines such as Milton, Blake, and Donne, Cowper infused his poetry with commentary on human nature and lessons in moral character. Although his longer poems—most of which were written in blank verse—set serious themes in ordinary settings, many of his shorter poems reflect the sort of keen wit and wry humor usually associated with Burns and Samuel Johnson (whom Cowper admired and for whom he wrote an epitaph).

Take, for example, his short poem, On Observing Some Names of Little Note, in which he pricks the fleeting fame of both the poor and obscure and—by implication—the rich and famous as follows:

Oh, fond attempt to give a deathless lot
To names ignoble born to be forgot!
In vain, recorded in historic page,
They court the notice of a future age:
Those twinkling tiny lustres of the land
Drop one by one from Fame’s neglecting hand;
Lethean gulfs receive them as they fall,
And dark oblivion soon absorbs them all.
So when a child, as playful children use,
Has burnt to tinder a stale last year’s news,
The flame extinct, he views the roving fire—
There goes my lady, and there goes the squire,
There goes the parson, oh illustrious spark!
And there, scarce less illustrious, goes the clerk!

The effect is much the same as Shelly’s pseudo-pompous Ozymandias, which was written 18 years after Cowper’s death. Cowper’s version, however, has the distinct advantage of adding a wink and a smile to his consideration of the otherwise somber subjects of human mortality and the passage of time.

A longer, but no less whimsical glimpse into Cowper’s humor is found in The Diverting History of John Gilpin: Showing How He Went Farther Than He Intended, and Came Safe Home Again. In this poem, comprised of 63 quatrains, Cowper tells the story of a man who, despite his meticulous plans, loses control of his horse, leaves his wife behind and ends up ten miles beyond his intended destination. The poem is a classic example of how to employ verbal overkill to squeeze out as many laughs as possible. The final lines even manage to meld both Cowper and the British throne into the comedy:

Now let us sing, long live the king,
__And Gilpin long live he;
And when he next doth ride abroad,
__May I be there to see!

In To a Mouse, Robert Burns makes the same sardonic point: that “the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.” But while Burns leaves us nodding in sober introspection, Cowper leaves us laughing outright at both Gilpin and ourselves.

Sometimes Cowper’s wit is merciless, rapier sharp and aimed directly at the heart, as we find in this pointed, abolitionist Epigram, which Cowper printed in the Northampton Mercury:

To purify their wine, some people bleed
A lamb into the barrel, and succeed;
No nostrum, planters say, is half so good
To make fine sugar as a negro’s blood.
Now lambs and negroes both are harmless things,
And thence perhaps this wondrous virtue springs,
‘Tis in the blood of innocence alone—
Good cause why planters never try their own.

At other times, Cowper’s humor seems to exist only for its own sake, as with this short verse entitled, Mary and John:

If John marries Mary, and Mary alone,
‘Tis a very good match between Mary and John.
Should John wed a score, oh, the claws and the scratches!
It can’t be a match:–‘tis a bundle of matches.

Cowper was not above poking fun at himself as he did in A Mistake In His Translation of Homer:

Cowper had sinn’d with some excuse,
__If, bound in rhyming tethers,
He had committed this abuse
__Of changing ewes for wethers;

But, male for female is a trope,
__Or rather bold misnomer,
That would have startled even Pope,
__When he translated Homer.

To which Cowper added this footnote:

“I have heard about my wether mutton from various quarters. It was a blunder hardly pardonable in a man who has lived amid fields and meadows, grazed by sheep, almost these thirty years. I have accordingly satirized myself in two stanzas which I composed last night, while I lay awake, tormented with pain, and well dosed with laudanum. If you find them not very brilliant, therefore, you will know how to account for it.”

As if in anticipation of Lewis Carroll, Cowper composed conversations between otherwise inanimate objects, as in the poem, From a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Newton, which begins:

Says the pipe to the snuff-box, I can’t understand
__What the ladies and gentlemen see in your face,
That you are in fashion all over the land,
__And I am so much fallen into disgrace.

Even more “Carroll-istic” is Cowper’s The Poet, the Oyster, and the Sensitive Plant, in which the poet overhears a complaintive argument between an oyster and a shrub and, in the end, scolds them on the grounds that neither possesses the human/divine attributes of pity, sympathy, and love. The poem concludes as follows:

His censure reach’d them as he dealt it,
And each, by shrinking show’d he felt it.

I conclude with Cowper’s thoughts On the High Price of Fish, a satiric commentary on political economics worthy of Swift.

Cocoa-nut naught,
Fish too dear,
None must be bought
For us that are here:

No lobster on earth,
That ever I saw,
To me would be worth
Sixpence a claw.

So, dear Madam, wait
Till fish can be got
At a reas’nable rate,
Whether lobster or not;

Till the French and the Dutch
Have quitted the seas,
And then send as much
And as oft as you please.

My final thoughts run as follows:

Cowper’s popularity was celebrated not by the usual upper crust social elites, but by ordinary men and women who toiled and sweated for a living. Today’s upper crust social literary elites appear to be predisposed to either dismiss him as a lightweight moralist or to simply ignore him entirely. This is, I believe, unfortunate. As far as I am concerned, his poetry has as much wit and contemporary relevance as Swift, Burns, Johnson, or Carroll. If you have never read Cowper before, I suggest you give him a try. I suspect you will find, as I did, that he will not only make you smile, he will touch your heart.

I end with these words from Cowper’s hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, in which Cowper hints that the source of all good humor, mirth and joy, is none other than God.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm . . .

Judge not the lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face . . .


James A. Tweedie is a recently retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He likes to walk on the beach with his wife. He has written and self-published four novels and a collection of short stories. He has several hundred unpublished poems tucked away in drawers. 




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17 Responses

  1. Gregory Spicer

    This is a terrific introduction to Cowper. He’s one of those names that has always lingered in the back of my head somewhere but now I am inspired to read up on he and his verse even more. If I am not mistaken, he wrote a terrific little poem about a nightingale which I read once on a deep browse at the Lewis D. Cannell library a few years back. Thank you, Mr. Tweedie, for rekindling that memory. I will pursue more Cowper yet.

    • James A. Tweedie

      Gregory, I have no doubt that Cowper’s wit would have been broad enough to appreciate your pairing of “poetics” and “dyslexics” in the closing couplet of your Mania Explainia!

      • Gregory Spicer

        Thank you James, and I am honored to have you visit my rudimentary website. I do hope you enjoy it. I guess I feel quite confident that the sort of poetry promoted by the SCP has the potential to uncork a whole universe of aesthetic satisfaction. I obviously consider the sonnet and it’s rich history as a gateway into still more edifying types of verse and the brilliant people who write it. Perhaps the ransacking of your drawers will fuel yet another website. Our world needs all the gracefulness it can get.

    • Dan Osterman

      Any idea who wrote a contemporary poem that has a line in it that reads something like: “who will cover me when my green heaven is gone?”

  2. C.B. Anderson

    I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, and if your unpublished verse comes anywhere close to its thoughtful mood and stimulating content, then I would urge you to ransack your drawers and let us see something of what is secreted there.

    • James A. Tweedie

      C.B. I have recently littered this site with a number of poems. Several of them were culled from drawers. Thank you for your kind and encouraging comment.

  3. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    Mr. Tweedie has provided SCP with a reminder of William Cowper’s poetry. Though it is true Cowper isn’t likely to be found on anyone’s “Top 20 English Poets,” his was an important voice of the late Neoclassical period in English literature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him “the best modern poet,” and it is not hard to see that it was his voice the early Romantics embraced. When I read Cowper’s “The Castaway,” I feel it is only a stone’s throw away from the much more colourful “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I am not sure what it was that Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Jane Austen or Coleridge admired in him (I must admit there is much in Cowper to be appalled by), but for me it is his tasteful decorum (which reminds me of modern British poet and critic James Sale and American poet and critic Bruce Wren), his religious sentiments, his ability to hover at the edge of insanity, his humble demeanour, his quiet ratiocination and his conversational tone, that appeals. Above all, it is that “sentimental philosophizing,” as T. S. Eliot has called it, that makes him one with his age—that pastoral crowd, including Gray, Young, Thomson, Collins, Goldsmith, Shenstone, et. al.

    In some ways, the most striking writer of the late Neoclassical period was the poet, lexicographer and critic Samuel Johnson. Here is Cowper’s poem Mr. Tweedie mentioned, “On the Death of Dr. Johnson.”
    “Here Johnson lies—a sage by all allowed,
    Whom to have bred may well make England proud,
    Whose prose was eloquence by wisdom taught,
    The graceful vehicle of virtuous thought;
    Whose verse may claim—grave, masculine, and strong,
    Superior praise to the mere poet’s song;
    Who many a noble gift from heaven possessed,
    And faith at last—alone worth all the rest,
    O man immortal by a double prize,
    By fame on earth—by glory in the skies.”

    Another quality I admire of William Cowper’s poetry is the purity of his diction. He makes Keats and Tennyson seem awkward, Hopkins and Yeats clumsy. As I prefer choral acrobatics, I am less likely to favour Cowper’s poetic line; but notice the difference between the Victorian Hopkins and the late Neoclassical Cowper in the following two poems, “Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)” with its 24 short lines,
    “My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
    Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
    All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
    Not spared, not one
    That dandled a sandalled
    Shadow that swam or sank
    On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

    O if we but knew what we do
    When we delve or hew—
    Hack and sack the growing green!
    Since country is so tender
    To touch her being só slender,
    That, like this sleek and seeing ball
    But a prick will make no eye at all,
    Where we, even where we mean
    To mend her we end her,
    When we hew or delve:
    After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
    Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
    Strokes of havoc unselve
    The sweet especial scene,
    Rural scene, a rural scene,
    Sweet especial rural scene.
    and “The Poplar Field” with 20 lines of anapestic tetrameter.
    “The poplars are felled, farewell to the shade
    And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade:
    The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
    No Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

    Twelve years have elapsed since I first took a view
    Of my favourite field, and the bank where they grew,
    And now in the grass behold they are laid,
    And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.

    The blackbird has fled to another retreat
    Where the hazels afford a screen from the heat;
    And the scene where his melody charmed me before
    Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.

    My fugitive years are all hasting away,
    And I must ere long lie as lonely as they,
    With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head,
    Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

    ‘Tis a sight to engage me, if anything can,
    To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
    Short-lived as we are, our enjoyments, I see,
    Have a still shorter date, and die sooner than we.
    The Victorians, looking on after the enthusiasm of the Romantics, were certainly striving after something different than the late Neoclassicists were; and yet both of these poets have excellent stylistic techniques we can all profit from.

    • James A. Tweedie

      I appreciate your succinct description of Cowper’s poetic style (although I am at a loss as to guess what it is that you find appalling). I was not familiar with his “The Poplar Field,” a poem not included in the 1885 edition of his works that own. While not one of his better efforts it nicely represents his patented moralist musings, and his phrase, “And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade,” conjures a vivid image of a slumped and saddened Cowper pondering the scene whilst plotting the verse that would memorialize it. Your pairing of this poem with Hopkins’ clearly illustrates how literary style and popular taste both shape and reflect the cultures which produce them. Thank you for introducing me to Hopkins–another byway to explore.

  4. Trevor Siggers

    What a joy to find such an engaging and authoritative commentary on a writer whose name I have only really glanced at in my old Methodist hymn book. I delve and dip into such writing and find my day brightened by new knowledge and understanding. I am long past my school days but still love to be taught and to learn.
    Thank you James.
    Trevor on a wet January afternoon in England.

  5. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    It seems only too obvious that each person will find different qualities to admire in a writer. For Mr. Tweedie, “The Poplar Field” is not one of Cowper’s “better efforts”; whereas for me it is a superb effort. It actually shows me, with its overtones of Milton and Gray, the route to the Romantics. In it, I catch foreglimpses of Wordsworth. Tennyson said of Cowper’s “The Poplar Field,” that “I wish there were any that could put words together with such exquisite flow and evenness.” With phrases, like “cool colonnade” or “No Ouse on his bosom,” is it any wonder Tennyson admired its poetry? I too admire the poem, Cowper’s detachment, his metrical control (which is also a concern of Mr. C. B. Anderson), and his humourless gravity.

    But that is also what is appalling to me: his melancholia, his quiet desperation, and his extreme disengagement. Take a poem, like “Hatred and Vengeance, My Eternal Portion.” Here, in unsuccessful Sapphics (though, as far as I know, superior to all other English poetic attempts at Sapphics), he, with sheer Miltonic Will power, drags himself through so much self-loathing, not only do I find it distasteful, but it is very nearly deranged. Though it is not as sloppy as Sylvia Plath’s forays into madness, it is not far away.

    Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
    Scarce can endure delay of execution,
    Wait, with impatient readiness, to seize my
    Soul in a moment.

    Damned below Judas: more abhorred than he was,
    Who for a few pence sold his holy master.
    Twice betrayed, Jesus me, the last delinquent,
    Deems the profanest.

    Man disavows, and Deity disowns me:
    Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
    Therefore hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths all
    Bolted against me.

    Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers;
    Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
    I’m called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
    Worse than Abiram’s.

    Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
    Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
    I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
    Buried above ground.

    The poem is brilliant; but I cannot help but fear for his soul.

    I am much happier with his hymns, as, for example, “Walking with God,” “Jehovah-Jireh. The Lord Will Provide,” “Jehovah-Rophi. I Am the Lord That Healeth Thee,” “The Contrite Heart,” “Jehovah Our Righteousness,” “Ephraim Repenting,” “Praise for the Fountain Opened,” “The Sower,” “Contentment,” ” Prayer for Children,” “Pleading for and with Youth,” “Welcome to the Table,” “Jesus Hasting to Suffer,” “The Spirit and the Glory of the Word,” “On the Death of a Minister,” “The Waiting Soul,” “Seeking the Beloved,” “Self-Acquaintance,” “Submission,” “Retirement,” “The Hidden Life,” “Lively Hope and Gracious Fear,” “For the Poor,” “Love Constrained to Obedience,” “True and False Comforts,” “Abuse of the Gospel,” “Dependence,” “Praise For Faith,” “The Hidden Life,” and “Light Shining Out of Darkness,” which Mr. Tweedie quoted.

    Another poem that shows Cowper’s technical virtuosity is “The Shining Light.” Note the opening Shakespearean echoes in the first two stanzas, the foreglimpsing of Coleridge in stanzas three and four, and the remarkable preDickinson conclusion, all within 105 words.

    “My former hopes are fled,
    My terror now begins;
    I feel alas! that I am dead
    In trespasses and sins.

    Ah, wither shall I fly?
    I hear the thunder roar;
    The Law proclaims Destruction nigh,
    And Vengeance at the door.

    When I review my ways,
    I dread impending doom:
    But sure a friendly whisper says,
    ‘Flee from the wrath to come.’

    I see, or think I see,
    A glimmering from afar;
    A beam of day, that shines for me,
    To save me from despair.

    Forerunner of the sun,
    It marks the pilgrim’s way;
    I’ll gaze upon it while I run,
    And watch the rising day.”

  6. James A. Tweedie

    How ironic that the very couplet that won praise from Tennyson is the same that I stumbled over, finding its grammer and syntax “out of sorts” with the rest of the poem, which elsewhere flows with a more natural grace.

    The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
    No Ouse on his bosom their image receives.

    Even so, I shall not presume to argue my point with either Lord Tennyson or yourself. I am more than happy to defer to your collective judgment in the matter. I am, of course, delighted to share a common enthusiasm for Cowper and a mutual admiration for his craft.

    On a more somber note, I can see where you find his soul-twisted scream of despair in “Hatred and Vengeance” to be appalling. As one who has lived through–and overcome–years of chronic, suicidal depression, I have no difficulty identifying with his every word, for I have lived through those sentiments myself, while, at the same time, continuing to believe and affirm God’s unfailing love and salvation in my otherwise tortured life. Appalling? Certainly. But I suspect that Cowper, even in the depths of despair, continued (as did I) to trust his weary “soul to the hands of Almighty God, in the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life.”

    And as for the rest, I would be more than happy to sit at your feet as a student who has much to learn. Even so, I am already the wiser for your comments, having (among other things) been introduced to the word “Sapphics” for the first time! For this and for much more, I am grateful.

  7. Gregory Spicer

    What a marvelous train of thought going on here. I can only add that I have much admiration for any poet who can maintain virtuosity while struck melancholy. Personally, It seems that having even just a handful a decent poems under ones belt is enough to restore me to a better mood. There is something about alternating rhymes that teases a finer grade of thinking out of my otherwise sluggish grey matter. Call the phenomenon God, Mother nature, the Muse, or my neurons inveigled into doing something elegant for a change but I sure am pleased to witness it and it’s elevating effects.

    By the way, thanks for the diverting link to “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”.
    It’s a totally awesome read!

  8. James A. Tweedie

    I have a question about sapphic meter for B. S. Eliud Acrewe or anyone else willing to help me. Here is a sample my first experiment in that style–Christmas angels speaking to the shepherds:

    Unto us is born to the virgin Mary
    Baby Jesus born in a humble manger.
    Leave your sheep and seek him, you must not tarry.
    He is the Savior.

    Is that the idea? Also, is it wrong to slip in a rhyme with sapphic verse? I tried it in my example but have not seen it anywhere else?

  9. James Sale

    A marvellous essay on Cowper who is much forgotten these days; although I do take one, small exception to this piece: Shelley’s Ozymandias is actually a wonderful poem, and pseudo-pompous hardly. But in all this commentary I note that Cowper’s most emotive and charged poem of all is not mentioned, which is a shame, as it links to his depression: The Castaway. The final stanza of this poem is virtually lyrical epic – we feel hell opening up beneath our feet.

    No voice divine the storm allay’d,
    No light propitious shone;
    When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
    We perish’d, each alone:
    But I beneath a rougher sea,
    And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

    Thanks James for drawing this interesting poet to our attention.

    • James A. Tweedie

      Thank you, James, for your kind words. The focus of my essay was, of course, on Cowper’s Wit, and sadly (pun intended) The Castaway did not fall under that topic; although the subsequant thread did entertain his (any my) melancholy in which context your citation is most appropriate (and also, for me at least, both profound and chilling. Than you for quote. As for Ozymandas, I used the phrase “pseudo pompous” in an attempt to characterize Shelley’s intentionaland effective use of a grandeose image to express his point in contrast to Cowper’s more humble example. I will concede that my choice of words could have been better. No disrespect was intended for either Shelley or the poem, which is, of all of Shelly’s work, my favorite.

      • James Sale

        No offence. of course, taken, James: just an exchange between writers trying to draw out and specify exactly what the beauties of other writers – in this case classics – are! And you have done great service on focusing on Cowper, and are right about your depiction of his wit. Thanks again.

  10. Sk jahangir Kabir mondal

    Thank you James for your wonderful essay on Cowper . I have just started reading his poems . His realistic presentation of country life in The Task fascinates me so much .


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